Why did Henry VIII Break with Rome?


Background to the Break with Rome

The Break with Rome is the name given to the severing of the English Church from Roman Catholicism and the establishment of the Anglican Church. In order to fully understand this major event of the Tudor period it is important to understand the background reasons that led to such a major undertaking.


Henry’s Character – A Rich and Powerful King

Henry VIII was the second son of Henry VII and had not expected to become king. However when his elder brother, Arthur, died in 1502 he became heir to the throne.

Henry VII had become king after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and had to prove that he was a strong king to prevent others challenging his place on the throne.

Henry VIII Break with Rome
Henry VIII – Hans Eworth c. 1545


When Henry VIII became king in 1509 he was determined to become a great and powerful king, He planned to do this by having a large family of sons, by reducing the power of the nobles, by becoming more powerful in Europe and by putting on displays of his magnificence and power.

Henry showed himself to be a magnificent and powerful king in a number of ways:

1. He surrounded himself with large numbers of people
2. He hosted extravagant banquets and tournaments
3. He had artists paint him as a powerful monarch 
4. He owned 55 palaces, 150 paintings and a library of nearly 2000 books
5. His wardrobe included 41 gowns, 25 doublets, 25 hose and 20 coats


Power of the Nobility Reduced

Henry also took steps to reduce the power of the nobility and increase the power of the monarch. He did this by appointing close friends or commoners to top court jobs. 

Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who became chief minister to Henry VIII


Thomas Wolsey was the son of an Ipswich butcher who rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and Archbishop of York. When he fell from favour in 1530, Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, became Henry’s right-hand man.

Henry also managed to win the respect and favour of the Pope in 1521 by writing a book called Septum Sacramentarian that defended the Roman Catholic faith. The Pope was so impressed that he gave Henry the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) which is still used by the monarchy today.

Although Henry managed to show himself as a powerful and magnificent king, in many ways his reign was not the success that he wanted it to be.

Henry had inherited 1.5 million pounds from his father but by 1527 most of it had gone. The steps Henry had taken to show himself as a magnificent and powerful king were costly. In addition, Henry had fought wars against France which had achieved little except taking more money from the treasury.


Cause of the Break with Rome

Catherine of Aragon

In 1509 Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur‘s widow.  Although Catherine had had many pregnancies, only one child, a daughter Mary, survived. By 1527  Catherine was almost past childbearing age.

Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon c 1502


People believed that women were unfit to rule the country and if Henry’s daughter Mary succeeded to the throne England would be ruled by whoever she married and this would be unacceptable to the nobility.

Without a son to succeed him it was likely that there would be war in England. Henry was therefore desperate to have a son and heir.

Henry began to believe that he did not have a son because God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s wife. He had found a passage in the Bible that convinced him of this.

And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.’ (Leviticus 20:21)


Anne Boleyn

Henry was also in love with Anne Boleyn and wanted to divorce Catherine and marry Anne instead. Catherine refused to either enter a convent (a move which would leave Henry free to remarry) or agree to a divorce.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife


In the sixteenth century, Kings could only divorce their wives if the Pope gave his permission. Without Catherine’s agreement, Henry had to convince the Pope that his marriage was unlawful. This was to prove such a big problem for Henry that it became known as ‘The King’s Great Matter’.

In 1527 Henry wrote to the Pope and asked him to grant the necessary dispensation that would allow him to divorce Catherine and marry Anne. Although the Pope sent one of his Cardinals to England to decide whether or not Henry had grounds for divorce, it quickly became clear that he was just playing for time and had no real intention of granting the necessary papers.

Henry set his chief advisors the task of finding a solution. By 1529 Henry was becoming impatient and ready to listen to anyone who could find a way for him to divorce Catherine.


Break with Rome – Head of the Church in England

In 1531, one of Henry’s top advisors, Thomas Cromwell, suggested to Henry that as king he should be able to do whatever he liked in his own country and that if he removed the church from Rome and made himself Head of the Church in England then getting a divorce would be a simple matter.

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell – Henry’s chief minister 1534 – 1540


Cromwell went on to tell Henry that as Head of the Church, the money that the church paid to the Pope in Rome would, instead be paid to the king. Henry would also gain the land and money owned by the monasteries.

Cromwell introduced Henry to Thomas Cranmer, a churchman who supported the idea of Henry becoming Head of the Church. In 1533 Henry made Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury.

Both Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were Protestants. Protestants believed that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt and used its power to control people. Anne Boleyn was also a Protestant. Although Henry liked the idea of becoming Head of the Church in England and having money from the church he did not agree with the Protestants’ ideas about the church.

In January 1533, Anne Boleyn announced that she was pregnant. Henry had to marry her before the baby was born. With no other option, plans were made to Break with Rome and form the Anglican church.


Published Nov 4, 2021 @ 7:45 pm – Updated – Apr 28, 2024 @ 3:42 pm

Harvard Reference for this page:

Heather Y Wheeler. (2021 – 2024). Why did Henry VIII Break with Rome? Available: https://www.tudornation.com/why-did-henry-viii-break-with-rome Last accessed [date]