Henry VII died in April 1509, in the fifty-third year of his age. His eldest surviving son and successor, HENRY VIII, was now in his eighteenth year. Young, handsome, and supposed to be amiable, he enjoyed at first a high degree of popularity. Some years before, he had been affianced to Catharine, a Spanish princess, who had previously been the wife of his deceased brother Arthur: he was now married to this lady, the Pope having previously granted a dispensation for that purpose. For many years the reign of Henry was unmarked by any unusual incidents. The chief administration of affairs was committed to a low-born but proud churchman, the celebrated Cardinal Wolsey. The king became much engaged in continental politics and during a war which he carried on against France, his brother-in-law James IV, who sided with that state, made an unfortunate irruption into the north of England, and was over thrown and slain, with the greater part of his nobility (September 9, 1513), at Flodden.
About this time some changes of great importance to European society took place. Almost ever since the destruction of the Roman Empire, the nations which arose out of it had remained in subjection to the Papal See, which might be said to have inherited the universal sway of that government, but altered from an authority over the bodies of men to an empire over their minds. In the opinion of many, this authority of the Roman Catholic religion had in the course of time become much abused, while the religion itself was corrupted by many superstitious observances. So long as men had continued to be the thoughtless warriors and unlettered peasants which they had been in the middle ages, it is not probable that they would ever have called in question either the authority of the Pope or the purity of the Catholic faith. But, with knowledge, and the rise of a commercial and manufacturing class, came a disposition to inquire into the authority of this great religious empire. The art of printing, discovered about the middle of the preceding century, and which was now rendering literature accessible to most classes of the community, tended greatly to bring about this revolution in European intellect. The minds of men, indeed, seem at this time as if awaking from a long sleep; and it might well have been a question with persons who had reflection, but no experience, whether the change was to turn to evil or to good.
When men's minds are in a state of preparation for any great change, a very small matter is required to set them in motion. At Wittemberg, in Germany, there was an Augustine monk, named Martin Luther, who became incensed at the Roman see, in consequence of some injury which he conceived to have been done to his order by the Pope having granted the privilege of selling indulgences to the Dominican order of friars. Being a man of a bold and inquiring mind, he did not rest satisfied till he had convinced himself, and many others around him, that the indulgences were sinful, and that the Pope had no right to grant them. This happened about the year 1517. Controversy and persecution gradually extended the views of Luther, till he at length openly disavowed the authority of the Pope, and condemned some of the most important peculiarities of the Catholic system of worship. In these proceedings, Luther was countenanced by some of the states in Germany, and his doctrines were speedily established in the northern countries of Europe.