Henry VIII, as the second son of his father, had been originally educated for the church, and still retained a taste for theological learning. He now distinguished himself by writing a book against the Lutheran doctrines; and the Pope was so much pleased with it as to grant him the title of Def ender of the Faith. Henry was not destined, however, to continue long an adherent of the Roman pontiff. In the year 1527, he became enamored of a young gentlewoman named Anne Boleyn, who was one of his wife's attendants. He immediately conceived the design of annuling his marriage with Catharine, and marrying this younger and more agreeable person. Finding a pretext for such an act in the previous marriage of Catharine to his brother, he attempted to obtain from the Pope a decree, declaring his own marriage unlawful, and that the dispensation upon which it had proceeded was beyond the powers of the former Pope to grant. The pontiff ( Clement VII) was much perplexed by this request of King Henry, because he could not accede to it without offending Charles V, Emperor of Germany, one of his best supporters, and the nephew of Queen Catharine, and at the same time humbling the professed powers of the Papacy, which were now trembling under the attacks of Luther.
Henry desired to employ the influence of his minister, Cardinal Wolsey, who had now reached a degree of opulence and pride never before attained by a subject of England. But Wolsey, with all his greatness, could not venture to urge a matter disagreeable to the Pope, who was more his master than King Henry. The process went on for several years, and still his passion for Anne Boleyn continued unabated. Wolsey at length fell under the king's displeasure for refusing to serve him in this object, was stripped of all his places of power and wealth, and in November 1530, expired at Leicester Abbey, declaring that, if he had served his God as diligently as his king, he would not thus have been given over in his gray hairs. The uncontrollable desire of the king to possess Anne Boleyn, was destined to be the immediate cause of one of the most important changes that ever took place in England - no less than a total reformation of the national religion. In order to annul his marriage with Catharine, and enable him .to marry Anne Boleyn, he found it necessary to shake off the authority of the Pope, and procure himself to be acknowledged in Parliament as the supreme head of the English church. His marriage with Anne took place in 1533, and in the same year was born his celebrated daughter Elizabeth.
In 1536, Henry became as anxious to put away Queen Anne as he had, ever been to rid himself of Queen Catharine. He had contracted a passion for Jane Seymour, a young lady then of the queen's bedchamber, as Anne herself had been in that of Catharine. In order to gratify this new passion, he accused Anne of what appears to have been an imaginary frailty, and within a month from the time when she had been an honored queen, she was beheaded (May 19) in the Tower. On the very next day he married Jane Seymour, who soon after died in giving birth to a son (afterwards Edward VI.) His daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were declared illegitimate by act of Parliament, and therefore excluded from the succession.
Hitherto, though professing independence of Rome, Henry still maintained, and even enforced, by severe and bloody laws, the most of its doctrines. He now took measures for altering this system of worship to something nearer the Lutheran model, and also for suppressing the numerous monasteries through the country. Being possessed of more despotic power, and, what is stranger still, of more popularity, than any former sovereign of England, he was able to encounter the dreadful risk of offending by these means a vastly powerful corporation, which seems moreover, to have been regarded with much sincere affection and respect in many parts of England. No fewer than 645 monasteries, 2374 chanteries and chapels, 90 colleges, and 110 hospitals, enjoying altogether a revenue of L161,000, were broken up by this powerful and unscrupulous monarch. He partly seized the revenues for his own use, and partly gave them away to the persons who most actively assisted him and who seemed most able to protect his government from the effects of such a sweeping reform. By this act, which took place in 1537, the Reformation was completed in England. Yet for many years Henry vacillated so much in his opinions, and enforced these with such severe enactments, that many persons of both religions were burnt as heretics. It was in the southern and eastern parts of England, where the commercial class at this time chiefly resided, that the doctrines of the Reformation were most prevalent. In the western and northern parts of the country, Catholicism continued to flourish; and in Ireland, which was remotest of all from the continent, the Protestant faith made little or no impression.