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The Break with Rome

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The Break with Rome

Although opposed by Thomas More, John Fisher, and others, Henry solved the problem of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon by following a path designed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and More’s successor as chancellor, Thomas Cromwell: he separated the English Catholic Church from the Roman, declared the “pope” to be merely the “bishop of Rome,” without rights or title superior to other bishops, and took for himself the title “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” It was Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540, who suggested that Henry make himself head of the English Church and who was also responsible for drafting the legislation that formalized England’s break with Rome.

John Foxe. Actes and monuments. Selections. London, 1684 (Detail)

Thomas More, pictured at right, resigned as Lord Chancellor of England, rather than champion Henry’s divorce, of which he disapproved on theological grounds. In 1534, the Act of Succession established the order in which Henry's heirs could inherit the crown, eliminating the now bastardized Mary and putting in children born to Anne Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry was now deemed proper. When it came time to swear to uphold this act, whose preamble offended his religious beliefs, More stood his ground and refused. He was executed on July 6, 1535. Four hundred years later, he and Bishop Fisher, who met a similar fate, were canonized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church. More and Fisher were not alone in their belief that Henry’s split from Rome was heretical. Evidence of the controversy can be found in passages variously canceled or honored in devotional books of hours.


The layman’s book of devotions shown at right was intended for private use. In this  copy, many of the rubrics which are particularly offensive to anti-Roman Catholics have been lightly cancelled in ink, as required by royal injunctions, but they are still legible; in several cases the word “pope” has been scratched out. Other copies can be found with the rubrics intact and, in some cases, a number of the initials and images gilded as a show of devotion.


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Francesco Bartolozzi after Hans Holbein the Younger. Tho. Moor Ld. Chancelour. Engraving, 1792-1800

Book of Hours (Salisbury). Paris, 1530

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