The words “Protestant Reformation” usually trigger a vision of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. Most of the theses were biblical and faith-based refutations of the widespread sale of indulgences in European Christendom.
The sale of indulgences (the absolution of sins) worked very much like a modern-day franchise, such as McDonald’s. Instead of a corporate headquarters, the franchisee would pay a fee to the papacy in Rome in return for a document recognizing the indulgence seller as approved by the pope to forgive sin.
Unlike a modern-day franchise, however, the franchisee would sell the forgiveness of sins on a “sliding scale.” In other words, a rich man would pay a great deal more than a poor man to have an adulterous escapade forgiven. The seller would then kick back a portion of his sales to Rome and then pocket the rest.
Unfortunately, there is no support for this practice anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, it is contrary to the oft-repeated tenet of being “saved by grace.” This is what compelled Luther to do what he did, thus provoking an earthshaking split in the Roman church.
The easy part
As it turned out, nailing the documents to a church door was the easy part of starting the Reformation. During the next two centuries bloody strife would claim the lives of over a million people, mostly Protestants.
Although the Reformation was contained geographically in northern Germany and the “low countries”—Holland and Flanders—the drive to exterminate the “heretics” by the Catholics was hampered by a long-standing rift in the Roman ranks between the “guelfi” (supporters of the pope) and the “ghibellini” (supporters of the Roman emperor).
The conflict between Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V came to a head in 1527 when Rome was sacked by the imperial army. Clement was imprisoned and was completely under the sway of the emperor.
If things had remained as they were at this point, it is possible that the Reformation could have been crushed out of existence. In those Renaissance days, there were only three large nation states in Western Europe — Spain, France and England — and they were all Catholic.
Spain, with its terrifying Inquisition, never tolerated even the slightest move toward Reformation. France had a substantial number of Protestants, called Huguenots, but all their leaders would be massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. England was solidly Catholic. Henry VIII had been dubbed “Defender of the Faith” by the pope for sending an army to help the Spanish wipe out Protestants in Holland and Flanders.
The English Reformation
The possibility of an English Reformation seemed out of the question, but it happened, crucially shaping world history from that point on. The English Reformation occurred not for theological or philosophical reasons, as was the case with Martin Luther, but because of simple human nature, although who’s to say that the hand of God was not instrumental?
King Henry VIII was a vital, energetic man. His amorous exploits were not limited to his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon. He was known to have a number of mistresses, the exact number is unknown. He rationalized this behavior by pointing out that Catherine, in many years of marriage, had been unable to bear him a son, and he had a powerful desire for his line to continue.
After carrying on an affair with Mary Boleyn, in 1525, Henry became enamored of her sister, Anne. This vivacious and intelligent woman, however, refused to go to bed with him. She declared that the only way she would ever sleep with the king was if he married her.
This stipulation presented Henry with a vexing problem. There was no divorce allowed, nor would Catherine go away quietly. In 1529 he sent his private secretary to Rome to ask Clement to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine freeing him to marry Anne Boleyn.
Under normal circumstances, Clement would have probably granted a powerful monarch of a Catholic ally anything he wanted. But Henry was in England and Clement was in Rome, under the powerful influence of Charles V, who happened to be the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. The annulment was not granted.
Henry, by this time was absolutely obsessed with having sex with Anne. So in 1532 he married her, was duly excommunicated by Rome, and in 1534 he established the Church of England with himself as its head. In an instant, England became a Protestant country, and with Henry VIII as its leader, there was no way that the English Reformation could be overturned.
Unfortunately for Anne Boleyn, she did not bear Henry a male heir and he now trained the royal eye on another young girl, Jane Seymour, so charges of adultery and incest were trumped up against the queen and on May 19, 1536, her head was cut off. She had failed to produce a son, but she did have one daughter, Elizabeth, who would be a great queen of England and would put the idea of ending the Reformation started by Martin Luther to rest forever.