There were two key reasons behind the success of the English Reformation. First, it was primarily carried out as an act of state. The religious changes that constitute the English Reformation were carried out by acts of Parliament. Second, the English Reformation did not introduce changes that were as sweeping as those that took place in Europe. By the time of Henry VIII's death, what existed in England was the Catholic Church without the pope. This limited, gradual aspect of change gave the English people chances for adaptation and acceptance. The broader English Reformation accepted ideas similar to Luther or Zwingli. Yet the 16th century English Church also (1) retained much of the Medieval calendar and liturgy; (2) was led by Bishops and priests and (3) built on particularly English elements. Such elements included the 14th century Lollardy of John Wycliffe, English anti-papal legislation, such as the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire, and specifically English service books or liturgies, such as the Sarum book. Archbishop Cranmer promoted Reformation, but he also acted as an English bishop—not a representative of the Papacy in England.
The motivations of Luther and Calvin seemed clear. Such was not the case in England. Henry VIII's actions provide good examples of the problems of assigning motives. Henry always claimed that it was his sole ambition to solve certain of his personal religious problems, but many of his actions also reflect political ambitions. Henry VIII was a modern king who desired to gain royal strength and power at the expense of other competing groups within the state. The Church's wealth and power certainly would enhance his power.
Of course, there was also the problem of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. She had originally been married to Henry's older brother, Arthur. This marriage had been annulled at Arthur's death, which happened while Arthur and Catherine were both still children. According to the laws of the Catholic Church, an unconsummated marriage is not a valid marriage, and it seemed reasonable to assume that Catherine's first marriage had never been consummated.
Henry began to have doubts about the validity of his marriage to his dead brother's wife after they had been married for eighteen years and she had failed to provide him with a male heir. There was, after all, a biblical prohibition against marrying your brother's wife. Henry began to express his doubts openly and cited the biblical prohibition as the explanation for his lack of success in producing a son. Of course, the young and attractive Anne Boleyn was already waiting in the wings. It is impossible to judge how much any of these factors influenced Henry's actions. Only Henry knew the answer to that question, and we are not able to question him.
After trying for several years to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, Henry took matters into his own hands. Henry had Parliament pass a law that removed the possibility of appealing the decisions of English church courts to Rome. Thomas Cranmer, Henry's appointee as Archbishop of Canterbury, then annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine so that Henry's earlier secret marriage to Anne Boleyn would be valid. Henry consolidated his position in 1534 when Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy that declared the king to be the head of the Church in England.
Henry made no changes in Church doctrine or ceremony, but he did use his new power to confiscate the Church's monastic lands in England. He then sold this land to private individuals, which both created revenue for the state and a new group of personal supporters for Henry's religious position. As was mentioned earlier, what Henry had produced was the Catholic Church without the pope. This, however, was a major distinction and formed the basis for the Church of England, which was known also as the Anglican Church.
Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded as king by his sickly young son, Edward VI. Edward was the product of Henry's marriage to his third of six wives, Jane Seymour. Since Edward was a minor at Henry's death, a regency council was set up to rule for him. This regency council favored Protestantism and used the years of Edward's reign (1547–1553) to make England as Protestant a country as legislation could allow.
Edward was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry and Catherine. Mary had held on to her mother's Catholic religion and attempted to reverse the English trend toward Protestantism. Her efforts sent at least three hundred Protestants to the stake during the five years of her reign, including Cranmer, and earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary." Her marriage to Philip II of Spain, the son of Charles V, further outraged her subjects and gave Protestantism a patriotic foundation. Mary found English Protestantism to be too firmly established to be eliminated. Like the Protestantism of the Holy Roman Empire, its ties to nationalistic and economic ambitions made it a formidable foe.
When Mary Tudor died in 1558, she was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth's position as queen rested on the continued maintenance of the Church of England, so she had no interest in pursuing her sister's ambitions. It was during her reign that the Church of England was established firmly and irrevocably. Elizabeth attempted to word its dogma as vaguely as possible in order to accommodate as many individuals as possible, Catholics included. In 1563, Parliament passed, at her direction, the Thirty-Nine Articles that made up the Anglican Church's statement of beliefs. Since she recognized how divisive religion could be for the state, Elizabeth pursued a basic policy of religious temperance. As long as religious dissenters were not disruptive and maintained an outward conformity, they were not persecuted.
"The English Reformation." The University of Nebraska–Lincoln. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2013. .