Henry VIII, King of England and head of its church, died on 28 January 1547. Though he was certainly mourned as any monarch was, some parts of the world found reason to celebrate. As king for three decades and then some years, Harry had overseen a great overhauling not just of the Church in England but the idea of the rule of law. No crown sat easy on any royal head in Britain, but ultimate authority in the Middle Ages seemed to rest in two places: the throne of St Peter in Rome and whatever monarch happened to rule.
Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door at Wittenburg in 1517, when Harry was still an impressionable young king anxious to father an heir to the throne. After his father’s tenuous claim to the throne after the death of the last Lancaster, Richard III, and the death of his elder brother while Harry was still a boy, there was great trepidation over the succession. England had been wracked by civil wars off an on for centuries, and could ill afford another dynastic struggle.
When his first wife failed to produce a male heir Henry wanted to divorce her, but there was no clean way to do it. The Church discouraged divorce to the point of excommunication; Catherine of Aragon, his wife, was a princess of Spain that was enraged at the idea. But too, England needed money. Churches paid no taxes and were wealthy. Confiscating their wealth in the name of the Crown made sense, only if one wanted also to enrage the Holy See and every other Catholic prince in Europe, especially the Holy Roman Empire, whose Emperor was Catherine’s nephew. If it were only that simple.
But every prince in Europe wanted to do what Henry eventually did: take full control of the destiny and the incomes of their nations without the Pope or some local bishop telling them how to run things and taking their tax money. In his struggle with the rest of the world, Harry formed the basis for church/state understanding and cooperation without one dictating to the other.
Too, the Anne Boleyn crisis began a movement in England called the “Patriots,” a movement that supported the monarch because he was the monarch, not because of who he was married to. During the Stuart period a century later, Patriots would back whoever sat on the throne, and later became a movement that was the nucleus for the American Tories of the 18th Century, as well as the original Patriots who imagined that George III was being usurped by the English Parliament and addressed their Declaration of Independence to him. In American history books beginning in the 19th century, the Tory Patriots are all but forgotten.