In 1533, Henry VIII broke with Rome and claimed power over Church and state in England. This enabled him to get the marriage annulment Pope Clement VII had denied him. But what if Clement had overcome the great doctrinal obstacles of Catholic teaching and granted it? Would there have been a Protestant Reformation in England? And how might the history of the dynasty have then unfolded?
In 1527, when Henry first requested his annulment, he and his people were among the most contented Catholics in Europe, and loyal to the papacy. Henry had even written a book (with some help) condemning Luther’s attacks on papal authority. But Henry had long believed himself to be more than a mere secular monarch. Granted his annulment he would not have broken with Rome, but his ego would still have needed to be satisfied in this regard.
It would have pleased Henry to see the humanist scholar John Fisher made a cardinal and invited to the Council of Trent in 1535 (as Fisher was, shortly before being executed for his loyalty to Rome). Through Fisher, and later English cardinals, England would have helped shape the reformation of the Catholic Church. At home, the price of Henry’s loyalty would have been an Anglican Church, in communion with Rome, building on its own traditions, with the crown exercising greater power in the appointment of bishops, a concession granted to the kings of France.
Henry would have continued to take part in public discussions on theology, closed failing monasteries and addressed superstitious practises, in line with his humanist Catholic ideals. There would have been no Pilgrimage of Grace—the great rebellion in England triggered by opposition to the Reformation. But Henry would still have confronted “heretics” especially in areas with close trading contacts with Europe (he burned Lutherans until he died).
While in France the support of powerful nobles aided the spread of what became Protestantism, in England noble weakness, combined with royal disapproval and a patriotic distaste for a foreign creed, would help contain it. This would have continued after Henry’s death in 1547, and the inheritance of the son Anne Boleyn might have had, if she had been able to marry him three years earlier than she did: a 17-year-old Henry IX.
The Tudors were conservative and ruthless in temperament, and had Reginald Pole been elected Pope in 1550, as he nearly was, he could have…