What if...Henry VIII had been granted a divorce?

Prospect’s counter-factual column
February 20, 2014

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 persuaded Henry IX to institute an Inquisition to police orthodoxy in England. Henry’s kingdom would thus have been spared France’s Wars of Religion. But disgust at the suffering of fellow countrymen burned at the stake would also fuel English anticlericalism. This Henry IX would have exploited in any quarrels with the Pope on matters of ecclesiastical authority, a cause close to Pole’s heart, and one over which English kings had quarrelled with popes before.

In other areas, however, Pole and Henry IX would have continued to find agreement. On reform, Henry IX, influenced by his Boleyn inheritance, but also backed by Pole, would commission an orthodox bible in English (as Mary I actually did). In 1560 Henry IX would have helped to crush the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, a country eventually absorbed by dynastic marriage, and conquest, with future Tudors encouraging elite marriages with Scottish and Irish families to create a sense of Britain.

Henry IX’s England would, meanwhile, have remained rich in the art and music of the Medieval past (90 per cent of which was destroyed during the Reformation period), and the great Medieval libraries would never have been burned. Free of the iconoclasm of Swiss reform Protestantism, and its hostility to polyphonic music, there would be more great native artists and composers to join the ranks of the Catholics Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. But there would have been no Shakespeare or Milton in the new literature, at least not as we know them; no tradition of hymns, and in time we would have lost our Medieval parish churches as they were replaced with baroque and other later styles.

Would we still have become the greatest trading nation on earth? Max Weber’s theory that capitalism is a product of Calvinism is simply not borne out by the facts. But Catholic England, with successive marriage alliance into the great European monarchies, would have dissipated more energy in Europe than Protestant England did.

Would we have developed a constitutional democracy? Catholicism is hierarchical and monarchical. Yet parliament existed in Catholic England, and without the dissolution of the monasteries Henry would have needed parliament to raise the taxes to fund his wars. Our counterfactual modern-day constitutional monarch would not, however, come from a Protestant German dynasty. A Tudor could still be on the throne today. She would be Elizabeth I, “Protector of the Holy See,” as the Pope almost dubbed Henry VIII.