Catholic Church and King Henry VIII

I’m debating a non-Catholic on the subject of whether England’s break with the Catholic Church under King Henry VIII turned out beneficial for England and the English-speaking world. I, of course, am arguing that it was not beneficial, and he has the opposite view. Can anyone suggest points I can use? I want to avoid the obvious theological issues and adhere strictly to historical/social/cultural aspects (e.g., that it was culturally bad for England to lose the unity of medieval Christendom). I would appreciate any suggestions.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries did enormous damage:

  • Charitable provision for the poor vanished, leading to armies of beggars, who were addressed by punitive laws under Henry and Edward. Eventually the Elizabethan Poor Law had to be passed to provide some relief.

  • Virtually all hospitals were operated by Monasteries or Canons. The vast majority were closed down at the dissolution. Again some provision for the elderly had to be made, but it was slow coming. A few medical hospitals like St Barts London survived.

  • Edcational facilities vanished for boys (later some were replaced by Grammar school refoundations) and also for girls (most weren’t replaced). Education for girls remained very poor until 18th-19th Century. Women in the 1600s and 1700s were worse educated than in the early 1500s

  • The Libraries of 800 abbeys were destroyed. Most of the books were burned, used as wrapping (or toilet) paper, used for cleaning boots or otherwise lost. Worcester Abbey had 600 volumes. Only 6 (six) survived. Austin Friars at York had 646 volumes, only three survived. Many of these were priceless Saxon works, including histories, poetry, sagas.

  • Nearly ALL British art pre-1500 has been lost in the iconoclasm. English woodcarving was famous across Europe. Only one complete piece survives - in Norway.Every single rood carving was destroyed, along with most paintings. You can name many German, Italian, French and Dutch medieval artists. How many British artists are known from this period? All this work is lost. Ar historians gloss over this loss nowadays, but the absence of early British art speaks volumes.

  • This ran over into the 1500s and 1600s, when few English (or Scottish) artists were able to train or gain a living. English Kings had to call upon foreign artists for their own portraits.

Excellent points!

In addition the banning of religious guilds, mystery plays, pilgrimages and other community ativities reduced social cohesion and the ability of ordinary people to organise and participate in plays, pageants and other community events.

Work on Churchbuilding stopped abruptly aross the country. This limited the employment and training opportunities for masons and sculptors, although a lesser number were re-employed building houses for the nobility.

Britain also lost out in exposure to new continental movements such as the Mannerist, Baroque and Rococco, which flowered elsewhere in Europe. Culture grew more insular.

Less provable are the effects of the end of Catholic Church Music - which in England may have inhibited the development of Classical Music. Many European classical composers before the 19th Century owed much of their living and opportunity to learn and develop to Catholic Church sponsorship.

I disagree with the reformation and the dissolution, but here is something to think about concerning improving England.

Around 1/3 of the wealth of the country was held by monks. Many of the monks had forgotten their vows of poverty and were very comfortable, so it was reported. The money made the country rich again, although you can argue it wasn’t used well. Perhaps the monastic system needed reforming, but destroying completely… it’s a shame. My parish church is the oldest Catholic Church in England which looks like a church, and it dates back to only the 19th century. It would be nice if some of the artwork and buildings survived.

Although any benefit from the increase in money in circulation did not make up for the increased amount of hungry poor which benefited from the alms. Although those, by the way, were said to be of poor quality compared to the amount of wealth the monastries were sitting on.

The wealth of the Church actually transferred almost completely to the Nobility - hence all the huge stately homes from this period, many built on the ruins of the monasteries. The King kept some, which he wasted on palaces and wars. Economically things got worse, and the currency was debased as silver was taken out of the coins and replaced with copper - earning henry the nickname “Old Coppernose”. The currency was debased further under Edward VI. Inflation was the result. Also the new landlords were more rapacious than the monks, raising rents and clearing tenants, so that it was said that land that kept 12 fat monks in comfort was now not enough for one man.

Although any benefit from the increase in money in circulation did not make up for the increased amount of hungry poor which benefited from the alms. Although those, by the way, were said to be of poor quality compared to the amount of wealth the monastries were sitting on.

yes. But this is always said… Look at the critics of Mother Teresa. None of them give up their luxurious western lifestyles to help the poor of Calcutta, but they are quick to criticise the “quality” of her work.

I agree. I’ve read a series of fictional books written by a history teacher with a particular interest in the reformation (I checked out some of the events and they all checked out). In the book he goes into vivid detail of the before/after of the dissolution. Before the poor were relatively happy, afterwards, not so much. The book went into detail with the landlords such as you mentioned, as well as the descecration of artwork and beautiful churches which were lamented, particularly in the north, hence the uprisings.

yes. But this is always said… Look at the critics of Mother Teresa. None of them give up their luxurious western lifestyles to help the poor of Calcutta, but they are quick to criticise the “quality” of her work.

Hmm. The criticism though was aimed more at how the money that was meant to be spent on the alms was actually either sitting static in their coffers or spent on luxurys for the monks. Mother Teresa didn’t live in a mansion in her spare time. I do get your point though, the people who criticised them were doing nothing about poverty themselves.

These are great answers, thank you. And how do I address his contention that England was well to free itself from the “intellectual hegemony” of the pope? Obviously my opponent is not a Catholic, and will not be moved by appeals that one needs to be guided by papal authority. Is there some other way I can address the question?

And these newly rich subjugated and destroyed the monarchy within 100 years.

Some might argue whether that was a “bad” thing or not. But, I think it was, it shifted the balance of power in a huge way.

It also shifted the balance of power within all the various wars of religion. If England had remained Catholic, the rift in the Germanies and Switzerland might have been healed. As it was, it diverted resources, changed alliances, and turned England’s focus inward and created civil war, and destruction in Scotland and Ireland as well.

Hilaire Belloc’s books on the Reformation are worth ready for his views on England’s fate. Both *How The Reformation Happened *and Characters Of The Reformation.

I tend to think that England just exchanged one intellectual “hegemony” for another. The “Protestant-Rationalist Legend” that the Reformation inspired freedom of thought in science and religion is basically just that - a legend.

Scholasticism (the intellectual school that had developed the theological enquiry of the Universities) was virtually banned, to be replaced with Lutheran and Calvinist orthodoxies, with their assumptions that free-will did not exist, and everyones fate was decided at the beginning of time. This led to a very pessimistic outlook, and also one which promoted insularity and racism. England had been chosen to have the “true” religion other countries had not. Other races were lesser, not favoured by God.

Ever wondered why protestants did not do much evangelisation of non-Christians until the 19th Century? This was because Calvinist thought assumed that the pagans were all reprobates, condemned from the dawn of time. There was no point trying to convert or save them. Instead God had, through “manifest destiny” decreed that they should be wiped out and their place taken by “chosen” protestant settlers. So protestant settlers tended to want to wipe out the indians rather than convert them.

In science too, we hear a lot about Galileo - but that was because he was virtually the only example of a persecuted scientist. In fact catholicism supported science, and many great scientists were priests. The jesuits were famous for the astronomical observations. And were Catholic countries behind protestant ones in science? Not if you look at the names of the great scientists who advanced progress in the 300 years after 1500.England led the industrial revolution. but that was a matter of business and engineering, not science - and the funding for the Industrial revolution came from the Slave Trade.

On the good side - who is to say that such literary genius as Shakespeare might not have emerged and blossomed without the severe persecution of the state of English Catholics? This is probably what drove Shaksepsare underground and ignited his literary passions. Many scholars are now having to admit that its clear that Shakespeare was a a Catholic writing “underground” and spreading very Catholic themes in his plays and works. This genius might not have emerged at all if he had not had a reason to focus so much of his talent while suffering the social siege present in the anti-Catholic English society.

The money and lands seized from the Catholic Church were used to build England’s empire and shipping and formidable navy. The expansion of English influence lead to wide-scale secularization of Christianity and fracturing of Christian unity at a time when the Muslims were advancing everywhere. But who is to know what contributions England might have made if she had remained Catholic and assisted Rome in vanquishing the Muslims before they all spread into Africa. It was that Muslim expansion that resulted in the slave trade. Millions of Africans from vanquished tribes were later sold to the American colonies - who themselves were mostly all Protestants fleeing the tyranny of the head of their Protestant Church (i.e. the King - a fellow Protestant). In these down-stream centuries Anglican bishops and nobility were all profiting off of the American colony slave trade - even though they later tried to phase it out and make it illegal. The irony is that the American colonizes were getting stronger economically independent on the backs of those slaves - who eventually rebel against England and break away. England forever lost its grand opportunity to be a dominate world power when it lost the Americas and also sowed its own seeds for destroying the monarchical form of governance. A quick look at England’s shifting demographic condition shows that the Muslims are now out birthing them in their own country and many Anglicans are now converting entire parishes back to Catholicism as they FINALLY see the handwriting on the wall - the fruit of fractured Christian unity is chaos and lost blessings.

It will be interesting to see if England can recover from its grave mistake under Henry VIII and return to its Catholic roots before it loses its soul and its nation. As well the USA is in the same boat as following in the wake of its father as the west falls ever victim to its own secularization and moral decay from cast off Catholic leadership and teachings. Hopefully we will still have the freedoms to have these discussions in the next 15-25 years. Time will tell…


If I may ask, why did the educational facilities disappear? Were they run by the monasteries?

Most medieval schools were run by the Church - usually by monastic orders. (The Church set up the Universities too - but these were generally separate from monasteries.)

Since the schools were run by monastic orders, male and female, when these orders were suppressed, the schools (and hospitals) went too, and the money the orders controlled was seized by the King. Other less formal schools were run by chantry priests. However these too were abolished under Edward VI. It was quickly realised that schools were still needed, so funds were found by Henry and Edward to set up a few grammar schools, which replaced some, but not all of the monastic schools that had been closed.

However, schools for women were generally not replaced, and much of the schooling for the poorest male pupils also disappeared.

No doubt part of those “found” funds were the special tax and high fines placed on Catholics who did not attend the required Church of England Sunday services. The English would imprison the Catholic man of the house if the Catholic household did not attend mass on required days – especially Easter (essentially forcing them to renounce their Catholic faith by becoming apostate). They were then branded as disloyal to England and were immediately unemployable and without means for providing for their families even if they paid the fines. Queen Elizabeth’s attempt to slowly kill off all Catholic remnants through social repression. Many died of starvation in prison - then the law permit them to confiscate their property. We of course never hear about any of this history in the Protestantized histories taught in the USA’s required public school education. The irony is that the history has now all been sanitized in the public schools and “forgotten”.Even the original Protestant blatant bias in the school text books has all been secularized out as Christianity is marginalized in current times and crimes of the past are covered up and ignored as if they never happened.

The present is no better. A few years ago BBC had telecast vivid details of state sponsored extermination of innocent catholics during Tony Blair’s tenure.

Another important thing to note is if England still went and invaded Ireland it possibly would be less genocidal in nature; having at least a common religion to supress the violence somewhat. It’d still be bad and end with the Irish being subjugated but I feel the protestant/catholic issue made those wars much more violent and ruthless.

Do not overlook these historical facts:
*]Catholic Napolean’s attempt to isolate Britain was thwarted by Rome’s support for Britain
*]Catholic Germany’s closeness to Turkey was envied by Britain who unseated Caliph to transfer control of Islam to Saudi Arabia and the rest is history
*]Islamic fundamentalism and Jihad were unheard of during Caliph’s time

Some links on this subject:

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