On December 17, 1538, Pope Paul III proclaimed the excommunication of King Henry VIII of England. However, the dissolution of the monasteries, rather than the king’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon was the final straw leading to his expulsion from the Catholic Church.
Henry’s pivotal role in initiating the English Reformation, coupled with his infamous remarriages that sparked the schism, is widely acknowledged. Yet, it’s noteworthy that his formal excommunication wasn’t an immediate consequence of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn.
In July 1533, Pope Clement VII declared both Henry’s divorce from Catherine and his marriage to Anne null. However, it was only under his successor, Paul III, that Henry faced excommunication on August 30, 1535. However, this sentence was suspended, with hopes that Henry would return to Catherine, curbing further religious reforms.
The unresolved situation persisted for three more years, outlasting Catherine’s death in January 1536, Anne’s execution in May 1536, and Jane Seymour’s death in January 1537. The tipping point for the pope occurred when Henry attacked religious shrines in England, climaxing with the September 1538 assault on the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury.
The desecration of one of Europe’s most prominent pilgrimage destinations prompted Pope Paul III to issue the final Bull of Excommunication in December.
How Henry VIII’s excommunication progressed
The threat of excommunication first emerged in 1533 when Henry married Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII initially hesitated, but after his death, Paul III, born Alessandro Farnese, took over in 1534. Focused on countering the Reformation and advancing the Farnese family’s interests, Paul III invoked Clement VII’s original papal bull as Henry continued undermining the Catholic Church in England.
As Henry declared himself head of the Church of England and executed opponents, the pope’s patience waned. The breaking point was Henry’s desecration of St. Thomas of Canterbury’s remains, leading to Paul III’s decisive response.
Throughout his papacy, Paul III navigated diplomatic challenges, avoiding conflicts with Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V. Additionally, he convened the Council of Trent in 1545, a critical event in planning the Catholic resurgence against the Protestant Reformation.