Six Articles of Henry VIII

Henry VIII passed through Parliament and Convocation a set of articles defining the doctrine of the Church of England and instituting severe punishments for anyone who committed heresy against the new church. The Six Articles aligned the English Church with Catholicism and effectively outlawed Protestantism in England for twenty years.

Summary of Event

Henry VIII was declared Supreme Head of the Church in England by the Act of Supremacy Supremacy, Act of (1534) in 1534, but that act did not define the nature of the church he was to govern. Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury appointed by Henry in 1533, was secretly a Protestant, and so was Thomas Cromwell, the layman Henry had made vicar-general in 1535. Henry himself, however, remained staunchly Catholic in his views. Pope Leo X had given him the title Defender of the Faith in 1521 for his Assertio septum sacramentum contra Martinum Lutherum (1521; Defense of the Seven Sacraments
Defense of the Seven Sacraments (Henry VIII) , 1687), in which the king had attacked Luther’s views. Six Articles of Faith (1539)
Henry VIII
Cromwell, Thomas
Cranmer, Thomas
Gardiner, Stephen
Catherine of Aragon
Boleyn, Anne
Seymour, Jane
Anne of Cleves
Howard, Catherine
Parr, Catherine
Howard, Thomas (1473-1554)
Edward VI
Mary I
Charles V (1500-1558)
Cranmer, Thomas
Cromwell, Thomas
Leo X
Gardiner, Stephen
Howard, Thomas (third duke of Norfolk)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Catherine of Aragon
Boleyn, Anne
Seymour, Jane
Anne of Cleves
Howard, Catherine
Parr, Catherine
Edward VI (king of England)
Mary Tudor (queen of England)
Henry VIII (king of England)

Henry VIII’s first apparent deviation from Catholic Catholicism;England orthodoxy came in 1536, when he persuaded Convocation (a body consisting of all English bishops and representatives of the lower clergy) to adopt the Ten Articles Ten Articles of Faith (1536) . This ambiguous document mentioned the three sacraments of baptism, penance, and the Eucharist, but it did not mention the other four, though it did not deny their existence. The doctrine of transubstantiation Transubstantiation was upheld. Prayers for the dead were defended, though there was no mention of purgatory. Regarding the vexing question of justification, the articles took the moderate view that justification is achieved through both faith and charity. The Ten Articles were the first attempt to define the doctrine of the Church of England Church of England .

In 1537, Henry authorized publication of the Institutes of the Christian Man, known as the Bishops’ Book
Bishops’ Book (Henry VIII)[Bishops Book (Henry VIII)] . This text upheld all seven sacraments, while according four of them a lower status. It also emphasized the authority of Scripture and defined the Church as a universal institution composed of independent national bodies.

In April, 1539, Parliament was asked to formulate official doctrine for the Church in England. A stalemate ensued between the reformers, led by Cromwell and Cranmer, and the more conservative bishops, most notably Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester. On May 16, the conservative Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk and a close ally of the king, was commissioned to break the deadlock by submitting the Six Articles to Parliament. In the light of the king’s support, they were speedily accepted, passed Convocation, and became the new official doctrine of the Church in England.

Disgruntled Protestants referred to the Six Articles as the Whip with Six Strings because of their severity, and indeed they were the most conservative doctrinal statement of the sixteenth century outside the Roman Catholic Church. Various Catholic beliefs and practices were upheld by the articles, including transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, the validity of religious vows, confession to a priest, and privately celebrated masses. The Six Articles prescribed the death penalty for all who denied transubstantiation, even though they might recant. Denial of other articles made an offender liable to indefinite imprisonment upon a first offense and death following a second offense.

In effect, the Six Articles outlawed Protestantism Protestantism;England in England and so destroyed the hopes of many Englishmen who had looked to Henry VIII to effect a full Reformation along Continental lines. Cranmer strongly opposed the articles at first, but as archbishop of Canterbury, he was required to assent to them and promise to enforce them. He had been married for some years, and to escape prosecution, he had to send his German wife back to her native country. Some clergy of Protestant inclinations resigned, including two bishops, but most bided their time and hoped for the reversal that finally came when Elizabeth I assumed the throne.

Although Thomas Cromwell’s theological opinions were muted, he was among those who regarded the Six Articles as an abomination. Cautiously, he sought to use his authority as vicar-general to work for a modification in religious policy. This desire coincided with, and was reinforced by, his desire to promote an English alliance with the German Lutheran princes against the Catholic emperor, Charles V. The keystone of this plan was the marriage of Henry and the Lutheran princess, Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell successfully negotiated and which took place in January, 1540. The divorced Catherine of Aragon had died in January, 1536, and Anne Boleyn had been beheaded for treason and adultery in May of the same year. Henry had then married Jane Seymour, who in October, 1537, had given birth to the long-awaited male heir but had died in childbirth. At the time of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, then, Henry had thus been a widower for more than two years.

Cromwell had negotiated the marriage largely for political reasons and had given Henry an exaggerated account of Anne’s attractiveness. When the king saw his new bride, he was profoundly disgusted and proclaimed her “the Flanders mare.” He refused to live with her and within a short time instituted a suit for divorce. His antagonism toward the marriage was intensified by the pressures of Anne’s relatives and their German allies for some kind of religious dispensation in England, which Henry was unwilling to grant. Henry’s full anger was now turned on Cromwell, whom he accused of treason. The vicar-general was not brought to trial but was convicted by Act of Parliament and executed on July 28, 1540. The reforming party at court seemed to have suffered an irreparable loss.

Meanwhile, the essentially conservative character of Henry’s reformation continued. Latin was still the official language of worship. The Mass was retained, along with a celibate priesthood. Certain outspoken Protestants were burned at the stake as heretics. In the month following Cromwell’s fall, Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, niece—like Anne Boleyn—of the duke of Norfolk. The marriage signaled for the time being the complete triumph of the conservative party. The Howard family later returned to the Roman Church, of which they remained members through the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, Catherine was suspected of infidelity to the aging king, and in February, 1542, she was beheaded, the second of Henry’s wives to meet that fate. In July, 1543, he was married, for the last time, to Catherine Parr, who was suspected of Protestant leanings.

The marriage brought only a slight loosening of official orthodoxy. Cranmer succeeded in passing a revision of the Bishops’ Bible that strongly repudiated papal authority but contained little comfort for the Protestants. The revised version came to be known as the King’s Bible because it was believed to reflect Henry’s own beliefs. In the same year, an Act of Parliament forbade the common people from reading the vernacular Bible but permitted the practice to nobles and gentlemen.


The Six Articles of Henry VIII stand as perhaps the clearest indication of the profound ambivalence of Henry’s religious reforms. The king had become Supreme Head of the Church in England primarily for reasons of political expediency rather than out of a desire to reform the religious institutions of his nation. Once in that position, however, he had no choice but to create a new statement of religious doctrine for his new church. He attempted in the Six Articles to align himself as nearly as possible with Catholic doctrine and to make clear that his reformation was not connected to the Protestant Reformation. As Henry no doubt realized, however, for any major European power to reject papal authority and found its own national church could not help but stand as a major blow to Catholicism in the context of the growing power of the Protestants.

Henry died on January 28, 1547. To the end, he remained firm in his religious conservatism. However, in his will he directed that the regency of the kingdom be in the hands of Cranmer and the Seymour family until the young King Edward VI, his son by Jane Seymour, should come of age. During Edward’s brief reign, the English Church underwent a considerable measure of reform along Protestant lines, only to have Catholicism restored once more in 1553 under Edward’s half sister Mary I, the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Under Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, the Elizabethan Settlement finally stabilized the Church of England.

Further Reading

  • Ayris, Paul, and David Selwyn, eds. Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999. Anthology of essays on all aspects of Cranmer’s thought and career, including his facility with the English language, his stint as ambassador, his revisions of ecclesiastical canon law, and the relationship of his ideas to those of Erasmus and Luther. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. 2d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Like Hughes, Dickens sees the religious history of the latter part of Henry’s reign as greatly affected by the conflict between two parties, neither of which had the king’s full confidence. Cromwell and Cranmer headed one, Norfolk and Gardiner the other.
  • Dickens, A. G. Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. London: English Universities Press, 1959. A sympathetic but objective account.
  • Gairdner, James H. The English Church in the Sixteenth Century: From the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Mary. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, [1971?]. Expresses the conservative Anglican viewpoint.
  • Gee, Henry, and William John Hardy, comps. Documents Illustrative of English Church History. Reprint. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1966. Contains the text of the Six Articles.
  • Hughes, Philip. The Reformation in England. 3 vols. Rev. ed. Reprint. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. Sees Henry VIII as basically conservative in his religious outlook and unwilling to effect changes unless some tangible profit accrued to the Crown, as happened when the monasteries were suppressed.
  • Hutchinson, Francis E. Cranmer and the English Reformation. Reprint. London: English Universities Press, 1965. A brilliant book and a good place to start one’s search for an understanding of how the Reformation came to England and Cranmer’s role in it.
  • Loades, David. Politics and Nation: England, 1450-1660. 5th ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Examination of Cromwell’s life and career against the backdrop of the extended power struggle between the Tudors and the aristocracy and Henry VIII’s consolidation of power. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Influential and award-winning biography of Cranmer incorporates recently discovered sources. Includes several appendices, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • McEntegart, Rory. Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden, and the English Reformation. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002. Study of Henry’s alliance and consultation with the Protestant League of Schmalkalden, analyzing his partial incorporation of German religious ideology into his own theology and the nascent Church of England. Looks both at the evolution of Henry’s religious thought and at the wider political implications of that evolution. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Smith, H. Maynard. Henry VIII and the Reformation. London: Macmillan, 1964. Interprets the Six Articles as a layman’s measure for church discipline.
  • Smith, Lacey B. Tudor Prelates and Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. Cranmer, Gardiner, and other bishops are studied in relation to political and religious changes.
  • Wilson, Derek. In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Vivid study of the perils of Henry VIII’s court details the fates of six of its members, including Cranmer and Cromwell. Thematically designed to suggest parallels between the lives of these “six Thomases” and Henry’s six wives. Includes illustrations, maps, sixteen pages of plates, bibliographic references, and index.

1515-1529: Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1531-1540: Cromwell Reforms British Government

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I