What really happened was that Henry’s desire for a divorce and an heir and his increasing tension with Rome helped him to see that if his power was to be consolidated he had to break the power of the church. The church in medieval England was the single largest land owner. Through the vast holdings of the monasteries they controlled huge swaths of land, and with it the wealth of England. With that wealth they ran the schools, the hospitals, colleges and universities, controlled the dioceses and parish churches, ran the health care system, the welfare system, looked after the elderly, the poor and the destitute. The loyalty of the people was with the church not only because of the faith, but because the church provided their needs, provided many of their jobs and housing and benefits.
The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII also began gradually. At first the king’s commissioners were simply investigating to root out corruption and inefficiency. The first plan was to close a few, small, run down monastic establishments. It was all done in a spirit of efficiency and reform. Then the second wave sought to get rid of corruption and inefficiency in the medium sized to large monastic houses. Once they got away with the first two steps and Henry VIII began to realize the vast amount of wealth and land that could be his the dissolution of the monasteries got into full swing. Monastic houses were closed and stripped of their wealth. Monks and nuns were pensioned off or moved to parish churches. Churches were stripped of their wealth and lands–and this great “stripping of the altars” funneled enormous wealth into Henry VIII’s pockets.
As we begin the fortnight of freedom in the USA we should remember that the erosion of religious freedom always starts small. It seems to be a proper cleansing of wealth and privilege in the church. It is sold as a reform movement, or something that will benefit all the people. It is put across as a useful, modernizing action–one which will sweep away all the old inefficiencies and system of privilege in order to be fairer and more useful for all. I have written here of what this sort of revolution might look like in the USA. It will not be a persecution of bloodshed and torture to start with–instead it will be quiet and efficient and most people–most Catholics will go along with the “reforms.”