Henry VIII is Excommunicated

Posted By on December 17, 2010

St Thomas Becket Pilgrim Badge

On this day in history, 17th December 1538, Pope Paul III announced that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church:-

“Bull against Hen. VIII., renewing the execution of the bull of 30 Aug. 1535, which had been suspended in hope of his amendment, as he has since gone to still further excesses, having dug up and burned the bones of St, Thomas of Canterbury and scattered the ashes to the winds, (after calling the saint to judgment, condemning him as contumacious, and proclaiming him a traitor), and spoiled his shrine. He has also spoiled St. Augustine’s monastery in the same city, driven out the monks and put in deer in their place. Publication of this bull may be made in Dieppe or Boulogne in Fiance, or in St. Andrew’s or Coldstream (? “in oppido Calistrensi”), St. Andrew’s dioc., in Scotland, or in Tuam or Ardfert in Ireland, if preferred, instead of the places named in the former bull Rome, Paul III.”1

Henry VIII had already upset the Pope and the Catholic Church by:-

  • Annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn
  • Declaring himself “Supreme Head of the Church of England
  • Persecuting those who opposed the Acts of Supremacy and Succession
  • Dissolving the monasteries
  • His handling of the Pilgrimage of Grace

But the final straw was Henry’s attack on religious shrines in England, shrines that contained religious relics and that were visited by many pilgrims. One such shrine was that of St Thomas Becket (Thomas à Becket) in the Trinity Chapel of Catherbury Cathedral, which was seen as one of Europe’s holiest shrines and was therefore a popular destination for pilgrims from all over Europe. In a meeting of the King’s Council on the 24th April 1538 a “Process against St Thomas of Canterbury” was decided:-

“Sentence to the effect that Thomas, formerly archbishop of Canterbury, having been cited, and no one having appeared for him, judgment is given that in his life time he disturbed the realm, and his crimes were the cause of his death, although the people hold him for a martyr. He is therefore never to be named martyr in future, his bones are to be token up and publicly burnt and the treasures of his shrine confiscated to the King. This edict to be published in London, Canterbury, and elsewhere. London, 11 June, 1538.

This sentence pronounced, the King commanded it to be put into execution 11 Aug. The gold and silver of the shrine (says Pollini) filled 26 waggons. On the 19th (St. Bernard’s duy), the sacrilege was completed and the sacred relics publicly burnt and the ashes scattered.”2

One treasure which was purloined by the King from the shrine was the Regale of France, a great ruby which was donated by King Louis VII, and Henry VIII had this made into a thumb ring for himself3.

Such desecration of a place which many pilgrims, and the Catholic Church as a whole, saw as holy could not go unpunished and it was this final act which made Pope Paul III issue the Bull of Excommunication.

Notes and Sources

  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2. 1087
  • Ibid., 133
  • Canterbury Cathedral, article by Sacred Destination

21 thoughts on “Henry VIII is Excommunicated”

  1. Meghan says:

    Wow! I was wondering about that ring in Season 3 of The Tudors. Thanks!

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    I didn’t realize Henry did this desecration stuff! WOw! That really was sort of over the top, even for Henry. What a fascinating man—-terrifying but fascinating!

  3. lisaannejane says:

    Something that I never understood is why the title give by the pope of “defender of the faith” is still being used. Has the meaning of this title changed to a Protestant one? It sounds funny to me.

    1. A Brown Guy says:

      i agree

      1. Banditqueen says:

        The title was meant to belong to Henry alone because of his earlier defence of the Catholic Faith, in particular, the Papacy and the Seven Sacraments of the Church, but it became an inherited title which it was never meant as. Over time it was just handed down and there is some confusion as to what exactly the title means today. The Queen in her coronation oath swears to defend the Church and the original oath was altered by Henry Viii. It is believed that the Headship refers to the Anglican Faith and that the others refer to the Universal Christian Faith, but even then the relevance is still unclear.

  4. It has been my understanding that for an excommunication to be valid, the letter of excommunication has to be delivered in person to the offensive person. Since there is no evidence that such a letter was ever delivered to good King Henry VIII, it seems reasonable to assume that the great Tudor King died in the faith … receiving the last rites etc.

    1. Margaret Tudor says:

      The excommunication is valid. Henry VIII as far as the Catholic church is concerned died outside of the faith. Morever, his last rites were administered by Thomas Cranmer – also, like Henry, considered a heretic and apostate in the eyes of the Church. Cranmer was not considered a Roman Catholic priest (any longer) and any rites he performed considered invalid – such as Henry’s marriage to Anne.

      1. Tim Tunbridge says:

        The real Reformation in the Church of England did not start until after Henry V111 died in 1547 and his son Edward VI became King. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, re-wrote the Church of England Prayer Book in 1549 and again more radically in 1552 to reflect Reformation principles and the truths of the Bible.

    2. Banditqueen says:

      William, the actual Bull or Letter telling Henry of the original decision that he would be Excommunicated if he didn’t comply with certain conditions within a few months was personally delivered to him in May or June 1533. He was told he had until September to get back to his wife, Katherine and abandon Anne or be Excommunicated. Clement Vii then made a final decree in favour of Queen Katherine. After his death the new Pope Paul iii was firmer and would have issued the Bull, that is published it at once, but for the fact it caused more problems than it resolved. The political wars between France and Germany over Italy also meant that nobody could actually enforce the sentence. The Pope decided to wait because of small signs that Henry may eventually be reasonable and return to obedience. This isn’t unique. The Emperor Henry iv of Germany was given a similar opportunity after the Pope had actually refused his attempts to reconcile. He was Excommunicated but did public penance and submitted. I assume that the fact Henry married Jane Seymour and was reconciled with his daughter, Mary, both devoted Catholics gave Paul hope for his redemption. However, Henry did worse and worse crimes against the Holy Church and his people, even after killing the most respected men and women in England, including Thomas More and John Fisher and the Holy Nun of Kent, even after his disposal of Anne. Henry ironically was even worse in the next decade. Nuns and monks hung from their own convent or monastery, the way he handled the Pilgrimage of Grace, (although I personally think his response was measured as the number of executions was much lower than in later rebellions under Elizabeth I) but he did say he would slaughter a lot more people if they didn’t surrender and then he deceived them and used one attack as an excuse for retribution, Tudor style. The destruction of these holy shrines was only one of a number of additional things which tilted the Pope’s hand. A courier was actually sent to him with the final decision of his Excommunication. Henry actually acted as if he didn’t care, but his soul was on his mind at the end of his life. He remained basically Catholic and strict Catholic measures were enforced in the Six Articles. Henry was as strict about the persecution of people he saw as heretics, who followed a wide variety of reformed beliefs as well as some odd ones as he was about persecuting anyone who disagreed with his new monarchy and Supremacy. However, right at the end of his life he died in the Faith of Christ and in the hope of mercy. That we leave to God. What he did was terrible but it is not for us to judge. His Excommunication, however, was perfectly valid.

  5. Henry VIII is the true father of United Kingdom and – it sounds absurd, said by an Italian citizen – also the father of Scientific Method together with Galileo. God save the King (that One)!

    1. larry villa says:

      God will neither save the King or Queen of England or those before them. Christ gave authority to Peter and his Apostles to establish the Catholic Church, St. Peter became the first Pope and the disciples, the first Bishops. Christ did not give Luther or King Henry authority to establish their own churches. They turned their backs on Christ’s only true church and the Pope who he authorized with the power to head his church and the disciples who became the Bishops. The so called “father of Scientific Method” was a womanizer who killed his ex-wives, when the church wouldn’t grant him a divorce to marry another woman, he arrogantly declared himself head of the “church of england”. How arrogant, a heretic who was excommunicated by Christ’s Holy Church, his descendants are not holy and will not save them from hell.

      1. Chris mahon says:

        JEsus Christ died a devout Essene Jew. HIs brother, James became “head of the Church thereafter” and called St Paul back to Jerusalem twice to tell him to stop preaching that Jesus was God, it being anathema in the Jewish faith to claim anyone was a God. PAul being a Roman had no problem with that as many Emperors were declared Gods. PAul invented Christianity basically. WE should really all be Jews.

      2. Lionel Anthony says:

        You need to learn some History, Larry. Especially of the Papacy.The true leader of the Christian Church was James the Great, brother of Jesus ergo the first “Pope”
        Your anti-Christian views, are out of step with time and historical fact. The reformation in England was just that, a re-forming of the of the Church Catholick Even the Pope of the time commented that the Book of Common Prayer, (whose rites are taken from the Gallican rites which predate the Roman rights. There was an Diocesan Church in England long before Augustine ever saw these shores with diocese and sees organised. It was Augustine (who never moved outside Canterbury) who wrote to the Pope about the existing English Church and was told to encourage them to get on with it. The first Christian Martyr was St Alban three hundred years before Augustine
        I don’t mind reasoned argument, but I do object to bigotry and unfounded rhetoric.

        1. Banditqueen says:

          Apart from the fact that all three of you sound quite ridiculous in the 21st century, it is God who judges all men and women equally, from every generation and if Henry died repenting then God will forgive him and it is He who decides who is worthy of Heaven and not any person on earth.

          The Excommunication was valid as it was delivered by a representative of the Pope and read out from the Chair of Saint Peter, before witnesses and following all the proper processes. Henry may have died outside of the Catholic Church, he may not, we don’t know. In most things he remained Catholic. He proclaimed faith at the end by a sign and he trusted in the mercy of God. The salvation of an individual does not affect the next generation. Everyone’s salvation is down to the individual. We are all responsible for our own mistakes and decisions. Henry Viii was not the father of the scientific method, although he encouraged technology, art, advanced methods of building and men of science and learning. Pope Paul was obviously hoping Henry would see sense but he wouldn’t. He made his own choice and he took a great gamble. Fortunately for Henry, Francis I and Charles V were both too busy fighting each other to invade and enforce the sentence of excommunication which deprived him of his throne.

  6. TudorGirl says:

    Personally, I think that, regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs, there’s something morbid and reprehensible about disturbing and ultimately destroying a dead person’s final resting place and remains. Sad, really.

  7. Jasmine LB says:

    I have just spent about ten minutes trying to get an answer and this really doesn’t help

  8. Lionel Anthony says:

    Hmm… History has a trick of being seen in a distorting mirror. Henry was definitely not a nice chap. However, it must be remembered that the monasteries were already on their last legs, and the great bonus of the Reformation (not destruction of the Catholick faith) was the cleaning out of the superstition of relics and the fortunes to be made from them. At one time, there were enough splinters of the cross to furnish the final scenes of the film “Spartacus” sheeps’ bones were sold as venerated saints’ remains the whole church in England had become corrupt. But Henry with all his faults was a staunch Catholic until his death that is why he never had a single divorce.
    Today, the Anglican Church is part of the Catholic Communion, whether Rome likes it or not..

    1. Banditqueen says:

      The monasteries were not on their last legs and in fact were thriving in England. People missed them afterwards and a lot of people kept going on pilgrimage to shrines which survived, long into the reign of Elizabeth, long into the seventeenth century in fact. Henry did indeed die officially in the Catholic Faith, his own brand, but more or less a Catholic.

  9. Rich Lopez says:

    King Henry VIII died a schismatic and later excommunicated heretic who was outside of the Catholic Church.The Anglican Church is also NOT a part of the Catholic Communion.They have their own Anglican Communion that is on verge of collapse due to the Africans rejecting the secular heresies of today’s Canterbury.to not be in union with the Chair of st. Peter is to be outside of the Catholic Church established by Jesus Christ.2009’s Anglicorum Coetibus created the Anglican Ordinariate of the Catholic Church.Those would be Catholics,not the heretical Church of England

    1. Banditqueen says:

      England would still be Catholic that is true, but Christians from all denominations who claim Jesus as Lord and Saviour are all brothers and sisters, so talking about people as heretics today is ridiculous. It is not the teaching of the present Church and we strive to live in peace and unity. It is not up to any human being to decision who is saved, it is up to the mercy of God. People on here spouting about Hell and the monarchy need to look more closely at themselves. Jesus is Love, not Spouting.

  10. Stephen Francis Bagnell says:

    Did Paul excommunicate all the clerics (priests, Bishops, Cardinals) who were working in England? Did he specifically remove their religious faculties? Did he order all of them back to Rome?

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