One of the largest and most tragic fractures in the history of Christendom was the loss of England to the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII. When Martin Luther, and others, had convinced much of what is now Germany and many other nations to separate from the authority of the Pope, Henry VIII stood firm and earned the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope. The King outlined in very clear language how the seven sacraments were indeed of the Gospel and part and parcel of Christian belief.
Henry, of course, became king when his brother died. The pope granted a dispensation to Henry so that he could marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. Unfortunately for them, Queen Catherine was unable to bear a male heir (we now know by genetic biology that this was not her “fault” since the sex of a baby depends on the chromosome coming from the male sperm, but that’s beside the point.). Henry saw the hand of God in his and was troubled in conscience, something his defenders even with the Catholic Church claim. He felt that it may have been a sin to marry his brother’s widow, and God was punishing him for this. This is not to delve into his extra-marital affairs of whatever scope, but he was certainly smitten with Anne Boleyn and saw in her the chance to have a male heir.
Thus he began his efforts to receive a writ of divorce from the Pope so that he could marry Anne and produce the male heir he so long desired. The pope said “no”, and thus began efforts on Henry’s part to accomplish his designs, even if that should mean his separation from the authority of the papacy. What was at stake was not only the sanctity of marriage but the nature of authority in the Church and in society. Could a monarch claim dominion of the Church in his country, and was that authority valid for matters within the Church? Caesaro-papism has long been a troubling issue within Christianity, going back to Constantine himself, who felt it his right and duty to order things about in the Church.
A thorn in the side of King Henry was his chancellor, Thomas More. More was on the forefront of humanism in the West. While remaining completely faithful to the Church, he also saw that some of the advances in philosophy and culture taking place late in the 15th century were something a thinking and believing Catholic should embrace. For all of that “progressive” thinking, he stood firm in his adherence to the Catholic Church. When Henry ordered Parliament to enact the Act of Supremacy, making the British King head of the Church in England, More quietly resigned his position, and returned to private life. . . or so he thought.
The act contained within it an oath, required of all subjects of the King, in which one would pledge fealty to the Act and to the King as head of the Church. More refused, without saying why, since making known his mind would mean treason according to the Act.
For a time, More was allowed to keep on as he wanted, but his silence and non-participation made the king look bad, and so more serious means were used to force his adherence and acceptance of the Act of Supremacy, up to and including his unlawful imprisonment.
During the back and forth, and before Henry gave himself a divorce and “married” Anne, some of More’s friends approached him and empathized with his position. Some of these friends were bishops who had submitted to the Act, thus abandoning their allegiance to the papacy. They suggested that he at least attend the wedding, for this might placate Henry, and thus More would be allowed to live in peace.
In response to this, More told the story of ancient Rome, wherein there was a law that a virgin, no matter her crime, was not to be executed for a capital crime. The emperor wanted to execute a young woman, but could not because she was a virgin. His counselors offered their advice, “First, your highness, first deflower her, and then the beasts can devour her.” More told these advisors and former friends that “they may devour me, but they will never deflower me.”
Today, More would be called a bigot, a hater, a closed-minded fiend who deserved to be imprisoned and even to have his “house” burned down for refusing to participate in what was a ceremony of love. Today, we call him Saint Thomas More, all because he remained faithful to his conscience and would not “bend to the marriage.” He lost his head, but gained eternity.