Henry VIII founded the Church of England so he could get a divorce, or so the story goes. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals told the story to support the narratives of their respective mutual aggrievement at the hand of the English Church. For Catholics, Henry’s ecclesiastical separation rent the supposedly pure garment of Medieval Christendom—already torn by Luther—even further and placed England under the rule of a schismatic sexual profligate bent on stripping the altars of Roman Catholic England. For Evangelicals, Henry inaugurated an Erastian captivity of British Protestantism which oppressed religious liberties and over which victory was finally achieved by—depending on what sort of Evangelical you might be talking to—either Methodism or American disestablishmentarianism.
The problem with the account above is that Henry VIII did not found the Protestant Church of England. He separated England’s episcopal hierarchy from Roman control but remained devoted to Roman doctrine on soteriology and other Roman theological particulars until the end of his life. The foundations of the Church of England as an independent Protestant body lay in Henry’s death and the accession to the throne of England of his nine-year-old son, Edward VI.
Although he is largely unknown today, Edward VI more than any other ruler secured Protestant orthodoxy and orthopraxy on the island of Great Britain. A regency council led successively by three dukes governed England during King Edward’s short reign, but in a span of six years he secured England’s Protestant future. Edward’s tutor, Thomas Cranmer, convinced the young king that scripture affirmed the truth of Protestantism. Even though the boy-king devotedly practiced Roman Catholicism while his father lived, he enthusiastically embraced Protestantism as he approached his teenage years. John Foxe, perpetually given to hagiographic overstatement, nonetheless foreshadowed the opinions of later historians when he termed Edward a “godly imp.”
Devotion to the Reformation and undoubtedly to the person of Cranmer meant that Edward imbibed the theological discussions regarding Protestantism in England as well as on the continent of Europe. The young king familiarized himself with and Cranmer’s chief Calvinist inoculators, Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli. The latter wrote the eucharistic service eventually included in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer.
Edward, still a teenager, also spearheaded less gentle aspects of the English Reformation. Politics paraded as religion throughout the era, and Roman Catholic clerics routinely used monasteries and property owned by the Roman hierarchy to engage in treasonous political activities against the young king. As Peter Hitchens noted, Thomas More and John Fisher, often held up as martyrs, “died for political offenses at the hands of a Catholic coreligionist who believed in the Real Presence and other essentials of the unreformed faith until the day he died, excommunication or no excommunication.” Likewise the dispossession of the Catholic church of property and power was a political action done to remove a source of near-constant treason against the English monarchy.
The young king died at the age of fifteen, most likely of severe pneumonia. His death triggered an outpouring of grief among Londoners. Thousands spilled into the streets and tried to touch the chariot carrying his body. They would not mourn again this way for a half-century, when Edward’s half-sister Elizabeth died in 1603. In the interim Protestant England witnessed the judicial murder of the teenage Lady Jane Grey who held a legitimate claim to the throne of England, martyrdom of an archbishop and two bishops, and the persecution of countless Anglican clergy and laymen at the hands of Mary I.
Edward’s fame and legacy faded in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth, who codified her brother’s reforms in 1559. The finest eulogy offered to Edward VI, undoubtedly, came for the pen of Mark Twain, who made the boy monarch the protagonist of The Prince and The Pauper. “Yes, King Edward VI. lived only a few years, poor boy, but he lived them worthily.” His reign, said Twain, “was a singularly merciful one for those harsh times. Now that we are taking leave of him let us try to keep this in our minds, to his credit.”