Why Brexit can’t be considered the same as Henry VIII’s split from Rome

When history appears to repeat itself, it’s interesting. When it happens close to 500 years after, in the same country, with an almost identical reasoning, it’s mind-boggling. The link between Henry VIII’s split from Rome and the UK’s current split from Brussels falls into the latter category: both, at face value, very similar power moves to “take back control”.

At the beginning of the 1530s, Henry VIII, the then King of England, found himself faced with a rather unpleasant conundrum: adhere to the Roman Catholic ban on divorce, or split from Rome to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

Massively consequentially, Henry chose to split from the Papacy in Rome. This was an extraordinary power grab, a coup of sorts, in which the English monarch became the leader of the Church of England. Fuelled by the feeling that the English were different from their continental cousins, the split was designed to bring sovereignty back to London.

Forcing Parliament to pass a series of Acts between 1532 and 1534, including the Act of Supremacy relating to the monarch, helped to establish the rather unusual principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, whereby the national assembly hold absolute power over law-making.

This power grab was a huge boost to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. While the initial Church of England was still Catholic, it showed that states have the ability to shape their own religious and political future. At the time, it was absolutely incredible, almost unbelievable.

Almost 500 years on, the now-United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland has taken another such momentous decision. The decision to release the UK from the grip of Brussels and the EU has shocked the world once more.

It is the first country to leave the EU ever, and has done so for very similar reasons to Henry VIII. The British public has voted to “take back control of its money, laws, and borders” from the stranglehold that Brussels purportedly has on these.

A series of Acts of Parliament, somewhat forced through by the government, will legislate for Britain’s exit from the EU. Some of these have already passed, such as the 2018 EU (Withdrawal) Act, but many are still to come.

That, though, is where the similarities end. Britain’s leaving the EU is seen by many as not a power move, but rather a reactionary decision of a nation yet to find its feet in the modern world. For all the talk of “taking back control”, the truth is that the UK may actually be forced into decisions to keep itself afloat, and lose power due to Brexit.

Henry VIII was a strongman leader, who did pretty much as he wished. When he told Members of Parliament to pass the necessary laws, they did it. When he declared himself God’s representative on Earth, people believed him.

When he went to war with his own clergy, claiming £100,000 for their pardon, he negotiated so well that he got more than he originally set out for. (They wanted the payment over 5 years; Henry refused. They then withdrew their offer and demanded Henry agree to conditions; Henry refused. Henry then requested that they: pay the money; recognise him as the “Supreme Head of the Church and the Clergy of England” and recognise his spiritual jurisdiction.)

Not only did Henry take power back from Rome, he also took power (and money) from his own clergy in a second incredible coup. Therefore, he could make the break from the continent work by asserting his huge influence and power to guide the country in a new direction.

Theresa May, and, indeed, anyone who replaces her, will not have the same power. She will be forced into difficult decisions, stuck between a rock and a hard place politically. Brexit, then, cannot be considered as the power move, the flex that it is perceived as by those who voted to leave. It is a timid recoil of a nation forced perpetually to look to its past and ask: “What if?”

Politics nerd, policy wonk | Founder, medium.com/politics-fast-and-slow | Editor, politika.org.uk | twitter.com/dave_olsen16 | Policy Paper: https://rb.gy/7coyj

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store