John Knox, John Calvin, and King Henry VIII’s Royal Hypocrisy

Two of the larger Protestant denominations, Presbyterianism (started by John Knox) and Anglicanism (started by Henry VIII) were started not only invalidly, but blatantly hypocritically. They are joined in this, less directly, by Calvinism (not technically a denomination, I know).

The reason I bring this up is that origins matter. The Catholic Church can trace Her lineage back to Matthew 16:17-19, and as the writings of the Early Church Fathers show, the Church has from the beginning used this Divinely-protected lineage to distinguish Herself from heresy and theological novelty. So the fact that Anglicanism and Presbyterianism were borne out of treachery and double-speak should be concerning to faithful Anglicans and Presbyterians (since, of course, both forms of the Faith condemn this sort of dishonesty).

I. King Henry’s Royal Hypocrisy

Something I hadn’t thought about before regarding Henry VIII’s attempt to get an annulment:

  • Henry was married to the pious Catherine of Aragon.
  • Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s late brother, Arthur. Arthur died six months into their marriage, leaving Catherine a widow at sixteen. They probably never consummated their marriage.
  • After Arthur died, Henry VII (Henry VIII’s dad) arranged for Henry wanted to marry Catherine, instead. There was one major problem: the younger Henry couldn’t under canon law, because of affinity: that is, that since was his brother’s wife, it was forbidden for him to marry her.

The direct prohibition comes from Leviticus 20:21, “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” But there’s a more general theology behind canon law’s prohibition against marrying your in-laws, one not dependant upon the Mosaic Law at all. That’s Genesis 2:24, which says that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Spiritually, then, your in-laws are viewed like your siblings (although there are obviously limits on this).

Note that while Christ fulfilled the Law, so that it has no more binding effect (potentially nullifying Lev. 20:21), He only reaffirmed Genesis 2:24: He makes it clear that’s still in effect in Matthew 19:4-6, because it’s based on God, not the Law. This is one reason that the Levitical prohibition against porneia (invalid marriages, often due to affiliation) was considered still binding in Acts 15:29. St. Paul also condemns a violation of this (a man with his stepmother) in 1 Corinthians 5:1.

So the canon law forbidding marrying in-laws simply reflects that in a consummated marriage, your husband’s brother is now your brother (and vice versa), because of Genesis 2:24. But Genesis 2:24 isn’t very clear as to what unites the two: is it marriage, or sex? The verse, taken alone, seems to suggest sex, but the Mosaic Law clearly understood marriage. Certainly, a consummated marriage would meet both requirements, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Under modern canon law, affinity is determined through marriage, regardless of whether the spouses ever had sex (Canon 109, available here); but this was not the case at the time of Henry: then, it was determined by sex, regardless of whether the two partners were married.

So under modern canon law, it wouldn’t matter whether Catherine and Arthur ever consummated the marriage. That said, Canon 1092 (available here) says that the only marriages prohibited by affinity are those in the direct line. So Catherine could still marry her deceased husband’s brother, but not his father or son… so Henry VII is off-limits, but Henry VIII is fair game.

Under 16th century canon law, sex produced affinity, and the affinity prohibition was much broader than it is today: so even siblings (who are not considered in a “direct line,” since neither is ancestor or descendant of the other) were forbidden to marry each others’ widows/widowers. By those rules, if Catherine and Arthur slept together, marrying and/or sleeping with Henry would be forbidden, unless the pope gave a special dispensation.

  • Catherine swore that she and Arthur never consummated the marriage, and given how short their marriage was, Catherine’s piety, and the fact that the marriage was a political one, there’s plenty of reason to believe her. Nevertheless, Henry’s counselors advised him to seek the papal dispensation from the normal canonical prohibition against indirect affinity. He did, and it was granted by the pope.
  • Henry and Catherine’s marriage produced no viable male heirs. Henry began to take up with mistresses, including Mary Boleyn, before falling in love with Mary’s sister Anne. Seizing upon Leviticus 20:21, Henry argued that he was heirless because of his incest with a woman who he argued was now, in God’s eyes, his sister.
  • Of course, the Church doesn’t allow remarriage, because God doesn’t allow divorce and remarriage. Incidentally, immediately after Christ affirms Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:4-6, He forbids divorce (Matt. 19:7). So it’s more than mildly hypocritical for Henry to even try and justify divorce on these grounds, although it’s about to get a lot worse.
  • Henry pushes for an annulment on the Levitical grounds. In essence, he’s arguing that his marriage to Catherine was invalid, because she’d slept with his brother, and was thus his sister based on Genesis 2:24. The pope refuses to grant the annulment. A dispensation had been given to permit them to marry, and there was little chance that the marriage with Arthur had been consummated.
  • Here’s why Henry’s a hypocrite. He’s pushing for an annulment, based upon Genesis 2:24, Leviticus 20:21, and the canon law prohibiting the “impediment of affiliation.” But he’s doing this so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. He’s arguing that it’s immoral incest to marry someone whose sibling you’ve had sex with… so he can marry someone whose sibling he’d had sex with. The very rule he’s seeking to exploit to get an annulment condemns his “marriage” to Anne Boleyn as a sham, and shows him to be the worst sort of hypocrite.

Thomas Cranmer, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, declares Henry’s marriage to Catherine invalid, and his marriage to Anne valid. Rightly, the pope immediately excommunicated them both. And thus was born Anglicanism.

II. John Knox’s Royal Hypocrisy

A generation later, John Knox (the founder of Presbyterianism) proved himself also a hypocrite, and strangely enough, also a hypocrite on the very question of English royalty. This is an especially strange coincidence, given that Knox wasn’t English. Stranger still, it turned on the question of who inherited Henry VIII’s throne after his death, and related to the validity of Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry and Catherine.

To put it in historical context, by 1558, Knox was a staunch Calvinist. Meanwhile, both England and Scotland were ruled by Catholic Queens named Mary: Queen Mary I of England, and Mary, Queen of Scots (I’ll let you guess which one ruled which country).

Knox, then, decided to publish The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. In it, he argued that women shouldn’t be allowed to rule nations, since it was against the Bible, and since it was “repugneth to nature.” He bases his letter, in no small part on 1 Timothy 2:12, which forbids women to be priests, as the title page to the 1571 edition makes clear (see right). His conclusion is that “to promote a woman head over men is repugnant to nature, and a thing most contrary to that order which God has approved in that commonwealth which he did institute and rule by his word.

At the beginning of the letter, Knox makes it crystal clear which female rulers he has in mind with this polemic, targeting Queen Mary of England from the opening page:

Wonder it is, that amongst so many pregnant wits as the isle of Great Britain has produced, so many godly and zealous preachers as England did sometime nourish, and amongst so many learned, and men of grave judgment, as this day by Jezebel are exiled, none is found so stout of courage, so faithful to God, nor loving to their native country, that they dare admonish the inhabitants of that isle, how abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman (yea, of a traitress and bastard); and what may a people or nation, left destitute of a lawful head, do by the authority of God’s word in electing and appointing common rulers and magistrates. That isle (alas!) for the contempt and horrible abuse of God’s mercies offered, and for the shameful revolting to Satan from Christ Jesus, and from his gospel once professed, does justly merit to be left in the hands of their own counsel, and so to come to confusion and bondage of strangers.

So he’s arguing that Queen Mary is invalidly the head of England both because she’s a woman, and because she’s Henry and Catherine’s illegitimate love-child. He argues that England deserves to be destroyed because of their “contempt and horrible abuse of God’s mercies” and “shameful revolting to Satan from Christ Jesus” in allowing Mary to be Queen.

Knox is careful to convey that it isn’t that he doesn’t like Queen Mary: it’s that no woman can rule a nation. He cites Aristotle, for example, for the idea that “wheresoever women bear dominion, there the people must needs be disordered, living and abounding in all intemperance, given to pride, excess, and vanity; and finally, in the end, they must needs come to confusion and ruin,” writing in the margins after this, “England and Scotland, Beware!” Now, Knox claims that he’s just very concerned about this, because of his deep love for Jesus Christ, who never would have desired such a thing. He’s careful to base his arguments, not on the fact that Mary is a Catholic, or that he doesn’t like her, but that she’s a woman, and illegitimate to boot.

Of course, history shows that he was lying, and just feigning concern for what he claims to be Christ’s teaching here because it was opportunistic. How do we know he was lying? Because the same year that this was published, the Catholic Queen Mary of England died, and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen.

Few things to note right off. First of all, Elizabeth is a woman. Knox just argued earlier that year that it was against nature and against God to put a woman in charge. Second of all, he tried to bolster his argument by arguing that it’s worse when the Queen’s an illegitimate child. Queen Mary, who Knox raged against as illegitimate, wasn’t. She was the daughter of Henry and Catherine’s valid marriage, a fact plain to any neutral observer. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was illegitimate. She was the child of Henry and Anne Boleyn’s obviously invalid marriage. But beyond that, after Anne failed to produce a male heir, Henry had her killed, and had Mary and Elizabeth declared illegitimate, as did their brother Edward during his short reign. So whether you go by the Church’s teachings, or by her own father’s decree, Elizabeth was an illegitimate daughter. Finally, both Mary and Elizabeth were crowned in direct violation of Edward VI’s will, which was to skip over them (the sort of conduct which Knox argued made Mary a traitor). So everything Knox wrote about Mary would apply more accurately against Elizabeth.

But, of course, Knox immediately recants once he spies an opportunity. He begins a July 28, 1559 letter to her (available here on pages 184-185) addressed to “the virtuous and godly Elizabeth, by the grace of God, queen of England,” and proceeds to explain why it’s okay that she’s Queen. In fact, he describes her reign as something for “which most I have thirsted, and for which – as oblivion will suffer – I render thanks unfeignedly unto God, ‘That it hath pleased Him of His eternal goodness, to exalt your head – which sometimes was in danger – to the manifestation of His glory, and extirpation of idolatry.”

I kid you not. The author of a 1558 book against female rulership authored a 1559 letter to the Queen in favor of it. And for both, he shamelessly exploits the Bible, and freely swears himself to opposite positions. To try and make his hypocrisy less blatant, he argues that he stands by his book, but that his book was only really saying that women couldn’t inherit the throne, but that they could be made Queen by God’s mercy. And this, Knox argued, was what had happened: “the dispensation of His mercy” was solely responsible for Elizabeth becoming Queen, “which nature and law deny to all women.” So Knox admits that he thinks that nature and law (he conveniently forgot the Bible) forbid queens to rule nations, God’s made an exception. And he swears by God to his new-found position: “God is witness, that unfeignedly I both love and reverence your grace; yea, I pray, that your reign may be long, prosperous, and quiet.

Besides swearing on a lie (unless his earlier position was the lie), his most disgusting hypocrisy comes at the close of the letter, where he essentially promises to promote her as Queen if she’ll play nice with Protestants, saying that, “If thus in God’s presence ye humble yourself, […] so will I with tongue and pen justify your authority and regimen, as the Holy Ghost hath justified the same in Deborah, that blessed mother in Israel.” Deborah, of course, was a female judge and military leader of the Israelites (see Judges 4:4). Interesting that he should attempt to hide behind her example, since he’d condemned that in his book the prior year:

And what greater force, I pray you, has the former argument: Deborah did rule Israel, and Huldah spoke prophecy in Judah; ergo, it is lawful for women to reign above realms and nations, or to teach in the presence of men. The consequent is vain, and of none effect. For of examples, as is before declared, we may establish no law; but we are always bound to the written law, and to the commandment expressed in the same.

So while acknowledging even in his book that God chose women to lead, he still held that “we are always bound to the written law.” So mark Knox as another man condemned by his own argument. Note also that it is out of this hypocrisy that Presbyterianism is born. Knox left Geneva to fight the “illegitimate” female ruler of Scotland, Mary, while begging Elizabeth for safe passage to get there (which she refused, since she considered him an untrustworthy sleaze).

III. Calvin’s Royal Hypocrisy

Knox wasn’t alone in doing a 180 when Elizabeth came to power. Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, and a Scottish Presbyterian, wrote a searing indictment of the Calvinists of Geneva, including Calvin himself. In private conversation between Knox and Calvin, Calvin conceeded that “government of women was a deviation from the original and proper order of nature, to be ranked, no less than slavery, among the punishments consequent upon the fall of man.” The difference lay solely in whether he thought it was okay to overthrow female-headed governments.

Amongst the residents of Geneva, Knox was quite popular (particularly amongst English-speakers). His book, also popular, generating enough controversy to make Knox quite notorious in England. But, of course, with the ascension of Queen Elizabeth, Geneva’s Calvinists suddenly discovered that God permitted female headship:

And just as the accession of Catholic Queen Mary had condemned female rule in the eyes of Knox, the accession of Protestant Queen Elizabeth justified it in the eyes of his colleagues. Female rule ceases to be an anomaly, not because Elizabeth can “reply to eight ambassadors in one day in their different languages,” but because she represents for the moment the political future of the Reformation. The exiles troop back to England with songs of praise in their mouths. The bright accidental star, of which we have all read in the Preface to the Bible, has risen over the darkness of Europe. There is a thrill of hope through the persecuted Churches of the Continent. Calvin writes to Cecil, washing his hands of Knox and his political heresies. The sale of the “First Blast” is prohibited in Geneva; and along with it the bold book of Knox’s colleague, Goodman – a book dear to Milton – where female rule was briefly characterised as a “monster in nature and disorder among men.” Any who may ever have doubted, or been for a moment led away by Knox or Goodman, or their own wicked imaginations, are now more than convinced. They have seen the accidental star. Aylmer, with his eye set greedily on a possible bishopric, and “the better to obtain the favour of the new Queen,” sharpens his pen to confound Knox by logic. What need? He has been confounded by facts. “Thus what had been to the refugees of Geneva as the very word of God, no sooner were they back in England than, behold! it was the word of the devil.”

So Calvin and the Calvinists of Geneva sold out Knox for a chance to win Elizabeth’s support, even while Knox himself was trying to sell out Knox to win her support.

Of course, for Calvin, this was nothing new. He argued (correctly, it’s worth noting) that boy-bishops were an intolerable scandal, yet dedicated his 1550 Commentary on Isaiah to King Edward VI, then thirteen years old (Interestingly, Edward was Henry VIII’s son, and Mary and Elizabeth’s half-brother). And before you argue that it’s different because one’s Church, and one’s State, note that Calvin didn’t recognize that distinction: after all, he ran Geneva as a theocracy, and dedicated his Commentary on Isaiah to the king. So Calvin, like Henry and Knox, is a hypocrite by his own standard.

IV. Conclusion

It’s fair to say that even great saints get things wrong, and make foolish decisions they come to regret. But we’re not talking about innocent mistakes, or even sins which the individuals later repented of. We’re talking about the individuals who founded entire systems (Calvinism) or religious denominations (Anglicanism and Presbyterianism), through acts of hypocrisy which cannot be pleasing to God.

Henry ultimately divorces Catherine on the grounds that it’s a sin to marry someone whose sibling you’ve slept with… in order to marry someone whose sibling he’d slept with, and he acts with Cranmer’s full support. From that terrible affront to marriage, to honor, and to truth is birthed Anglicanism.

Knox writes a book invoking God as an authority against female headship to better his political position against the Queen Marys of England and Scotland; he then argues the virtual opposite, invoking God as an authority (and swearing by Him), to better his political position with Elizabeth, to try and get safe passage to overthrow Mary of Scots’ government. He succeeds, not in getting safe passage, but in violent revolt, and Presbyterianism is formed.

Calvin is willing to sell out even Knox to better his position, just as in Institutes, Calvin uses the boy-bishop example (amongst others) to try and “disprove” the authority of the Church, since by his own admission in Book IV, outside the Church there is no salvation. He then dedicates a religious book to the very sort of boy-ruler he had previously claimed as a disgrace to God.

My point here is two-fold. First, this casts an enormous shadow over all of their writings. Is there any reason to trust these men in the rest of their religious writings? That is, is there any reason to think that these were the only positions they were willing to sell out? If Knox is willing to trade public support for Elizabeth’s regime for political peace, and Calvin is politicking in dedicating his Commentaries on Isaiah to a boy-king, what other positions were in there simply for political or other base motives? A number of the positions put forward by the Reformers stand to benefit them significantly: for starters, both Knox and Calvin assert that the Catholic Church isn’t the Church, because otherwise, they’re heretics or schismatics. And Henry declares himself head of the Church of England, a claim upon which Anglicanism turns. Is there a single reason to think that he actually believed this, himself? Henry, who had submitted himself to the pope in seeking an annulment? Particularly given that this religious headship is so tied to that invalid marriage, it’s hard to justify Anglicanism in light of Henry’s hypocrisy and opportunism. The same goes for his looting and dissolution of the monasteries, in which the Church’s land and even sacred objects were stolen and sold to enrich Henry and his political allies, a move which they justified in the name of Reformation.

Second, compare these religious foundings (foundings which, any moral person should cast as repulsive) with the founding of Catholicism. In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus founds the Church upon Peter. And no one in their right mind claims that there at Ceasari Phillipi, Jesus founded Anglicanism, Calvinism, or Presbyterianism. But Catholics can, and do, claim just this, and the attempts to refute this have consistently failed to convincingly establish any other origin of our Faith. We can boldly say we have God as our Father and our Founder. And our spiritual origins matter. Just compare John 8:39-41, where Jesus declares the faithless to be of illegitimate birth, with 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, in which Paul calls us to follow our Founder, Christ. Henry, Knox, and Calvin weren’t crucified for your sake: Christ was.


  1. “The reason I bring this up is that origins matter. The Catholic Church can trace Her lineage back to Matthew 16:17-19, ” ?

    How can educated person(s) be so ignorant?

    Seriously, you have no evidence of this, there is no proof, the original Church in/of Rome was founded by St Paul and not St Peter (fact, not some mystery)according to the Bible. Obviously you teach the church fathers taught otherwise? Which I know is doctrinal in your rather pathetic excuse of a Church though thanks for the info. on Knox, Calvin and the Anglicans.
    They remind of some other Church with a Pope, Cardinals and Priests, liturgies and Mass, the ability of transubstantiation and imagine a lineage back through space and time where there is no historical record of existence?

    No educated person can or should be teaching such pathetic lies, sorry you should leave this kind of ignorance to the ignorant and stop promoting the filthy whore called a church.

    Maybe get a job or join the JW’s, I hear they like ignorant half educated fairy tale followers like you.

    Stop sucking my tax dollars into your pathetic ridiculous education system.

    Catholics are beggars.

  2. The one thing I don’t understand is why this is tagged under apologetics. The fact that the Anglicans were started for nearly entirely political reasons never directly damaged, say, Lewis. My point being it is sort of beating a dead horse.

    After all, if we can say they were entirely sullied for politics… well, it wasn’t in St. Paul’s that *cough* *cough* yeah the medieval heretic popes nepotism blah blah you get the idea. That’s why in America we separate politics and religion! (Wheeee! Quakers! Wheee!)


  3. Montague,

    The apologetic point of the post is explaining in the beginning and the end of the post itself, where I talk about why these facts matter.

    And I have no idea what your second paragraph means. Can you clarify what you’re saying?



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