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Boston is a city well known for its institutions of higher education. Harvard is synonymous with academic excellence, and the prestigious university’s status as the oldest in the United States is well known, contributing to Boston’s longstanding reputation as a bastion of academia. However, the roots of Boston as an intellectual hub go back much further than Harvard’s founding in 1636, or the city’s founding in 1630. Instead, the seeds of Boston’s intellectualism were first sown a century earlier during the tumult of the English Reformation.

In 1532, King Henry VIII, cognizant of the religious turmoil taking place on the continent and seeking to consolidate his power, made the decision to split with the Catholic Church, a process which was completed in 1534 when Parliament declared Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England.1 In doing so he was able to famously divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in an attempt to increase his chances of producing a male heir. Henry was also attempting to strengthen his power, and reduce the chances of England succumbing to succession-based turmoil as it had in centuries prior. But by consolidating his power, Henry unknowingly laid the seeds of a political and religious revolution, both at home and abroad. 

While Henry’s split with Rome was one portion of the larger Protestant Reformation, his version of reformation was fundamentally different from that of his continental contemporaries as Henry was motivated by politics, rather than theology. Consequently, the church doctrine and structure remained mostly intact, with the difference being that now the Church of England was an arm of the state, rather than an extension of the bureaucracy in Rome.2 

By creating a Protestant church without true reformative doctrine, Henry and his successors would breed dissent among citizens and clergy alike who longed for a scriptural church, which would eschew the corrupt hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Presbyterian, Separatist, and Puritan sects would form in this time, with the latter two eventually founding the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies in the New World.3 

After taking over the church, Henry further consolidated his power by seizing and selling off church assets to private bidders.4 This extra capital would not only strengthen the state but would also fundamentally alter the social hierarchy of England by giving the rising middle class the opportunity to purchase the old church lands and become part of the landed gentry. At the same time, this newfound revenue was used by the state to strengthen the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as endowing a third in Trinity College.5

More people began to attend college, which meant that not only had the landed gentry increase in size but was also increasingly educated. Many of the initial settlers of Massachusetts Bay and the early leaders of Harvard College would be educated at the increasingly Puritan Cambridge and the newly endowed Trinity, making it no coincidence that the town which houses Harvard would be named Cambridge. As the church was now an arm of the state, local nobles and gentry were responsible for collecting tithes and patronizing the church.6 With local leaders patronizing the church as opposed to the church in Rome, they had the ability to choose their clergymen, and this allowed Anglican dissenters, like the Puritans, to flourish.

The English Reformation created a larger, better-educated gentry class who began to obtain seats in an expanded Parliament. By creating this Protestant church without actually reforming the structure or doctrine and also relying on the financial support of the landed gentry, dissent was unwittingly bred within the Anglican Church. Finally, when King Charles I dissolved Parliament for the last time in 1629, a group of these Puritan dissenters, upset that their recently established political power had been taken away, sailed for the New World, wanting to found a colony with a strong emphasis on education, representative government, and their own brand of Anglicanism.7 This would be Massachusetts Bay, Boston, and Harvard, where this emphasis on education flourishes to this very day as an unintended consequence of the English Reformation.

Will joined the Old North education team in April of 2015. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in history, and when he’s not at Old North he can be found giving tours of Fenway Park and King’s Chapel. Will is passionate about early American history, and specifically the history of Boston.

1. Gerald Bray, Documents of the English Reformation (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.), 115.
2. E. Digsby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 66 -67.
3. ibid, 68.
4. ibid, 67.
5. ibid, 71.
6. ibid, 71.
7. ibid, 78.