Japanese bank says first Brexit was in 1534

Swapped: Does Boris Johnson have more in common with Henry VIII than he realises?

They say Brexit is a step in the dark. But Nomura, a major Japanese bank, claims we have seen it all before 400 years ago. Henry VIII would have recognised the parallels and the dangers.

‘Nothing like this has ever happened before.’ ‘An unprecedented step.’ ‘A stunning decision.’

These are some of the ways educated commentators responded to Britain’s vote for Brexit. Never before has any country voted to leave the EU. As Theresa May prepares to launch the process of departure, pundits tend to agree: the UK is entering unchartered territory.

But now a leading bank has challenged this account. If we consider long-term history, says Bilal Hafeez of Nomura, ‘we can find the obvious precedent of the English Reformation that started in 1534’.

This was the year King Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic church in Rome. He passed the Acts of Supremacy which made him ‘supreme head in earth’ of a new Church of England and repealed any ‘usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority’. In the following years he used his new power to dissolve the monasteries and sell their land.

Today’s situation has striking parallels. Authorities in London are once again severing their ties with a historic institution with power across Europe. Just as Henry wanted the power to divorce his wife, Leave campaigners called on voters to ‘take back control’ from Brussels. And in both cases, a failed period of negotiations preceded the separation.

The portents are ominous. The Catholic church responded to the split vindictively, refusing to recognise the new church. Henry’s seizure and sale of monastic land enriched the wealthy but deprived the poor of a place of sanctuary. Struggles for power, particularly over religious doctrine, caused factional infighting among the powerful and a major social schism.

There was a wave of persecution. The economy stagnated. Rebellions became common. And the divisions which led to civil war, regicide and bloody upheaval in the mid-17th century began to emerge.

Hafeez writes: ‘The Brexit of 1534 was far from straightforward’. But Henry made his decision 482 years ago. Can May learn anything valuable from the events which followed?


Of course, say some. We can see what the consequences of revolutionary change might be. It serves a salutary reminder of the difficulties of reclaiming sovereignty. Circumstances may have changed, but human nature suggests similar problems will arise again. Indeed there are already signs of struggles for power and an outbreak of tribalism.

Fun story, say others, but it is hardly relevant. The values of the Tudor era, when theology and the King’s authority were unquestionable, would be unrecognisable today. There have been major advances in science, technology, industry and reason. We are now more aware and sceptical than ever; we need not fear the mistakes of a long-forgotten age.

You Decide

  1. Does history inform the decisions which you take in your everyday life?
  2. Can Theresa May learn significant lessons from the ‘first Brexit’ of 1534?


  1. List five questions which you would ask someone from Henry VIII’s time if you could. Discuss in pairs why you chose them. How much might the answers teach powerful people today?
  2. Choose a period of major upheaval in history. Prepare a one-page memo explaining what happened, why and what the consequences were. Then discuss as a class how relevant these events are to the current issue of Brexit.

Some People Say...

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t history just about dead people?
The people of Henry VIII’s era are indeed long gone, and if they returned they would find your life very difficult to recognise. But historical events can teach us an inexhaustible amount about human nature, the structures that govern us and the forces which drive the world.
But history never repeats itself. Can it predict how my life will develop?
No — but it gives us an insight into the benefits and problems which may arise from our decisions. Besides, learning about history is valuable for its own sake. Great people who made major discoveries on behalf of our species, such as Darwin or Galileo, rarely set out knowing what they were likely to find. They were simply keen to understand the world. You can learn from this: knowledge makes you valuable.

Word Watch

May has not yet triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. This will begin a period of negotiations which will culminate in Britain leaving the EU.
A Japanese investment bank.
Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, but wanted to separate from her to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn.
Henry sent his aide Cardinal Wolsey to Rome to gain permission for the divorce. But the Pope — under pressure from Catherine’s nephew Charles V, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor — refused to grant it.
Monasteries were dedicated to caring for the poor — for example by offering them somewhere to stay for a few nights and looking after them when they became ill.
Over the following century, both Catholics and Protestants, in turn, were executed in large numbers for preaching their views.
Mid-17th century
Tension between monarchs and parliament, including over religion, led to the civil war of 1642-9. Similar struggles continued through a period without a monarch, the restoration of the crown and a ‘glorious revolution’, when the King was removed.

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