English Reformation

English Reformation

The English Reformation was the series of events in 16th century England by which the Church of England first broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

These events were, in part, associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement which affected the practice of Christianity across the whole of Europe during this period. Many factors contributed to the process: the decline of feudalism and the rise of nationalism, the rise of the common law, the invention of the printing press and increased circulation of the Bible texts, the transmission of new knowledge and ideas amongst scholars and the upper and middle classes. However the various phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accomodated itself. The stories of why and how some states of Europe adhered to different forms of reformed churches, or remained faithful to the Catholic Church, or allowed different regions within states to come to different conclusions, are highly complicated and specific to each state and remain the subject of debate among historians.

Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment the English Reformation was, at the outset, more of a political than a theological dispute, but the reality of political differences between Rome and England nonetheless allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore.Cf. "The Reformation must not be confused with the changes introduced into the Church of England during the 'Reformation Parliament' of 1529-36, which were of a political rather than a religious nature, designed to unite the secular and religious sources of authority within a single sovereign power: the Anglican Church did not until later make any substantial change in doctrine". Roger Scruton, "A Dictionary of Political Thought" (Macmillan, 1996), p. 470.] Before the Break with Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the Church who would decide doctrine. Church law was governed by the code of canon law with final jurisdiction in Rome. Church taxes were paid straight to Rome and it was the Pope who had the final say over the appointment of bishops. Afterwards, the split from Rome made the English monarch head of the English church by "Royal Supremacy", thereby making the Church of England the established church of the nation. Doctrinal and legal disputes now rested with the surpreme head and the papacy was deprived of revenue and the final say on the appointment of bishops.

The structure and theology of the church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations. These disputes were finally ended by a coup d'état in 1688, from which emerged a church polity with an established church and a number of non-conformist churches whose members at first suffered various civil disabilities which were only removed over time, as did the substantial minority who remained Roman Catholic in England and Wales, whose church organization remained illegal until the nineteenth century.

Different opinions have been advanced as to why England adopted a reformed faith, unlike France for instance. Some have advanced the view that there was an inevitability about the triumph of the forces of new knowledge and a new sense of autonomy set over-against superstition and corruption; [A.G.Dickens, "The English Reformation" (1964)] others that it was a matter of chance: Henry VIII died at the wrong time; Mary had no child; [Christopher Haig "English Reformations" p.14 (Oxford 1994)] reform did not inevitably mean leaving the Roman Communion; [Susan Brigden "New Worlds, Lost Worlds" (Allen Lane 2000)] for others it was about the power of ideas which required only moderate assistance for people to see old certainties as uncertain; [D. MacCulloch "Reformation" (Allen Lane 2003) Introduction p. xxiii;] while others have written that it was about the power of the state over vibrant, flourishing popular religion; [Eamon Duffy,"The Stripping of the Altars" p.1 (Yale 1992)] or that it was a 'cultural revolution'. [Graham-Dixon,"A History of British Art" (BBC 1996) p.16] Some, on the contrary, have argued that, for most ordinary people there was a continuity across the divide, which was as significant as any changes. [Christopher Marsh "Popular Religion in Sixteenth Century England" (Macmillan 1998) p.214ff ] The recent revival of scholarly interest may indicate that the argument is not yet over.


Henry VIII ascended the English throne in 1509 at the age of 17. He made a dynastic marriage with Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother Arthur, in June 1509, just before his coronation on Midsummers Day. Unlike his father, who was secretive and conservative, the young Henry appeared to be the epitome of chivalry and sociability, seeking out the company of young men like himself; an observant Catholic, he heard up to five masses a day (apart from in the hunting season); of 'powerful but unoriginal mind', he allowed himself to be influenced by his advisors from whom, neither by night or day, was he apart; he was thus susceptible to whoever had his ear. [Susan Brigden, "New Worlds, Lost Worlds" (Allen Lane 2000) p. 109f. He 'believed he that he could keep his own secrets...but he was often deceived and he deceived himself': (ibid.) p.103] Between his young contemporaries and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, there was thus a state of hostility. So long as Wolsey had his ear, Henry's Catholicism was secure: in 1521 he had defended the Catholic Church from Martin Luther's accusations of heresy in a book he wrote, probably with considerable help from Thomas More, entitled "The Defence of the Seven Sacraments", for which he was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" ("Fidei Defensor") by Pope Leo X. However, Wolsey's enemies at court included those who had been influenced by Lutheran ideas [ Brigden (ibid) p. 111] among whom was the attractive Anne Boleyn.

Anne arrived at court in 1522, from years in Europe, as maid-of-honour to Queen Catherine, a woman of 'charm, style and wit, with will and savagery which made her a match for Henry'. [Brigden (ibid)p.111. Her music book contained an illustration of a falcon pecking at a pomegranate: the falcon was her badge, the pomegranate, that of Granada, Catherine's badge.] By the late 1520s, Henry wanted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. She had not produced a male heir who survived into adulthood and Henry wanted a son to secure the Tudor dynasty. Before Henry's father Henry VII ascended the throne, England had been beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown and Henry wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession. [Robert Lacey, "The Life and Times of Henry VIII", (Book Club Associates, 1972), p70] Catherine's only surviving child was Princess Mary.

Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was "blighted in the eyes of God". [Roderick Phillips, "Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce" (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p20] Catherine had been his late brother's wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her (Leviticus 20:21); [ John Fisher mischievously pointed out that, according to Deuteronomy, a man should marry his deceased brother's widow, rather than be prohibited from doing so; see also St. Mark 12:18ff.] a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been needed to allow the wedding in the first place. [Robert Lacey, "The Life and Times of Henry VIII", (Book Club Associates, 1972), p17] Henry argued that this had been wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, but the Pope refused. According to Canon Law the Pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. Clement also feared the wrath of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops earlier that year had sacked Rome and briefly taken the Pope prisoner. [T.A.Morris, "Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century", (Routledge 1998), p166]

The combination of his 'scruple of conscience' and his captivation by Anne Boleyn made his desire to rid himself of his Queen compelling. [Brigden (Ibid) p. 114] The indictment of his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey for praemunire in 1529 (and subsequent death on his way to London to answer a charge of high treason in November 1530), [Haigh (ibid) p.92f] left Henry open to the opposing influences of the supporters of the Queen and those who countenanced the abandonment of the Roman allegiance, for whom an annulment was but an opportunity. The Parliament summoned in 1529 to deal with annulment brought together those who wanted reform but who disagreed what form it should take; it became known as the Reformation Parliament. There were Common lawyers who resented the privileges of the clergy to summon laity to their courts; [Haigh (ibid)p.73] there were those who had been influenced by Lutheran evangelicalism and were hostile to the theology of Rome: Thomas Cromwell was both. There were those, like Foxe and Stokesey, who argued for the Royal Supremacy over the English Church. Henry's Chancellor, Thomas More, successor to Wolsey, also wanted reform: he wanted new laws against heresy. [Brigden (ibid)p.116] [

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (c. 1485–1540), Henry VIII's chief minister 1532–1540.]

Cromwell was a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, an evangelical who saw how Parliament could be used to advance the Royal Supremacy, which Henry wanted, and to further evangelical beliefs and practices which both he and his friends wanted. [MacCulloch (ibid.) p.200] One of his closest friends was Thomas Cranmer, soon to be Archbishop.

In the matter of the annulment, no progress seemed possible: the Pope seemed more afraid of Emperor Charles V than of Henry. Anne and Cromwell and their allies wished simply to ignore the Pope; but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that Parliament could not empower the archbishop to act against the Pope's prohibition. Henry thus resolved to bully the priests. [ Haig (ibid) p. 106)] Having brought down Cardinal Wolsey, his Chancellor, he finally resolved to charge the whole English clergy with praemunire in order to secure their agreement to his annulment. Praemunire, which forbade obedience to the authority of foreign rulers, had been around since the 1392 Statute of Praemunire and had been used against individuals in the ordinary course of court proceedings. Now Henry, having first charged the Queen's supporters, Bishops John Fisher, John Clerk, Nicholas West and Henry Standish and archdeacon of Exeter Adam Travers, then decided to proceed against the whole clergy. [T.A. Morris, "Europe and England in the Sixteenth century", (Routledge, 1998), pg 172.] Henry claimed £100,000 from the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church of England for their pardon, which was granted by the Convocation on 24 January 1531. The clergy wanted the payment to be spread over five years; Henry refused. The Convocation responded by withdrawing their payment altogether and demanded Henry fulfil certain guarantees before they agreed to give him the money. Henry refused these conditions, agreed only to the five-year period of payment and then added five articles to the payment which Henry wanted the Convocation to accept. These were:

* That the clergy recognise Henry as the 'sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England' [ Tanner "Tudor Constitutional Documents" (CUP) p17 gives this as ' their singular protector, only and supreme lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even Supreme Head']
* That the King had spiritual jurisdiction
* That the privileges of the Church were upheld only if they did not detract from the royal prerogative and the laws of the realm
* That the King pardoned the clergy for violating the statute of praemunire, and
* That the laity were also pardoned.

In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher was Catherine's and the clergy's champion; he had inserted into the first article, the phrase 'as far as the word of God allows'. [Brigden (ibid.) p.118; Tanner (ibid.) ] In Convocation, however, Archbishop Warham requested a discussion but was met by a stunned silence; then Warham said: 'He who is silent seems to consent' to which a clergyman present responded: 'Then we are all silent.' The Convocation granted consent to the King's five articles and the payment on 8 March 1531. That same year Parliament passed the Act of Pardon.The breaking of the power of Rome proceeded little by little. In 1532, Cromwell brought before Parliament the Supplication Against the Ordinaries which listed nine grievances against the Church, including abuses of power and Convocation's independent legislative power. Finally, on 10 May, the King demanded of Convocation that the Church should renounce all authority to make laws and, on 15 May, the Submission of the Clergy was subscribed, which recognised Royal Supremacy over the church so that it could no longer make canon law without royal licence, i.e. without the permission of the King; thus completely emasculating it as a law-making body. (This would subsequently be passed by the Parliament in 1534 and again in 1536.) The day after this More resigned as Chancellor, leaving Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. (Cromwell never became Chancellor; his power came - and was lost - through his informal relations with Henry.)

Thereafter there followed a series of Acts of Parliament. The Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates which proposed that the clergy should pay no more than 5% of their first year's revenue (annates) to Rome proved at first controversial, and required Henry's presence in the House of Lords three times and the browbeating of the Commons. [ After prolonged debate in Commons, it was clear that unanimity could not be reached over the Bill, so Henry ordered a division and commanded those who were in favour of his success and the welfare of the realm to one side of the House and those who opposed him and the Bill to the other. A majority was thus obtained.] The Act in Restraint of Appeals which was drafted by Cromwell, apart from outlawing appeals to Rome on ecclesiastical matters, declared that 'this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.', [G. R. Elton, "The Tudor Constitution: Second Edition" (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 353.] thus declaring England an independent country in every respect. Geoffrey Elton has called this Act an "essential ingredient" of the "Tudor revolution" in that it expounded a theory of national sovereignty. [G. R. Elton, "England Under the Tudors" (Routledge, 1991), p. 160.] The Act in Absolute Restraint of Annates outlawed all annates to Rome, and also ordered that if cathedrals refused the King's nomination for bishop, they would be liable to punishment by praemunire. Finally in 1534 the Act of Supremacy made Henry "supreme head in earth of the Church of England" and disregarded any "usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority [or] prescription". [Elton, "Tudor Constitution", pp. 364-5]

Meanwhile, having taken Anne to France on a pre-nuptial honeymoon, Henry was married to her in Westminster Abbey in January 1533. This was made easier by the death of Archbishop Warham, a stalwart opponent of an annulment, after which Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer as his successor as Archbishop of Canterbury; Cranmer was prepared to grant the annulment [Cranmer, in a letter, describes it as a "divorce", but it was clearly not a dissolution of a marriage in the modern sense but the annulment of a marriage which was said to be defective on the grounds of affinity - Catherine was his deceased brother's widow] of the marriage to Catherine as Henry required. Anne gave birth to a daughter, Princess Elizabeth, three months after the marriage. The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry and Cranmer from the Roman Catholic Church.

Consequently in the same year the Act of First Fruits and Tenths transferred the taxes on ecclesiastical income from the Pope to the Crown. The Peter's Pence Act outlawed the annual payment by landowners of one penny to the Pope. This Act also reiterated that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope. [Stanford E. Lehmberg, The Reformation Parliament, 1529-1536 (Cambridge University Press, 1970)]

In case any of this should be resisted Parliament passed the Treasons Act 1534 which made it high treason punishable by death to deny Royal Supremacy; the following year Thomas More and John Fisher were executed under this legislation. Finally in 1536 Parliament passed the Act against the Pope's Authority which removed the last part of papal authority still legal; this was Rome's power in England to decide disputes concerning Scripture.

Theological radicalism

The break with Rome was not, by itself, a Reformation. That was to come from the dissemination of ideas. The views of Martin Luther the German reformer and his school were widely known and disputed in England. eg.Diarmaid MacCulloch "Thomas Cranmer" (Yale 1996) p.26f.] Theological radicalism had always been around. In England its major manifestation was Lollardy, a movement deriving from the writings of John Wycliffe, the fourteenth century Bible translator, which stressed the primacy of Scripture. But, after the execution of Sir John Oldcastle, leader of the Lollard rebellion of 1415, they never again had access to the levers of power and by the fifteenth century were much reduced in numbers and influence. There were still many Lollards about, especially in London and the Thames Valley, in Essex and Kent, Coventry, Bristol and even in the north, who would be receptive to the new ideas when they came, [ Dickens A.G., "Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York 1509-1558" (London 1959)] who looked for a reform in the lifestyle of the clergy; who held the Word to be the more necessary sacrament, the Eucharist but a memorial: but they were not party to the actions of the government. [Brigden (ibid.) p.86f; see also the Preface to "Stripping the Altars" by Eamon Duffy,(Yale 2001 2nd Ed.) ] Other ideas, critical of the papal supremacy were held, not only by Lollards, but by those who wished to assert the supremacy of the secular state as against the church [cf. the writings of the fourteenth century scholar Marsiglio of Padua and which were known to Cromwell] but also by conciliarists such as Thomas More and, initially, Cranmer. Other Catholic reformists, like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, warned that heretics were not nearly so great a danger to the faith as the wicked and indolent lives of the clergy.

The impact of Luther's thinking was of a different order. The main plank of his thinking, 'justification by faith' alone rather than by good works, threatened the whole basis of the Catholic penitential system with its endowed masses and prayers for the dead as well as its doctrine of purgatory. Neither pious acts, nor prayers nor masses, on this view, can secure the grace of God; only faith. Moreover, printing, which had become widespread at the end of the previous century, meant that vernacular Bibles could be produced in quantity; a further English translation, by William Tyndale was banned but it was impossible to prevent copies from being smuggled and widely read; the Church could no longer effectively dictate its interpretation. A group in Cambridge, which met at the White Horse tavern from the mid 1520s, and became known as "Little Germany" soon became influential: its members included Robert Barnes, Hugh Latimer, John Frith and Thomas Bilney, all eventually to be burned as heretics; but not Thomas Cranmer, then a cautious and critical student of Luther's ideas.Haigh (ibid.) p.58; MacCulloch "Thomas Cranmer" (ibid.) p. 26f. Cranmer was still, in 1529, on good terms with Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester,who was to become his arch enemy before his death: "Cranmer" p. 45 ] Cranmer's change of mind, borne partly by his membership of the team negotiating for the annulment, finally came through his stay with Osiander in Nuremberg in 1532 (whose niece he secretly married). ["Cranmer" p.69 ] Even then the position was complicated by the fact that the Lutherans were not in favour of the annulment. Cranmer (and Henry) felt obliged to seek assistance from Strassburg and Basel, which brought him into contact with the more radical ideas associated with Zwingli. [ Martin Bucer of Strassburg was to be one of Cranmer's great mentors in the production of the second prayer book and Simon Grynaeus of Basel, his introduction to Swiss Calvinistic thought: "Cranmer" (ibid.) p. 60f ]

Cromwell's programme, assisted by Anne Boleyn's influence over episcopal appointments, was not merely against the clergy and the power of Rome. He persuaded Henry that safety from political alliances that Rome might attempt to bring together lay in negotiations with the German Lutheran princes. [Henry was no innocent: he sought influence in European affairs and, in pursuance of it, his relationship with the French was ambivalent and essentially treacherous: Brigden (ibid) p.107] There also seemed to be a possibility that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, might act to avenge his rejected aunt (Queen Catherine) and enforce the Pope's excommunication. It never came to anything but it brought to England Lutheran ideas: three sacraments only - baptism, eucharist and penance - which Henry was prepared to countenance in order to keep open the possibility of an alliance. More noticeable, and objectionable to many, were the Injunctions, first of 1536 and then 1538. The programme began with the abolition of many feastdays, 'the occasion of vice and idleness' which, particularly at harvest time, had an immediate effect on village life. [ Haigh (ibid) p.129] The offerings to images were discouraged, as were pilgrimages - these injunctions took place while monasteries were being dissolved. In some places images were burned on the grounds that they were objects of superstitious devotion, candles lit before images were prohibited, Bibles in both English and Latin were to be bought. [ This requirement was quietly ignored by bishops for a year or more Haigh (ibid).] Thus did the Reformation begin to affect the towns and villages of England and, in many places, they did not like it. [Eamon Duffy, "The Stripping of the Altars"(ibid.) p.491; see also the story of Roger Martyn in Christopher Haig "English Reformations"(Ibid) Prologue]

Dissolution of the Monasteries

In 1534, Cromwell initiated a Visitation of the Monasteries ostensibly to examine their character, in fact, to value their assets with a view to expropriation. Suppression of monasteries in order to raise funds was not unknown previously. Cromwell had done the same thing on the instructions of Cardinal Wolsey to raise funds for two proposed colleges at Ipswich and Oxford years before. Now the Visitation allowed for an inventory of what the monasteries possessed and the visiting commissioners claimed to have uncovered sexual immorality and financial impropriety amongst the monks and nuns which became the ostensible justification for their suppression. The Church owned between one-fifth and one-third of the land in all England; Cromwell realised that he could bind the gentry and nobility to Royal Supremacy by selling to them the huge amount of Church lands, and that any reversion back to pre-Royal Supremacy would entail upsetting many of the powerful people in the realm. [Elton, "England under the Tudors", Third Edition (Routledge, 1991 p.142] For these various reasons the Dissolution of the Monasteries was begun in 1536 with the smaller houses, those valued at less than £200 a year; the revenue was used by Henry to help build coastal defences ("see Device Forts") against expected invasion, and all their land was given to the Crown or sold to the aristocracy. Whereas the royal supremacy had raised few eyebrows, the attack on abbeys and priories affected lay people. [Haig (ibid) p143f] Mobs attacked those sent to break up monastic buildings; the suppression commissioners were attacked by local people in a number of places. In the North of England there were a series of uprisings by Catholics against the dissolutions in late 1536 and early 1537. In the autumn of 1536 there was a great muster, reckoned to be up to 40,000 in number, at Horncastle in Lincolnshire which was, with difficulty, dispersed by the nervous gentry. They had attempted without success to negotiate with the king by petition. The Pilgrimage of Grace was a more serious matter. Revolt spread through Yorkshire and the rebels gathered at York. Robert Aske, their leader, negotiated the restoration of sixteen of the twenty six northern monasteries, which had actually been dissolved. However, the promises made to them, by the Duke of Norfolk, were ignored on the king's orders; Norfolk was instructed to put the rebellion down. Forty seven of the Lincolnshire rebels were executed and 132 from the northern pilgrimage. [Haig (ibid.) p. 148] Further rebellions took place in Cornwall in early 1537 and in Walsingham in Norfolk which received like treatment.

It took Cromwell four years to complete the process; in 1539 he moved to the dissolution of the larger monasteries which had escaped earlier. Many houses gave up voluntarily, though some sought exemption by payment. When their houses were closed down some monks sought transfer to larger houses; those who were persuaded to leave their orders became, many of them, secular priests. A few, including eighteen Carthusians, refused and were killed to the last man.

Reformation reversed

The abolition of papal authority made way not for orderly change but for dissension and violence; iconoclasm, destruction, disputes within communities which led to violence, and radical challenge to all forms of faith were daily reported to Cromwell, something which he tried to hide from the King. [Brigden (ibid) p.132] Once Henry knew what was afoot, he acted. [ Henry's motives may not have been entirely religious. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, he may have feared diplomatic isolation; the Lutherans,on the one hand, were seeking financial help rather than making offers; on the other, some show of Catholic sentiment might help his cause with the Emperor."Thomas Cranmer" (Yale 1996) p. 240 ] Thus at the end of 1538, a proclamation was issued, among other things, forbidding free discussion of the Sacrament [Tyndale wrote to John Frith 'Of the presence of Christ's body in the sacrament, meddle as little as you can; that there appear no division among us'] and forbidding clerical marriage, on pain of death. Henry personally presided at the trial of John Lambert in November 1538 for denying the real presence; at the same time, he shared in the drafting of a proclamation giving Anabaptists and sacramentaries ten days to get out of the country. In 1539 Parliament passed the Six Articles reaffirming Catholic practices such as transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and the importance of confession to a priest and prescribed penalties if anyone denied them. Henry himself observed the Easter Triduum in that year with some display [ "Cranmer" (ibid) p.241 ] On June 28 1540 Cromwell, his long time advisor and loyal servant, was executed. Different reasons were advanced: that Cromwell would not enforce the Act of Six Articles, that he had supported Barnes, Latimer and other heretics, and that he was responsible for Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife. Many other arrests under the Act followed. Cranmer, it is said, lay low. [Brigden (ibid.) p. 135]

In the same year Henry began his attack upon the free availability of the Bible. Previously, in 1536, Cromwell had instructed each parish to acquire 'one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English' by Easter 1539. This instruction has been largely ignored so a new version the Great Bible largely William Tyndale's English translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures was authorised in August 1537. But by 1539 Henry announced his desire to have it 'corrected' (which Cranmer referred to the universities to undertake). Many parishes were, in any case, reluctant to set up English bibles; now the mood of conservatism, which expressed itself in the fear that Bible reading led to heresy, allowed those which had been put in place to be removed. [ Haigh(ibid) p.157f] By the Act for the Advancement of True Religion 1543, Henry restricted the reading of Bible to men and women of noble birth. He expressed his fears to Parliament in 1545 that 'the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale-house and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same'. (It has nevertheless been claimed that no European people was more profoundly influenced by the vernacular Scriptures than the English.) [Dickens, A.G. "Reformation and Society" (Thames and Hudson 1966) p.103]

By 1546 the conservatives, the Duke of Norfolk, Wriothesly, Gardiner and Tunstall were in the ascendency and were, by the king's will, to be members of the regency council, on his death. But by the time he died in 1547, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, brother of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife, (and therefore uncle to the future Edward VI) managed, by a number of alliances with influential Protestants such as Lisle, to gain control over the Privy Council and persuaded Henry to change his will and to replace them as his executors by his supporters. [ MacCulloch argues that it was the king ('this monstrous egoist') who changed his mind, heavily influenced by his chaplain, the Archbishop; Cranmer certainly believed that had Henry lived he would have pursued a radical iconoclastic policy- "Cranmer" (ibid.) p. 356-7; on the other hand, the same will which removed the conservatives Gardiner, Norfolk and Surrey from the Regency Council,sought intercession from Mary and the saints and insisted on the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist - Haig (ibid.) p. 167 ]

Edward's Reformation

When Henry died in 1547, his nine year old son, Edward VI, inherited the throne. Edward himself was a precocious child, who had been brought up as a Protestant, but was of little account politically. Seymour was made Lord Protector. He was commissionered as virtual regent with near sovereign powers. Now made Duke of Somerset, he proceeded at first hesitantly, partly because his powers were not unchallenged. When he acted it was because he saw the political advantage. [Haigh (ibid) p.169] The 1547 Injunctions against images were a more tightly drawn version of those of 1538 but they were much more fiercely enforced, at first informally, and then, by instruction. All images in churches were to be dismantled; stained glass, shrines, statues were defaced or destroyed; roods and often their lofts and screens were cut down, bells were taken down; vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold; church plate was to be melted down or sold [Among many examples, in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire a chalice, parten and processional cross were sold and the proceeds devoted to flood defences; in Rayleigh, a wealthy parish, £10 worth of plate was sold, in order to pay for the cost of the required reforms: the need to buy a parish chest, bible and communion table: Duffy (ibid) p.483f] and the requirement of the clergy to be celibate was lifted; processions were banned; ashes and palms were prohibited. [Duffy (ibid) p.461] Chantries, means by which the saying of masses for the dead were endowed, were abolished completely. How well this was received is disputed: A.G. Dickens contends that people had 'ceased to believe in intercessory masses for souls in purgatory'; ["The English Reformation"(2nd Ed. 1989) p.235] others, such as Eamon Duffy, argue that the demolition of chantry chapels and the removal of images coincided with the activity of royal visitors. [Duffy (ibid) p.481] The evidence is often ambiguous [In Ludlow in Shropshire the parishioners complied with the orders to remove the rood and other images in 1547, and in same year spent money on making up the canopy to be carried over the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi: Duffy (ibid) p. 481] In 1549 Cranmer introduced a Book of Common Prayer in English. In 1550, stone altars were exchanged for wooden communion tables, a very public break with the past, as it changed the look and focus of church interiors. [Duffy (ibid) p.472]

Less visible, but still influential, was the new ordinal which provided for Protestant pastors rather than Catholic priests, an admittedly conservative adaptation of Bucer's draft; ["Cranmer" (ibid.)p. 461; Bucer had provided for only one service for all three orders. ] its Preface explicitly mentions the historic succession but, it has been described as 'another case of Cranmer's opportunist adoption of mediaeval forms for new purposes'. [(ibid)] In 1551, the episcopate was remodelled by the appointment of Protestants to the bench. This removed the obstacle to change which was the refusal of some bishops to enforce the regulations.

Henceforth, the Reformation proceeded apace. In 1552 the prayer book, which the conservative Bishop Stephen Gardiner had approved from his prison cell as being "patient of a Catholic interpretation", was replaced by a second much more radical prayer book which altered the shape of the service, so as to remove any sense of sacrifice. Edward's Parliament also repealed his father's Six Articles.

The enforcement of the new liturgy did not always take place without a fight. Conformity was the order of the day, but in East Anglia and in Devon there were rebellions, [Cf. "The Voices from Morebath" Eamon Duffy (Yale 2001) p.127ff. The vicar of Morebath in Devon recorded the doings of the parish during the whole period, noting the compliant destruction of items previously paid for by sacrificial fundraising, and the singular resistance over the new prayer book.The parish paid for five men to join the rebellion as St. David's Down outside Exeter] as also in Cornwall, to which many parishes sent their young men; they were brutally put down. In other places the causes of the rebellions were less easy to pin down [Susan Brigden cites economic causes relating to enclosure legislation "New Worlds, Lost Worlds" ibid.) p. 185; MacCulloch calls the risings 'baffling'.] but by July throughout southern England, there was 'quavering quiet' which burst out into 'stirs' in many places, the worst of which was the so-called Kett's Rebellion in Norwich. And apart from these more spectacular pieces of resistance, in some places chantry priests continued to say prayers and landowners to pay them to do so; opposition to the removal of images was widespread. (So much so that when during the Commonwealth, William Dowsing (1596-1679) was commissioned to the task of image breaking in Suffolk, his task, as he records it, was enormous.) [Graham-Dixon, Andrew (ibid) p.38] In Kent and the south east, compliance was mostly willing and for many, the sale of vestments and plate was an opportunity to make money (but it was also true that in London and Kent Reformation ideas had permeated more deeply into popular thinking). The effect of the resistance was to topple Somerset, as Lord Protector so that in 1549 it was feared by some that the Reformation would cease. The prayer book was the tipping point. But Lisle, now made Earl of Warwick, was made Lord President of the Privy Council and, ever the opportunist (he was to die a public Catholic), saw the further implementation of the reforming policy as a means of defeating his rivals. [Haig (ibid) p.176]

Outwardly, the destruction and removals for sale had changed the church forever. In fact, many churches had concealed their vestments and their silver, [Some of them were simply reclaimed by the gentry who had, in fact, lent them to the church; at Long Melford, Sir John Clopton, a patron of the church, bought up many of the images, probably to preserve them: Duffy (ibid) p. 490] and had buried their stone altars and there were many disputes between the government and parishes over church property. Thus, when Edward died in July 1553 and the Duke of Northumberland attempted to have the Protestant Lady Jane Grey made Queen, the unpopularity of the confiscations gave Mary the opportunity to have herself proclaimed Queen, first in Suffolk, and then in London to the acclamation of the crowds.

Catholic Restoration

From 1553, under the reign of Henry's Roman Catholic daughter, Mary I, the Reformation legislation was repealed and Mary sought to achieve the reunion with Rome. Her first Act of Parliament was to retroactively validate Henry's marriage to her mother and so legitimise her claim to the throne. Achieving her objective was however, not straightforward. The Pope was only prepared to accept reunion when church property disputes had been settled, which, in practice, meant allowing those who had bought former church property to keep it. 'Only when English landowners had secured their claims did Julius III's representative arrive in November 1554 to reconcile the realm'. [ MacCulloch 'Reformation"(ibid.) p281] Thus did Cardinal Pole arrive to become Archbishop of Canterbury in Cranmer's place. Mary could have had Cranmer, imprisoned as he was, tried and executed for treason - he had supported the claims of Lady Jane Grey - but she had resolved to have him tried for heresy. His recantations of his Protestantism would have been a major coup for her. Unhappily for her, he unexpectedly withdrew his recantations at the last minute as he was to be burned at the stake, thus ruining her government's propaganda victory.

If Mary was to secure England for Catholicism, she needed an heir. On the advice of the Holy Roman Emperor she married his son, Phillip II of Spain; she needed to prevent her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth from inheriting the Crown and thus returning England to Protestantism. There was opposition, and even a rebellion in Kent (led by Sir Thomas Wyatt); even though it was provided that Phillip would never inherit the kingdom if there was no heir, received no estates and had no coronation. [ MacCulloch "Reformation" (ibid.) p. 281 ] He was there to provide an heir. But she never became pregnant; her apparent pregnancy was, in fact, the beginnings of stomach cancer. Ironically, another blow fell. Pope Julius died and his successor, Paul IV declared war on Phillip and recalled Pole to Rome to have him tried as a heretic. Mary refused to let him go. The support which she might have expected from a grateful Pope was thus denied her.

After 1555, the initial reconciling tone of the regime began to harden. The medieval heresy laws were restored. The so-called Marian Persecutions of Protestants ensued and 283 Protestants were burnt at the stake for heresy. This resulted in the Queen becoming known as 'Bloody Mary', due to the influence of John Foxe, one of the Protestants who fled Marian England. Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" recorded the executions in such detail that it became Mary's epitaph; Convocation subsequently ordered that Foxe's book should be placed in every cathedral in the land. In fact, while those who were executed after the revolts of 1536, and the St. David's Down rebellion of 1549, and the unknown number of monks who died for refusing to submit, may not have been tried for heresy, they certainly exceeded that number by some amount. Even so, the heroism of some of the martyrs was an example to those who witnessed them, so that in some places it was the burnings that set people against the regime. ['The Birth of a Protestant Town: the Process of Reformation in Tudor Colchester 1530-80', Mark Byford in "The Reformation in English Towns 1500-1640" ed. Collinson and Craig (Macmillan 1998)]

There was a slow consolidation in Catholic strength in her latter years. The reconciled Catholic, Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, produced a catechism and a collection of homilies; the printing press was widely put into use in the production of primers and other devotional materials; recruitment to the English clergy began to rise after almost a decade; repairs to churches long neglected were put in hand. In the parishes 'restoration and repair continued, new bells were bought, and churches' ales produced their bucolic profits'. [Haigh (ibid) p.234] Commissioners visited to ensure that altars were restored, roods rebuilt and vestments and plate purchased. Moreover, Pole was determined to do more than remake the past. His insistence was on scripture, teaching and education and on improving the moral standards of the clergy. It is difficult to determine how far Catholic devotion, with its belief in the saints and in purgatory, had even been broken; certainties, especially those which drew upon men's purses, had been shaken - benefactions to the church did not return significantly; trust in clergy who had been prepared to change their minds and were now willing to leave their new wives - as they were required to do - was bound to have weakened. Few monasteries were reinstated; nor were chantries and gilds in any number. It has been said that parish religion was marked by 'religious and cultural sterility, [Dickens A.G. "The English Reformation" (1989 ed.) p.309ff] though some have observed enthusiasm, marred only by the poor harvests which produced poverty and want. [ Haigh (ibid) p.214] What was needed was time. Thus, such was the mood that Protestants secretly ministering to underground congregations, such as Thomas Bentham, were planning for a long haul, a ministry of survival. [Haigh (ibid) p.235] Mary's death in December 1558, childless and without her having made provision for a Catholic to succeed her, undid that consolidation.

Elizabethan Settlement

When Mary died childless in 1558, Elizabeth inherited the throne. One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth’s early reign was religion. Communion with the Roman Catholic Church had been reinstated under Mary, but was again severed by Elizabeth. She relied primarily on her chief advisors, Sir William Cecil, as her Secretary of State, and Sir Nicholas Bacon, as the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, for direction on the matter.

Parliament was summoned in 1559 to consider the Reformation Bill and to create a new church. The Reformation Bill defined the Communion as a consubstantial celebration as opposed to a transubstantial celebration, included abuse of the pope in the litany, and ordered that ministers should not wear the surplice or other Catholic vestments. It allowed ministers to marry, banned images from churches, and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Bill met heavy resistance in the House of Lords, as Roman Catholic bishops as well as the lay peers voted against it. They reworked much of the Bill, changed the litany to allow for a transubstantial belief in the Communion and refused to grant Elizabeth the title of Supreme Head of the Church. Parliament was prorogued over Easter, and when it resumed, the government entered two new bills into the Houses — the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity.

Act of Supremacy

The Act of Supremacy validated ten Acts that Mary had repealed and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Supreme Governor was a suitably equivocal title that made Elizabeth head of the Church without ever saying she was. This was important because many felt that a woman could not rule the church. Elizabeth's changes were more wholesale than those of her half-brother, Edward VI. All but one of the bishops lost their posts, a hundred fellows of Oxford colleges were deprived; many dignitaries resigned rather than take the oath. The bishops who were removed from the ecclesiastical bench were replaced by appointees who would agree to the reforms.

On the question of images, her initial reaction was to allow crucifixes and candlesticks and the restoration of roods, but some of the new bishops whom she had elevated protested. In 1560 Edmund Grindal, one of the Marian exiles now made Bishop of London, was allowed to enforce the demolition of rood lofts in London and in 1561 the Queen herself ordered the demolition of all lofts. [She herself retained a cross and candlesticks in her own chapel: Haigh (ibid) p.244] Thereafter, the determination to prevent any further restoration was evidenced by the more thoroughgoing destruction of roods, vestments, stone altars, dooms, statues and other ornaments. The queen also appointed a new Privy Council, removing many Roman Catholic counsellors by doing so. Under Elizabeth, factionalism in the Council and conflicts at court greatly diminished. The Act of Supremacy had passed without difficulty.

Act of Uniformity 1559

However, the Act of Uniformity 1559 which forced people to attend Sunday service in an Anglican church, at which a new version of the Book of Common Prayer was to be used, was passed by only three votes. [Haigh (ibid.) p.237-241. No bishops voted in favour, two were prevented from voting at all, and two other ecclesiastics were absent. The majority were all laymen : J Guy"Tudor England"(OUP1988) p. 262 ] The Bill of Uniformity was more cautious than the initial Reformation Bill. It revoked the harsh laws proposed against Roman Catholics, it removed the abuse of the pope from the litany and kept the wording that allowed for both consubstantial and transubstantial belief in the Communion.

After Parliament was dismissed, Elizabeth, along with Cecil, drafted what are known as the Royal Injunctions. These were additions to the settlement and largely stressed continuity with the Catholic past — ministers were ordered to wear the surplice. Wafers, as opposed to ordinary baker's bread, were to be used as the bread at Communion. There had been opposition to the settlement in the shires, which for the most part were largely Roman Catholic, so the changes were made in order to allow for acceptance to the Settlement. What succeeded more than anything else was the sheer length of Elizabeth's reign; while Mary had been able to impose her programme for a mere five years, Elizabeth had more than forty. Those who delayed, 'looking for a new day' when restoration would again be commanded, were defeated by the passing of years. [Haigh (ibid) p.245]

Puritans and Roman Catholics

Her reign saw the emergence of Puritanism. Elizabethan Puritanism encompassed those Protestants who, whilst they agreed that there should be one national church, felt that the church had been but partially reformed. Puritanism ranged from hostility to the content of the Prayer Book and "popish" ceremony to a desire for church governance to be radically reformed. Grindal was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1575 and chose to oppose even the Queen in his desire to forward the Puritans' agenda. 'Bear with me, I beseech you Madam, if I choose rather to offend your earthly majesty than to offend the heavenly majesty of God', he ended a 6,000 word reproach to her. [MacCulloch "Reformation"(ibid) p.384] He was placed under house arrest for his trouble and though he was not deprived, his death, blind and in bad health in 1583 put an end to the hopes of his supporters. His successor, Archbishop Whitgift more reflected the Queen's determination to discipline those who were unprepared to accept her settlement. A conformist, he imposed a degree of obedience on the clergy which apparently alarmed even the Queen's ministers, such as Lord Burghley. The Puritan cause was not helped even by its friends. The pseudonymous 'Martin Marprelate' tracts, which attacked conformist clergy with in a libellous humorous tone, ['John Cant' (Whitgift) was accused of sodomitical relations with the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge: MacCulloch "Reformation"(ibid.) p.387] outraged senior Puritan clergy and set the government on an unsuccessful attempt to run the writer to earth. Incidentally, the defeat of the Armada in 1588 made it more difficult for Puritans to resist the conclusion that since God 'blew with his wind and they were scattered' he could not be too offended by the religious establishment in the land. [MacCulloch (ibid) p.384ff]

On the other side there were of course, still huge numbers of Catholics, some of whom conformed, bending with the times, hoping that there would be a fresh reverse; vestments were still hidden, golden candlesticks bequeathed, chalices kept. The Mass was still celebrated in some places [Haigh (ibid) p.253] alongside the new Communion service. It was, of course more difficult than hitherto. Both Roman Catholic priests and laity lived a double life, apparently conforming, but avoiding taking the oath of conformity. It was only as time passed that recusancy, refusal to attend Protestant services, became more common. The Jesuits and seminary priests, trained in Douai and Rome to make good the losses of English priests, encouraged this. By the 1570s an underground church was growing fast, as the Church of England became more Protestant and less bearable for Catholics. Catholics were still a sizeable minority. [Haigh (ibid) p.267] Only one public attempt to restore the old religion took place, the revolt of the northern earls, the Rising of the North in 1569. It was a botched attempt: in spite of tumultuous crowds who greeted them in Durham, the rebellion did not spread, the assistance they sought was not forthcoming, their communication with allies at Court were poor; they came nowhere near to setting free Mary Stuart from her imprisonment in Tutbury, whose presence might have rallied support. [Haigh (ibid) p.256; Haigh argues that the initial impetus for the rebellion was scarcely religious at all, but political; what swelled support, however, was a rejection of the Prayer Book and a desire to restore the Mass.] The Catholic Church's refusal to countenance occasional attendance at Protestant Services and the excommunication of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in 1570, presented the choice to Catholics more starkly, and the arrival of the seminary priests, while it was a lifeline to many Catholics, brought further trouble. Elizabeth's ministers took steps to stem the tide: fines for refusal to attend church were raised from 12d. per service to £20 a month, fifty times an artisan's wage; it was now treason to be absolved from schism and reconciled to Rome; the execution of priests began - the first in 1577, four in 1581, eleven in 1582, two in 1583, six in 1584: fifty three by 1590; (seventy more between 1601 and 1680). [Haigh (ibid) p.262f; '...England judicially murdered more Roman Catholics than any other country in Europe: MacCulloch (ibid.) p.392] It became treasonable for a Catholic priest ordained abroad to enter the country. The choice lay between treason and damnation. In general, the List of Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation was quite extensive.

There is, of course always some distance between legislation and its enforcement. The governmental attacks on recusancy were mostly upon the gentry. Few recusants were actually fined, often at reduced rates; the persecution eased; priests came to recognise that they should not refuse communion to occasional conformists. [Haigh (ibid) p.264] The persecutions did not extinguish the faith, but they tested it sorely. The huge number of Catholics in East Anglia and the north in the 1560s disappeared into the general population in part because recusant priests largely served the great Catholic houses, who alone could hide them. [ Haigh (ibid) p.265] Without the mass and pastoral care, yeomen, artisans and husbandmen fell into conformism. Catholicism, supported by foreign priests, came to be seen as un-English.


By the time of Elizabeth's death, there had also emerged a third party, 'perfectly hostile' to Puritans, but not adherent to Rome. It preferred the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1559, from which had been removed some of the matters offensive to Catholics. [Proctor F. and Frere W.H., "A New History of the Book of Common Prayer" (Macmillan 1965) p.91ff.] The recusants had been removed from the centre of the stage. A new dispute was between the Puritans, who wished to see an end of the prayer book and episcopacy and this third party, the considerable body of people who looked kindly on the Elizabethan Settlement, who rejected 'prophesyings', whose spirituality had been nourished by the Prayer Book and who preferred the governance of bishops. [Judith Maltby, "Prayer book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England" (Cambridge 1998)] It was between these two groups that, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, a new, more savage episode of the Reformation was in the process of gestation. During the reigns of the Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, the battle lines were to become more defined, leading ultimately to the English Civil War, the first on English soil to engulf parts of the civilian population. The war was only partly about religion, but the abolition of prayer book and episcopacy by a Puritan Parliament was an element in the causes of the conflict. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted, the legacy of these tumultuous events can be recognised, throughout the Commonwealth (1649-1660) and the Restoration which followed it and beyond. This third party was to become the core of the restored Church of England, but at the price for further division. At the Restoration in 1660 Anglicans, as they came to be called, [Maltby (ibid)p.235] were to be but part of the religious scene, which was to include various kinds of Non-Conformity, among which would eventually be numbered Roman Catholicism.



* A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (London) (2nd Ed. 1989)
* Eamon Duffy, "The Stripping of the Altars" (Yale, 1992).
* Eamon Duffy, "Voices from Morebath" (Yale 2001)
* G. R. Elton, "England Under the Tudors: Third Edition" (Routledge, 1991).
* G. R. Elton, "The Tudor Constitution: Second Edition" (Cambridge University Press, 1982).
* Christopher Haigh, "English Reformations" (Oxford, 1993).
* Stanford Lehmberg, "The Reformation Parliament, 1529 - 1536" (Cambridge University Press, 1970).
* Roderick Phillips, "Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce" (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
* Roger Scruton, "A Dictionary of Political Thought" (Macmillan, 1996)
* Ed. Patrick Collinson and John Craig "The Reformation in English Towns 1500-1640" (Macmillan 1998)
* Susan Brigden "New Worlds, Lost Worlds" (Allen Lane 2000)
* Diarmaid MacCulloch "" (Allen Lane 2003)
* Diarmaid MacCulloch "Thomas Cranmer" (Yale 1996)
* Judith Maltby, "Prayer book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England" (Cambridge 1998)

See also

* Scottish Reformation
* Reformation in Switzerland
*Cestui que
*Dissolution of the Monasteries England topics

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