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English Reformation

Related subjects: British History 1500-1750

Background Information

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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 most 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, the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among 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 accommodated itself.

Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage, the English Reformation was at the outset more of a political affair than a theological dispute. The reality of political differences between Rome and England allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore. Immediately before the break with Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the church that decided 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. The split from Rome made the English monarch the Supreme Governor 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 monarch 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 (the "Glorious Revolution") 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, whose church organization remained illegal until the 19th century.


Role of Henry VIII and royal marriages

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife.

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 Midsummer's 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 (except during the hunting season); of "powerful but unoriginal mind", he allowed himself to be influenced by his advisors from whom he was never apart, by night or day; he was thus susceptible to whoever had his ear. Between his young contemporaries and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, there was thus a state of hostility. As 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. (Successive English and British monarchs have retained this title to the present, even after the Anglican Church broke away from Catholicism.) Wolsey's enemies at court included those who had been influenced by Lutheran ideas, among whom was the attractive, charismatic 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". 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. Catherine's only surviving child was Princess Mary.

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife.

Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was "blighted in the eyes of God". Catherine had been his late brother's wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her ( Leviticus 20:21); a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been needed to allow the wedding in the first place. 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.

The combination of his "scruple of conscience" and his captivation by Anne Boleyn made his desire to rid himself of his Queen compelling. The indictment of his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 for praemunire (taking the authority of the Papacy above the Crown), and subsequent death in November 1530 on his way to London to answer a charge of high treason 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.

Parliamentary debate and legislation

In 1529, the king summoned Parliament to deal with annulment, thus bringing 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; 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.

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. 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.

Actions by the king against English clergy

Having brought down Cardinal Wolsey, his Chancellor, Henry VIII 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 Queen Catherine'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. 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 fulfill 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, to the payment which Henry wanted the Convocation to accept, added five articles:

  1. that the clergy recognise Henry as the "sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England"
  2. that the King had spiritual jurisdiction
  3. that the privileges of the Church were upheld only if they did not detract from the royal prerogative and the laws of the realm
  4. that the King pardoned the clergy for violating the statute of praemunire, and
  5. that the laity were also pardoned.

Further legislative acts

In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher championed Catherine and the clergy; he had inserted into the first article, the phrase "as far as the word of God allows". 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 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 Pardon to Clergy Act 1531.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury and editor and co-author of the first and second Books of Common Prayer.

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.)

Several Acts of Parliament then followed. 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. 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 Temporality, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience", thus declaring England an independent country in every respect. English historian Geoffrey Elton has called this Act an "essential ingredient" of the "Tudor revolution" in that it expounded a theory of national sovereignty. 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 Acts of Supremacy made Henry "supreme head in earth of the Church of England" and disregarded any "usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority [or] prescription".

Thomas More, with John Fisher the leader of political resistance to the break with Rome. Both were executed in 1535.

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 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 (11 July 1533). Henry was to be excommunicated again in December 1538.

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 Act Concerning Peter's Pence and Dispensations 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.

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 the German reformer Martin Luther and his school were widely known and disputed in England. A major manifestation of theological radicalism in England was Lollardy, a movement deriving from the writings of John Wycliffe, the 14th-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 15th 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, who looked for a reform in the lifestyle of the clergy. They emphasized the preaching of the word over the sacrament of the altar, holding the latter to be but a memorial, but they were not party to the actions of the government. 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 over the church but also by conciliarists such as Thomas More and, initially, Cranmer. Other Catholic reformists, including 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.

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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. Faith, not pious acts, prayers or masses, in this view, can secure the grace of God. 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. Cranmer's change of mind, borne partly by his membership of the team negotiating for the annulment, finally came through his stay with Andreas Osiander in Nuremberg in 1532. (Cranmer also secretly married Osiander's niece). 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 Strasbourg and Basel, which brought him into contact with the more radical ideas associated with Zwingli.

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. 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 feast days, "the occasion of vice and idleness" which, particularly at harvest time, had an immediate effect on village life. 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. Thus did the Reformation begin to affect the towns and villages of England and, in many places, people did not like it.

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. The Crown was undergoing financial difficulties, and the wealth of the church, in contrast to its political weakness, made appropriation of church property both tempting and feasible. 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. For these various reasons the Dissolution of the Monasteries was begun in 1536 with the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act, affecting 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. Mobs attacked those sent to break up monastic buildings; the suppression commissioners were attacked by local people in several places. In Northern 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. Further rebellions took place in Cornwall in early 1537, and in Walsingham (in Norfolk) which received similar 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. Many became 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. Once Henry knew what was afoot, he acted. Thus at the end of 1538, a proclamation was issued forbidding free discussion of the Sacrament 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. On 28 June 1540 Cromwell, his longtime 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 lay low.

In 1540 Henry began his attack upon the free availability of the Bible. 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 had 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. Many Bibles which had been put in place were removed. By the 1543 Act for the Advancement of True Religion, Henry restricted Bible reading 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".

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.

Edward's Reformation

King Edward VI of England, in whose reign the reform of the Anglican Church moved in a more Protestant direction.

When Henry died in 1547, his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, inherited the throne. Edward 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 commissioned 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. The 1547 Injunctions against images were a more tightly drawn version of those of 1538 but they were 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 and the requirement of the clergy to be celibate was lifted; processions were banned; ashes and palms were prohibited. Chantries, means by which the saying of masses for the dead were endowed, were abolished completely. How well this was received is disputed; Dickens contends that people had "ceased to believe in intercessory masses for souls in purgatory"; others, such as Duffy, argue that the demolition of chantry chapels and the removal of images coincided with the activity of royal visitors. The evidence is often ambiguous. 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.

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; 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". 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 struggle. Conformity was the order of the day, but in East Anglia and in Devon there were rebellions, as also in Cornwall, to which many parishes sent their young men; they were put down only after considerable loss of life. In other places the causes of the rebellions were less easy to pin down but by July throughout southern England, there was "quavering quiet" which burst out into "stirs" in many places, most significantly in 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 was commissioned to the task of image breaking in Suffolk, his task, as he records it, was enormous. In Kent and the southeast, 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), he saw the further implementation of the reforming policy as a means of defeating his rivals.

Outwardly, the destruction and removals for sale had changed the church forever. Many churches had concealed their vestments and their silver, and had buried their stone altars. 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

Queen Mary I of England restored the English allegiance to Rome.

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. 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, Philip 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 Philip would never inherit the kingdom if there was no heir, received no estates and had no coronation. 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, Pope Paul IV, declared war on Philip 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.

There was a slow consolidation in Catholic strength in Mary's latter years. The reconciled Catholic Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, produced a catechism and a collection of homilies; the printing press was widely used to produce primers and other devotional materials; recruitment to the English clergy began to rise after almost a decade; repairs to long-neglected churches were begun. In the parishes "restoration and repair continued, new bells were bought, and churches' ales produced their bucolic profits". 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 by the previous reigns; but 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, chantries and gilds were reinstated. "Parish religion was marked by religious and cultural sterility", though some have observed enthusiasm, marred only by the poor harvests which produced poverty and want. Full restoration of the Catholic faith in England to its pre-Reformation state would take time. Consequently, Protestants secretly ministering to underground congregations, such as Thomas Bentham, were planning for a long haul, a ministry of survival. Mary's death in November 1558, childless and without having made provision for a Catholic to succeed her, would undo her consolidation.

Elizabethan Settlement

Following Mary's childless death, her half-sister Elizabeth inherited the throne. One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth’s early reign was religion. Elizabeth could not be Catholic, as that church considered her illegitimate. At the same time, she had observed the turmoil brought about by Edward's introduction of radical Protestant reforms. Communion with the Catholic Church 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.

Queen Elizabeth I of England reached a moderate religious settlement.

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 for two reasons: (1) it satisfied those who felt that a woman could not rule the church, and (2) it acted in a conciliatory way toward English Catholics. For the clergy, Elizabeth's changes were more wholesale than those of her half-brother, Edward, had been. All but one ( Anthony Kitchin) 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, Elizabeth's 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. 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 1558

However, the Act of Uniformity 1558 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. 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 and Cecil drafted 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 rural England, which for the most part was largely Roman Catholic, so the changes aimed for acceptance of 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.

Puritans and Roman Catholics

Elizabeth's reign saw the emergence of Puritanism, which 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 Puritan 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. He was placed under house arrest for his trouble and though he was not deprived, his death 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 a libellous humorous tone, outraged senior Puritan clergy and set the government on an unsuccessful attempt to run the writer to earth. Incidentally, the defeat of the Spanish 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.

On the other side there were still huge numbers of Roman 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 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 Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics were still a sizeable minority. Only one public attempt to restore the old religion occurred: the Rising of the Northern earls in 1569. It was a botched attempt; in spite of tumultuous crowds who greeted the rebels in Durham, the rebellion did not spread, the assistance they sought was not forthcoming, their communication with allies at Court was poor; they came nowhere near to setting Mary Stuart, whose presence might have rallied support, free from her imprisonment in Tutbury. The Roman 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 Roman Catholics more starkly, and the arrival of the seminary priests, while it was a lifeline to many Roman Catholics, brought further trouble. Elizabeth's ministers took steps to stem the tide: fines for refusal to attend church were raised from 12 d. 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, and seventy more between 1601 and 1680. It became treasonable for a Roman Catholic priest ordained abroad to enter the country. Because the papacy had called for the deposing of the Queen, the choice for moderate Catholics lay between treason and damnation. Although considerably fewer than on the Continent, by British standards the List of Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation was 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; the fines that were imposed were often at reduced rates; the persecution eased; priests came to recognise that they should not refuse communion to occasional conformists. The persecutions did not extinguish the faith, but they tested it sorely. The huge number of Roman Catholics in East Anglia and the north in the 1560s disappeared into the general population in part because recusant priests largely served the great Roman Catholic houses, who alone could hide them. Without the mass and pastoral care, yeomen, artisans and husbandmen fell into conformism. Roman Catholicism, supported by foreign or expatriate priests, came to be seen as treasonous.


By the time of Elizabeth's death a third party had emerged, "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. The recusants had been removed from the centre of the stage. The new dispute was now 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).

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 historian MacCulloch has noted, the legacy of these tumultuous events can be recognised, throughout the Commonwealth (1649–60) 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.

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