The English Reformation was vastly different to its contemporary reformatory movements because from its very outset it was intricately involved with Crown Politics and the King’s obsession with producing a male heir. In some respects, these circumstances proved to have a weakening influence on the work of Reform but God was still able to raise up a line of godly men who were able to give the gospel with power and clarity to England.
When Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509 he did so as the second Tudor king to inherit the title in the aftermath of the War of the Roses. Henry was focused on a single thing right from the beginning of his reign; producing a male heir. This was in order to secure Tudor succession to the English throne. Unfortunately for him, his wife, the widow of his deceased brother, couldn’t conjure up a male child on a whim. Catherine of Aragon was only able to produce a female child, whom she named Mary and that only after a string of miscarriages. Henry was incensed. Finding himself in a desperate situation he applied for a Papal annulment of the marriage in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn.
Henry was a devout Catholic and he never dreamed of becoming anything else. He went to three masses a day and for his personal devotion to the Pope, he was offered the golden rose which was the highest honor a pope could confer on anyone. When Henry heard of Martin Luther and the work he was doing, Henry strongly opposed him. He went so far as to write a scathing piece of papal polemic against Luther in which he defended the seven sacraments. He even dedicated his manuscript to the Pope. Given all this when Henry applied to the Pope for a divorce he was not looking to pick a fight with the Papacy. On the contrary, he was a faithful son of the church and an able defender of the faith. However, things turned sour when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. When he first married Catherine, upon the death of his brother, he had received a special papal dispensation from Pope Julius II to do so. Now all he wanted was for the current Pope, Clement III, to overturn Julius’s dispensation and grant him an annulment. It was simple and clear-cut. But the Queen did not concur with the King and while Henry was insisting that his marriage to Catherine was not legal and therefore not binding, Catherine herself was insisting that it was. The Pope didn’t want to get into a middle of a domestic argument neither was he willing to overturn Julius special dispensation because that might have given people the impression that the Pope’s word was not as infallible as he made it out to be.
The Pope’s refusal and Catherine’s obstinacy goaded Henry to relentlessly pursue a divorce and to replace Catherine with Anne Boleyn. He did this by using the Bible to buttress his arguments and in so doing placed the Bible above the word of the Pope. Ultimately he managed to secure his desired end, divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne. In 1534 the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which declared Henry to be the supreme head of the Church of England thus replacing the Pope with the King.
On the surface, this seemed like a Reformation but in reality, all Henry wanted to do was to get rid of the Pope so he could divorce Catherine without needing the Pope’s permission. Essentially Henry still wanted a decidedly Catholic church in England just without the Pope at its head.
Never in a million years would he have even toyed with the idea of embracing the Reformation but once having used the Bible to resist the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce Henry placed the Bible as a higher authority than the word of the Pope which in turn changed the established thinking.
While Henry’s was focused on getting rid of the Pope there was a group of ardent and devoted men who were beginning experience the truths of the Reformation in their own lives.
One of the key elements that made an impact on the progress of the English Reformation was Erasmus translation of the Bible. Erasmus of Rotterdam was most likely the greatest scholar of the early 1500s and in 1516 he produced a translation of the Greek new testament that had not been available before. In addition to that, he produced his own Latin translation of the Greek text that was vastly different to the church’s official Latin Vulgate. It was these differences that essentially sparked the Reformation.
For example Erasmus’s translation of Matthew 4:17 was so completely different to the way the Vulgate translated the text that there were serious theological implications. The Vulgate renders Matthew 4:17 as “do penance for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which fit in well with the established Catholic theology of salvation by means of the sacraments. Erasmus translation translated the text along the lines of “change your mind for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” which had a completely different meaning.
Therefore according to Erasmus, Salvation wasn’t earned by performing penance or any of the other sacraments rather it was the free gift of God that had the power to transform even the most hardened human heart. This line of thought would lead to a divergence from traditional Catholic theology which would then bring the Spiritual authority of Rome into question. Luther read a copy of Erasmus translation of the Bible and according to some historians, it was a contributing factor to Luther’s conversion.
Meanwhile across the channel in England was a young Catholic priest by the name of Thomas Bilney who came across a copy of Erasmus translation of the Bible and read it. Much like Luther, the reading of the word of God completely transformed Bilney’s life. Bilney read the words “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners” and it shook him to the core. Previously his sins had led him to despair but after he read these words, he wrote: “my bruised bones leaped for joy and the scriptures became more pleasant to me than the honeycomb”. From that time forward until he was burnt for his preaching in 1531 Bilney was instrumental in bringing others to the truth.
One of the most influential reformers who was converted as a result of Bilney’s experience was Hugh Latimer, the poster boy for Catholic apologetics in England, who also happened to be Bilney’s confessor. One day when Bilney came to confess his sins to Latimer he shared his experience of confession, repentance, and forgiveness at the foot of the cross. Latimer broke down in tears and was converted. He went on to become an ardent preacher of the gospel, defending the Reformation with the same ferocity with which he had once defended the Catholic faith.
While Bilney was preaching from the Bible much of Luther’s writings began to flood England and were welcomed by many, largely due to the groundwork that had been done by Wycliffe and his Lollards. By the time this happened Luther had been condemned by the Pope and his writings condemned to the flames. Regardless of the Pope’s condemnation the great Reformers writings became hugely popular and were smuggled into England where they were eagerly read.
In the East of England, the Whitehorse Inn became a hotspot for discussing Luther’s writings and was frequented by many a Cambridge professor. Meanwhile in the West of England in Sodbury and Gloucestershire William Tyndale was making waves with his new found beliefs and preaching.
Tyndale began to preach and teach the gospel to those living around his place of employment at Sodbury Hall and he also became a fiery opposer of Catholic theology. But what he found was that his preaching and teaching made little headway and left even less of a lasting impression. He decided that the most efficient use of his time was to translate the Bible, namely Erasmus translation of the Bible, into English thereby giving the people ready access to the truth at its source.
It was a daring undertaking and he soon had to leave England for fear of being caught and burned by the Inquisition that had taken up residence in the country. He traveled throughout Europe, dodging the authorities at every turn and finally managed to produce a masterpiece of the English language which was theologically accurate to boot. His translation of the Bible was then smuggled into England by the thousands. To the English clergy, Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was extremely dangerous and was condemned to be burned. Realizing that all his work could be in vain Tyndale turned to God for help and his dying prayer was “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”.
Which turns us back to the political machinations of the King in question. Having managed to get rid of the Pope as head of the church of England, Henry then proceeded to secure his divorce. In order to gain an annulment, he recalled Thomas Cranmer from Germany and had him installed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was happy to oblige the King and annul his marriage but the thing about Cranmer was that he, unlike Henry, had been deeply influenced by the writings of Luther while he was in Germany. So much so that he had even taken himself a bride which was not only scandalous but illegal for a Catholic priest.
Cranmer wasn’t the only one with Protestant leanings at court. The newly crowned Queen Anne was herself deeply Protestant and she quietly began to disseminate Protestant writings at court and used her influence to place Protestants in key ecclesiastical roles. So although Henry’s move to divorce Catherine and ostensibly, the Papacy as well, was not driven by any noble desire for spiritual reformation it empowered the work of reform that was being embraced and carried forward by others. Things started to get hairy when Anne, who got pregnant as soon as she got married, gave birth to another girl. Henry was completely horrified.
History tells us that when he heard the news he immediately left Greenwich and the crestfallen new mother Anne and went down to Wiltshire to cry on the shoulder of an old friend and courtier, Sir John Seymour. Sir John had an attractive daughter named Jane and as they listened to Henry’s tale of woe the Seymours were happy enough to fuel rumors about Anne, which ranged from adultery to witchcraft. Anne, by this time, was in a precarious position simply because she had given birth to a child of the wrong gender. Matters worsened when Anne fell pregnant again only to miscarry a male child. Henry was incensed and had her arrested, charged with treason and beheaded. He then looked around for another wife and who should be conveniently waiting in the wings but the lovely Jane Seymour who by dumb luck or good fortune, managed to produce the longed-for male heir. Unfortunately for Jane, she died giving birth to the child but she earned a placed in Henry’s heart as his favorite wife because she had given him his longed-for son. He went on to marry three more women, one he beheaded, one he divorced on the grounds that she was ugly and the other outlived him.
Jane Seymour’s death marked the end of an expensive two years for the Royal Treasury and Henry cast his eye about for a viable source of income. He settled on the monasteries, which among others things had excellent land value and, egged on by Thomas Cromwell, he proceeded to dismantle them all in 1536. The monks were relieved and many of them married nuns while others were happy to settle down to a quiet parish life having been made pastors. This move ensured that the nobility was committed to rooting out Catholicism in England as well because many of them benefitted from the sale of the monastic estates. From that point forward all traces of Roman Catholic tradition were systematically destroyed or denigrated and Protestantism began to flourish so that two years after Tyndale’s prayer the king decreed that all men should be encouraged to read the Bible. A Bible was then placed in every single parish church with six being placed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This led the people to flock to the Bible and to read it for themselves so much so that butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers were all reading the Bible for themselves.
Henry himself was mildly religiously confused for a good portion of his reign. In July 1540 six men were executed by order of the king, three were Catholics who were hanged for denying Henry’s supremacy over the church of England and three were Protestants who were burned for heresy. What this incident illustrates is that Henry didn’t want England to be Protestant nor did he want it to be Roman Catholic. It seems that he wanted it to be English Catholic, a cross between traditional Catholicism and watered down Protestantism.
This confused his decision making and led him to make choices that inadvertently guaranteed that Protestantism would ultimately establish itself in England. One such decision was leaving the education of his children Elizabeth and Edward to his wife Catherine Parr who chose the finest Protestant teachers in the land leaving both Elizabeth and Edward personally committed to Protestantism.
When Henry died in 1547 and Edward took the throne England was poised for true Reformation. Edward was only 9 when he came to power and his uncle Edward Seymour ruled as Lord Protector. Seymour and Cranmer promptly set about to Reform England but it’s important to note that in all this Edward was not a pawn. He had a deep hatred for Catholicism and for a boy so young had well thought out Protestant views. Seymour and Cranmer began their work quietly and gently so as to avoid another civil war. Nevertheless, the changes were stark and would have made a deep impression on the minds of the Catholic community. The Clergy were allowed to marry, people were allowed to receive both the bread and the wine, images of saints were removed and altars were replaced with a table. A prayer book was also made available in English thus ensuring that every service would be in English and not Latin making it more accessible to the common people. It was during this period that preachers like Hugh Latimer were really able to make a substantial impact on the minds of the people and challenge the general population to think for themselves.
Cranmer invited many Protestant theologians from the continent to come and teach at Cambridge and many others found England to be an ideal refuge from the fires of persecution in Europe. To a great extent, England was influenced by many of the Swiss reformers like the formidable Farel. Cranmer wrote two prayer books during this time, one which was a softer, gentler approach to Reform and another which had decidedly Protestant overtones to it.
Unfortunately, the entire process came to a halt when Edward died in 1553. Sensing that the end was near, Edward hatched a daring plot to make his cousin Lady Jane Grey queen before Mary could get there but it didn’t work. Mary, who was in Norfolk, swiftly mustered support and entered London where Jane was promptly disposed of. Mary then took the throne as the rightful Tudor heir.
In Mary’s mind, Protestantism and therefore Protestants were the cause of all her woes. Protestantism was the reason behind the divorce of her parents and the installation of a new Queen. Her siblings, who had come along and ousted her position as sole Princess and heir of her father’s court, were both Protestant. She had quite a few personal reasons to be for bittern against the movement as a whole. All this was apart from the fact that being a staunch Catholic herself she viewed the new religion as heresy. As soon as she became Queen she returned England to Catholicism by making a few swift and well-calculated moves.
Cranmer was imprisoned and replaced by her cousin, the Catholic Cardinal Reginald Pole, Bibles were removed from churches and priests who had married separated from their wives. Mary did everything to turn the clock back 20 years in an attempt to erase Protestantism from the national consciousness. But in reality, try as she might, Mary couldn’t’ really undo 20 years of History. The monasteries were gone and couldn’t be returned because their estates had been siphoned off to the nobility. The people had already read the Bible and even though they weren’t completely Protestant they weren’t completely Catholic either.
What Mary really needed was an heir to preserve Catholicism in England over a prolonged period of time. She chose the future Philip II of Spain as a husband for a few obvious reasons. First, her mother was Spanish and was related to Philip, second Philip was the self-proclaimed messiah of Catholicism in Europe and lastly, she really liked Philip. But the people of England quaked at the reports of the Catholic Inquisition and many fled to Geneva while others became part of underground congregations. Under Mary, 280 Protestants were burned which was a significant number for its day. Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were all burned on Broad Street in Oxford right in front of Balliol College.
The sheer mass of Protestant martyrs butchered by Mary and their courage in the face of the flames imprinted in the national consciousness an image of Rome as a tyrannical oppressor. The people were appalled at the measures Mary resorted to in the name of Catholicism and they saw the martyrs as patriots especially given Mary’s association with Spain and Spain’s association with all things militantly Catholic. Finally, in an attempt to stem the tide of public indignation Mary began to have people burned behind prison walls but it was all too late.
Despite all this, had she managed to produce an heir, England would most likely have remained Catholic but as it turned out Mary died childless in 1558 followed within hours by her Archbishop Reginald Pole.
When Elizabeth heard of her sister’s death she is said to have declared “this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes”. She really did feel that way because throughout her sister’s reign she had been managing a difficult balancing act and it was only some shrewd political acrobatics that had kept her from losing her head. But here she was about to crowned Queen of England and with that distinction could easily restore the Reformation to England.
Elizabeth was very much like her father Henry; extremely smart, equally sharp-tongued and politically savvy. Her mother Anne had been the reason for Henry’s split with Rome. One of the major problems Elizabeth faced when she ascended the throne was the question of whether or not she had a legitimate right to rule. Since the Catholic church had refused to recognize Henry’s divorce from Catherine it, therefore, did not recognize his marriage to Anne as legitimate which meant it did not recognize Elizabeth as the legitimate heir to the English throne. So if the Pope didn’t recognize Elizabeth as the legitimate heir to the English throne then all of Catholic Christendom, including those that were Elizabeth’s subjects, technically wasn’t supposed to accept her either. But the people would never have accepted Philip II of Spain as a ruler and sensing the popular sentiment he retreated to Spain, quietly and amicably. Meanwhile, all of Catholic Europe watched in incensed silence as Anne Boleyn’s daughter ascended the throne and took England back to Protestantism with her.
Within a year of taking the throne, Elizabeth had undone all of her sister’s Catholic reforms and introduced another prayer book by 1559. She also used the power of the state to impose religious observance which was perhaps not a prudent move. But as things stood Elizabeth and her advisors felt they had no other choice. The threat of Catholic Europe invading her borders was constantly yapping at her heels and then the decidedly seditious move of the Pope in issuing a bull of excommunication against her in 1570 didn’t help matters either. The Bull effectively refused to recognize her as a legitimate monarch thereby permitting any and all uprisings against her reign in the name of Catholicism. Basically a Catholic Holy War. Elizabeth felt that a swift and decisive legal clampdown on Catholicism in England was the only available choice.
During her reign, there were many Catholics who went underground and pretended to be Protestant on the surface to get by. It was also during her reign that the Jesuits launched a massive counter reformatory move by sending priests to England disguised in various ways in an attempt to keep the Catholic movement alive and thriving. The first Jesuits to set foot on English shores in 1580 were Edward Campion and Robert Persons and their primary objective was to encourage the faith and, most likely, the militant zeal of Catholics in England. The move worked because during Elizabeth’s reign there were many uprisings, including the famous Babington plot, which was foiled and led to the deaths of many Catholic nobles, laymen, and priests.
However, despite all of this the flavor of Protestantism in Elizabethan England lacked the fervor and zeal of its continental counterparts which were spurred on by the stalwarts in Geneva. This left many of the faithful who had been influenced by the likes of Calvin, Farel and even Luther dissatisfied and longing for a deeper Reformation within England. It was this desire that led to the rise of Puritanism in England. Regardless of the varied opinions of its proponents, one unifying factor that brought them all under the same banner was a desire to propagate a brand of Protestantism in England which went beyond a mere outward compliance. The Puritans championed a religion which would lead to heart conversion and a political system which would allow civil and religious liberty for all. It was a group of these men and women who would go on to lay the foundations of what we know today as the land of the free and the home of the brave.