The Causes of the English Reformation
Henry VIII's break
with Rome was an act of state, promptly primarily by political
motives, but many of those who supported Henry were appalled at the
abuses rife in the Catholic Church and at the corruption of the
Papacy. Some of these went further and sympathized with the growing
The late Medieval Church
A poorly educated and underpaid clergy
provided most people's pastoral care, while a small minority of
prelates grew wealthy on the profits of pluralism, simony, and
nepotism. The sale of indulgences - which remitted the
punishment of sin in Purgatory after death to those willing to
pay in life - particularly offended reformers.
Monasteries were in a sad state of
decline. Created for those inspired to a life of work and prayer,
they had become dumping grounds for inconvenient relatives.
A few orders - Franciscan Observants, Carthusians,
Bridgettine nuns - still maintained high standards, but most
were lukewarm at best.
popes (for example the Borgia, Alexander VI and the Medici, Leo X) led lives of greed,
corruption and sensuality, and the
small taxes to Rome (annates, Peter's pence) were accordingly
resented. Cardinal Wolsey offered a home-town example of the same
patterns of conduct.
- Nonetheless, the
Church's problems should not be exaggerated. Before the Reformation
began, many English parishes were still vibrant centers of worship -
guilds, fraternities and sororities flourished; and much money was
voluntarily left for funerals and chantries (i.e. endowment of priests to say masses
for the dead).
The Lollards were
John Wyclif (c.1320-84). He argued that the Bible was the
only sure basis of belief, and that it should be translated into the vernacular.
He denied that the traditions of the church were as important as
His rejection of transubstantiation, advocacy of clerical
marriage, and denunciations of the wealth and power of the clergy,
all foreshadowed Protestant ideas.
Initially, John of
Gaunt and other important nobles supported Wyclif but from about
1410 Lollardy became largely restricted to the artisans of
There is some
evidence that Lollardy grew after 1500, but
of Lollardy may just have resulted from the ecclesiastical authorities searching harder for heresy.
Many of those accused of Lollardy may simply have been ignorant and
Beyond doubt, Lollardy did pave the way for
universities were dominated by clergymen debating theology and
philosophy in barbarous Latin. These academics were the
of the great medieval philosophers Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus.
never became as immersed in scholasticism as their Northern
counterparts. Instead, the study of medicine, law, and rhetoric/eloquence played an important part in their curricula; these studies
were based on the texts of classical antiquity.
In this milieu was
born humanism - a movement that wanted to restore original,
uncorrupted classical texts and pure language (Latin and Greek).
humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More applied
these ideas to Scripture, and strove to understand the Bible's real
as a basis for leading truly Christian lives. They exposed clerical
ignorance and promoted educational reform.
humanists' influence was limited to the small literate intellectual
elite, but they did influence reformers such as Martin Luther, whose
message was broadcast more widely.
Luther and Protestantism
Aetherna ipse suae mentis simulachra Lutherus exprimit.
vultus cera Lucas Occiduos. MDXX).
The traditional starting date for the
Reformation is 31 October 1517, on which day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg.
(This was a traditional method of inviting debate and discussion
Over the next few years, Luther attacked
more and more aspects of established Roman Catholicism -
indulgences, clerical power, clerical celibacy, the use of Latin in
church worship, the seven sacraments, transubstantiation,
and eventually papal power.
Luther put his ideas into practice and,
abandoning the monastic rule, married an ex-nun,
Katharina von Bora, who had been placed in a convent when only ten
years old. (She and Luther had six children).
He also translated the Bible into German
in record time (supposedly ten weeks). It was published in 1534, and
sold over 100,000 copies over the next forty years.
The most important doctrines put forward
by Luther were:
solifidianism (salvation by faith alone)
rejection of papal power
reduction in the number of sacraments from
seven to two
rejection of transubstantiation
communion in both kinds (bread and wine) for
rejection of Purgatory
rejection of clerical celibacy
abolition of monasteries
Luther's ideas soon spread throughout and
beyond Germany. In Scandinavia they were accepted wholesale by all
sections of society; - the princes and nobility benefiting temporally
as well as spiritually by seizing church lands.
Much of Switzerland, too, turned from
Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich differed
from Luther on some important points - especially the nature of the
Eucharist. The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli split
Protestants, and further divisions followed as Jean Calvin and his
followers took different positions on theology and ecclesiology.
Some attempts were made to reconcile the divisions amongst Protestants
and between them and the Catholic Church; Martin Bucer was important
in seeking reconciliation. But these attempts failed and the divisions
grew increasingly rigid during the 16th century.
Protestant ideas in England.
Lutheran ideas reached England quickly.
1521, Henry VIII published
septem sacramentorum (Defense of the seven
sacraments). Ghost-written by Thomas More, the pope rewarded Henry
with the title of Defensor Fidei (Defender of the Faith).
[Long after the schism from Rome, English monarchs retained the title,
and English coins still place the letters
F.D. in the monarch's title].
Lutheran books were soon brought to
England by merchants and travellers, and a Lutheran group began to
meet in Cambridge at the
White Horse Tavern.
Robert Barnes, Miles Coverdale, and Hugh Latimer
were early converts to Lutheran views.
Tyndale translated the New Testament into English while living abroad
in the years 1525-1526. In October 1536, he died for his views at the
hands of the Imperial authorities in Vilvorde, Belgium.
Other early Protestants, such as John Frith
and Thomas Bilney, met the same fate at Henry VIII's hands.
Erastianism and anticlericalism
On the eve of the
Reformation in 1529, the Imperial ambassador to England noted
"nearly all the people here hate the priests".
An Italian diplomat
wrote of the English
"raging against the clergy, or would be if the King's Majesty
were not curbing their fury".
There had always been tension between the
secular and the ecclesiastical powers in England. By the late 15th
century, the main disputes revolved around rights of sanctuary
and benefit of clergy.
Luther believed in
depriving the clergy of much of their power and placing it in the
hands of secular authorities, and some Swiss urban Protestants -
particularly Thomas Erastus - denied that the church should
exercise anything but persuasive power.
sentiments existed even amongst those who had neither Protestant nor
Yet as the modern historians, J.J.Scarisbrick
and Eamon Duffy have shown, many people willingly supported
their local priests, and had to be pressurized by central government
Within the English
court, the Protestant cause was supported by Thomas Cromwell and
Catherine Parr - Henry
VIII's last wife.
The Protestant enthusiasm of Richard Rich and Thomas Audley came a
poor second to self-serving ambition.
Three Bishops were also inclined to the
Protestant cause: Nicholas Shaxton
of Salisbury; Hugh Latimer of Worcester; and Edward Fox
of Hereford. Latimer and Shaxton were tactless radicals who alienated moderates
by their unwillingness to compromise.
The Protestant cause
in England waxed and waned with Henry VIII's changing moods and his
need for an alliance with the German Lutheran princes.
1531 Henry sent
Robert Barnes to try and obtain Luther's endorsement of his
divorce from Katherine of Aragon.
In 1536 the Ten Articles were issued - these were sufficiently
indefinite and ambiguous to be acceptable to the Lutherans. The
Thirteen Articles of 1538 were similarly unclear.
The Bishops Book
(1538) included seven sacraments (like the Catholic Church) but failed
to endorse transubstantiation (an important Catholic doctrine).
of 1538 not only urged priest to educate their flocks and to keep
efficient parish registers, but also commanded the destruction of
In 1539, Henry's fear
of invasion by France or the Holy Roman Empire decreased and with it
his desire for good relations with the Lutheran princes. He ensured
that Parliament passed the
Act of Six Articles, a conservative document that endorsed
transubstantiation and clerical celibacy.
30 July 1540, Robert
Barnes and two other Lutherans (Gerard and Jerome) were burnt for
heresy. On the same day, three Catholic priests (Abel, Featherstone,
and Powel - who had denied the Royal Supremacy) were hanged, drawn and
The Bishops Book was
altered to express far more conservative, Catholic doctrine (the
revised version became
known as the King's Book). Henry showed a real fear of
the social change that Protestant notions might provoke, and in 1543
tried to prevent those below the rank of gentry from reading the
Despite the swerve
back to Catholicism, Henry continued to protect Protestants such as
Archbishop Cranmer. He married Catherine Parr who held sincere
Protestant views, as did Edward Seymour (brother to Jane and
uncle of the future Edward VI) who became increasingly important
at court. Moreover, Henry appointed the Protestant scholars
Richard Cox, Sir John Cheke,
and Sir Anthony
Cooke as tutors to the young Edward VI.|