Selling indulgences


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 Protestant movement.

Tewksbury Abbey


The late Medieval Church

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Renaissance 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.
  4. 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 Lollard Bible


  1. The Lollards were followers of 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 Scripture. His rejection of transubstantiation, advocacy of clerical marriage, and denunciations of the wealth and power of the clergy, all foreshadowed Protestant ideas.
  2. Initially, John of Gaunt and other important nobles supported Wyclif but from about 1410 Lollardy became largely restricted to the artisans of South-East England.
  3. There is some evidence that Lollardy grew after 1500, but increasing evidence 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 confused.
  4. Beyond doubt, Lollardy did pave the way for Lutheranism in England.


John Colet (1467-1519)
  1. Medieval universities were dominated by clergymen debating theology and philosophy in barbarous Latin. These academics were the mediocre heirs of the great medieval philosophers Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus.
  2. Italian universities 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.
  3. In this milieu was born humanism - a movement that wanted to restore original, uncorrupted classical texts and pure language (Latin and Greek).
  4. The Christian humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More applied these ideas to Scripture, and strove to understand the Bible's real message as a basis for leading truly Christian lives. They exposed clerical ignorance and promoted educational reform.
  5. The Christian 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

Luther, a contemporary engraving by Lucas Cranach
(The inscription reads:
 Aetherna ipse suae mentis simulachra Lutherus exprimit.
At vultus cera Lucas Occiduos. MDXX
  1. 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 amongst scholars).

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. The most important doctrines put forward by Luther were:

    1. solifidianism (salvation by faith alone)

    2. rejection of papal power

    3. reduction in the number of sacraments from seven to two

    4. rejection of transubstantiation

    5. communion in both kinds (bread and wine) for laity

    6. rejection of Purgatory

    7. rejection of clerical celibacy

    8. abolition of monasteries


  6. 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.

  7. Much of Switzerland, too, turned from Catholicism but 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.

  1. Lutheran ideas reached England quickly.

    In 1521, Henry VIII published Assertio 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].


  2. 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.

    Anne Boleyn's copy of Tyndale's New Testament

  3. William Tyndale, 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 that
"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".


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Anti-clerical sentiments existed even amongst those who had neither Protestant nor Erastian beliefs.

  1. 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 into "reform".


Protestant reform

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).
The Injunctions of 1538 not only urged priest to educate their flocks and to keep efficient parish registers, but also commanded the destruction of "superstitious" images.


Conservative reaction

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 quartered.

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 Bible.


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.

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