Discovery and Reformation

Protestant England

Henry VIII

   England was far distant and isolated from the rest of Europe. While Protestantism tore apart European society, it took a far different form in England, retaining much of the doctrine and the practices of Catholicism. England also experienced the greatest wavering between the two religions as the monarchs of England passed from one religion to the next.

   England had, for several centuries, an uncomfortable relationship with Rome. Some of the most strident and successful reformers in the Middle Ages were English; the first translation of the Bible from Latin into a vernacular language was made in England. Two major movements in England&emdash;the Wycliffite rebellion against the church in the fourteenth century (Wycliff was the first to translate the Bible into a vernacular language) and the spread of Northern humanism&emdash;prepared the foundations for English Protestantism.

Henry VIII
by Luke Hornbelt

   The adoption of Protestantism, however, was a political rather than a religious move. King Henry VIII had originally married Catherine of Aragon; since she had been previously married to his brother, though, Henry had to get special papal dispensation for the marriage. Marrying the wife of one's brother was incest; it was almost equivalent to marrying one's sister. The marriage, however, produced no male children to occupy the throne at Henry's death. Henry began to doubt both of the marriage and the spiritual validity of the marriage. In the mid-1520's, he met and fell in love with Ann Boleyn, a lady in waiting to Catherine. He wished to annul his marriage to Catherine and marry Ann; not only did he love Ann, he feared leaving the throne of England without a male heir.

   In order to marry Ann, the marriage with Catherine had to be annulled by the pope. Circumstances, however, were working against him. First, in order to marry Catherine, he needed special papal dispensation. Annulling the marriage would imply that the first papal dispensation was in error, something the pope was not willing to admit. Second, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had recently invaded Rome and captured the pope. While the pope was allowed to stay pope, he was the virtual prisoner of Charles. The answer to Henry's request, then, was no and no again.

   When he met with failure, Henry did what every other king would do. He fired his closest advisor. This was an important move. His closest advisor on the matter was Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England. The negotiations with the papal court were largely carried out by Wolsey. When he failed, Henry dismissed and arrested him and replaced him with Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. Both these men were sympathetic to the new ideas of Martin Luther. They gave the king some radical advice: if the pope does not grant the annulment, then split the English church off from the Roman church. Rather than the pope, the king would be the spiritual head of the English church. If the King wants an annulment, then the King can grant his own annulment.

   In 1529, the English Parliament began to debate this question; this debate would occupy the English Parliament for seven years and so gave it the name, the "Reformation Parliament." It did not settle the matter all at once,but steadily granted powers over the church clergy to the king. In 1531, the clergy of England recognized Henry as the head of the church, and in 1533, Parliament passed the "Submission of the Clergy," a law which placed the clergy completely under Henry's control. In that same year Henry married Ann Boleyn, who was already pregnant with his second daughter, Elizabeth. In 1534 Parliament stopped all contributions to the Roman chuch by English clergy and lay people and, in the same year, gave Henry complete control over all church appointments. Finally, the Act of Succession declared the children of Ann Boleyn to be the heirs to the throne and officially declared the king the supreme head of the church.

   Despite all this storm of activity, the English church didn't really change. The average person going to church would see almost no change in the practices or dogma of the church. It was still for all practical purposes a Catholic church; the only real difference that anybody would notice was the use of English Bibles in the church. In 1539, Henry reaffirmed his commitment to Catholic practice by passing into law the Six Articles. These articles affirmed the transubstantiation of the Eucharist (that is, that the Eucharist was mystically transformed into the body and blood of Christ), confession, private masses, celibate vows, and the sanctity of the Eucharistic cup. The only substantive change Henry made merely involved the head of the church. The English church, however, would radically change under Henry's successor, Edward VI.

Edward VI

   Edward VI (ruled 1547-1553) was Henry's third child, born by his third wife, Jane Seymour. Edward was only a teenager when he became king, but he thoroughly sympathized with the Protestant cause. Edward and Thomas Cranmer set about turning the church of England into a thoroughly Protestant church. He repealed the Six Articles, allowed clergy to marry, and imposed Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer on all church services. He also ordered any and all images and altars to be removed from churches. Had Edward lived, England would have become a more or less Calvinist country.


   Edward, however, died only six years into his reign. He was succeeded by Mary (1553-1558), who was Henry's first child by Catherine of Aragon. Mary had been raised in France and was devoutly Catholic. When she assumed the throne of England, she declared England to be a Catholic country and assertively went about converting churches back to Catholic practices. Images and altars were returned, the Book of Common Prayer was removed, clerical celibacy was reimposed, and Eucharistic practices reaffirmed. She met opposition with steely-eyed defiance; because of the sheer number of executions of Protestant leaders, the English would eventually call her "Bloody Mary." Had she lived longer, England would probably have reverted to Catholicism for another century or so.

Elizabeth I

   Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Ann Boleyn. Henry had executed Ann as an adulterer and Elizabeth was declared a bastard child. Nevertheless, she assumed the throne in 1558 and reigned until 1603. Elizabeth was perhaps the greatest monarch in the history of England, and possibly the greatest and most brilliant monarch in European history.

   Elizabeth understood that her country was being torn apart by the warring doctrines. While she repealed Mary's Catholic legislation, she did not return to Edward's more austere Protestantism. Rather, she worked out a compromise church that retained as much as possible from the Catholic church while putting into place most of the foundational ideas of Protestantism.

   The pope excommunicated her and this created intense internal difficulties in England. For it was incumbent on any Catholic to attempt to assassinate or overthrow her if possible, and a large part of the English nobility was Catholic. Despite this, she managed to avoid assassination because of her brilliant political skills and her pervasive network of spies. The Catholic plots on her life finally met their end when she executed her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587.

   Mary was a cousin of Elizabeth's and the next in line for the English throne. She was a committed Catholic, but ruled over a country&emdash;Scotland&emdash;that had become and still is fiercely Calvinist. Catholic extremists in England understood that Elizabeth could spell the end of any hopes of a Catholic revival in England, so they began to plot Elizabeth's assassination. Mary, for her part, feeling justified by the Pope's excommunication of Elizabeth, foolishly took part in several of these plots. Elizabeth eventually brought her to trial and condemned her, reluctantly, to death.

   Elizabeth's greatest legacy was the spirit of compromise that infused her version of the Church of England. She managed to please Catholics by retaining several important aspects of Catholicism and also managed to please moderate Calvinists who wanted all traces of the Roman church to be expunged. She effected this by allowing English Calvinists (called "Puritans" because the wanted to purify the church from all Roman influences) to participate in Parliament and to set up semiautonomous congregations that practiced Calvinist doctrine but still recognized the Queen as the head of the church.

Richard Hooker

Reformation: The Counter-Reformation

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©1996, Richard Hooker

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Updated 6-6-1999