Chapter Three

The Reformation in England

With the above outline of the Reformation in Europe as a whole in mind, we can more readily understand how England was affected.

The English Reformation began in 1534 when King Henry VIII (1509-1547) despaired of obtaining a male heir to succeed him on the throne from his existing wife, Catherine of Aragon. Therefore, he requested Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine. Since Catherine objected and was, furthermore, the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Pope hesitated. Impatient with the delay, Henry acted by repudiating Papal authority and setting up the Anglican Church as the State Church of England with the King as "Protector and Only Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England". At the time, Henry did not intend to create a Protestant church along the lines evolving on the continent under the influence of the moderate German, Martin Luther, or more radical reformers such as the Frenchman, John Calvin. He only wanted to be the supreme head of an English Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, Protestant ideas infiltrated England and Scotland, and Protestant churches were organized, thus setting the stage for 150 years of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and between subsets of the Protestants. The details are tiresome, but tragic and of great import to the future American colonies.

Scottish Presbyterian congregations were led by the Calvinist John Knox in the 1550s. About the same time the Puritan movement, also Calvinist in origin, came to notice in England as the result of insistence by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), who was head of the Church of England, on the enforcement of uniformity in the dress of the clergy. Because the Calvinists objected to the prescribed vestments as a remnant of popery, they were called "Puritans". This was the beginning of a long and bitter confrontation between the Puritans and the English monarchs, with the Puritans continuing to press for reforms of the Church of England along Calvinist lines. They had no quarrel with official Anglican doctrine, but they wished to do away with all clergy above the rank of parish priest; abolish set prayers and elaborate rituals; and reorganize the Church as either a hierarchy of councils (Presbyterianism) or a federation of independent parishes (Congregationalism) free from state control.

Throughout the 1600s English monarchs, except for two brief, bloody and unsuccessful attempts to restore Catholicism, sought primarily to assure the supremacy of the State Church of England by enforcing conformity with Anglican doctrine and practice. At the same time, they were engaged in ominous confrontations with a Parliament that increasingly challenged the right of the King to make laws, decide legal cases, enforce religious conformity and levy taxes. Charles I, who reigned from 1625 to 1649, confronted a Parliament in 1640 which by that time had come under the control of the Puritans in spite of his efforts to suppress them.

In the ensuing Civil War Oliver Cromwell, a devout Puritan, emerged as the military leader of the Parliament's army, and Puritan soldiers proved to be the most effective of the military forces. Gradually the royalist followers of Charles I were defeated by the Parliamentary forces, called Roundheads from the close haircuts favored by the Puritans. In 1649 King Charles I was tried and condemned to death by a Parliament which in the course of the Civil War had been reduced to subservience to Cromwell and his Puritan army. The King was beheaded on 30 January 1649.

There followed a turbulent decade of autocratic rule of England, Scotland and Ireland by Cromwell during which the British Isles were declared a Republic. It was known as the "Commonwealth," and Cromwell assumed the title of Lord Protector. Ultimately, the people and the army became disillusioned with the puritanical restrictions and political dictatorship of Cromwell's regime. After he died in 1658, his son proved unable to maintain the Protectorate. As a result, the monarchy, the Church of England and the Parliament were restored in 1660, and with almost universal approval.

These changes inaugurated the period in English history known as the Restoration (1660-1688). The Puritans, while in control of the Parliament, had abolished bishops and otherwise reorganized the Anglican Church. In order to secure the support of the Scottish army, Parliament had agreed to make Presbyterianism the legal state religion of England, Scotland and Ireland. Now these "reforms" were reversed and Charles II (1660-1685), son of the executed Charles I, was proclaimed King. Legally, government and religion supposedly reverted to the status they held in 1640.

Charles II, an Anglican with Catholic leanings, died in 1685 and was succeeded on the English throne by his Catholic brother, James II (1685-1688). When a son was born to James in June 1688 and baptized into the Catholic faith, it foreshadowed a line of Catholic monarchs for England. This being unacceptable to the political leaders of England, they abandoned James and offered the throne to his grown daughter, Mary, a Protestant married to the Dutch William of Orange. James lost the ensuing military struggle and in December 1688 fled to France and the protection of Louis XIV. The English refer to this episode as the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

William of Orange became William III (1689-1702). He and his wife Mary (1689-1694) were offered the crown of England jointly and assumed the throne in 1689, but not until they had acceded to the demand of Parliament for an historic Bill of Rights that assured the preeminence of Parliament over the king in government. The Bill asserted the "true, ancient, and indubitable rights of the people"; and declared that no Roman Catholic could wear the crown. Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689 which legalized Protestant dissent and defined the rights of Nonconformists such as the Quakers, but still excluded them from political activity and public service.


The threat of Counter Reformation through a Catholic monarchy had been kept alive in England for 150 years by French and Spanish intrigue, and by hereditary accession to the throne of two Catholic sovereigns, Mary I (1553-1558) and James II (1685-1688). When Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and older half-sister to Elizabeth I, became Queen she restored the Catholic creed and the laws against heresy. Because of her relentless pursuit of heretics, many of whom were hanged and some 300 burned at the stake, she has gone down in English history as "Bloody Mary." Fortunately her reign was short. With the coming of William and Mary, the threat of deadly persecution was virtually eliminated by Parliament, and the Toleration Act greatly reduced the grounds for religious dissent and repression. The Protestant Reformation in England and Scotland was coming to a close. [14]  [15] 

With this essential background, we can now turn to consideration of how religious conflict during the English Reformation spawned the Quaker movement; and how the desire to escape religious repression led to the founding of six of the original 13 English Colonies in North America, including the Quaker state of Pennsylvania.

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Lane Medical Library, 1999