Background: The English Reformation
16th Century Influences on the Reformation
Despite the zeal of religious reformers in Europe, England was slow to question the established Roman Catholic Church. During the reign of Henry VIII, however, the tide turned in favour of Protestantism, and by the 1600s the new Church began to have influence over the old. This is how it came about.
For much of the sixteenth century England and Scotland hated each other with all the passion of warring neighbours. Yet in 1603 a Scottish king would ascend the English throne with the connivance and general approval of the English ruling elite. This unlikely turn of events owed much to
· the eccentricities of the Welsh Tudor dynasty that had occupied the minds of the English that century:
· the determination of Henry VIII, to marry often;
· and the equal determination of his daughter, Elizabeth, not to marry at all.
· It also owed a great deal to the rise of Protestantism.
There was little that bound the English aristocracy and the Scottish king together, and although they developed a profound distaste for each other, they shared a common commitment to Protestantism.
It was a determination to preserve England as a Protestant nation that gave James VI of Scotland & I of England his opportunity, and which would be the downfall of his son Charles when his actions threatened to undermine this cherished identity.
The protestant faith would become so deeply ingrained that in the seventeenth century both nations would defend their religious identity with a passion that verged on bigotry. Yet the adoption of Protestantism was remarkably smooth compared with the difficulties of Europe.
In the sixteenth century England was a land of contrasts. Much less urban than either Germany or the Netherlands, it nevertheless possessed a thriving international trade centre in London; and in Oxford & Cambridge there were two universities of outstanding reputation even in those days. The universities, initially, would play a significant role in the early campaigns against Martin Luther.
Reign of Henry VIII
Henry VIII turned to the universities' finest theologians for arguments against the growing threat of what was seen as Lutheran heresy. This initiative would earn him the coveted title, ‘Defender of the Faith’ from a grateful Pope.
The progress of the Reformation in England was closely bound up with Henry's personal affairs. His increasing desperation to secure release from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon forced him to contemplate radical steps that went very much against the grain of his own personally cautious beliefs. All of this changed when Henry made the fateful decision to take drastic action to extricate himself from a marriage in which the absence of a male heir threatened the future of his dynasty. In rapid succession from 1532, legislation was passed through Parliament curbing the influence of the papacy in England and appointing the King as Supreme Head of the Church. Once this and the divorce were achieved, the king moved to take control over much of the Church's property through the dissolution of the monasteries.
As Henry's health failed in the last years of his life it became clear that his own actions had encouraged the growth of a powerful evangelical group within the king’s court.
Reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor
On Henry's death in 1547 the evangelical group moved quickly to establish their position in the regency government made necessary by the youth of the new king, Edward VI. So, the reign of Edward VI saw a determined attempt to introduce a full Protestant church policy into England, modelled on that of the Swiss and German reformed churches and driven on by a powerful alliance of Archbishop Cranmer and the Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector.
In the five years of Edward VI’s reign, much was achieved, including the production of two evangelical Prayer Books, a new English order of service and the stripping of the remaining Catholic paraphernalia from the churches. But time was too short for the reforms to become permanent. On Edward's death in 1553, his Catholic half-sister Mary easily reversed the changes. The only things that provoked even a half-hearted reaction from the nation were Mary's devotion to the Pope, which threatened to initiate the return to the church of former monastic property from of those who had purchased it from the crown, and her determination to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain.
English Protestantism was reduced once again to a persecuted remnant and many of its most able figures took refuge abroad, to avoid martyrdom, which was the fate of those who did not flee.
Reign of Elizabeth I
So five years later, in 1558 Elizabeth came to a troubled throne, after a period in which Catholicism had been re-established in England with little difficulty. Although the changes of Mary's reign were now reversed once more, Elizabeth and her advisors were under no illusions that many of her subjects remained obstinately attached to the old ways. It would be well into the last two decades of Elizabeth's long 45 year reign before it could be said with confidence that Protestantism was the religion of the majority in England.
The measures put in force shortly after Elizabeth's accession became much harsher. A law was enacted which provided that if any "Papist" should be found converting an Anglican or Protestant to Roman Catholicism, both would suffer death, for high treason. In December, 1591, a priest was hanged before the door of a house in Gray's Inn Fields for having said Mass there the month previously. Laws against Catholic priests were enforced with great severity after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot episode during James I's reign.
It was common for the castles and country houses of England to have some precaution to be used in the event of a surprise search by protestant enforcers. Usually there was a secret means of concealment or escape for catholic priests that could be used at a moment's notice. This often took the form of an apartments or chapel in a secluded part of the house, or in the roof space, where Mass could be celebrated with the utmost privacy and safety. Nearby there was usually an artfully contrived hiding-place, not only for the officiating priest to slip into in case of emergency, but also to provide a place where the vestments, sacred vessels, and altar furniture could be stored.
For the first decades those who opposed the religious policies of the Elizabethan government could take comfort from the insecurity of a regime led by a mature, childless Queen who obstinately refused to marry and whose nearest heir was the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Had Elizabeth died early, as she nearly did from smallpox in 1563, England too might have plunged into the same kind of religious civil war as the continent.
Given this insecurity, Elizabeth and her advisors showed remarkable leadership in addressing the complicated problems of domestic and foreign policy arising from a resurgence of Protestantism.
A Parliamentary gathering to settle religious issues in 1559 obediently reinstated the Protestant Prayer Book of Edward VI. However Elizabeth retained Bishops and ecclesiastical vestments, which many of the extreme Protestants regarded as unacceptable Catholic practices. When in 1566 Elizabeth insisted upon uniformity in clerical attire, substantial proportions of the English clergy refused to submit and were excluded. Further attempts by Parliamentary statute or subtle pressure from the bench of bishops, to move the Queen to a complete Reformation, proved equally ineffective. The Church of England would remain, in the words of its Protestant critics, 'only halfly reformed'.
By the time Elizabeth's long 45-year reign came to an end in 1603, English people had come to esteem their Church. Through a generation of conflict in which the enemy had been “foreign, Catholic and dangerous”, the English people had come to identify their Church and Protestantism, as a cornerstone of their identity. This was, however, not necessarily matched with a good grasp of The Bible. While English readers seem to have been enthusiastic consumers of cheap volumes of religious instruction, their clergy continued to regret the shallowness of their grasp of doctrine. Yet the identification with Protestantism was still very real and was reinforced by a calendar which celebrated new, Protestant festivals: plus the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the introduction of Coronation day, to mark Elizabeth's accession. In 1605 they would be joined by 5 November, the date of the discovery of the terrorist’s Gunpowder Plot. Proof, that in those days, Catholicism was still considered treacherous, deadly and deeply un-English. The introduction of Guy Fawkes' day with bonfires and fireworks is a reminder of how fresh these Reformation controversies remained in the consciousness of the people.
Start of James I Reign
To complete the process of reformation the country needed a Bible in English. King James succeeded Elisabeth and he commissioned the King James Authorised Version that you can read about later.
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