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Tremors - Reformation & Counter-reformation England

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

Henry VIII's desire for divorce sparks a reformation in England

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Tudor ships at sea

Henry VIII (1509- 1547)

All medieval monarchs dreaded dying without a male heir and by 1527, Henry's marriage to Katharine of Aragon had produced only one daughter, Mary, in 1516. Already infatuated with Anne Boleyn and desperate to secure the Tudor succession, Henry requested a divorce from Pope Clement VII so that he could marry his new amour. However, by the late 1520s, Pope Clement was militarily and politically dependent on Katharine's nephew (Emperor Charles V) and was unable to grant Henry's request.

Infuriated by the Pope's refusal, Henry resolved on a drastic solution. If the Supreme Head of the established church would not grant him the divorce, Henry would authorise his own divorce by setting up a national English (Anglican) church with himself as head. During 1533- 34, Henry divorced Katharine, married Anne, fathered a second daughter (Elizabeth) and broke with Rome through passage of the Royal Supremacy Act. England was no longer part of the Catholic church.

The divorce with Rome was reinforced by several measures over the next four years which introduced a limited form of Protestantism into England. The Ten Articles of 1536 acknowledged only three sacraments (baptism, penance, the eucharist) while Thomas Cromwell's Injunctions of the same year banned some Saints' days and holy days and asserted the primacy of scripture. An English language Bible was made available in 1537 and clerical marriage was approved. Between 1536- 40, the monastic houses and religious orders were dissolved, enriching the crown by approximately £100,000 p.a. England was on the pathway to Protestantism.

However, 1538 represented the high watermark of Henry's Reformation as, over the next few years, he passed a number of acts which effectively contradicted many of the reforms of 1534- 38. The Six Articles of 1539 confirmed traditional transubstantiation, approved of confession and prohibited clerical marriage. Heresy became a felony offence with the death penalty recommended for those who denied conventional transubstantiation. The 1543 Act for the Advancement of True Religion limited access to the vernacular Bible to the rich and noble. Protestantism was in retreat.

Henry's motives for this reversal may have been rooted in the Catholicism of his youth and pre-divorce adulthood. In 1521, he had actually produced a religious tract which had denounced Luther and upheld the traditional seven sacraments, earning him the title 'Defender of the Faith' from Pope Leo X. This title is still used by British monarchs today. The fall of Thomas Cromwell (his pro- Protestant leading adviser), the ageing process and some muted opposition to the religious change may have reinforced Henry's conservatism.

At any rate, England was less than completely Protestant when Henry died in 1547 to be succeeded by his son, Edward VI.

Edward VI (1547- 1553)

Whereas Henry had been raised a Catholic, Edward was born into a Protestant environment and (along with his advisers) began to push England towards a more radical form of Protestantism, closer to continental Calvinism, during his short reign.

On ascending the throne, Edward repealed the Six Articles of 1539 and heresy was no longer a felony. For a time, England became a home for some of the most radical continental reformers (Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli). The Edwardian Prayer Book of 1552 declared that Christ participated in the Eucharist in a symbolic or commemorative sense only, while the 42 Articles of 1553 endorsed justification by faith alone and the primacy of scripture, while repudiating conventional transubstantiation and purgatory. Clerical marriage was permitted, images and altars were discouraged, and Protestant bishops replaced Catholic ones.

Edward died in January 1553 and was succeeded by his Catholic half- sister, Mary Tudor.


Mary Tudor (1553- 1558)

Mary Tudor's religious policies reveal the extent to which the personal views of early modern monarchs could affect the entire nation. Whereas Henry and Edward had pushed England towards Protestantism, Mary Tudor tried to reverse this strategy and return to Rome. Indeed, as the Catholic daughter of the Spanish Catholic Katharine of Aragon, Mary may be regarded as the discarded Queen's revenge on her husband's religious innovations.

On succeeding to the throne, Mary rescinded the Edwardian Prayer Book, restored the links to Rome, replaced Protestant bishops with Catholic ones and prohibited clerical marriage. Transubstantiation was upheld and images and altars returned. This trend accelerated following the defeat of Wyat's rebellion and Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain in July 1554.

However, Mary is best remembered for her brutal persecution of Protestant 'heretics' or martyrs during her reign. In total, almost 300 were burned at the stake (including Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley) and this earned her the sobriquet 'Bloody Mary'. This strategy failed to return England to Catholicism but it did forever associate Catholicism with brutal and bloody persecution in the public mind.

Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.

Henry VIII and his servant

Contrary and capricious, Henry VIII's expansive personality sits at the heart of the English Reformation. An enthusiastic sportsman and musician, this aspiring intellectual despatched wives and political opponents with callous brutality. The one - time Catholic 'defender of the faith' initiated England's break with Rome but later reversed some of his own reforms.



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