English Reformation

The English Reformation was a series of events in 16th century England by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were, in part, associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that affected the practice of Christianity across western and central Europe during this period. Many factors contributed to the process: the decline of feudalism and the rise of nationalism, the rise of the common law, the invention of the printing press and increased circulation of the Bible, and the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among scholars, the upper and middle classes and readers in general. However, the various phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accommodated itself.

Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage (first requested of Pope Clement VII in 1527), the English Reformation was at the outset more of a political affair than a theological dispute. The reality of political differences between Rome and England allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore.[1] Until the break with Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the Church that decided doctrine. Church law was governed by canon law with final jurisdiction in Rome. Church taxes were paid straight to Rome, and the Pope had the final word in the appointment of bishops.

The break with Rome was effected by a series of acts of Parliament passed between 1532 and 1534, among them the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which declared that Henry was the "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England".[2] (This title was renounced by Mary I in 1553 in the process of restoring papal jurisdiction; when Elizabeth I reasserted the royal supremacy in 1559, her title was Supreme Governor.)[2] Final authority in doctrinal and legal disputes now rested with the monarch, and the papacy was deprived of revenue and the final say on the appointment of bishops.

The theology and liturgy of the Church of England became markedly Protestant during the reign of Henry's son Edward VI largely along lines laid down by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Under Mary, the whole process was reversed and the Church of England was again placed under papal jurisdiction. Soon after, Elizabeth reintroduced the Protestant faith but in a more moderate manner. The structure and theology of the church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations.

The violent aspect of these disputes, manifested in the English Civil Wars, ended when the last Roman Catholic monarch, James II, was deposed, and Parliament asked William III and Mary II to rule jointly in conjunction with the English Bill of Rights in 1688 (in the "Glorious Revolution"), from which emerged a church polity with an established church and a number of non-conformist churches whose members at first suffered various civil disabilities that were removed over time. The legacy of the past Roman Catholic Establishment remained an issue for some time, and still exists today. A substantial minority remained Roman Catholic in England, and in an effort to disestablish it from British systems, their church organisation remained illegal until the 19th century.

Background

Henry VIII: marriages and desire for a male heir

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. Attributed to Joannes Corvus, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Henry VIII ascended the English throne in 1509 at the age of 17. He made a dynastic marriage with Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother Arthur, in June 1509, just before his coronation on Midsummer's Day. Unlike his father, who was secretive and conservative, the young Henry appeared the epitome of chivalry and sociability. An observant Roman Catholic, he heard up to five masses a day (except during the hunting season); of "powerful but unoriginal mind", he let himself be influenced by his advisors from whom he was never apart, by night or day. He was thus susceptible to whoever had his ear.[3]

This contributed to a state of hostility between his young contemporaries and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. As long as Wolsey had his ear, Henry's Roman Catholicism was secure: in 1521, he had defended the Roman Catholic Church from Martin Luther's accusations of heresy in a book he wrote—probably with considerable help from the conservative Bishop of Rochester John Fisher[4]—entitled The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, for which he was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" (Fidei Defensor) by Pope Leo X. (Successive English and British monarchs have retained this title to the present, even after the Anglican Church broke away from Roman Catholicism, in part because the title was re-conferred by Parliament in 1544, after the split.) Wolsey's enemies at court included those who had been influenced by Lutheran ideas,[5] among whom was the attractive, charismatic Anne Boleyn.

Anne arrived at court in 1522 as maid of honour to Queen Catherine, having spent some years in France being educated by Queen Claude of France. She was a woman of "charm, style and wit, with will and savagery which made her a match for Henry."[6] Anne was a distinguished French conversationalist, singer, and dancer. She was cultured and is the disputed author of several songs and poems.[7] By the late 1520s, Henry wanted his marriage to Catherine annulled. She had not produced a male heir who survived longer than two months, and Henry wanted a son to secure the Tudor dynasty.

Before Henry's father (Henry VII) ascended the throne, England had been beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown. Henry wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession.[8] Catherine of Aragon's only surviving child was Princess Mary.

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was "blighted in the eyes of God".[9] Catherine had been his late brother's wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her (Leviticus 20:21);[10] a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been needed to allow the wedding in the first place.[11] Henry argued that this had been wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, but the Pope refused. According to Canon Law the Pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. Clement also feared the wrath of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops earlier that year had sacked Rome and briefly taken the Pope prisoner.[12]

The combination of his "scruple of conscience" and his captivation by Anne Boleyn made his desire to rid himself of his Queen compelling.[13] The indictment of his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 for praemunire (taking the authority of the Papacy above the Crown), and subsequent death in November 1530 on his way to London to answer a charge of high treason[14] left Henry open to the opposing influences of the supporters of the Queen and those who sanctioned the abandonment of the Roman allegiance, for whom an annulment was but an opportunity.

Parliamentary debate and legislation

In 1529 the king summoned Parliament to deal with annulment, thus bringing together those who wanted reform but who disagreed what form it should take; it became known as the Reformation Parliament. There were Common lawyers who resented the privileges of the clergy to summon laity to their courts;[15] there were those who had been influenced by Lutheran evangelicalism and were hostile to the theology of Rome; Thomas Cromwell was both. Henry's Chancellor, Thomas More, successor to Wolsey, also wanted reform: he wanted new laws against heresy.[16]

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (c. 1485–1540), Henry VIII's chief minister 1532–40.

Cromwell was a lawyer and a member of Parliament—a Protestant who saw how Parliament could be used to advance the Royal Supremacy, which Henry wanted, and to further Protestant beliefs and practices Cromwell and his friends wanted.[17] One of his closest friends was Thomas Cranmer, soon to be Archbishop.

In the matter of the annulment, no progress seemed possible. The Pope seemed more afraid of Emperor Charles V than of Henry. Anne and Cromwell and their allies wished simply to ignore the Pope, but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that Parliament could not empower the archbishop to act against the Pope's prohibition. Henry thus resolved to bully the priests.[18]

Actions by the king against English clergy

Having brought down his Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII finally resolved to charge the whole English clergy with praemunire to secure their agreement to his annulment. The Statute of Praemunire, which forbade obedience to the authority of the Pope or of any foreign rulers, enacted in 1392, had been used against individuals in the ordinary course of court proceedings. Now Henry, having first charged Queen Catherine's supporters, Bishops John Fisher, Nicholas West and Henry Standish and Archdeacon of Exeter, Adam Travers, decided to proceed against the whole clergy.[19] Henry claimed £100,000 from the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church of England for their pardon, which was granted by the Convocation on 24 January 1531. The clergy wanted the payment spread over five years. Henry refused. The Convocation responded by withdrawing their payment altogether, and demanded Henry fulfill certain guarantees before they would give him the money. Henry refused these conditions. He agreed only to the five-year period of payment and added five articles that specified that:

  1. The clergy recognise Henry as the "sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England"[20]
  2. The King had spiritual jurisdiction
  3. The privileges of the Church were upheld only if they did not detract from the royal prerogative and the laws of the realm
  4. The King pardoned the clergy for violating the statute of praemunire, and
  5. The laity were also pardoned.

Further legislative acts

In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher championed Catherine and the clergy; he had inserted into the first article, the phrase "...as far as the word of God allows..."[21] In Convocation, however, Archbishop Warham requested a discussion but was met by a stunned silence; then Warham said, "He who is silent seems to consent," to which a clergyman responded, "Then we are all silent." The Convocation granted consent to the King's five articles and the payment on 8 March 1531.

That same year Parliament passed the Pardon to Clergy Act 1531.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury and editor and co-author of the first and second Books of Common Prayer.

The breaking of the power of Rome proceeded little by little. In 1532, Cromwell brought before Parliament the Supplication Against the Ordinaries, which listed nine grievances against the Church, including abuses of power and Convocation's independent legislative power. Finally, on 10 May, the King demanded of Convocation that the Church renounce all authority to make laws. On 15 May, the Submission of the Clergy was subscribed, which recognised Royal Supremacy over the church so that it could no longer make canon law without royal licence—i.e., without the King's permission—thus emasculating it as a law-making body. (The Parliament subsequently passed this in 1534 and again in 1536.) The day after this, More resigned as Chancellor, leaving Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. (Cromwell never became Chancellor. His power came—and was lost—through his informal relations with Henry.)

Several Acts of Parliament then followed. The Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates proposed that the clergy pay no more than 5% of their first year's revenue (annates) to Rome. This was initially controversial, and required that Henry visit the House of Lords three times to browbeat the Commons.[22]

The Act in Restraint of Appeals, drafted by Cromwell, apart from outlawing appeals to Rome on ecclesiastical matters, declared that

This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporality, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.[23]

This declared England an independent country in every respect. English historian Geoffrey Elton called this Act an "essential ingredient" of the "Tudor revolution" in that it expounded a theory of national sovereignty.[24] The Act in Absolute Restraint of Annates outlawed all annates to Rome, and also ordered that if cathedrals refused the King's nomination for bishop, they would be liable to punishment by praemunire. Finally in 1534 the Acts of Supremacy made Henry "supreme head in earth of the Church of England" and disregarded any "usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority [or] prescription".[25]

Thomas More, with John Fisher the leader of political resistance against the break with Rome. Both were executed in 1535.

Meanwhile, having taken Anne to France on a pre-nuptial honeymoon, Henry married her in Westminster Abbey in January 1533. This was made easier by the death of Archbishop Warham, a strong opponent of an annulment. Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer as his successor as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was prepared to grant the annulment[26] of the marriage to Catherine as Henry required, going so far as to pronounce the judgment that Henry's marriage with Catherine was against the law of God on 23 May.[27] Anne gave birth to a daughter, Princess Elizabeth, in September 1533. The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry and Cranmer from the Roman Catholic Church (11 July 1533).[28] Henry was excommunicated again in December 1538.

Consequently, in the same year the Act of First Fruits and Tenths transferred the taxes on ecclesiastical income from the Pope to the Crown. The Act Concerning Peter's Pence and Dispensations outlawed the annual payment by landowners of one penny to the Pope. This Act also reiterated that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope.[29]

In case any of this should be resisted, Parliament passed the Treasons Act 1534, which made it high treason punishable by death to deny Royal Supremacy. The following year, Thomas More and John Fisher were executed under this legislation. Finally, in 1536, Parliament passed the Act against the Pope's Authority, which removed the last part of papal authority still legal. This was Rome's power in England to decide disputes concerning Scripture.

Other Languages