The Beginning of the English Reformation

Matthew Raphael Johnson

Johnstown, PA

I.

The Reformation, whether in England or Germany, is a well traveled topic. The impact of both movements have been immense and global in scope. This paper will deal with the beginning (and causes) of the reformation in England, including the infamous declaration of “independence” by Henry VIII, the most famed member of the Tutor house.

The major causes of the English Reformation, sometimes called the Henrican reformation, are many and varied. Some are more controversial than others. Before dealing with the causes of the Reformation (which is the inseparable with its beginning) the concept of “Reformation” in its historical context must be explained.

A “reformation” is a term used by those sympathetic to its goals. Its target was the Church of Rome, headed by a pope whose powers over the church and its property were theoretically absolute. Generally speaking, reformers were interested in using the local languages in services, breaking the clerical monopoly over church life, and, more controversially, increasing the power of the state over religious life in general.

The Reformation, especially in northern Europe, claimed that it was returning the church to its ancient order. For reformers such as Martin Luther, the ancient church was not hierarchical, had no sacraments in the Catholic sense, and based its life exclusively on the books of Scripture. These claims are well known and are shared by most reformers.

The Church of Rome vehemently protested this argument, and indeed, it is a highly problematic one. The Roman church pointed to ancient writers such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, murdered by the Romans in 99 AD, who was quite explicit on the “Real Presence” of the Eucharist, as well as the power of bishops.1 Nevertheless, the reformation, wherever it developed, made a similar set of charges against the Roman see, mostly centering around the fact that, at least in theory, the Roman pope had dictatorial control over all church related matters. Given the high level of public belief at the time, this gave the Roman pope, his cardinals and nuncio diplomats an immense amount of power relative to the time. The state could not let this go unchallenged.

This automatically means that, as the modern state is beginning to take form and centralize its structures, it will look enviously at church property, technically belonging to foreigners. Since the church owned roughly a full third of English land (normally given in gift form), the building of a modern state required that land be taken, or, more cynically, stolen from its rightful owners.

The more powerful and centralized the state became, the more it was to clash with the church,. Putting matters differently, the real issue is that there cannot be two centralized powers in one territory.2 In the east, the church, while largely independent in the canonical sphere, was subservient to the state. This only means, not that the “church” was “controlled” by the state, but rather the church maintained a subordinate position relative to political, financial or bureaucratic issues. The church was relegated to its own sphere, that of liturgizing and enforcing the canons by which the church was governed. As always, property became the main issue.

Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556)
Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556)

III.

The church in England prior to the Reformation was the same as in any other Catholic country. It was controlled, religiously speaking, by the papal nuncio, the legate of the pope in the country. In England, this was Cardinal Wolsey.3 Wolsey had nearly dictatorial powers over the church as the official representative of Rome (and hence, St. Peter) in Britain. Wolsey came to power at a time of church crisis, especially relative to the concept of “plurality,” or the non-canonical rule of more than one see by a single Bishop. Even there, bishops had bought their sees and again, had no canonical right to rule for that reason. Clerical morals, according to most sources of the era, was also very lax.4

To hold that Wolsey was not involved in reform is to be unfair. Rome was very interested in reform, recognized the problems involved, and Wolsey in particular was of a strong enough personality to make sure they occurred in Britain. Wolsey believed he had more power than he really did. He was a member of the powerful Star Chamber judiciary, but even there, the development of centralized institutions under the Tudors was making the nuncio both less popular and less powerful.

Wolsey battled with parliament. He showed a totally pro-papal and pro-French foreign policy.5 He collected taxes on papal authority, and irritated both parliament and the royal house. He had few friends other than the monasteries by the time of his fall, soon before his death in 1530. He was eventually replaced by a man more famous than he, Thomas Cranmer.

Part of the English Reformation was the growing power of the monarchy. Contrary to common argument, the concept of divine right is not medieval, but a modern (or Renaissance one). Henry, while his infamous marriages were not unimportant, thought the real issue was the position of the monarch in Christian society. Henry’s famous “Act of Supremacy” claimed the following:

Albeit, the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognized by the clergy of this realm in their Convocations. . . only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honors, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining. And that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed. . . (Tudor History)

This is quoted at length because it summarizes the political theory that lie at the root of the English Reformation, especially at its early stages. The above quote implies the following propositions:

  1. That the church is more than just the priest and bishops, it is also the laity.
  2. The laity finds its greatest and highest representation in the monarch, or the father of the realm
  3. Political powers, so long as they are not heterodox, are the creations of God for the good of man. Therefore, the church is equal to the state in matters of doctrine.
  4. The church is about preaching and liturgizing. It should not have power beyond that. Power will corrupt it.
  5. If the laity is in power, then the vulgar tongue should be used.6
  6. The church can never be an institution or community that lives a separate life from the people to which it ministers.
  7. The state is a holy institution with as much responsibility over the spiritual welfare of the people as the church has. There is, by implication, no separation between the spiritual and physical welfare of the population. They are really the same.

Early critics of the Church of Rome in England began to struggle against one of the central doctrines of the Roman church, that of transubstantiation. The conclusions of this debate weer global in significance. An early figure, John Wycliffe,7 writing at the end of the middle ages (in English) said this about the Eucharist in c. 1380:

I must request you, brother, to show still farther, from reason or Scripture, that there is no identification of the bread with the body of Christ… For I am no means pleased with the spurious writings which the moderns use, to prove an accident without a subject, because the church so teaches. Such evidence should satisfy no one. . . .First, This bread becomes corrupt, or is eaten by a mouse. Second, The same bread is the body of Christ. Third, Therefore the body of Christ does thus become corrupt, and is thus eaten; – and thus you are involved in inconsistency (Wycliffe, 1380)

For secular people, this seems an absurd debate. For the church of Rome and its millions of followers, however, this is the essence of life, death and heaven. The argument made above is one of the earliest “modern” attacks on the doctrine, and it was referenced again and again by the later reformation in England. It is not as if transubstantiation was completely removed from the theology8 (even Luther found a limited place for the “real presence”) but that the purely philosophical way of approaching it was rejected.

The entire core of the church, at least from a social point of view, was its control over the sacraments. This is a crucial divide for understanding the English reformation and why it took the course it did. The issue is this: if the sacraments, especially that of the liturgy, is false (or does not mean what the papacy thinks its means), than the monopoly of the clergy on liturgical functions is illegitimate. While there has always been a good theological argument for transubstantiation, many people cannot “wrap their minds” around such a radical, and invisible, change.9

The broader point is that only a priest, ordained by a bishop and maintaining communication with him, is capable of making transubstantiation come about. Even by himself, a priest can make this happen. The people have no role in it except as adorers. If this sacrament is false, then the priesthood has no real purpose. A priest can then just be a pastor, rather than the master magician over the sacramental life. If the priest is superfluous in this realm, then the people, not the priest, are at the center of life. The priest is not absolutely necessary if the sacraments are untrue, except as a pastor,. The development of this idea was extremely crucial throughout the reformation in England and Germany.

IV.

The two ideas, the earlier arguments from Wycliffe and the later views of Henry VIII, all summarize both the causes and the ideology of the early English Reformation. Writers like Wycliffe are absolutely essential for this essay largely because it was so early and, soon, became the patron of the English Reformation. In fact, the very existence of a Wycliffe, writing so early on such a central topic, may even be a strong foreshadowing of the English Reformation soon to develop. In other words, while the theology of Wycliffe might have been gaining in popularity, it was the property and discipline issues of the church that forced these issues to center stage.10

This far, there is a clear fallacy in the English reformation. It seems that the disciplinary problems of the clergy (things like plurality and simony) are not connected to doctrine. It seems that the plundering of the monasteries, which came directly out of the reformation, provided a material cause that overthrows any worry about doctrinal questions like transubstantiation. This implies several things: First, That the historian or theologian cannot separate the financial motives for the reformation from any theology. It was not lost on Henry, Wolsey or Cranmer that the removal of the monasteries from paper control meant that the state would have a free hand in expropriating these great properties.

Secondly, that the monasteries were probably the only allies that the elite papal party had. There is little question that the church itself was popular, there is equally little question that the forces arrayed against he church, both parliament and the monarchy (maybe even the towns11) wanted the Roman connection to cease.12

Third, that the papal party had to deal with the reality that money was leaving the country to go to Rome. Taxes, called “Peter’s pence” were collected by the local ordinary and sent to Rome, and finally, that the connection with Rome was a problem even for non-financial reasons, since the papacy’s love of Spain was not exactly a secret. Without exaggeration, many English nationalists of the time (and there were many) may have put together the reality that a French-Irish-Spanish13 alliance against England would be a disaster. Add the Holy Roman Empire to that (which, of course, also includes Spain as a Hapsburg property), and England would be surrounded by hostile forces.14

In other words, England could not pursue her interests (exploding into an empire under Elizabeth) had she remained just another cog in the papacy’s wheel. If England and Spain were to fight it out (and it seemed inevitable), then a break with Rome was necessary.

V.

Immediately after the death of Henry VIII, Edward and the early writers in the protestant movement in Britain wrote, in what is called the “Royal Injunctions”

[T]o the intent that all superstition and hypocrisy, crept into divers men’s hearts, may vanish away, bishops shall not set forth or extol any images, relics, or miracles, for any superstition or lucre, nor allure the people by any enticements to the pilgrimage of any saint or image: but reproving the same, they shall teach that all goodness, health and grace, ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as of the very author and giver of the same, and of none other. (Injunction 1b)

That such images as they know in any of their cures to be or have been abused with pilgrimage or offering of anything made thereunto, or shall be hereafter censed unto, they (and none other private persons) shall for the avoiding of that most detestable offense of idolatry, forthwith take down, or cause to be taken down and destroy the same; and shall suffer from henceforth no torches nor candles, tapers or images of wax to be set afore any image or picture (Injunction 3a)15

All of these ideas lay at the root of the reformation,. This is not to say that the entire object was theological While that was very important, more so than anything else, it does not exhaust the purposes and causes of the English reformation, especially at its very early stages.

Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer believed in royal supremacy, he wanted to rewrite the liturgy, he excommunicate the pope from his metropolitan see in Canterbury, he was a full absolutist, holding that the state derives from God, not just the church. An excellent writer, Cranmer, in his the Kings Book (1538) “A Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man; Set Forth by the King’s Majesty of England,”

These benefits of God with innumerable other, whosoever expendeth, and well pondereth in his heart, and thereby conceiveth a firm trust and feeling of God’s mercy, whereof springeth in his heart a warm love and fervent heat of zeal towards God, it is not possible but that he shall fall to work, and be ready to the performance of all such works as he knoweth to be acceptable unto God. And these works only which follow our justification, do please God; for so much as they proceed from an heart endued with pure faith and love to God. But the works which we do before our justification, be not allowed and accepted before God, although they appear never so good and glorious in the sight of man. For after our justification only begin we to work as the law of God requireth. . . (Cranmer, 1538)

This is one of the clearest manifestations of Reformation doctrine. In England, the reformation was very conservative. The Anglican church, while disapproving of papal doctrines such as purgatory (and hence the indulgences it requires), oral confession and papal supremacy, remained a sacramentally based church. One difference, as intimated by nearly all the citations above, that the people, the sate, and their social institutions are as much part of the church as the bishops. This is crucial.

To conclude, the early reformation in England was based on a few things. Primarily, it was based on a theory of imperial ideology that held the state, now developing into a centralized set of institutions, was an equal to the church since the state was natural, appointed directly from the Trinity, and in charge of the moral health of the people.

It cannot be ignored that the success16 of the reformation meant that a massive amount of landed properly would go to the state and its hangers on. The roman church made no mistake about that – Wolsey knew that as much as anyone. This cannot be used to cover over the fact that the reformation was about theology – what God expects of man, and even the state. The state’s power expanded for many reasons, but one important one was the religious: the social order is as much a creation of God as the church.

 


 

Bibliography

 

Primary Sources:

Tutor History. From the Act of Supermacy of Henry VIII, 1534

From Tudor History: (http://tudorhistory.org/primary/supremacy.html)

Cranmer, T. Necessary Doctrine. Christian Classics Liberary. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/cranmer/doctrine/files/doctrine.html

Injunctions: The Royal Injunctions of Edward VI (Transc. Grafton’s Edition, 1547). Cited inW. H. Frere and W. P. M. Kennedy, eds.,Visitation Articles and Injunctions: Volume II: 1536-1557(London: Longmans Green & Company, 1910), 114-116, 124-126.

Wycliffe, J. On Communion. Modern History Sourcebook. Fordham University, British Reformation: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/wyclif-reform.asp

Secondary Sources:

O’Connor, J.B. 1910. St. Ignatius of Antioch. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Duffy, E. The English Reformation After Revisionism. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Fall 2006), pp. 720-731

Bruce, S. The Pervasive World-View: Religion in Pre-Modern Britain. The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 667-680

Rosendale, T. 2001.”Fiery toungues:” Language, Liturgy, and the Paradox of the English Reformation. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4, Part 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 1142-1164

Fix, A. Radical Reformation and Second Reformation in Holland: The Intellectual Consequences of the Sixteenth-Century Religious Upheaval and the Coming of a Rational World View. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 63-80

Bernard , G. W. The Making of Religious Policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the Middle Way. The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 321-349

Smith , Preserved. Luther and Henry VIII. The English Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 100 (Oct., 1910), pp. 656-669

Boyle , Marjorie O’Rourke. Erasmus’ Prescription for Henry VIII: Logotherapy. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 161-172

Lockyer, R. Todor and Stuart Britain. St. Martin’s 1985

Smith,L.B. Henry VIII and the Protestant Triumph. The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Jul., 1966), pp. 1237-1264

Marius, R.C. Henry VIII, Thomas More, and the Bishop of Rome. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 10, Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More (1978), pp. 89-107

Rex, R. The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation. The Historical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 863-894

Aston, M. John Wycliffe’s Reformation Reputation. Past & Present, No. 30 (Apr., 1965), pp. 23-51

Tittler , Robert. For the “Re-Edification of Townes”: The Rebuilding Statutes of Henry VIII. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 591-605

Parker, Geoffrey. Success and Failure during the First Century of the Reformation. Past & Present, No. 136 (Aug., 1992), pp. 43-82

Ellis, S. G. The Kildare Rebellion and the Early Henrician Reformation. The Historical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1976), pp. 807-830


Endnotes

1O’Connor, J.B. 1910. St. Ignatius of Antioch. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

2Steve Bruce. The Pervasive World-View: Religion in Pre-Modern Britain. The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 667-680

3Andrew Fix. Radical Reformation and Second Reformation in Holland: The Intellectual Consequences of the Sixteenth-Century Religious Upheaval and the Coming of a Rational World View. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 63-80 (This is an important work because it deals with political and social foundations for the reformation throughout Europe).

4 Eamon Duffy The English Reformation After Revisionism. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Fall 2006), pp. 720-731

5Lockyer, R. Tudor and Stuart Britain. St. Martin’s 1985, pg 30

6Timothy Rosendale. “Fiery toungues:” Language, Liturgy, and the Paradox of the English Reformation. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4, Part 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 1142-1164

7Also see Margaret Aston. John Wycliffe’s Reformation Reputation. Past & Present, No. 30 (Apr., 1965), pp. 23-51, for a detailed treatment of Wycliffe’s later reputation.

8G. W. Bernard. The Making of Religious Policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the Middle Way. The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 321-349

9Preserved Smith. Luther and Henry VIII. The English Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 100 (Oct., 1910), pp. 656-669

10 Richard C. Marius. Henry VIII, Thomas More, and the Bishop of Rome. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 10, Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More (1978), pp. 89-107

11 Robert Tittler. For the “Re-Edification of Townes”: The Rebuilding Statutes of Henry VIII. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 591-605

12 Richard Rex. The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation. The Historical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 863-894

13 Steven G. Ellis. The Kildare Rebellion and the Early Henrician Reformation. The Historical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1976), pp. 807-830

14 Lacey Baldwin Smith. Henry VIII and the Protestant Triumph. The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Jul., 1966), pp. 1237-1264

15The Royal Injunctions of Edward VI (Transc. Grafton’s Edition, 1547). Cited inW. H. Frere and W. P. M. Kennedy, eds.,Visitation Articles and Injunctions: Volume II: 1536-1557(London: Longmans Green & Company, 1910), 114-116, 124-126.

16 Geoffrey Parker. Success and Failure during the First Century of the Reformation. Past & Present, No. 136 (Aug., 1992), pp. 43-82

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