Unit 1 - The Church of England in the Sixteenth Century

The Church of England might eventually have come into being because the Church in England had long been idiosyncratic-distant from Rome and from the mainstream of Roman Catholicism, dominated by wealthy laymen, occasionally subject to civil courts, full of financially and sometimes intellectually independent clerics. But larger events hastened its birth. In the early sixteenth century, the population of England was recovering from losses caused by the Black Death. The English language was evolving rapidly. Schools were more numerous than ever, and perhaps half the people could read. More profitable woolen cloth was replacing raw wool as the chief export. Land-poor noblemen were busily enclosing common areas and evicting tenants in order to raise more sheep. As they grew wealthier, noblemen gave up plotting and warring and turned to commerce. English mercantile and territorial ambitions therefore expanded. With affluence came inflation-the price of wheat trebled between 1450 and 1550.

Henry VII, ultimate victor in the Wars of the Roses and first Tudor monarch, held the burgeoning country together with pragmatic governance. He united the houses of Lancaster and York, and later pacified Scotland, by marriage. For a cash settlement he relinquished several ancient claims to French territory. He disbanded private armies and defeated the Yorkist pretenders with minimal violence. He reorganized the courts and extended the rule of law to every part of his kingdom except Wales. In the first orderly succession since 1422, his son Henry VIII took over the makings of a modern nation-state.

But notwithstanding its distinctiveness, the English Church was a relic of the Middle Ages. It had failed to allocate resources in accordance with changes in the population, leaving many parishes nearly empty and many crowded parishes with too few priests. It was a stagnant pool of wealth, a venal and ritualistic institution inadequate to the needs of its increasingly sophisticated communicants. The Lollards, an heretical sect founded in the late fourteenth century partially on the teachings of John Wycliffe and driven underground in the early fifteenth, revived, especially in the growing middle class, and found common cause with Cambridge reformer Thomas Bilney and followers of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. So much of the English clergy had been under lay control for so long that the whole Church was ripe for cooption by the state. A national Church could not have survived in England had social, economic, and intellectual ferment not already turned many faithful away from Rome.

The Break

In 1509, the year he ascended the throne, Henry VIII received papal dispensation to marry his elder brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. He also engaged the services of Thomas Wolsey, who for a time virtually ruled in his stead. Wolsey built a collection of secular and ecclesiastical titles unusual even in England-lord chancellor, Archbishop of York, cardinal legate, and so on. At the height of his power he merged Church and state in his own person. His high-handedness earned him many enemies. His meddling in Continental affairs created an imbalance of power. Without English involvement, Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) defeated France and brought the Pope to heel. Even so Wolsey might have stayed in favor had Henry not decided at an ebb of English prestige to divorce the Emperor's aunt.

Henry was evidently motivated not only by romantic love, but also by his perceived necessity of having a male heir to the throne of England. Being educated and pious, he knew Leviticus 20:21 (" If a man takes his brother's wife...they shall be childless"). He seems to have believed-or convinced himself-that his lack of a legitimate son was a divine penalty unmitigated by papal winking. Catherine, now past childbearing age, had borne him only a daughter, Mary. Henry's mistress Anne Boleyn was presumably fertile, but she insisted on marriage, and apparent impossibility, and Henry was pleased to indulge her. For three years Wolsey tried to enlist France in a scheme to free the papacy from imperial domination so that the Pope might gracefully accede to Henry's demands. The Pope meanwhile sought an arrangement acceptable to emperor and king. All their efforts failed, and Wolsey died in 1529 en route to his trial for treason.

Henry took a series of steps to sever all ties with Rome. At his behest Parliament replaced papal with royal authority gradually, by means of 137 statutes passed between 1529 and 1536. Although his unilateral divorce and remarriage, made necessary by Anne's pregnancy, would have complicated his return to the Catholic fold, he might have repaired relations with Rome right up to passage of the Act of Supremacy (1534), which declared that the English monarch had always been "Supreme Head of the Church of England." Henry did not seize the papacy, as Charles V and others had done. Unlike Luther and some German princes who had taken advantage of the Reformation by naming themselves "supreme bishop" of their several realms, he left most dogmas intact. Revolt was his aim, not revolution.

Once on his new course, however, Henry followed it with the single-mindedness of a revolutionary and killed many objectors, including Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Urged on by his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Henry began in 1536 to shut down all such institutions and quickened his pace after the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in the North nearly dethroned him. In four brutal years he dissolved every monastery, convent, and chantry in England and confiscated their assets, doubling his annual income. Henry owed his newly discovered spiritual authority to Parliament. Had he kept the monastic lands, he might have been wealthy enough to rule without Parliamentary appropriations. But he sold numerous tracts to the gentry in order to finance a useless war with Scotland (1542) and other projects. Because Henry and his successors continued to depend on Parliament, England eventually became the model of constitutional monarchy.

Henry's personal faith seldom strayed farther from Catholic orthodoxy than politics required. After he had jettisoned his first wife, the Pope, and Latin Mass, he desired little further change in doctrine of liturgy. But many of his subjects had lived with-or in-an heretical subculture, Lollard or Protestant. All had seen a king upend the Vicar of Christ, compel monks to marry nuns, and embark on his own series of scandalous marital experiments. So they were bound to question the number of sacraments, the existence of purgatory, and nearly everything else that came to mind. Protestantism flourished despite royal disapproval, and Henry vacillated. In 1536-1537 he issued the Lutheran Ten Articles and Bishop's Book; in 1538, the Great Bible, a new English translation; in 1539 and 1543, the Catholic-learning Six Articles and King's Book, respectively.

The Deluge

Henry's nine-year-old son, Edward VI (by his third wife, Jane Seymour), succeeded him in 1547. Ruling as lord protector, the boy's uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, relaxed controls on religious dissent and set off raucous debate. In order to restore a measure of uniformity, he persuaded Parliament in 1549 to require use of Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Peasants in Cornwall, Devon, and Norfolk immediately rose up against the Prayer Book as well as inflation, enclosure, eviction, and ruinous war with Scotland and (by now) France. Before the year ended, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland broke off the war and turned to erasing the last traces of Catholicism. He imprisoned conservative bishops, issued a clearly Protestant second edition of the Prayer Book (1552), replaced church altars with tables, simplified clerical vestments, and pushed a harsher Act of Uniformity through Parliament. He further inflamed popular anger by plundering church resources and, after Edward's death (1553), maneuvering his own daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, onto the throne. Given the unpalatable choice between two queens, the people supported Mary Tudor. Northumberland and his puppet were soon imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Mere rumors that Mary intended to wed her Catholic first cousin Philip II of Spain and re-establish the Catholic Church caused a revolt in Kent, but she proceeded to do both. Scores of leading Protestants fled to Geneva and other havens on the Continent, where they came under the influence of Calvinism. Cranmer and some 300 others were martyred in the Smithfield Fires. Mary's marriage to a Hapsburg Prince further embroiled England in the continuing struggle between France and the Holy Roman Empire. In five years, England lost a great deal, including Calais, her last piece of France. When "Bloody" Mary Tudor died childless in 1558, England rejoiced to be rid of her, if not to get her twenty-five-year-old half-sister in the bargain.

Elizabeth I quickly disestablished Roman Catholicism once and for all. The Elizabethan Settlement (1559) was her attempt to replace both the Catholic Church and her father's Church of England with a coherent "reformed Catholicism," Roman in most doctrines, but national in organization and worship. Her new Act of Supremacy made her "Supreme Governor," not "Supreme Head," of the Church of England. Her Act of Uniformity restored the Book of Common Prayer as the liturgical standard. In 1571 she made the Thirty-Nine Articles the doctrinal standard. Recognizing the ability of "zely people" (fervent Protestants and Catholics) to frighten one another into supporting her moderate approach, Elizabeth replaced numerous bishops with clerics radicalized by exile on the continent. Although they and the more-extreme Puritans preferred the simplicity and "purity" of the first-century church and theocracy of Geneva, memories of Mary Tudor's excesses kept them from undermining the status quo. Elizabeth's great popularity and her skill in playing zealots against one another allowed her to keep the several church parties in dynamic balance.


Religion colored nearly every issue for the remainder of Elizabeth's forty-five year reign. In 1568 Elizabeth's cousin Mary Stuart, Catholic queen of Protestant Scotland, sought asylum in England. Elizabeth prudently placed her under house arrest. Protestant extremists saw her as another Bloody Mary and plotted her death. Catholics saw Mary as the rightful ruler of England. In 1569 northern earls led a Catholic rebellion. Queen Mary Tudor's widower, Phillip II, whom Elizabeth had rejected as a suitor, saw Mary Stuart as a means of restoring England to orthodoxy and forging an alliance against France. Mary Queen of Scots had been raised in France, and the French saw her as a means of tipping the scales against Spain. By 1587 Protestants in Elizabeth's government had steered her into a position in which she had no choice but to execute Mary.

Foreign affairs became an extension of religious conflict. Desire to stamp out Protestantism partially inspired Spain to send Jesuit provocateurs to England, launch the Armada, and perform other unfriendly acts. Missionary zeal helped revive English interest in New World colonies and caused England to give military support to Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands.

Elizabeth's lack of a husband or an heir also took on religious overtones. Beginning in 1566 Parliament presumed to demand that she either marry and produce a Protestant heir or appoint a Protestant successor.

Such intrusions were to be expected, for Henry VIII had granted, and Elizabeth had endorsed, the right of Commons to discuss any matter, including the church, without limit. Protestant extremists therefore used Parliament to push reform of church and state beyond the lines that Elizabeth had drawn. John Field and Thomas Wilcox published their Admonition to the Parliament (1572) advocating "the restitution of religion and reformation of God's church." When Elizabeth, fearing more Catholic unrest, refused to yield, they and others began openly to install the Presbyterian system of classes, synods, and assemblies in the existing hierarchy. Led by activists like Peter and Paul Wentworth, Commons continued to press reform on Elizabeth. Matters came to a head in 1586, when Puritans submitted bills to abolish the episcopacy and the Prayer Book. Elizabeth ordered the bills withdrawn and threw Peter Wentworth in the Tower when he protested, but Commons persisted in offering unwelcome opinions.

The shortage of qualified lower-ranking clergymen loyal to the Elizabethan Settlement led to lax enforcement of religious conformity laws and the development of "prophesyings," local Bible-study groups. The prophesyings caused in turn the rapid evolution of a class of independent preachers and lecturers. Many prophesyings became independent congregations willing to undertake further reform on their own. Robert Browne's Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying for Any (1583) is but one expression of this trend. Elizabeth was able to suppress some prohesyings, to purge the Church of Presbyterian innovations, and to rally bishops to defense of the episcopacy; but these successes did not long survive her.

From the beginning, the Church of England was an unstable coalition of Protestant fanatics, closet Catholics, opportunists, and confused believers with no factional allegiance. Throughout the sixteenth century the church attracted and repelled foreign and domestic support for itself and for the Crown while trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of faith and statecraft. Elizabeth's middle way did not satisfy extremists, nor did it win many friends among those who had been content with the Church under Henry VIII. In the next century the coalition fell apart at last, and England sank into civil war.

Text by Olivia Isil; edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough
Illustrations: Vicki Wallace

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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