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The English Reformation

By Professor Andrew Pettegree Last updated 2011-02-17

Ruins at Newstead Abbey

Despite the zeal of religious reformers in Europe, England was slow to question the established Church. During the reign of Henry VIII, however,the tide turned in favour of Protestantism, and by the 1600s the new Church held sway over the old. How did all this come about?

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Strange turn of events, initially, henry defends the faith, a powerful reforming party emerges at court, the new, insecure regime, a secure protestant identity, find out more, page options.

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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 English for almost precisely that century: the determination of the father, Henry VIII, to marry often and the equal determination of the daughter, Elizabeth, not to marry at all. But it also owed a great deal to Protestantism.

There was little that bound together the English aristocracy and the Scottish king, for whom they developed a profound distaste, than a shared commitment to Protestantism. It was a determination to preserve England as a Protestant nation that gave James VI and I his opportunity and which would doom his son Charles when his actions threatened to undermine this cherished identity.

A remarkably smooth transition the end of the century England and Scotland were... the cornerstones of Protestant Europe.

For all the glories of hindsight, there are many ironies in this unlikely turn of events. The prevailing mood among historians has been to regard the translation of England to Protestantism as largely accidental, and certainly grudging. If England became a Protestant country, it is argued, it did so largely at the behest of its rulers and against its better judgement. If this was so, the transformation was indeed profound, for by the end of the century England and Scotland were rightly regarded as the cornerstones of Protestant Europe.

The faith would become so deeply ingrained that in the seventeenth century both nations would defend their religious affinity with a passion that verged on bigotry. Yet the adoption of Protestantism had been, by the standards of the turmoil that had gripped much of Europe in this period, remarkably smooth.

Photograph showing St Benets Abbey

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 instinctive theological conservatism. In this respect the Reformation in England would follow a model much closer to that of Scandinavia than Germany or Switzerland. Although England, like Bohemia, had its own indigenous mediaeval heresy in Lollardy, Luther's attack on the church had initially produced little resonance in England. Luther's works were imported into England at an early stage, but this may very often have been for the convenience of conservative theologians who bought them to refute them, such as Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More.

Henry's fateful decision

There is no evidence of any great hostility towards the church...before the Reformation

All of this changed when Henry made the fateful decision that only drastic action could extricate him from a marriage that, in the absence of a male heir, now 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.

The political nation was, for the most part, obediently compliant rather than enthusiastic. There is no evidence of any great hostility towards the church and its institutions before the Reformation; on the contrary, both the English episcopate and parish clergy seem to have been, by the standards of other European lands, both well-trained and living without scandal. Cardinal Wolsey, who fathered an illegitimate son, was very much the exception. On the other hand, few were prepared to defy the King to defend the threatened institutions of the old church. Many benefited from the windfall of church property that followed the confiscation of monastic lands.

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 party at Court. On his death in 1547 they moved quickly to establish their supremacy in the regency government made necessary by the youth of the new king, Edward VI (1547-1553). So, the short reign of Edward VI saw a determined attempt to introduce a full Protestant church polity into England, modelled on that of the Swiss and German Reformed churches and driven on by a powerful alliance of Archbishop Cranmer and the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset.

In the five years of the king's life, much was achieved: 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 to put down roots. On Edward's death in 1553, the changes were reversed easily by his Catholic half-sister, Mary (1553-1558). Only Mary's devotion to the papacy (which threatened the continued possession of former monastic property in the hands of those who had purchased it from the crown), and her determination to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain, provoked a half-hearted reaction. English Protestantism was reduced once again to a persecuted remnant; many of its ablest figures taking refuge abroad, to avoid martyrdom - the fate of those whom remained behind.

From Mary to Elizabeth

English Protestantism was reduced once again to a persecuted remnant...

So, in 1558 Elizabeth acceded to a troubled throne, after a five-year period in which Catholicism had been re-established in England with little apparent difficulty. Although the changes of Mary's reign were now reversed once more, Elizabeth and her councillors 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 reign before it could be said with confidence that Protestantism was the religion of the majority in England.

For the first decades those who opposed the religious policies of the Elizabethan government could take comfort from the evident insecurity of a regime embodied 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 in 1563, from smallpox), England too might have plunged into the same religious civil war convulsing neighbouring lands on the Continent.

Given this evident insecurity, it was with remarkable confidence that Elizabeth and her advisors addressed those complicated problems of domestic and foreign policy arising from a new restoration of Protestantism.

The Church of England would remain, in the words of its Protestant critics, 'but halfly reformed'.

A Parliament gathered to settle religion in 1559 compliantly reinstated the Protestant Prayer Book of Edward VI. But Elizabeth balked at the introduction of the full Calvinist Church order urged upon her by foreign theologians and by some of the English exiles who, having withdrawn to the continent during Mary's reign, now returned to assist the new regime. The English church retained Bishops and ecclesiastical vestments, which many of the hotter Protestants regarded as an unacceptable Popish survival. When in 1566 Elizabeth insisted upon uniformity in clerical attire, a substantial proportion of the English clergy (up to ten per cent in London) refused to submit and was deprived. Further attempts to move the Queen to a more perfect Reformation, whether by Parliamentary statute or subtle pressure from the bench of bishops, proved equally unavailing. The Church of England would remain, in the words of its Protestant critics, 'but halfly reformed'.

Despairing at the Queen's obstinacy and at the apparent indifference of broad sections of the population to the call to a godlier lifestyle, evangelicals took refuge in brotherhoods and congregations that became increasingly detached from the mainstream church. The frustration of reform measures in the Parliaments of 1571 and 1572 led some into formal separation. In the latter years of Elizabeth's reign Puritanism gave way to sectarian non-conformity, and eventually into outright confrontation with the established church.

But the numbers involved in such open dissidence were small, the vast majority of the godly preferring to remain in communion and to seek consolation in voluntary associations which provided an appropriate context for the puritan lifestyle. And in the main, their choice was justified, for whatever their disappointment at Elizabeth's lack of godly zeal, England's general allegiance to the Protestant cause was not in doubt. Even from the beginning of the reign there were evident proofs of this in an ambitious foreign policy which led swiftly to confrontation with the leading Catholic powers. By the last quarter of the century England was destined to play a pivotal role in the survival of Calvinist powers on the Continent, as they faced the most profound threat to their survival from a resurgent Catholicism.

By 1603, English people had come to esteem their Church.

By the time Elizabeth's long reign came to an end in 1603, English people had come to esteem their Church. The trials of the last three decades had in a very real sense secured England's Protestant identity. Through a generation of conflict in which the enemy had been foreign, Catholic and dangerous, English people had come to identify their Church and Protestantism, as a cornerstone of their identity.

This was not manifested, necessarily, in any very profound grasp of the theological tenets of faith. While English readers seem to have been avid consumers of catechisms and other cheap volumes of religious instruction, their clergy, as elsewhere in Europe, continued to lament how shallow was their grasp of doctrine. Yet the identification could be more subtle and oblique, but still very real. The Catholic festival year, for instance, had been gradually superseded by a calendar of new, largely unofficial and profoundly Protestant patriotic festivals: the defeat of the Armada, Crownation day, the date of Elizabeth's accession. In 1605 they would be joined by 5 November, the date of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, proof, if proof were needed that Catholicism was still considered perfidious, deadly and deeply un-English. The celebration of Guy Fawkes' day with bonfires and fireworks is a reminder of how fresh these Reformation controversies remained in the consciousness of the people for many centuries.

About the author

Professor Andrew Pettegree's teaching and research interests include: British and European Reformation, the history of the book in the early modern period, especially the French religious book, 1500-1600, and the visual arts of the Reformation period. He is currently also a Literary Director of the Royal Historical Society. His main publications are: Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford University Press, 1992); The Early Reformation in Europe , (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Calvinism in Europe, 1540-1610: A Collection of Documents , (Manchester University Press, 1992); Calvinism in Europe, 1540-1620 , (Manchester University Press, 1994); and Marian Protestantism: Six Studies , St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, vol 4, (1995, 1996).

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A. G. Dickens and the English Reformation

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Christopher Haigh, A. G. Dickens and the English Reformation, Historical Research , Volume 77, Issue 195, February 2004, Pages 24–38,

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This article considers the contribution that Professor Dickens made to the flowering of local studies of the Reformation in England, and asks why his influence waned in the nineteen-seventies and after. When Dickens began work on Yorkshire in the early nineteen-thirties, he was one of a number of young scholars looking at the Reformation in the localities. By the nineteen-fifties he was the leading spokesman for a regionalist approach and the search for ordinary people's experience of the Reformation. The cause was helped by the development of county archives, the expansion of postgraduate education and the provision of research grants. But when research students went to diocesan records they did not always find what Dickens had expected, and his interpretation of the Reformation became controversial.

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the english reformation essay

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Digital Collections for the Classroom

The English Reformation: Tradition and Change


  • August 1, 2017
  • 16th Century , Collection Essays


the english reformation essay

The English Reformation was part of a European-wide phenomenon to reform the church which began in 1517 when legend has it that the German monk and theologian Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (propositions for discussion) to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg to be debated publicly. Chief among these was the church doctrine on indulgences. Indulgences were grants of a remission of punishment for sins committed. In the later Middle Ages indulgences became connected to the doctrine of purgatory, an in-between place in the afterlife where the souls of those who died in state of venial sin could be purged by the prayers and good works of the living. Luther’s objection to the doctrine was based on his reading of the letters of St Paul from which he concluded that no performance of rituals nor acts of piety could guarantee salvation and that no intermediary authority, priest, bishop, or pope of the church could stand between a human being and God.

Like reformers before him, Luther hoped to reform the church from within. His dispute, however, grew into a challenge to the church’s authority to determine legitimate interpretations of scripture and rituals of worship. Sola fide (“by faith alone”) and sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”) became the watchwords of Lutheran reform that salvation was based on faith and Biblical authority was the only standard for determining correct doctrine. By the early 1520s, Luther and his supporters had broken with the papal authorities, Luther was excommunicated, and German principalities had become embroiled in the conflict. By the middle of the sixteenth century, this protest, “Protestantism,” had three main doctrinal centers: the Lutherans in Germany; Zwinglians in Switzerland; and Calvinists in Geneva. Although the reformers were divided on many specific issues, they shared three common points of view: the removal of the papacy and the religious system he oversaw, an emphasis on a Bible-centered theology and spirituality, and the need for laity to be able to read Sacred Scriptures in the vernacular.

The Reformation in England was not removed from these events on the continent. Until the mid-twentieth century, the narrative of England’s Protestant nationalist triumph answered very neatly the question of how England became Protestant. Historians have since moved away from thinking in terms of the Reformation as a single, linear process that was inevitable. Most historians now accept that there was a “begrudging conformity” in public in England throughout the sixteenth century, as church legislation swung from the long reign of Henry VIII and his break with Rome, to Edward VI’s and Mary I’s relatively short reigns and their swings from radical Protestantism to Catholic restoration respectively. The Reformation as it unfolded in England can be understood as a tension between continuity and change.

the english reformation essay

What is a Protestant? What is a Catholic? Royal legislation made for quick changes in religious practice, but belief and acceptance of those changes occurred much more slowly. Compulsion and compliance by law by either a Protestant or Catholic prince did not equal assent or conversion by the population. As Protestant identity developed over time, so too Catholic identity was transformed. Historians have argued that practicality describes the response of most people toward the reformation. What was most practical for people to do—conform to the new ways or resist them? Not all Protestants nor all Catholics became martyrs for their faith. Everywhere there are elements of a lingering continuity with what had come before. The passage of time was in many ways as significant as the legislation mandated from on high.

All European rulers and states of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used terror and torture as a tool of authority. Though Mary I is known in history and popular culture as “bloody Mary” for her execution of 284 Protestant martyrs, her father, brother and sister did not shy away from starving, beheading, hanging in chains, drawing and quartering their enemies, and burning heretics. Did the brutality of religious wars on the continent in the sixteenth century and in England in the seventeenth century lead to calls for religious toleration and a pluralistic society later in the seventeenth and eighteenth century? Some historians argue that a new attitude took root and people eventually came to live with the notion that universality and religious unity was not possible. Not that people became tolerant per se, but that they became tolerant of the fact that there would always be differences. In the sixteenth century religion and conformity to religion was a matter of public concern. By the eighteenth century, religion as a matter of private concern had taken root. The Protestant Reformation questioned and eventually uprooted the idea of a united Christendom and a universal church under the authority of the papacy that had been maintained by the western Church throughout the middle ages. The loss of unity splintered Christianity. In England, the break with Rome created a state church that was not independent of royal control. However, the state church splintered and could not maintain a unified religious identity, nor did it become part of a wider community of “international protestantism.”

As you explore the primary sources in this collection, here are some things to keep in mind when examining the documents.

  • Pay attention to the language in which a work was published. Was a document printed in English or Latin? Language could help determine a work’s audience. A work in English would reach those who were not classically educated in Latin or Greek, but a document published in Latin did not necessarily mean it would be of interest only to an elite readership. Latin was not a dead language in the sixteenth century, all professional and educated men and women would have known Latin. Publication in Latin may have excluded some readers, but it also would allow for a broader international reading public outside of England.
  • Notice the place of publication of books and documents. London was late in developing a publishing industry and before the 1550s most works were imported. English authors often sent their works to the continent to be published. This supports the argument of transnational influences on the English Reformation.

Essential Questions:

  • What is the English Reformation?
  • Was the Reformation in England a success? Is this a valid question?

Spirituality and Popular Piety in the English Church c. 1500

The English church at the end of the Middle Ages has been characterized as both vital and vulnerable. While there is a long-standing tradition of popular anti-clericalism in medieval England, glimpsed in literary works such as Langland’s Piers Ploughman and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales , historians generally concur that there was a sense of satisfaction with the institutional church in the early sixteenth century.

The church in England was vast and it pervaded all aspects of life. As in other parts of medieval Europe, English life revolved around the church calendar and the liturgical seasons of preparation and feast: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Formal worship was centered on Sunday’s Mass and Eucharist, but daily prayer and rituals were knit tightly into the fabric of society. An individual’s life was marked out by church sacraments and rituals—baptism, communion, marriage, and death.

the english reformation essay

St Thomas of Canterbury was perhaps the most popular English saint in the later middle ages. His shrine and the pilgrimage to it were immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales . Thomas Becket (1118-1170) had been the archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II (1133-1189) in the twelfth century. According to the “Lyfe of St. Thomas” in Caxton’s 1509 “englyshed” edition of Jacques Voragine’s Golden Legend (c. 1260), Thomas had blocked the king’s actions in a series of contests over royal control of the English Church, and the jurisdiction of royal and ecclesiastical courts. Thomas used the papacy to thwart Henry’s slights to church prerogative and traditional rights. After one episode, Henry uttered words in anger against Becket in the company of his knights that led them to murder the archbishop on the altar of Canterbury cathedral.

Henry did public penance for the anger that prompted the killing. One of acts of penance was to establish an order of Carthusian monks to England. In 1215, his son, King John, in a failed contest with the nobles and churchmen of England signed the Magna Carta whose first article declares the liberty of the church of England.

In general historians agree that the majority of English men and women were content with the spirituality, piety, church apparatus and structure. Contentment, however, did not mean people were uncritical. Popular anti-clericalism that existed throughout the middle ages concerned resentment over tithes and the wealth of the church in general, but there was no widespread violence in England against its clergy.

Questions to Consider:

  • Consider how medieval devotional practices fulfilled spiritual needs by habitual practice.
  • According to the “Life of St Thomas Becket,” what makes him a saint?
  • How does the “Life of St Thomas Becket” articulate the tensions between king and church?

Why Reform the Church? Henry VIII and the “First” English Reformation

The English Reformation did not come about because a mass of the population was dissatisfied with the church. At the outbreak of Luther’s challenge to the church in 1517, Henry VIII did not embrace Luther’s reform. In 1521, Henry VIII was granted the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his Defense of the Seven Sacrament s against Martin Luther’s continued attacks on the church’s theology and governance structures.

England’s Reformation was set in motion by Tudor dynastic problems. In the 1520s, Henry VIII had no legitimate male heir. Two sons born to him by his wife, Catherine of Aragon, did not survive infancy. Their only surviving child was a daughter, Mary, born in 1516. The Tudors were a new monarchy that emerged out of the chaos of the War of the Roses in the late fifteenth century. Dynastic stability and securing the throne, were central concerns to any kingship. Although medieval England had had powerful royal women, the purview of governance according to ancient and medieval philosophers and theologians belonged to men. For Henry VIII, security of the kingdom was not a theoretical problem, but a serious threat. Henry was not alone in his fear that the Lutheran challenge to the church could result in social, religious, and political disruption leading to violence in England as it had in Germany. Henry’s succession crisis, referred to then and now as the “King’s Great Matter,” became the catalyst for England’s break with the Church.

In 1527, Henry began his petitions to the pope for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine so he could marry a younger woman, Anne Boleyn, in the hope that she would give him the male heir that Catherine could not. By 1529, Henry’s impatience for a papal annulment grew as Rome delayed the king’s petition. Between 1527 and 1541 three important actions moved England toward a national church: the Submission of the Clergy (1532); the Act of Supremacy (1534) which ended papal jurisdiction in England; and the destruction of the monasteries in England which uprooted centuries of monastic culture. By 1535 Henry had created an absolutist monarchy and oversaw a national church. Yet Henry never committed England to Luther’s theological positions and upheld the episcopal church structure and many Catholic theological doctrines.

the english reformation essay

One reformist goal to which Henry did subscribe was to authorize the translation and publication of a bible in English. Until the printing press of the mid-fifteenth century, bibles in the Middle Ages were handwritten often on animal skin parchment (vellum) which was difficult and expensive to produce. Henry’s Great Bible of 1539 and 1540 became the royal authorized editions. The title page image from the Great Bible shows the dissemination of the book to the grateful people of England. Henry commanded that the book be placed prominently in all English churches. Yet not long after this, Henry enacted legislation to restrict its reading. In May 1543, The Act for the Advancement of True Religion forbade the reading of the Bible in English by “women, artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving-men of the rank of yeoman and under, husbandmen (peasant) and laborers.”

Henry’s was not the last version of the bible in English. By the late sixteenth century new versions had appeared including an authorized Catholic translation, the Douay-Rheims translation of the New Testament (1582). This work, along with other translations, would be used to create what one historian calls the emblem of the English Reformation: the King James Bible of 1611.

Selection: The Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury (1455).

the english reformation essay

Questions to Consider

  • How would Reformers on the continent view/respond to Henry VIII’s Reform of the Church?
  • Consider the power of print, image, and pilgrimage that lead Henry VIII to de-canonize St. Thomas of Canterbury. What made this such a powerful story for Henry that he had to suppress the cult of St Thomas of Canterbury?
  • How does the title page of the Great Bible literally illustrate Henry’s Act of Supremacy? How does the visual support the written text?
  • Does the fact that Henry later on placed restrictions on reading the English Bible diminish his action in authorizing its translation and distributing it?

Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons or a Man of His Time?

the english reformation essay

Many authors over four centuries have hoped to capture the true Thomas More and his place in England’s Reformation. The binary of More the humanist and More the persecutor of heretics stymies us. It might be less problematic if we consider the context in which both Mores existed. More was part of an international humanist circle. More, like other humanists, satirized society, politics, the church and its clergy and monks even as he remained steadfast in his commitment to the traditional view of salvation from Christ through the Church, the legitimacy of Christian unity under the pope, and that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

the english reformation essay

More’s Utopia and other humanist writings predated the challenge of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517). But the world that More inhabited, that allowed him to produce the Utopia , had changed by the 1520s. In 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. Henry VIII authorized his Chancellor and Archbishop Thomas Wolsey to begin a campaign to prevent the Lutheran heresy from spreading in England. In 1524-25 Germany erupted into violence. Henry and Wolsey feared that England would succumb to violence as Germany had. Thomas More was enlisted to counter Lutheran pamphlets in English and engaged in raiding publishers’ warehouses that imported books from Europe. This is the context for More’s turn from the tolerance he wrote of in 1516 in Utopia to the suppression of dissent and heresy that he took seriously.

Question to Consider:

  • Comment on the statement: “Who the real Thomas More is matters less than who he became for posterity.”

The Power of Image and Word: Constructing Religious Identity in the English Reformations 1547-1570

Henry VIII’s reforms in the 1530s and 1540s had undercut long-standing religious practices and doctrines such as pilgrimage and the cult of the saints, but it was not entirely divorced from all aspects of the traditional church. Henry viewed the results of his reforms as setting the true church back on course.

Recent scholarship on the English Reformation has been focused on how the mass of the population who were neither radical reformers nor radical dissenters were turned either toward support for reform or support for the traditional religion. Two ways in which religious identity in the English Reformations was shaped was in the construction of national histories along confessional lines, and in revisions to such texts as the Prymer and Prayerbooks. Printing was not a new technology in the 1540s, but England had far fewer publishing houses than continental Europe. It was one of the most important tools of the Reformation era, as printing helped stimulate a “wider public discussion of evangelical issues” and reinforce religious ideas.

Selection: John Foxe, Ecclesiastical History Containing the Acts and Monuments of Martyrs (1631).

the english reformation essay

Henry’s legislation in the 1530s and 1540s had overturned 1000 years of Christian practice in less than a 15 year period. The lack of clarity over the new doctrines and rituals caused public confusion. To explain, defend, and especially to denounce resistance to changes in the reform of the English church, Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, utilized the printed word and image to promote and propagandize.

Catholics challenged the Lutherans with the question: “where was your Church before Luther?” The question implied the antiquity of the Roman church tradition against the parvenu status of Protestantism and the origins of Christianity. If England owed its Christianity to missionizing efforts of the papacy, how could they break with Rome? When and how was England converted to Christianity? More importantly, Catholic histories in the sixteenth century argued that the spiritual identity of England predated its political identity.

Selection: Bede, The History of the Church of England , translated by Thomas Stapleton (1565).

the english reformation essay

The documents in this section illustrate how English reformers were engaged with the broader religious debates on the continent and built on traditional images to put forth and convince their audiences to a new point of view. They are examples of the use of history and prayer books and show the fine line between propaganda and education.

  • When and how did England become Protestant? When do the terms Catholic and Protestant become meaningful in sixteenth-century England?
  • How did a minority reform movement become the majority? How did a majority Catholic nation become a minority?

Emblems of the English Reformations

Alexandra Walsham notes that Catholicism and anti-Catholicism, Protestantism and anti-Protestantism are linked bodies of opinion and practice that “exerted powerful reciprocal influence upon each other.” To understand the internal history of Catholics and Protestants in England one cannot exclude the lateral connections the churches, congregations, and sects had with each other. She describes certain devotional and symbolic objects of the English Protestant and Catholic Reformations that become emblems of faith and religious identity by the late sixteenth-century.

Selection: The Prymer in Englysh and Latyn (after the use of Sarum) (1555).

the english reformation essay

Three important emblems of the English Protestant Reformation are confirmed by several generations of use: the Book of Common Prayer; the Bible in English, and the English hymnal. Although aspects of the Church of England will be challenged by dissenting voices of Puritanism, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the English hymnal will unify the faithful and sustain Protestant religious identity in England into the twentieth century.

Selection: A Booke of Christian Prayers (1590).

the english reformation essay

For Catholics in England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 made a difficult situation worse. In the document, the pope released English Catholics from obedience to Elizabeth whom he declared a heretic. This triggered further proscriptions on Catholics in England and made them a persecuted minority. Walsham points out that the need to practice the faith in secret, to avoid the authorities, and to cope with exclusion from public life paradoxically acted as a catalyst for Catholic religious identity-building. The private Catholic home became a substitute for the ecclesiastical buildings taken over by the Protestants. Reliance on the sacraments (which were outlawed) gave way to the use of “sacramentals,” blessed objects, medallions, scapulars, crucifixes, but especially the rosary. The rosary became an emblem of Catholicism, “the unlearned man’s book,” solitary piety defying institutional control. All these consecrated objects were portable and could be used without the mediation of a priest. They became symbols of a persistent resistance to Protestantism.

  • Compare the calendars of Mary’s Prymer of 1555 with the calendar in the 1577 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. How do these calendars compare to the 1611 online edition of the calendar in the King James Bible?
  • One historian has said the Book of Common Prayer was intended as an instrument of social and political control. Can a book be both a religious work and an instrument of social and political control?
  • Compare the passages from the Vulgate Bible to passages from the King James Version of the Bible. Are the content and language of the passages similar?

Primers and Prayer Books: A Primer (or Prymer) is a book of devotion and instruction. It is generally a prayer book to be used by ordinary people on a daily basis that contains “prime texts” such as the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The Primer and prayer book cited here are examples of how traditional books continued to be the medium to transmit theology and religious heritage. The books also stand as examples of the shifting doctrinal messages the English population received in the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

Book of Common Prayer: Centrally-regulated worship was something that Protestants and Catholics both experienced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Elizabeth outlawed the Mass and priests and compelled all her subjects to attend Protestant services or face fine or imprisonment. Since 1549, the Book of Common Prayer approved by the state and church was the only authorized book of worship in the church in England.

Selection: The Booke of Common Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England (1552 and 1577).

the english reformation essay

The Bible in English: The vernacular Bible is one of the major achievements of the Protestant Reformation. In spite of specific theological differences, the major reformers shared the goal of making the Bible available for a literate laity to read and for the illiterate to hear, in a language they understood. The vernacular Bible is an emblem of the Protestant Reformation. The King James Version of the Bible is an emblem of the English Reformation. The Bible in use through most of the Middle Ages was called the Vulgate, a translation made by St. Jerome from Greek and Hebrew into Latin (the vulgar, i.e. common language) in the fourth century. At that time, Latin was a language that was more accessible than either Greek or Hebrew. By the later Middle Ages, the numerous hand-written volumes of Jerome’s Vulgate, copied over and over, were often filled with errors. The Vulgate is famously the first book printed on the Gutenberg printing press.

Selection: The New Testament of Jesus Christ (1582).

the english reformation essay

The English Hymnal: Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries, the visual monuments of Catholicism that peppered the landscape of medieval England and his son Edward’s whitewashing of church interiors and destruction of centuries of English Catholic art–painting and sculpture, conformed England to a Protestant idea of Catholicism as idolatry. It also turned English worship away from the visual to the aural. The word of God was to be read, preached, and heard. There is no monumental church art or architecture in England in this period, but there is a great emphasis on liturgical music especially in the works of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis.

Selection: Thomas Tallis, Discantus Cantiones, quae ab Argumento Sacrae Vocantur (1575).

the english reformation essay

Selected Sources

The Beginnings of English Protestantism . Eds. Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Duffy, Eamon. Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants, and the Conversion of England . London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Press, 2017.

Gunther, Karl. Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England 1529-1559 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Heal, Felicity. “Appropriating History: Catholic and Protestant Polemic and the National Past.” Huntingdon Library Quarterly , v. 68, no. 1-2 (March, 2005), 109-132.

Highley, Christopher. Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Hyatt Mayor, A. “Queen Elizabeth’s Prayers,” The Metropolitan Museum Art Bulletin , N.S. v. 1, no. 8 (April, 1943), 327-242.

King, John N. Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Parish, Helen. Monks, Miracles and Magic: Reformation Representations of the Medieval Church . New York: Routledge, 2005.

Pettegree, Andrew. “Illustrating the Book: a Protestant Dilemma,” in John Foxe and His World . Eds. Christopher Highley and John N. King. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002, 133-44

Quantin, Jean-Louis. The Church of England and Christian Antiquity. The Construction of Confessional Identity in the 17th Century . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shagan, Ethan. Popular Politics and the English Reformation . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Walsham, Alexandra. Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain . Farnham, UK & Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2015. no longer supports Internet Explorer.

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ESSAY: English Reformation Historiography

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The recent English Reformation scholarship has seen a shift in focus away from traditional narratives of reform being initiated from 'above' or 'below' into investigations concerning more intimate and personal religious experiences. The national chronology has not been ignored by these studies, but historians have sought to understand the personal religious participation of the people, their sensory experiences and the changing landscape which have reflected the seismic shifts occurring throughout the realm. The Reformation has become more inclusive; no less concerned with the elite, but certainly more interested in the religious and political motivations across society as a whole. This greater inclusiveness has also drawn into the Reformation discourse the voice of the Catholic communities which, despite being repudiated, remained present during the religious transformation. This essay will discuss English Reformation historiography and its evolution from the grand narrative to the...

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England Reformation Essay

Rebellions and the english reformation, catherine of aragon.


It is clear to historians that the process of the English Reformation was primarily guided by the nobility and highest ranks of the English government. The decisions of Henry VIII were titular in both the political and theological worlds of the country. Therefore, the reforms accepted and implemented by the government did not originate from the ordinary residents of England in any way. The increased tension between the papal authority and the crown confused people who were not ready for various changes that Protestantism brought along with the onset of Royal Supremacy. 1

The revolts, nonetheless, were not large or significant in their organization, although they often inspired many people to assemble. Arguably, one of the most impactful rebellions was the Pilgrimage of Grace which happened in 1536 and 1537, after the previous Lincolnshire Rising was disbanded. 2

Similar to the majority of all uprisings that happened during the English Reformation, the Pilgrimage of Grace was started by people who were largely affected by the political and economic reforms. Major conflicts between the pope and the King of England started in 1527 when Henry VIII, unsatisfied with his current marriage, sought the Church’s support in a divorce. 3 The focus on religious inconsistencies and the king’s personal desire to have offspring quickly affected other parts of the country’s life.

The enforcement of Protestantism brought changes to the process of worship, and Royal Supremacy started targeting local religious houses to make them repudiate the Catholic authority. 4 This activity provoked violence from the commoners who, while not realizing a direct change in the system before, have understood that the nobility is actively discouraging their beliefs.

In October 1536, the Lincolnshire Rising included almost 40,000 people who wanted to put an end to the suppression of their monasteries and the heresy in the country. 5 Most importantly, they also wished for the king to repeal the laws that limited their use of the land. This initial uprising, while considerably large, was ineffective in persuading the noble family. However, it inspired more people to join, and the Pilgrimage of Grace in Yorkshire was a direct product of the previous rebellion. 6 This event also culminated thousands of people to revolt against the religious disruptions in the state.

In the end, this uprising did not lead to the outcomes how which its members have hoped. First of all, it did not result in the reunification of England with the Catholic Church, as both the king and the pope continued to denounce each other’s authority over the country. The rebellion also did not stop the Protestants from dissolving the monasteries. 7

The nobility was interested in the lands that the church possessed, and the control over large pieces of land was a crucial source of revenue that Henry VIII could not negotiate. Most importantly, the rising did not stop Protestantism from spreading and becoming the official religion of the state. However, it can still be considered an impactful event in the history of the Reformation because it had shown that people denounced Protestantism and saw the actions of their king as heretical. Furthermore, the people convinced the Crown to change the Ten Articles and the Statute of Uses to address some of the religious and land ownership concerns, respectively. 8

Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII, the King of England, and the first ruler who was a part of the English Reformation. She married Henry VIII after her previous husband and Henry’s older brother, Arthur, died before ascending to the English throne. 9 Thus, she became the Queen of England in 1509, becoming a significant figure in the country’s history. However, her marriage was burdened by the fact that her health did not allow her to produce future successors to the throne.

In fact, her only surviving child was a girl, Mary, which dissatisfied Henry VIII. 10 At that time, women never acted as sole rulers in England, thus making Mary’s future uncertain and the relationship between Henry VIII and Catherine – strained. The king, becoming increasingly interested in another woman, Anne Boleyn, decided that the current marriage would not bring him any sons. 11 Thus, he sought the annulment of the marriage, which could only be granted by the Church.

The following events played a substantial role in the formation of the England Reformation. The refusal of the pope to annul the union has led Henry VIII to announce that England was splitting from the Catholic Church and the influence of the latter was no longer official. 12 However, other factors should also be analyzed because the interest in Protestantism did not appear out of this conflict alone. At the same time, the English territory was introduced to the wave of Bible translations – Protestant reformers wanted to spread the word about the New Testament. 13

In 1525, William Tyndale presented an English version of the New Testament, which showed an unseen before interpretation of the Christian thought. 14 The influence of this Bible was significant, and its translation denounced Catholicism and its primary aspects. 15 It is probable that Protestants used the conflict between the papacy and the King to further their ideas. However, they could have succeeded without Catherine’s impact, as they also were supportive of Henry VIII’s royal supremacy ideas. 16 Overall, Catherine’s health was one of the significant factors that impacted the Reformation movement, but the spread of Protestantism was also exacerbated by Henry VIII’s desire for power and independence from the Catholic Church.

Galli, Mark. “What the English Bible Cost One Man.” Christian History , 13, no. 3 (1994): 12-15.

Hoyle, Richard W. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s . Oxford: Oxford, 2001.

Ng, Su Fang. “Translation, Interpretation, and And Heresy: The Wycliffite Bible, Tyndale’s Bible, and the Contested Origin.” Studies in Philology 98, no. 3 (2001): 315-338.

Rockett, William. “Wolsey, More, and the Unity of Christendom.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 35, no. 1(2004): 133-153.

Walsham, Alexandra. “Unclasping the Book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Vernacular Bible.” Journal of British Studies 42, no. 2 (2003): 141-166.

  • Richard W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s (Oxford: Oxford, 2001), 40.
  • Ibid., 293.
  • William Rockett, “Wolsey, More, and the Unity of Christendom,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 35, no. 1(2004): 136.
  • Alexandra Walsham, “Unclasping the Book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Vernacular Bible,” Journal of British Studies 42, no. 2 (2003): 141.
  • Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace , 56.
  • Rockett, “Wolsey, More,” 134.
  • Mark Galli, “What the English Bible Cost One Man,” Christian History , 13, no. 3 (1994): 13.
  • Su Fang Ng, “Translation, Interpretation, and And Heresy: The Wycliffite Bible, Tyndale’s Bible, and the Contested Origin,” Studies in Philology 98, no. 3 (2001): 334.
  • Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace , 65.
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Writing help, paraphrasing tool, renaissance and reformation.

This essay will discuss the Renaissance and Reformation periods in history. It will cover their origins, key figures, cultural and religious impacts, and how these movements shaped the course of European history. PapersOwl offers a variety of free essay examples on the topic of Martin Luther.

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The reason why i’m writing this research paper is to show what The Reformation and The Renaissance is about and why it’s important. My essential question is what’s the Renaissance and Reformation about. Where i found my answer to that question is my notes that i took in my socials studies class. I know they are accurate because i also did research online and i got my notes from my teacher. While going through all my Renaissance and Reformation notes I found that the protestant Reformation is a series of protest that led to the protestants breaking away from the catholics. The Renaissance changed art, literature, science, and education. What the Renaissance was is a cultural movement that began in Italy.

The Reformation

The renaissance.

The Renaissance began in Italy, it eventually spreads around Europe. Thanks to the renaissance people became more important individually. The Medici ruled Florence there was a powerful banking family which influenced members of ruling council by giving loans. What the renaissance changed was art, literature, science, and education. The printing press was created in Germany, 1440 by Johann Gutenberg. At that time books were very cheap and easily available. Humanism was an intellectual movement that focuses on potential and achievement. Machiavelli was known for being a renaissance writer that believed “”the end justifies the means.”” The renaissance shaped the future and it led to a modern era.

In summary, both the renaissance and reformation made a big historical impact. They both created something that is now useful. The renaissance encouraged people to question wisdom and offered the possibility of change. What that did was encourage reformers to basically attack the church and start the reformation.

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The English Reformation - Essay Example

The English Reformation

  • Subject: History
  • Type: Essay
  • Level: Masters
  • Pages: 2 (500 words)
  • Downloads: 6
  • Author: hmcdermott

Extract of sample "The English Reformation"

Introduction Western Civilization has been on the forefront of world civilization since last few centuries. Having spread from Middle East and expanded into West, this civilization has actually gone through different periods of rise and fall however, it persisted over other civilizations and is now the dominating civilization in the world. What is however, critical to note that Western Civilization became prominent due to various personalities which were the direct cause of different dramatic reformations which took place over the period of time?

This paper will discuss the role Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII in the Reformation of the Western Civilization.Martin Luther This paragraph will examine the role of Martin Luther in reformation of Western Civilization. Church has been dominating force in Western Civilization and over the period of time, it assumed the central role across different Regions because of the catholic majority. What is however, critical to note that many people actually considered Pope and Church involved in the worldly affairs and distracting from the original mandate of the same.

Martin Luther was the person who basically called for the reformation of the Catholic Church and set the foundation for Protestant movement. By presenting his 95 theses he called for the full reforms of the Church and set forth the chain reaction which actually ensured personal freedom and proved as a move towards more liberal and open society in Western civilization. (Mullett)John CalvinThis will discuss the role of John Calvin in reformation of the Western Civilization and how his theology challenged the Catholic Church.

John Calvin played even a bigger role in the reformation process and his achievements are considered as even better than that of Martin Luther. Probably his greatest achievement in terms of the reformation was further solidification of protestant ideology and the flourishing of the protestant churches across the Europe. Though he and Luther shared the same theology however, his influence in Germany proved as one of the deciding factors in terms of the spread of Protestantism across the region.

The birth of Puritans therefore proved as a vital development which challenged the position of the established Catholic Church and appointed their own ministers without reporting to the Church. Calvin therefore was instrumental in founding what is now called Calvinism and was an important figure in reformation. (Backus and Benedict)Henry VIII This paragraph will discuss about the role of English King Henry VIII in reforming Western Civilization. Henry VIII due to his position as the King of England was able to use his influence to change the belief or the stance of Church on important issues such as Divorce in Catholicism.

Despite the fact that he defended Church against Martin Luther however, his willingness to have a male heir actually resulted into what is called English Reformation as he pushed through for the legislations which proved vital for further reforms in the Western Civilization. (Dickens)Conclusion The paper discussed the roles of Martin Luther, John Calvin and English King Henry VIII in reforming the Western Civilization. Works CitedBackus, Irena and Philip Benedict.

Calvin and His Influence, 1509–2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. Boston: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.Mullett, Michael A. Martin Luther. London: London, 2004.

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