England: The Henrician Reformation

THE REFORMATION under Henry VIII (1509-47) was largely political, unlike the Reformation on the Continent, and was sparked off by his divorce problems. Papal authority over the Church of England was taken by the Crown, the monasteries were dissolved and the monks turned out. An English Bible was officially printed for people to read in the churches. But Henry was basically conserva­tive in his religious outlook and did not really wish to help the Protestants too far. Like other Heads of State, his main interest was national unity.

A French writer who visited the Vatican Library in 1581, saw the book which Henry VIII wrote against Luther’s teaching. Henry sent copies to the Pope, and in return the Pope gratefully gave him the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’: ‘The original of the book that the King of England composed against Luther, which he sent about fifty years ago to Pope Leo X, inscribed with his own hand: “To Leo Ten, Henry, King of the English, sends This work, a pledge of loyalty between two friends.” I read the prefaces, the one to the Pope, the other to the reader: he excuses himself because of his military occupations and lack of ability; for scholastic Latin it is good (135).

In 1527 Henry VIII asked the Pope to dissolve his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. But the Pope had other things to worry about. The troops of Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, had just sacked and occupied Rome. Here is an eyewitness account of the sack of Rome: ‘The soldiers slew at pleasure; pillaged the houses of the middle classes and small folk, the palaces of the nobles, the convents of both sexes, and the churches. They made prisoners of men, women, and even of little children, without regard to age, or vows, or any other claim on pity. The slaughter was not great, for men rarely kill those who offer no resistance; but the booty was incalculable, in coin, jewels, gold and silver plate, clothes, tapestries, furniture, and goods of all descriptions. To this should be added the ransoms, which amounted to a sum which, if set down, would win no credence (136).

But Henry VIII was in a hurry for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. As the Pope had not helped him, he summoned a Parliament in 1529 which was to carry out the Reformation. Parliament at once began to complain about the Church: ‘The sixth cause was to see one priest being little learned to have ten or twelve benefices and to be resident on none, and to know many well-learned scholars in the university, which were able to preach and teach, to have neither benefice nor exhibition (137).

A list of charges against the ordinaries (i.e. bishops) was drawn up by the House of Commons and sent to the King. Among the charges it made was: ‘And also the said spiritual ordinaries do daily confer and give sundry benefices unto certain young folks, calling them their nephews or kinsfolk, being in their minority . . . apt ne able to serve the cure of any such benefice; whereby the said ordinaries do keep and detain the fruits and profits of the same benefices in their own hands … and the poor silly [simple] souls of your people and subjects … for lack of good curates do perish without good example, doctrine or any good teaching (138).

Henry was pleased. He made the clergy promise that they would never again make any church law without royal permission: ‘First, do offer and promise, in verbo sacerdotii, here unto your Highness, submitting ourselves most humbly to the same, that we will never from henceforth enact … or execute any new canons or constitutions provincial, or any other new ordinance, provincial or synodal, in our Convocation or Synod in time coming, which Convocation is, alway hath been, and must be, assembled only by your Highness’s commandment of writ, unless your Highness by your royal assent shall licence us to assemble our Convocation, and to … execute such constitutions … and thereto give your royal assent and authority (139).

Henry moved fast. In the same year (1532), Parliament passed an Act stopping the payment of ‘annates’ to the Pope by the clergy. Its operation was delayed until the Pope” approved the consecration of Thomas Cranmer as new Archbishop of Canterbury; but this he did early in 1533: ‘It is therefore ordained, established, and enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the unlawful payments of annates, or first fruits, and all manner contributions for the same, for any archbishopric or bishopric, or for any bulls hereafter to be obtained from the Court of Rome, to or for the aforesaid purpose and intent, shall from henceforth utterly cease, and no such here‑ after to be paid for any archbishopric or bishopric within this realm (140).

Henry’s plans for divorce were now nearing completion. In 1533, he made Parliament pass an ‘Act in Restraint of Appeals’. This was to prevent Catherine of Aragon appealing to the Pope against her divorce which was to be determined by Cranmer : ‘[such] causes . . . shall be from henceforth heard, examined, discussed, clearly, finally, and definitively adjudged and determined within the King’s jurisdiction and authority, and not elsewhere, in such courts spiritual and temporal of the same, as the natures, conditions, and qualities of the causes . . . shall require . . . any foreign inhibitions, appeals, sentences… interdictions, excommunications, restraints, judgments, or any other process . . . from the see of Rome, or any other foreign courts or potentates of the world . . . notwithstanding (141).

When this was done, Cranmer pronounced the divorce: ‘We Thomas Archbishop, primate, and legate aforesaid, having first invoked the name of Christ and with God alone before our eyes, pronounce decree and declare the nullity and invalidity of the said marriage, and that this same pretended marriage was and is null and void, and was contracted and consummated contrary to divine love, and is of no value or consequence but was lacking and lacks force and legal confirmation, and that the aforesaid most illustrious and most mighty prince Henry VIII, and the most high lady Catherine ought not to remain in the same pretended matrimony (142).

A Second Act of Annates (1534) not only withheld annates for all time, but also handed over the appointment of bishops to the Crown: ‘At every avoidance [vacancy] of every archbishopric or bishopric within this realm, or in any other the King’s dominions, the King our Sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors, may grant  unto the prior and convent, or the dean and chapter of the cathedral churches or monasteries where the see of such archbishopric or bishopric shall happen to be void, a licence under the great seal, as of old time hath been accustomed, to proceed to election of an archbishop or bishop of the see so being void, with a letter missive, containing the name of the person which they shall elect and choose: by virtue of which licence the said dean and chapter, or prior and convent, to whom any such licence and letters missives shall be directed, shall with all speed and celerity in due form elect and choose the said person named in the said letters missives, to the dignity and office of the archbishopric or bishopric so being void, and none other (143).

A further act now made the clergy pay annates to the Crown instead of to the Pope: ‘It may therefore be ordained and enacted … that the King’s Highness, his heirs and successors . . . shall have and enjoy from time to time, to endure for ever, of every such person … which at any time after the first day of January next coming shall be nominated, elected . . . presented, collated, or by any other means appointed to have any archbishopric, bishopric, abbacy, monastery, priory, college, hospital, archdeaconry, deanery, provostship, pre­bend, parsonage, vicarage, chantry, free chapel, or other dignity, benefice, office or promotion spiritual within this realm or else­where within any of the King’s dominions, of what name, nature or quality soever they be or to whose foundation, patronage or gift soever they belong, the first fruits, revenues and profits for one year of every such archbishopric, bishopric [and all benefices and ecclesiastical offices mentioned above] … and that every such person before any actual or real possession or meddling with the profits of any such archbishopric, bishopric [etc.] … shall satisfy, content and pay, or compound or agree to pay to the King’s use at reasonable days upon good sureties the said first fruits and profits for one year (144).

Henry completed the Reformation by the Act of Supremacy (1534): ‘Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament, that the King our Sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecciesia, and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial Crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities, to the said dignity of Supreme Head of the same Church belonging and appertaining (145).

Everyone in the English Church had to acknowledge Henry VIII as Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. Here is the acknowledgement made by the Abbot and monks of Peterborough Abbey in 1534: ‘We the said Abbot and Convent and our successors all and singular, will always display entire, inviolate, sincere and perpetual, fidelity, regard and obedience towards our Lord King Henry the eighth, and towards Queen Anne his wife, and towards his offspring of the same Anne legitimately as well begotten as to be begotten. And that we will notify, preach, and persuade these same things to the people wherever place and opportunity shall be given. Also that we always hold it confirmed and established, and always will hold, that the aforesaid Henry our King is the head of the Church of England. And also that the bishop of Rome, who in his bulls takes the name of Pope, and claims for himself the pre-­eminence of chief pontiff, has no other greater jurisdiction assigned to him by God in this realm of England than any other foreign bishop (146).

Sir Thomas More, however, was executed in 1535 for refusing to accept the Royal Supremacy. In his last speech, after being sentenced to death, he denied that he was taking a lone stand against the English bishops and universities who supported the Act: “Neither as yet”, said he, “have I chanced upon any ancient writer or doctor that so advanceth, as your Statute doth, the supremacy of any secular and temporal prince. If there were no more but myself upon my side, and the whole Parliament upon the other, I would be sore afraid to lean to mine own mind only against so many. But if the number of bishops and universities be so material as your lordship seemeth to take it, then see I little cause, my Lord, why that thing in my con­science should make any change. For I nothing doubt but that, though not in this realm, yet in Christendom about, of these well-learned bishops and virtuous men that are still alive, they be not the fewer part that are of my mind therein. But if I should speak of those that are already dead, of whom many be now holy saints in heaven, I am very sure it is the far greater part of them that, all the while they lived, thought in this case that way that I think now; and therefore am I not bounden, my Lord, to conform my conscience to the Council of one realm against the general Council of Christen­dom. For of the foresaid holy bishops I have, for every bishop of yours, above one hundred. And for one Council or Parliament of yours (God knoweth what manner of one), I have all the Councils made these thousand years. And for this one Kingdom, I have all other Christian realms.” (147).

More’s wife, Mistress Alice, visited him in prison before his execution and could not understand why, for the sake of an oath, he had thrown away his life: “Is not this house [prison]”, quoth he, “as nigh heaven as my own?” To whom she, after her accustomed homely fashion, not liking such talk, answered “Tilly vally, Tilly vally.” (148).

In 1535 Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, sent out commissioners to inspect the monasteries. This is a report by one of them on several in Oxfordshire: ‘Pleaseth you to be advertised that after my departing from Oxford I went to Godstow where I found all things well and in good order as well in the monastery . . . , as also in the convent of the same, except that one sister 13 or 14 years past, being then of another house, brake her chastity . . . the which for correction and punishment afterward was sent to Godstow by the Bishop of Lincoln, where now and ever since that time she hath lived virtuous.

‘And from that house . . . I came to a house of nuns called Catesby, of £90 lands yearly, of the order of Citeaux, under my lord of Lincoln’s jurisdiction (as I suppose) by usurpation. For that order as you know hath always been exempt from the Bishop. The prioress there is a right sad matron, the sisters also there now being by the space of 20 years hath been (by as much as I can learn) without suspicion of incontinent living.

‘From Catesby I rode to Canons Ashby, which house is £160 in debt, by reason of the late preferment of the prior there now being. The house also, by the negligence of his predecessor, is in ruin and decay. Howbeit the said prior (although he be unlearned) is disposed to thrive, and by the learning and good example of . . . the sub-prior . . . the religious men there be like to do well.

‘From Canons Ashby, I rode to Chacombe ; the prior is newly come thither, who is competently well learned in holy Scripture. The canons being rude and unlearned, he beginneth to bring them to some order. I fear nothing in him but negligence and overmuch familiarity, which he useth amongst them (149).

Relics were seized by another commissioner from Maiden Bradley Priory in Wiltshire, and sent to Cromwell as evidence of monastic corruption: ‘By this bringer my servant, I send you relics; first, two flowers wrapped in white and black sarcenet that on Christmas eve [in the hour on which Christ was born], will spring and burgeon and bear blossoms [which may be put to the test], saith the prior of Maiden Bradley: ye shall also receive a bag of relics, where­in ye shall see strange things, as shall appear by the Scripture, as, God’s coat, Our Lady’s smock, part of God’s supper … [part of the stone of the manger in which was born Jesus in Bethlehem]; belike there is in Bethlehem plenty of stones and some quarry, and maketh their mangers of stone (150).

After the commissioners had reported, Parliament passed an Act dissolving about 250 of the smaller monasteries: ‘That it may be enacted by authority of this present Parliament, that his Majesty shall have and enjoy to him and to his heirs for ever, all and singular such monasteries, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns, of what kinds or diversities of habits, rules, or orders soever they be called or named, which have not in lands and tenements, rents, tithes, portions, and other hereditaments, above the clear yearly value of two hundred pounds (151).

The dissolution of the monasteries produced a northern rising, the Pilgrimage of Grace. This is an extract from the oath drawn up by the Yorkshire leader, Robert Aske, for the insurgents: ‘Ye shall not enter into our said Pilgrimage for no particular profit to your‑ self, nor to do any displeasure to any private person, but by counsel of the commonwealth, nor slay nor murder for no envy, but in your hearts put away fear and dread and take afore you the Cross of Christ, and in your hearts His faith, the Restitution of the Church, the suppression of these Heretics and their opinions (152).

The first verse of this ballad, thought to have been composed by the monks of Sawley Abbey in Lancashire, referred to the Pilgrimage of Grace:

‘Crist crucifyd!

For they woundes wide

Us commens guyde!

Which pilgrames be,

Thrughe godes grace,

For to purchache

Olde weith and peax

Of the spiritualtie (153).

But the Pilgrimage failed. Henry would not listen. Aske was arrested, and thrown into the Tower of London. When he was questioned, he spoke up for the monasteries: ‘Also the abbeys was one of the beauties of this realm to all men and strangers passing through the same; also all gentlemen much succoured in their needs with money, their young sons there succoured, and in nunneries their daughters brought up in virtue; … and such abbeys as were near the danger of sea banks [were] great maintainers of sea walls and dykes, maintainers and builders of bridges and highways [and] such other things for the common wealth (154).

Between 1537 and 1539 many larger monasteries were persuaded to surrender to the King. This deed of surrender of the Cistercian Abbey of Furness in Lancashire, signed by its Abbot Roger Pyle, read: ‘I, Roger, abbot of the monastery of Furness, knowing the misorder and evil life both unto God and our Prince of the brethren of the said monastery, in discharging of my conscience do freely and wholly surrender, give, and grant unto the King’s Highness, and to his heirs and assigns for evermore, all such interest and title as I have had, have, or may have, of and in the said monastery of Furness, and of and in the lands, rents, possessions, revenues, services both spiritual and temporal, and of and in all goods and chattels and all other thing whatsoever it be, belonging or in any wise appertaining to the said monastery (155).

The last of the larger monasteries were forcibly dissolved by an Act of Parliament in 1539 and most of their property was sold off. This is how the possessions of one monastery were disposed of in 1539 : ‘Sir Richard Ryche, Chancellor of the Court ofAugmentations. Grant in fee of the manors of Magna Bursted, Westhouse, Whites, Gurneys, Bukwynes, Cowbrige and Chaiwedon, Essex; the rectory and the advowson of the vicarage of Magna Bursted; and certain messuages, mills, lands, &c., in Magna Bursted, Parva Bursted Billerica, Gyngmountney, Mountneysyng, Hoton, Stok, Buttesbury, Laynedon, Nevendon, Lachendon, Bastildon, and Langdon, Essex; which premises belonged to the late monastery of Stradford Langthorne, Essex; and all possessions of Stratford Langthorne in the above named places, in as full manner as Wm. Huddeiston, the late abbot, held the same (156).

In 1537, Cranmer sent Cromwell a copy of the English version of the Bible known as Matthew Bible, and urged him to get Henry’s support for it: ‘I pray you, my lord, that you will exhibit the book unto the King’s highness, and to obtain of his grace, if you can, a licence that the same may be sold and read of every person, without danger of any act, proclamation, or ordinance heretofore granted to the contrary, until such time that we the bishops shall set forth a better translation, which I think will not be till a day after doomsday. And if you continue to take such pains for the setting forth of God’s word, as you do, although in the mean season you suffer some snubs and many slanders, lies, and reproaches for the same, yet one day he will requite altogether. And the same word as St John (saith) which shall judge every man at the last day, must needs shew favour to them that now do favour it (157).

Henry agreed, and in 1538 he commanded every church to have an English Bible: ‘Item, that you shall provide on this side the feast of Easter next coming, one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume, in English and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that you have cure of, whereas your parish­ioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it; the charges of which book shall be rateably borne between you, the parson, and the parishioners aforesaid, that is to say, the one half by you, and the other half by them (158).

Cranmer wrote a Preface to the edition known as the Great Bible of 1540, in which he said: ‘Wherefore, in few words to comprehend the largeness and utility of the scripture, how it containeth fruitful instruction and erudition for every man; if any things be necessary to be learned, of the holy scripture we may learn it. If falsehood shall be reproved, thereof we may gather wherewithal. If any thing be to be corrected and amended, if there need any exhortation or consolation, of the scripture we may well learn. In the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no un­wholesome thing; they be the very dainty and pure feeding. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he should learn. He that is a perverse sinner, shall there find his damnation to make him to tremble for fear. He that laboureth to serve God, shall find there his glory, and the promissions of eternal life, exhorting him more diligently to labour. Herein may princes learn how to govern their subjects; subjects obedience, love and dread to their princes: hus­bands, how they should behave them unto their wives; how to educate their children and servants: and contrary the wives, child­ren, and servants may know their duty to their husbands, parents and masters. Here may all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other (159).

Conservative in outlook, the Act of the Six Articles (1539) showed Henry’s wish to keep a tight rein on Protestant doctrine. As head of Church and State, he did not want his supremacy threatened: ‘First, that in the most blessed sacrament of the altar, by the strength and efficacy of Christ’s mighty word, it being spoken by
the priest, is present really, under the form of bread and wine, the natural body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, conceived of the Virgin Mary; and that after the consecration there remaineth no substance of bread or wine, nor any other substance but the substance of Christ, God and man.

‘Secondly, that communion in both kinds is not necessary ad salutem, by the law of God, to all persons; and that it is to be be­lieved, and not doubted of, but that in the flesh under form of bread is the very blood, and with the blood under form of wine is the very flesh, as well apart as though they were both together.

‘Thirdly, that priests after the order of priesthood received as  afore, may not marry by the law of God.

‘Fourthly, that vows of chastity or widowhood, by man or woman made to God advisedly, ought to be observed by the law of God, and that it exempteth them from other liberties of Christian people, which without that they might enjoy.

‘Fifthly, that it is meet and necessary that private masses be con­tinued and admitted in this the King’s English Church and Con­gregation, as whereby good Christian people, ordering themselves accordingly, do receive both godly and goodly consolations and benefits, and it is agreeable also to God’s law.

‘Sixthly, that auricular confession is expedient and necessary to be retained and continued, used and frequented in the Church of God (160).