England: Protestantism, Reaction and Puritanism

In Edward VI’s reign (1547-53) Protestantism gained ground, notably in the English services of the Prayer Books. The differing demands of the two unsuccessful rebellions of 1549, however, still showed that the country was divided in its religious outlook. Under a Catholic monarch, Mary (1553-8), a Counter-Reformation was attempted, but it was resisted by the Protestants and became more and more unpopular. Elizabeth I’s effort to establish a moderate Anglican Church, acceptable to all, was resisted by Roman Catholics and Puritans alike. It seemed religious conflict would never end. The Roman Catholics became a small minority in the country, but the Puritans attracted more and more support, and in the seventeenth century they were to show themselves deter­mined to secure control of the Church.

Some chantries (endowments for priests to say masses for the dead) had been dissolved under Henry VIII. This Act, passed in the first year of Edward VI’s reign, completed the dissolution: ‘It is now ordained and enacted … that all manner of colleges, free chapels, and chantries, having been or in esse within five years next before the first day of this present Parliament, which were not in actual and real possession of the said late King, nor in the actual and real possession of the King our Sovereign Lord that now is, nor excepted in the said former Act … and all manors, lands, tenements, rents, tithes, pensions, portions, and other heredita ments and things above mentioned, belonging to them or any of them … and also all annual rents, profits, and emoluments, at any time within five years next before the beginning of this present Parliament, employed, paid or bestowed towards or for the maintenance, supportation, or finding of any stipendiary priest, intended by any Act or writing to have continuance for ever, shall, by the authority of this present Parliament, immediately after the feast of Easter next coming, be adjudged and deemed, and also be, in the very actual and real possession and seisin of the King our Sovereign Lord, and his heirs and successors for ever (161).

Two years later, an Act of Uniformity enforced English services upon the Church: ‘That all and singular ministers in any cathedral or parish church or other place within this realm of England, Wales, Calais, and the marches of the same, or other the King’s dominions, shall, from and after the feast of Pentecost next coming, be bound to say and use the Matins, Evensong, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, commonly called the Mass, and administration of each of the sacraments, and all their common and open prayer, in such order and form as is mentioned in the said book, and none other or otherwise (162).

This prayer from the English Book of Common Prayer prepared by Cranmer is an example of his mastery of English prose: ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, 0 Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen (163).

But there was much opposition to these reforms. One curate in Durham disapprovingly described the effect of the Act of Uniformity of 1549:  ‘The holy mass was utterly deposed throughout all this realm of England and other the King’s dominions at the said Pentecost, and in place thereof a communion to be said in English without any elevation of Christ’s body and blood under form of bread and wine, or adoration … (164).

Simple churchgoers must have found these violent changes very disturbing. A chronicler described what was done to the churches in Edward VI’s reign: ‘All images were pulled down through all England, and all the churches were white-limed and the commandments written on the walls. All the altars were pulled down. In every church all rood-screens were pulled down, and every speaker spoke against all images (165).

Here are three items from a manifesto drawn up by rebels in Devon and Cornwall against religious change. They show how much people clung to the past for safety: ‘3. Item we will have the masse in Latten, as was before, and celebrated by the Pryest wythoute any man or woman communycatyng wyth hym.

‘4. Item we wyll have the Sacrement hange over the hyeyhe aulter, and there to be worshypped as it was wount to be, and they whiche will not thereto consent, we wyl have them dye lyke heretykes against the holy Catholyque fayth.

‘5. Item we wyll have the Sacramet of the aulter but at Easter delyvered to the lay people, and then but in one kynde (166).

The rebellion in Norfolk, led by Robert Kett, was, however, Protestant in its outlook; his demands included: ‘8. We pray that prests or vicars that be not able to preche and sett forth the woorde of god to hys parisheners may be thereby putt from hys benyfice, and the parisheners there to chose an other or else the pateron or lord of the towne.

’15. [We pray that no] prest [shall be a chaplain] nor no other officer to eny man of honor or wyrshypp but only to be resident uppon ther benefices whereby ther parysheners may be enstructed with the lawes of god (167).

In 1552 another Prayer Book was introduced. It was more Protestant than the first, and the Act of Uniformity now compelled everyone to attend church every Sunday: ‘From and after the feast of All Saints next coming [1 November, 1552], all and every person and persons inhabiting within this realm, or any other the King’s Majesty’s dominions, shall diligently and faithfully, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent, endeavour themselves to resort to their parish church or chapel accustomed, or upon reasonable let [hindrance] thereof, to some usual place where common prayer and such service of God shall be used in such time of let, upon every Sunday, and other days ordained and used to be kept as holy-days (168).

During Edward’s reign, the work of Church reform continued.  Royal commissioners were sent to make lists of superfluous church wealth which was to be seized by the Crown. This is the list for the parish church of East Lutton in Yorkshire: ‘First, one chalice of silver, taken away by Mr Wandisford. Item, one vestment of dornix, with all things belonging to the same, remaining in the hands of John Davisone. Item, 2 bells and the lead, taken away by Richard Mansfeld, deputy surveyor, by virtue of the late Act of Parliament. Item, the stones and wood, taken by the said Mansfeld (169).

But when the Catholic Mary succeeded Edward on the throne (1553) the Reformation began to be dismantled. The preamble to the Act of 1553 passed by Mary’s first Parliament, set out the reasons for repealing the laws passed under Edward VI: ‘Forasmuch as by divers and several Acts hereafter mentioned, as well the divine service and good administration of the sacraments, as divers other matters of religion which we and our forefathers found in this Church of England, to us left by the authority of the Catholic Church, be partly altered and in some part taken from us, and in place thereof new things imagined and set forth by the said Acts, such as a few of singularity have of themselves devised, whereof hath ensued amongst us, in very short time, numbers of diverse and strange opinions and diversities of sects, and thereby grown great unquietness and much discord, to the great disturbance of the commonwealth of this realm, and in very short time like to grow to extreme peril and utter confusion of the same, unless some remedy be in that behalf provided, which thing all true, loving and obedient subjects ought and are bounden to foresee and provide, to the uttermost of their power (170).

Here are some extracts from various Injunctions issued by Mary, restoring the old religion still further: ‘V Item that every bishop, and all other persons aforesaid, do diligently travail for the repressing of heresies and notable crimes, especially in the clergy, duly correcting and punishing the same.

‘Xl Item, that all and all manner of processions of the Church be used, frequented, and continued after the old order of the Church, in the Latin tongue.

‘XII Item, that all such holy-days and fasting days be observed and kept, as was observed and kept in the latter time of King Henry VIII.

‘XIII Item, that the laudable and honest ceremonies which were wont to be used, frequented, and observed in the Church, be also hereafter frequented, used and observed. (171).

Under pressure from Mary, Parliament agreed to be reconciled to the Papacy: ‘That we may as children repentant be received into the bosom and unity of Christ’s Church, so as this noble realm with all the members thereof may in this unity and perfect obedience to the See Apostolic and Popes for the time being serve God and your Majesties to the furtherance and advancement of his honour and glory (172).

The Protestants were now completely driven underground. These were some adventures of a secret London congregation during the later years of Mary’s reign, when heretics were being burnt at the stake: ‘Betwixt Radcliffe and Rotherhithe, in a ship called Jesus Ship, twice or thrice they assembled, having there closely after their accustomed manner both sermon, prayer and communion; and yet, through the protection of the Lord, they returned, though not unespied, yet untaken … But they never escaped more hardly, than once in Thames Street in the night-time, where the house being beset with enemies, yet, as the Lord would, they were delivered by the means of a mariner, who being at that present in the same company, and seeing no other way to avoid, plucked off his slops [loose trousers] and swam to the next boat, and so rowed the company over, using his shoes instead of oars … (173).

Foxe wrote down the stirring conversation between the King’s officer and a Protestant as he was taken to be burnt at Ipswich: ‘Master Wingfield said to Kerby, “Remember the fire is hot, take heed of thine enterprise, that thou take no more upon thee, than thou shalt be able to perform. The terror is great, the pain will be extreme, and life is sweet. Better it were betimes to stick to mercy, while there is hope of life, than rashly to begin, and then to shrink.” To whom Kerby answered, “Ah, Master Wingfield! be at my burning, and you shall say, there standeth a Christian soldier in the fire. For I know that fire and water, sword and all other things, are in the hands of God, and He will suffer no more to be laid upon us, than He will give us strength to bear.” (174).

In 1555 Simon Renard, the Spanish Ambassador in London, wrote home to Philip II, warning him how deeply Londoners were murmuring against the burning of Protestants: ‘Sir: The people of this town of London are murmuring about the cruel enforcement of the recent acts of Parliament on heresy which has now begun, as shown publicly when a certain Rogers was burnt yesterday. Some of the onlookers wept, others prayed God to give them strength, perseverance, and patience to bear the pain and not to recant, others gathered the ashes and bones and wrapped them up in paper to preserve them, yet others threatening the bishops. The haste with which the bishops have proceeded in this matter may well cause a revolt. Although it may seem necessary to apply exemplary punishment during your Majesty’s presence here and under your authority, and to do so before winter is over to intimidate others, I do not think it well that your Majesty should allow further executions to take place unless the reasons are overwhelmingly strong and the offences committed have been so scandalous as to render this course justifiable in the eyes of the people (175).

A Catholic priest complained in 1556 to Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, that nothing was being done about the Protestants in Colchester: ‘They assemble together upon the Sabbath day in the time of divine service, sometimes in one house, sometimes in another, and there keep their privy conventicles and schools of heresy Your officers say … that the Council sent them not home without a great consideration. I pray God some of your officers prove not favourers of heretics. The rebels are stout in the town of Colchester. The ministers of the church are hemmed at in the open streets and called knaves. The blessed sacrament of the altar is blasphemed and railed upon in every house and tavern. Prayer and fasting are not regarded. Seditious talks and news are rife, both in town and country, in as ample and large manner as though there had no honourable lords and commissioners been sent for refor­mation thereof (176).

Cranmer had served in the Church in Edward’s reign, as well as in Mary’s. His conscience sorely troubled him. When he was first charged with heresy in Mary’s reign (1556), he recanted, but in his last sermon before his execution he retracted all that he had written, and as he was burned at the stake he spoke bravely of his real feelings, holding his right hand in the flames: ‘Now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life, and that is the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth; which here I now renounce and refuse as things written by my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death to save my life, if it might be. And, forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, my hand therefore shall be the first punished; for if I come to the fire, it shall be the first burnt (177).

Foxe left an extremely moving record of what happened when seven men of Smithfield were burned at the stake: ‘The proclamation with a loud voice was read to the people . . . that no man should pray for them, or once speak a word unto them, etc. Master Bentham, the minister then of the congregation, not sparing for that, but as zeal and Christian charity moved him, and seeing the fire set to them, turning his eyes to the people, cried and said, “We know they are the people of God, and therefore we cannot choose but wish well to them, and say, God strengthen them!” With that all the people with a whole consent and one voice followed and said, “Amen, Amen!” The noise whereof was so great, and the cries thereof so many, that the officers could not tell what to say, or whom to accuse (178).

On her accession, Queen Elizabeth I was very anxious to calm these terrible religious storms: ‘Her highness doth charge and command, all manner of her subjects, as well those that be called to ministry in the Church as all others, that they do forbear to preach, or teach, or to give audience to any manner of doctrine or preaching other than to the Gospels and Epistles, commonly called the Gospel and Epistle of the day, and to the Ten Commandments in the vulgar tongue, without exposition or addition of any manner, sense, or meaning to be applied and added (179).

Acts in 1559 restored the Royal Supremacy and the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI (with some changes). The Act of Unformity tried to prevent further changes in worship: ‘Provided always, and be it enacted, that such ornaments of the church, and of the ministers thereof, shall be retained and be in use, as was in the Church of England, by authority of Parliament, in the second year of the reign of King Edward VI, until other order shall be therein taken by the authority of the queen’s majesty, with the advice of her commissioners appointed and authorized, under the great seal of England, for causes ecclesiastical, or of the metropolitan of this realm (180).

The Puritans, however, wished to hold their own services. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, issued rules for the clergy to obey, two of which are given here: ‘Item, that they shall decently cover with carpet, silk, or other decent covering, and with a fair linen cloth (at the time of the ministration) the Communion Table, and to set the Ten Commandments upon the east wall over the said table.

‘Item, that all communicants do receive kneeling, and as is appointed by the laws of the realm and the queen’s majesty’s Injunctions … (181).

In 1569, the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland led the ‘Northern Rebellion’, to rally northern England to the cause of Roman Catholicism. In their rallying speech they called on the armed support of all men between the age of sixteen and sixty. Would the violence never end?: ‘Thomas, Earl of Northumberland and Charles, Earl of Westmorland, the Queens most trewe and lawful subjects, and to all her highness people, sendeth greeting:—
Whereas diverse newe set up nobles about the Quenes Majestie, have and do dailie, not onlie go about to overthrow and put down the ancient nobilitie of this realme, but also have misused the Queens Majesties owne personne, and also have by the space of twelve years nowe past, set upp, and mayntayned a new found religion and heresie, contrarie to Gods word. For the amending and redressing whereof, divers foren powers doo purpose shortlie to invade thes realmes, which will be to our utter destruction, if we do not ourselves speedilie forfend the same. Wherefore we are now constreyned at this tyme to go aboute to amend and redress it ourselves, which if we should not do and forenners enter upon us we shold be all made slaves and bondsmen to them. These are therefore to will and re­quire you, and every of you, being above the age of sixteen years and not sixty, as your dutie towards God doth bynde you, for the settinge forthe of his trewe and catholicke religion; and as you tender the commonwealth of your countrie, to come and resort unto us with all spede, with all such armour and furnyture as you, or any of you have. This fail you not herein, as you will answer the contrary at your perils. God save the Queen (182).

The Commander of the Queen’s forces anxiously reported from York that the rebels were very strong in the north: ‘There are not ten gentlemen in all this country that favour her proceedings in the cause of religion. The common people are ignorant, super­stitious, and altogether blinded with the old popish doctrine, and therefore so favour the cause which the rebels make the colour of their rebellion, that, though their persons be here with us, their hearts are with them (183).

The Northern rebels gained moral support from Rome, for in 1570 Elizabeth was formally excommunicated for failing to support the old religion. Here is an extract from the Bull of Pope Pius V: ‘Resting then upon the authority of him who has willed to place us (albeit unequal to such a burden) in this supreme throne of justice, we declare the aforesaid Elizabeth a heretic and an abettor of heretics, and those that cleave to her in the aforesaid matters to have incurred the sentence of anathema, and to be cut off from the unity of Christ’s body (184).

The same Bull also purported to deprive Elizabeth of the English throne and, more important, absolved her subjects of their obedi­ence to her: ‘And the nobles, subjects and peoples of the said realm, and all others who have taken an oath of any kind to her we declare to be absolved for ever from such oath and from all dues Of dom­inion., fidelity and obedience, as by the authority of these presents we do so absolve them; and we deprive the said Elizabeth of her pretended right to the realm and all other things aforesaid: and we enjoin and forbid all and several the nobles, etc. . . . that they presume not to obey her and her admonitions, commands, and laws. All who disobey our command we involve in the same sentence of anathema (185).

But Elizabeth was determined in these years to establish a truly national, Anglican Church, which would help unite her subjects. She felt that England must seek a national destiny, and as far as possible sever foreign connections. She meant to govern without the help of foreigners. So it was that in 1585 her Parliament passed an Act ordering the expulsion of Jesuits and Roman Catholic priests trained in seminaries on the Continent: ‘All and every Jesuits, seminary priests, and other priests whatsoever made or ordained out of the realm of England or other her highness’s dominions, or within any of her majesty’s realms or dominions, by any authority, power, or jurisdiction derived, challenged, or pretended from the see of Rome, since the feast of the Nativity of St John Baptist in the first year of her highness’s reign, shall within forty days next after the end of this present session of Parliament depart out of this realm of England, and out of all other her highness’s realms and dominions, if the wind, weather, and passage shall serve for the same, or else so soon after the end of the said forty days as the wind, weather, and passage shall so serve . . . (186).

The Puritans, however, insisted that the Church needed further reform. This is an extract from a Puritan Survey of the Ministry for Essex made in 1586, which condemned the priesthood: ‘Mr Ocklei, parson of Much Burstead, a gamester; Mr Durdent, vicar of Stebbing, a drunkard and a gamester and a very gross abuser of the Scriptures. Witnesses, Mr Denham, Mr Rogers, etc.; Mr Durden, parson of Mashbury, a careless man, a gamester, an alehouse haunter, a company keeper with drunkards and he himself sometimes drunk. Witnesses, Richard Reynolds, John Argent, etc.; Mr Cuck son, vicar of Linsell, unable to preach, he hath been a pilferer; Mr Wilkinson, vicar of Stansted, Mountfitchet, a gamester; Mr Fountaine of Much Brackstead, an alehouse haunter and gamester (187).

But while Elizabeth sought to free her realm from Jesuit and other foreign religious influences, she was anxious not to let her Church fall under the opposite extreme—Puritanism. ‘Uniformity’ was her policy. In 1593 it became necessary to pass another Act of Parlia­ment, this time forbidding the Puritans to hold their own church services. The Act said: ‘If any person or persons which shall ob­stinately refuse to repair to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer, and shall forbear by the space of a month to hear divine service, as is aforesaid, shall after the said forty days, either of him or themselves, or by the motion, persuasion, enticement, or allurement of any other, willingly join, or be present at, any such assemblies, conventicles, or meetings, under colour or pretence of any such exercise of religion, contrary to the laws and statutes of this realm, as is aforesaid; that then every such person so offending as aforesaid, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be com­mitted to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise, until they shall conform and yield themselves to come to some church (188).

Richard Baxter (1615-91) recounted how, as a boy, his father used to read the Bible to his family on Sundays, while the riotous games were played by the rest of the village: ‘Many times my mind was in­clined to be among them, and sometimes I broke loose from con­science and joined with them; and the more I did it the more I was inclined to it. But when I heard them call my father Puritan it did much to cure me and alienate me from them; for I considered that my father’s exercise of reading the Scripture was better than theirs, and would surely be better thought on by all men at the last; and I considered what it was for that he and others were thus derided (189).

Why did the Puritans attract such a following? Thomas Fuller suggested a reason: ‘What won them most repute was their ministers’ painful preaching in populous places; it being observed in England that those who hold the helm of the pulpit always steer people’s hearts as they please (190).

The Puritans in England, like the Lutherans, Calvinists and Jesuits on the Continent, thought to bring men nearer to the knowledge and service of God as they saw it. Their search for reality and purity in religion shattered the unity of the great Christian Church of the Middle Ages, and destroyed the authority it had exercised over the minds of men for centuries. By the end of the sixteenth century Christians were separated from each other as never before, but there was arising already a new respect for the freedom of the individual conscience, and a new desire to discover the essential truths of Christianity which was to lead them into fresh ways of unity in our own times.