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The English Reformation Soap Opera

Historians have long argued that much of the success of the Protestant Reformation can be traced to the political and economic motivations of some of the princes and monarchs who chose Protestantism. There can be no argument about the motivation behind the English Reformation. More so than any of the other Protestant movements, the English Reformation owes its beginning to the political and economic interests of a monarch—and from the lust and desire of that monarch, who had one of the largest egos in modern European history. To give King Henry VIII sole credit for the English Reformation would be erroneous, however. There were reformers— real reformers—who came before Henry delivered the decisive blow to Catholicism in England.

The Torch is Passed in England

After Wycliffe, William Tyndale (c.1490-1536) took over as the leader of the reform movement in England. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale placed his trust in the Bible rather than in Church tradition and the words of the papacy. While working on his education, Tyndale wanted desperately to study the Bible but his instructors made him study theology instead. Tyndale decided then that his mission in life was to make the Bible available for Englishmen. At the time, English law forbade the translation of the Bible into English, so Tyndale sought permission for his project. When it was denied, Tyndale worked out of his home in secret. The secret quickly spread and Tyndale fled to Germany to continue his work.

Would You Believe?

Whereas Wycliffe used the Latin translation of the New Testament, the Vulgate, for his English translation, Tyndale used the Greek. The Vulgate was full of translation errors from the original text, so Tyndale's turned out to be much more accurate.

Tyndale completed his translation in 1525 and had it smuggled into England. Despite the best efforts of the Catholic officials there, the Tyndale Bible, actually just the New Testament, found its way into the hands of many, many Englishmen. Tyndale paid a heavy price for his efforts. Eleven years after the completion of his translation, Tyndale fell into a trap set by the pope. A group of men mugged Tyndale and took him to a prison where he later was hanged and then burned.

Tyndale’s New Testament served as the basis for the work of Miles Coverdale (1488— 1569), the author of the first complete English Bible. Upon Coverdale’s completion of the Bible, English reformers pushed for the Bible to be made available to churches across England. One of the biggest supporters of this movement was Thomas Cran- mer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and advisor to King Henry VIII.

I'm Henry VIII I Am

Henry Tudor became King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1509. Henry was a Catholic king in a Catholic nation. There were reformers in England, but the nation had not yet turned away from the Church. Henry’s wife was Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), a devout Catholic. Matters seemed to be in order in Henry’s life and England seemed to be in great shape to resist the Protestantism that swept over Europe. Henry blasted Martin Luther and provided the Church with undying support as the movement got underway. The pope even gave Henry the title of Defender of the Faith.

All Henry needed was a male heir to carry on his Catholic legacy in England. He and Catherine tried and tried, but Catherine failed to give him the male heir he so desperately wanted. The only child from their marriage to survive was a daughter named Mary. Henry decided that since Catherine could produce no male heir and basically no healthy children, something had to be wrong with her; being the king, he never would have imagined that it might actually have been his fault.

Henry loved women and had any number of conquests throughout his marriage to Catherine. However, Henry found one woman, Anne Boleyn (c.1507-1536), whom he could not conquer. In fact, Henry became smitten with young Anne and decided he’d like to add a notch for her on his bedpost. Henry had to have Anne, so he set out to find a way to get rid of Catherine. Thus began the real-life soap opera.

Henry would have liked a simple divorce from Catherine, but the Catholic Church did not allow divorce. After all, when two souls joined in marriage, they were bound together in a permanent union by God. What God joined together, no man could undo. Therefore, Henry didn’t have the option of a divorce. Henry found a loophole, though, and hoped he could be granted an annulment. Catherine had actually been Henry’s brother’s wife before she married Henry. According to Catholic law based on a passage in the Old Testament, a man could not marry his dead brother’s wife but Henry did anyway. Since the marriage never should have occurred in the first place, Henry argued, an annulment would fix the whole problem. He wrote to the pope and requested an annulment but the pope didn’t want anything to do with it. As it turned out, the pope feared the Holy Roman Emperor, whose troops had occupied Rome, and the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt was none other than Henry’s wife, Catherine.

Would You Believe?

Henry VIII required a public oath of support as a way to enforce the Act of Supremacy. Thomas More, defender of Catholicism to the end, refused to take the oath. Henry arrested, tried, and executed More on charges of treason. 

Henry’s advisors were split over what to do. One group led by Thomas More persuaded Henry not to do anything to damage the relationship between England and the papacy. More, a staunch defender of Catholicism, had opposed the distribution of Tyndale’s Bibles. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), on the other hand, who had supported the distribution of Tyndale’s Bibles, found himself again opposed to More. 

Cranmer suggested to Henry not to wait for Rome but to go ahead and marry Anne—in secret, of course.

Most pleased, Henry did just that. He also appointed Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastic position in England. Before long, Henry’s marriage to Catherine had been annulled and his marriage to Anne declared valid. When the pope found out about Henry’s shenanigans, he threatened to excommunicate Henry. Henry responded by making Anne the Queen of England. Needless to say, this horrified the papacy and many hard-line Catholics in England, including Thomas More. Just a few months after Henry’s marriage to Anne, she gave birth to a bouncing baby ... girl. Once again Henry, or rather Henry’s wife, had failed to produce a male heir; this daughter would be named Elizabeth.

The Reformation Parliament

The English Parliament, or Reformation Parliament as it later would be called, went to work right away and officially broke ties with the Catholic Church. In 1533, Parliament passed the Statute in Restraint of Appeals which made all legal matters in England subject to the authority of the crown rather than the papacy. These legal matters included appeals, wills, ecclesiastical grants, and, most importantly, marriages. This technically allowed “the King’s Great Matter” to be handled by the English rather than by the papacy.

Drafted by one of Henry’s closest advisors, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), the statute made it illegal to appeal to the pope on any matter. Parliament followed up in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, legislation that declared the king the true head of the Church in England, or in Parliament’s own words, “Protector and only Supreme Head of the Church and the clergy of England.” Cromwell took the lead in moving this through Parliament, too. Basically, Parliament declared the pope officially irrelevant.

The English Reformation had begun not because of passionate preaching or heartfelt convictions. Henry just wanted out of his marriage with Catherine. But there were other good reasons for breaking ties with Rome. The Church owned perhaps more land and wealth in England than the king himself, and the break with Rome gave Henry the opportunity to confiscate that land. Beginning in 1535, Cromwell, who disapproved of monastic life anyway, visited numerous monasteries and abbeys throughout the land. The following year, Henry and his advisors closed the monasteries and sold the lands to nobles in what became known as the dissolution of the monasteries. This worked well for Henry. Those opposed to monasticism were pleased that monasteries were gone. Henry made a ton of cash, and nobles increased their holdings.

As a Matter of Fact

Early in the Protestant Reformation, some reformers were too Protestant. In England, for example, a reformer named John Foxe proved to be too Protestant for Henry VIII and the Anglican Church. Classified as an evangelical, or one who held Protestant beliefs not held by the Church of England, Foxe came under fire during Henry's reign. Though his situation improved under Edward VI, he fled the country when Mary ascended to the throne. Upon Mary's death, Foxe returned to Elizabethan England and published the first edition of what is commonly called The Book of Martyrs, a not-always-accurate account of Christian martyrs. The text, whose full title contains 87 words, drew much criticism for its inaccuracies, so Foxe published a second edition with both corrections and rebuttals to some of the criticism.

The Church of England

Despite the break with the papacy and the creation of a national church in England (called, of course, the Church of England), Henry’s new church was still very Catholic. Other than no longer recognizing the pope as the head of the Church, there weren’t many dramatic theological changes made to the new church. The Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, still held most Catholic beliefs including apostolic succession. The Anglican Church even practiced a very high-church, liturgical service much like the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church was so Catholic that Henry passed the Six Articles in 1539 reaffirming many traditional Catholic beliefs. Strongly opposed by the pretty-much-Protestant Thomas Cranmer, the Six Articles reaffirmed the Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and chastity, and the importance of confession. Cranmer and Cromwell both wanted more change in the new Church, but Henry did not. Therefore, the Reformation in England initially amounted to little more than a transfer of power from Rome to the English throne.

Define Your Terms

Apostolic succession is the belief by the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and other churches that Christ is still with the Church through the ordination of bishops. Christ chose and ordained the apostles who ordained the next generation and so on through history so that all current bishops can trace their ordination to the apostles and, therefore, to Christ.

Protestant, Catholic, and Protestant Again

All that notwithstanding, Henry still didn’t have the male heir he needed to carry on the line. As it became apparent something was wrong with Anne Boleyn, because she couldn’t produce a male heir, either, Henry lost interest in her. Henry and Thomas Cromwell trumped up charges of witchcraft, adultery, and treason, then tortured some poor fellow to obtain a false confession against Anne. In 1536, England executed Anne. Less than two weeks later, Henry married Jane Seymour (1508-1537), the woman who eventually would give Henry the male heir for which he longed.

Henry died in 1547 and left the throne to his 10-year-old son, Edward. Edward’s uncle, the Protestant Edward Seymour (1506-1552), became protector, or the real ruler, until Edward matured. With that, the Protestants finally got their wish. Cranmer instituted big changes in the Church of England that made the church more Protestant. The Protestants reformed the Lord’s Supper and allowed priests to marry. They repealed the Six Articles and introduced the Book of Common Prayer. The Book served as a guide for the liturgy in services as well as a guide for morning and evening prayers. It combined traditional theology with ideas from other reformers such as Luther and Zwingli. Protestantism surely would have become even more pervasive in England had young King Edward not died at the age of 16.

Would You Believe?

Few people know that after Edward died, Lady Jane Grey became queen and “ruled" for nine days. Jane was placed precariously on the throne to continue Protestantism. Unfortunately for Jane, Mary took the crown from her, imprisoned her, then had her executed when she refused to convert to Catholicism.

All the while Edward “ruled” as Edward VI (1537-1553), Henry’s first child, Mary (1516-1558), was gathering support from Catholics in England. She was determined to take the throne and return England to the true faith. Mary and her right-hand man within the Church, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558), made their number-one priority restructuring the Church and undoing the things that Henry and Edward had done. Mary declared previous reforms null and void. Many Protestant leaders saw the writing on the wall and fled the country. Those who did were wise because Mary and Cardinal Pole persecuted Protestants mercilessly, earning Mary the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Many, including Thomas Cranmer, were executed under Mary’s regime. England returned quickly and relatively easily to Catholicism, perhaps indicating that England wasn’t so ready to leave the Catholic fold in the first place. Upon Mary’s death, her half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, ascended to the throne of England as Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Would You Believe?

Mary offered Cranmer his life in exchange for recanting his Protestant beliefs. Cranmer recanted but was sentenced to death anyway. He had the last word, though, when he recanted on recanting just before he died.

Elizabeth I (see Chapter 7) took the throne and returned England to Protestantism once again. In 1559, Parliament undid the Catholicism of Mary and reinstated the Book of Common Prayer. Parliament adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles, the fundamental theological beliefs of the Anglican Church. Elizabeth also brought back the Anglican Church as the official church in England. A shrewd politician, Elizabeth learned from the mistakes of her predecessors. Rather than being aggressive with her policies toward Catholics the way Mary was toward Protestants, Elizabeth took a middle-of-the-road position concerning religion within her realm. Basically, she declared that Protestantism would be the official religion and then ignored Catholics as long as they kept quiet and didn’t make a scene. She made sure not to make enemies with Catholics at home and she tried to stay out of the way of the pope. Nevertheless, the Church tried to do away with her and return England to Catholicism. One pope excommunicated her and another gave his blessing for assassination attempts. Neither tactic worked.

England grew angry with Rome and drifted farther and farther away. Elizabeth had successfully chosen a religion for her kingdom and made it stick without much resistance.

Would You Believe?

Elizabeth's moderate religious policies, known as the Elizabethan Settlement, pleased neither extreme Catholics nor extreme Protestants. However, most of the country and many people in Europe accepted the arrangement.

The Least You Need to Know

John Calvin established a theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland, where the city council kept its citizens in line with a strict moral code.

Calvin published his theology in Institutes of the Christian Religion; central to his theology was the belief in predestination.

John Knox, influenced greatly by Calvin, founded the Presbyterian Church, the official church in Scotland.

Reformers across Europe started smaller reform movements and ultimately created Protestant denominations like the Amish and the Mennonites.

Reformers like Wycliffe and Tyndale laid the foundations for the English Reformation, but Henry VIII actually broke with Rome and created the Church of England.

“Bloody Mary” Tudor returned England to Catholicism and her half-sister, Elizabeth, restored the Anglican Church for good after Mary’s death.

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