In 1529 Henry VIII and Parliament began to pass a series of acts which by 1534 had transformed the Church in England from part of the universal Catholic Church under the authority of the Pope, which it had been for centuries, to a church headed by the monarch, who was able to determine its doctrine and control its administration, a system unique within Europe (Marshall 2003, 39).
Severing the head of the traditional religion and replacing it with his own was an unprecedented step and one which has had undeniable effects on the construction of English identities and the self-perception of the English people ever since. Indeed, understanding of the Reformation has been profoundly affected by hindsight (O’Day 1986), by the eventual dominance of Protestantism and by the assumption that since a Reformation did happen, it must have been necessary (Haigh 1987a, 3). This will therefore be the first theme taken up below. The question of whether Henry’s church reforms went any more than skin deep calls into play a variety of considerations.
It is difficult to conclude with any degree of certainty whether changes in outward practice reflect a shift in internal belief or whether internal belief was more important than outward practice. It perhaps depended on the individual, their education and religious attitude. It has been suggested that the faith of the English Church was not necessarily to be affected. Marshall (2003, 39) quotes Henry’s words in the Dispensations Act of 1534, that he had no intent: ‘to decline or vary from the congregation of Christ’s Church in any things concerning the very articles of the Catholic faith.’
However, important aspects of traditional religious practice did change, as will be seen. Another important consideration is one of generalities and specifics: Henry’s personal faith is difficult to define and changes with changing times and events; his court and personal circle entertained a variety of persuasions; the views of the population at large and even the clergy could also be characterised by a degree of geographical and social variation within a tradition dominated by Catholic culture (Palliser 1987). Thus, to what degree is it advisable to draw wide ranging conclusions from disparate and ambiguous evidence? These and other considerations problematise the Henrician Reformation.
In order to consider whether Henry’s reforms to the church were anything more than superficial, this essay will examine a selection of themes and attempt to draw specific conclusions, suggesting that the Henrician reforms were indeed more than skin deep. Firstly, the changing nature of the Reformation in historiography will be considered, followed by the supremacy of Henry, its effects and reception. After that, the effects of the dissolution of religious houses and the Royal Injunctions of 1536 and 1538 on the religious life of England will be analysed and the promotion of the vernacular Bible explored. Finally, the Henrician Reforms are set in a wider context and some final conclusions drawn.
Reformation history has undergone profound changes which affect any debate about the nature and depth of change. Haigh (1987b) has usefully summarised the main positions, including those concerned with the origins and pace of religious change. He identifies four historiographical traditions which suggest there was: 1) rapid change from above; 2) rapid change from below; 3) slow change from above; 4) slow change from below. Each of these models can be shown to have either problematic starting points or conclusions. For example, anticlericalism and the unpopularity of the traditional Church was often considered a necessary condition for a popular Reformation or the swift acceptance of an imposed Reformation (Haigh 1987c, 56).
However, while some degree of corruption can be found, and a certain amount of anticlericalism may have existed, this was perhaps primarily in the form of local tensions rather than a large scale dissatisfaction and there seems to be little popular desire for change. In fact, evidence that change was desired or welcomed can be countered by evidence of continuity and defence of traditional practice and resistance or negative reactions to reform.
Haigh (1987c, 74) suggests it is more appropriate to think of anticlericalism as a product of the Reformation than a cause. Local studies can show that change was slow and imposed, as has been concluded with reference to Lincoln diocese or rapid and bottom-up as has been suggested for Kent. Much of the problem, as Haigh (1987b, 31) sees it, lies with the view that the Reformation was a unified, inevitable and deliberate Protestantisation of England, rather than a long and bitty process that at numerous points could have been stalled or taken different directions. Taken as a whole, the evidence seems to suggest a more complex and varied process of Reformation and Protestantisation as well as Catholic reaction that was influenced by a range of factors and personalities at all levels.
The supremacy of Henry within the Church by 1534 has been accounted the ‘single determining event’ of his Reformation, the one which made the other changes possible (Rex 1993, 1). This is the case even if it was achieved, like the Reformation itself, in piecemeal fashion (Rex 1996, 879-881), and it affected the authority of the clergy within the Church (Cross 1977, 15). The Acts of the Reform Parliament, convened in November 1529, against probate and mortuary fees and pluralism (holding more than one office) were designed to prevent financial abuses by clergy and have been dubbed ‘anticlerical’, although they were, to a degree, traditional, differing rather in the vehemence of the MPs against churchmen (Sheils 1989, 18-19).
While anticlericalism itself may be to a greater or lesser extent a historian’s deus ex machina to explain the inevitability of the Reformation, the influence of Reform lessened the influence of Church courts and thus the Church as a whole (Haigh 1987c, 56, 66). This was followed in 1531 by a charge against the English clergy of praemunire (jurisdictional encroachment), to be pardoned in return for a fine of £100,000 and the acknowledgement of Henry as Supreme Head of the Church. The importance of this charge was that, while the Church may have been exercising its traditional spiritual jurisdiction, little in that, according to Christopher St German, actually fell outside the jurisdiction of the King’s court: canon law was subordinate to common law (Rex 1993, 14-15).
In the ‘Submission of the Clergy’ in 1532, bishops surrendered the right to make canon law and the Papal authority dismissed by England’s claim to imperial status, followed in 1534 by the Act of Supremacy and the declaration that it was no longer heretical to deny Papal authority (Marshall 2003, 39). While Palliser (1987, 96) suggests that Henry’s control provoked more opposition than once believed, Hutton (1987, 116) believes there was little immediate impact on parish religion, although the ancient payment of Peter’s Pence to the Papacy vanished, and both should be regarded as concrete effects of the Henrician reforms. The majority of communities went along with reform, whether due to loyalty to the King or religious conviction, and by the end of Henry’s reign the bulk of churchwarden’s accounts acknowledged his supremacy in ecclesiastical matters (Whiting 1995, 205).
In March/April 1536, a revolutionary Act was passed, dissolving all monasteries with an income of less than £200 per annum (Marshall 2003, 43). This was undertaken ostensibly as a result of the findings of the Compendium compertorum (collection of complaints) compiled by Cromwell in 1535-6, which highlighted the widespread depravity and superstition of monks and offered favourable reports of some monasteries, such as Durham. By 1540, all monasteries, nunneries and friaries had been dissolved.
The importance of this process cannot be underestimated in terms of the change to the nature of religious life in England, even if, as the evidence collected by Whiting (1995, 205-206) suggests, their importance had been declining. Monasteries had been venues for healing, charity and pilgrimage and thus formed an important part of traditional religious life for many in England (Rex 1993, 81-82). The dissolution itself was accompanied by the Royal Injunctions of 1536 and 1538.
These ordered the compulsory purchase by each parish of a Bible, forbad the promotion of images, relics and pilgrimages, ordered the removal of images ‘abused’ by offerings or pilgrimage, banned candles except for on the altar, rood loft and Easter sepulchre, and encouraged that sermons against money or candle offerings and praying with rosary beads (Hutton 1987, 116; Marshall 2003, 53). These orders had a profound effect on the religious life of many. As Bowker (1987, 76) has rightly observed ‘even the simplest villager could not fail to notice a change when saints’ days were abolished, Bibles purchased, and shrines and places of pilgrimage and devotion were removed’ even if some shrines remained in the north, as Henry discovered to his displeasure in 1541 (Marshall 2003, 54).
The most serious reactions to these measures, and indeed the most serious threat to Tudor rule, occurred in northern England (Shagan 2003, 89). The participants of the Pilgrimage of Grace, that of Robert Aske, and the Lincolnshire rising certainly expressed themselves in terms of great concern at interference in traditional religious patterns, most clearly seen in the Pontefract Articles of 1536, which request the restoration of the Pope and traditional Church, although not of tithes and first fruits (Fletcher and MacCulloch 1997, 35-46, 131-137). However, the causes of these risings are ambiguous and often thought to be at least partially economic; at least, they were not limited to religious innovation.
On the other hand, it has been shown nationally that candles before images of saints, and perhaps also the images themselves by and large disappeared rapidly (Whiting 1995, 217; Hutton 1987, 117). While this may be taken for compliance, Haigh (cited in Marshall 2003, 54) suggests that it was a way of preventing the removal of the images and that traditional parish religious life continued, although Hutton’s observation that only one new image was purchased until the Marian Catholic reaction supports the idea of rapid change. In any case, Haigh does not dispute the change in practice, only the interpretation of its significance, but surely a change in ritual action, in a context where adherence to traditional ritual action was central to normal, accepted demonstrations of faith, is highly significant.
The focus on Bible reading and introspective contemplation of the word of God whether read or spoken was important amongst Reformers, promoting the idea of ‘justification’ through faith not good works (Marshall 2003, 27). England had been unusual amongst European countries in resisting and restricting the translation and availability of the vernacular Bible (Marshall 2003, 29) and although English Bibles had been available to a few in the late fifteenth century, they had been strictly controlled by licence (Rex 1993, 108). Under Henry, the Reformer William Tyndale was exiled in 1524 and eventually murdered for his efforts in this direction, despite having promoted ideas that supported Henry’s position, such as the primacy of authority of secular princes.
Nevertheless, his English translation was published in Cologne and Worms in 1528 and, despite an initial ban, by 1536 some 16,000 copies are estimated to have entered England (approximately 1 Bible per 157 people; MacCulloch 2003, 203). While Henry may have attempted strict control of heretical books as an extension of his Royal power and in the interests of unity there were influential Catholics such as Thomas More as well as reformers that were keen on making available vernacular scripture (Rex 1993, 117).
In 1537, Cromwell persuaded Henry to include in the provisions of the 1538 Injunction the requirement for each parish to purchase, make available and encourage the reading of a big English Bible and sponsored an official translation in 1539 (MacCulloch 2003, 203). While some parishes quickly complied, the association of the English Bible with heresy may explain the resistance to this Injunction and by the end of 1540 few parishes outside the cathedral cities and London had made the purchase (Haigh 1987, 13). However, compliance was royally encouraged in 1541 by the introduction of a £2 fine for those who failed to purchase their Bible within 6 months.
The prospect of this fine significantly outweighed the 10-13s 4d (a half to two thirds of a pound) cost of the purchase and most parishes possessed their Bible by 1545 (MacCulloch 2003, 72; Haigh 1987a, 13). The word of God was now potentially accessible to all; those who were not literate probably knew someone who was, or could listen to a preacher but the tendency for literacy rates to be higher in towns and amongst urban merchants and artisans may explain differing rates in the spread of Protestantism between town and country (Haigh 1987b, 24). In any event, lay scriptural knowledge undoubtedly increased from this time on.
The Henrician Reformation was only one of part of a long complex process that lead to the eventual Protestantisation of England, which was in any case never total (Haigh 1987b, 19). This process included top-down reform set back by Mary and continued by Edward VI and Elizabeth, as well as grassroots change that had been encouraged by the Henrician reforms. The evidence suggests that reform was imposed, accepted, welcomed and resisted, depending on a variety of factors such as loyalty, expediency and self-interest as well as religious belief (Whiting 1995).
Far from being mutually contradictory, this is what we might expect during a period of change and as such it would be unwise to expect change to be even geographically and socially. This does not mean that change, however limited, was always superficial. Haigh (1987a, 212) suggests that the apparent ease with which the early reforms were overturned under the Catholic Mary indicates a general aversion but, while undoubtedly true to some extent, it also seems to miss the point that loyalty to the monarch, however grudging, could override other factors, just as obedience to Henry’s reforms does not always indicate popularity.
The Henrician Reformation, as Rex (1993, 5) points out, was ‘a curious hybrid, driven by and riven with contradictory impulses.’ According to MacCulloch (1995, 174-175), Henry’s attempt to balance interests between Catholic tradition, Catholic humanist reform and reformist evangelical innovation can be seen in the Ten Articles of 1536, the Bishop’s Book of 1537 and the King’s Book of 1543; even the Six Articles of 1539, usually taken to represent a returning conservativism concede to reformist interest. Whilst Henry was certainly no Protestant and did not leave England a Protestant country, his changes to the Church and the religious life of England were nevertheless profound and significant and this was recognised at the time by conservatives and reformers alike (Whiting 1995, 226).
Having attempted to set the discussion in context and outlined the changing nature of Reformation studies, this essay has briefly reviewed a selection of the evidence for the extent of change caused by Henry’s Church reforms. Firstly, it was argued that the supremacy of Henry over the Church and the removal of the authority of Rome meant real change and was a profound innovation. While some may wish to downplay this change as superficial, it should be remembered that tradition not innovation was the norm governing religion, and that a change in form was never cosmetic.
Whatever Henry’s reasons, and whether or not the supremacy was the result of a planned policy or the outcome of a series of reactions to circumstances, its effects on the form and authority of the Church were tangible. The rhetoric of the Pontefract Articles in response to this shows a deep concern with maintaining the traditional spiritual order, headed by the Pope. Secondly, Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries and the proscribing of traditional practices was discussed. The profound changes to traditional religious practices and more widely to traditional ways of life again cannot be underestimated here. Despite continued pilgrimages and shrines in some areas, the rapid upholding of many of the Injunctions indicates change.
While Haigh argued that compliance was merely a protection for other traditional practices, this cannot disguise the fact that practice did change and although some people may have deliberated over what these actions meant, as Bowker stressed, for many lay people a change in practice was noticeable and significant. The third consideration was the revolution concerning the availability and use of vernacular Bibles, largely banned even during Henry’s early rule. It is clear that the King’s position on this matter underwent change and his own eventual reliance on the scriptural word of God rather than papal authority is significant.
The provision of English Bibles in parishes, while initially slow, was almost total by Henry’s death and lay people were encouraged to encounter the word of God directly. Finally, the essay considered the nature of Henry’s reforms in the longer term, suggesting that while he and England were far from Protestant on his death, significant change had occurred and was the foundation of later change under Edward and Elizabeth. Indeed, to expect rapid or total change or even a unified ‘national’ reaction is unrealistic. Whether we speak of modified Catholicism, proto-Protestantism or a spectrum of positions, Henry’s changes were both real and significant.
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