10 Things You Should Know about the Protestant Reformation in England
With the English Reformation we come to the fourth major tradition to emerge from the events of Oct. 31st, 1517 (Lutheran, Reformed [Calvinistic], and Anabaptist being the other three). The reformation in England differed from that on the continent in three ways: 1) The English reformation was dominated by political events. 2) There was no one figure who stood out in the way Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli did in Europe. 3) The struggle in England focused less on theological issues of grace and the authority of Scripture and more on the nature, function and worship of the church.
So here are some 10 things it is important that we know about the reformation in England.
(1) There were several influential precedents to the reformation in England, among which are the following. The Lollards were the English followers of John Wycliffe (1329-1384). By 1395 they were an organized sect and continued, despite persecution, to exert considerable influence in England. Their emphasis on the sole authority of Scripture provided a ripe atmosphere for the entrance of Reformation thought.
Several scholars exerted an important influence as well. John Colet (1466-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), together with Erasmus, were among the so-called "Oxford Reformers". Certain intellectuals at Cambridge regularly met at the White Horse Inn, a pub which acquired the name "Little Germany" where they discussed the latest Reformation intelligence fresh from the continent. Among those who gathered were Thomas Bilney, Robert Barnes, and Hugh Latimer. Others present in Cambridge at this time were William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Miles Coverdale, all of whom would prove to be significant contributors to the reformation in England. The Cambridge movement, however, was suppressed in 1525. Barnes and Bilney were both burned at the stake for heresy.
We must also point to the fact that Luther's works were widely circulated in England, in spite of the papal decree in 1521 that his writings be burned. Finally, through the work of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), the Bible was made available in the English language. Tyndale published two editions of 3,000 copies of an English NT in 1525. Coverdale provided the world with the first English translation of the entire Bible in 1535.
(2) The English Reformation must begin with King Henry VIII and the many women/wives in his life. On April 21, 1509, Henry succeeded his father, Henry VII, as king of England. He was just shy of his eighteenth birthday. Henry was a well-educated and scholarly man, a competent theologian and musician, who spoke Latin, French, Spanish and English. Henry’s father had arranged for Henry’s brother, Arthur, to marry Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain). But Arthur died, forcing the elder Henry to press his younger son to marry Catherine. Pope Julius II first had to set aside Arthur’s marriage to Catherine lest Henry be guilty of incest. He did so reluctantly. Henry and Catherine had one child, a girl named Mary (Catherine suffered numerous miscarriages, still births, and infant deaths). By 1525 Catherine was forty and had gone seven years without a pregnancy. Henry’s desire for a son, plus his growing attraction for Anne Boleyn (with whose sister, Mary, Henry had already had an affair), led him to divorce Catherine (he appealed to Lev. 20:21), an action denounced by the Pope. The Pope had come under the influence of the emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew!
Henry proceeded to secretly wed Anne (who was pregnant by this time), while deposing Catherine. The Pope demanded he do away with Anne and reinstate Catherine, under threat of excommunication. Henry gained control of the English church and manipulated the Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy in 1534 which declared him, the king, to be the supreme head of the Church of England. This constituted the political break with Rome. Thompson summarizes:
“The parliamentary acts of 1534 complete the establishment of the Church of England, settled the definition of royal supremacy, and brought papal jurisdiction in England to a close. Two characteristics of the process deserve notice. First, it was accomplished without much reference either to continental Protestantism or to the dissenting tradition in England. Second, it was constitutional – done by the government, specifically the Parliament, by the consent of the governed” (569).
(3) Thomas Cranmer had advised Henry to seek opinions on his annulment from the major theological faculties of the European universities, most of which gave their approval (most Italian schools being the exception). Not all of Henry’s advisors agreed with his assertion of authority. Sir Thomas More, the brilliant humanist and author of Utopia, refused to renounce allegiance to Rome and was subsequently beheaded for treason. His head was displayed on London Bridge on the end of a pike as a warning to others whose loyalties might be divided between pope and king.
In 1536 Henry dissolved all the monasteries in England, largely because he desired their wealth. Still, it was not Henry’s desire to break theologically with Rome, as the doctrinal affirmation known as the Six Articles (1539) (passed by Parliament at the king’s request), demonstrate: they reaffirmed transubstantiation, celibacy of priests, and other RC distinctives. “That document,” notes Thompson, “was a rank repudiation of Protestantism in England” (583).
During the final years of Henry’s reign, there were three religious parties in England: (1) the Roman Catholics; (2) the Protestants (led by Cranmer); and (3) the Henricians who tried to perpetuate the views and policies of Henry. The latter group were Catholics, to be sure, but not Roman Catholics.
(4) Henry soon tired of Anne Boleyn, who had given him only a daughter (Elizabeth; Cranmer stood as godfather at her baptism), so he had her tried and eventually executed for adultery (along with five of her lovers). Henry persuaded Cranmer to declare his marriage to Anne void so that the child Elizabeth could not succeed to the throne. Ten days later he married Jane Seymour who bore him the son he always wanted, Edward. Nine days after Edward’s birth, his mother died. Henry’s next marriage was politically motivated. He married Anne of Cleves (without having laid eyes upon her), sister of a German prince, hoping thereby to solidify relations with that country and strengthen his position against France. When Henry finally saw her, he was repulsed and divorced her six months later. He then married Catherine Howard, whom he had executed in 1542 (she was charged with numerous adulterous affairs), and lastly Catherine Parr, who alone of his many wives outlived him.
When Henry died he arranged for Edward to rule first, followed by Catherine’s daughter, Mary, and then Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth.
(5) Edward VI, who was only nine when he took power, ruled from 1547-1553. Two regents, the Duke of Somerset (Edward's uncle) and the Duke of Northumberland, ruled England until he came of age. They were both Protestants and worked at persuading young Edward to pass legislation favorable to the Reformation.
It was during this time that a number of Reformed theologians from the continent settled in England and were assigned by Cranmer to influential positions at several universities. Among the more influential were Martin Bucer (Strasbourg reformer and mentor of John Calvin), Peter Martyr Vermigli (an Italian by birth), and John a Lasco. Their contribution to the Protestant movement in England was profound.
(6) A few changes were made: the reading of the Bible in public services was approved, the Six Articles of Henry were abolished, the clergy were allowed to marry, and the cup was granted to the laity. In 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was published, reflecting a conservative, Calvinistic theology. A doctrinal confession called the 42 Articles was drafted, largely by Thomas Cranmer, with the help of John Knox of Scotland (1553). Three weeks after signing it, Edward died. The significance of Edward's reign is that during this time England broke with Rome theologically. This was not to last.
An ill-fated attempt to prevent the Catholic Mary from succeeding to the throne was launched by Northumberland. He persuaded Edward to set aside his father's will (on the grounds that both Mary and Elizabeth were illegitimate) and to bestow the crown on Lady Jane Grey, daughter of the duke of Suffolk, to whose heirs Henry VIII had bequeathed the throne in the event that all of his children died without posterity. But Mary escaped and Edward died a month later, saying, "My Lord and God, save this realm from popery, and maintain it in true religion."
(7) On July 11, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen in London, but her reign did not last long. Mary marched on London with an army of supporters. People supported her both because of their disdain for the ambitious Northumberland and their deep sentiment for a hereditary monarchy. Northumberland recanted, but was still executed. Jane Grey was imprisoned and beheaded a year later.
Mary was Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon and thus had ties with the RCC. Her reign, although only five short years (1553-1558), coincided with the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the continent and she was undoubtedly influenced by it. She forced Parliament in 1553 to repeal everything Edward had done and returned England to the religious conditions that prevailed under her father, Henry.
Persecution was intense and martyrdom frequent [Foxe's Book of Martyrs chronicles much of what occurred]. Among the more than 300 who died for their Protestant faith were Hugh Latimer (1485-1555) and Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555).
These two stalwarts of the reformation were ordered to be executed outside the city gate of Oxford. As they were being led to the stake, they passed the prison in which Thomas Cranmer (see below) was jailed, hoping to catch a glimpse of him and shout a word of encouragement. Indeed, Cranmer was brought to the tower of the prison by the government to watch the proceedings. Their aim was to frighten him out of his defiance. Whereas Cranmer was overcome with anguish by what he saw, falling to his knees and bewailing the event, he remained steadfast.
Ridley's brother-in-law (George Shipside) attempted to hasten his death by heaping on the fire more wood, but inadvertently stemmed the progress of the flames and prolonged Ridley's death. Latimer, by contrast, died more quickly. With his last breath he uttered the famous words:
"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
(8) Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and is generally regarded as the founder of English Protestantism. Cranmer’s doctrine of salvation was virtually identical with that of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, but he often appealed to the church fathers and tradition as authorities in matters where Scripture is silent. He opposed the RC sacramental system but “held on to the hierarchical structure of the medieval church and its Constantinianism. For Cranmer and the later Anglicans, the monarch of England was the supreme governor of the Church of England even though Christ is its sole head" (Olson, 438). He was imprisoned when Mary ascended the throne. He was brainwashed while in solitary confinement and was compelled to write a denial (recantation) of his Protestant faith.
Despite his recantation, the law required that he suffer death. He was led to a packed church on the day of his execution, at which time the government and RCC anticipated that he would publicly denounce the reformation and affirm the authority of the Pope. Much to everyone's surprise, Cranmer seized the opportunity to proclaim his faith in the doctrines of the reformation. "And as for the Pope," he shouted, "I refuse him, as Christ's enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine."
Shocked, the authorities rushed to pull Cranmer from the pulpit and led him immediately to the stake. As he stood before the flames, he fulfilled a promise which he had made in his last shouts in the church. He stretched forth into the fire the hand that earlier had signed the document of recantation, declaring aloud: "Forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished for it."
He was then heard to repeat the words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit . . . I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." It was said that in the ashes of the fire his heart was found unburnt. The Catholic explanation was to suggest that it was due to his evil character or perhaps some form of heart disease.
Virtually all those who were martyred lost their lives because they would not embrace the RC mass and its doctrine of transubstantiation. Those who were able to escape Mary's bloody persecution fled to Geneva (called Marian Exiles) where they studied under Calvin and Beza (among whom was John Knox).
(9) When Mary died in 1558 she was succeeded by Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth (who ruled from 1558-1603) sought a middle ground between Protestant and Catholic. She passed the Act of Supremacy in 1559 that made her supreme ruler in both ecclesiastical and temporal affairs. She re-instituted the Book of Common Prayer with slight revisions and adopted the 39 Articles, a revision of Edwards' 42 Articles. In 1571 the 39 Articles were adopted by Parliament as the official creed of the Anglican Church and remain such to this day.
The theology of the 39 Articles is decidedly Reformed in emphasis. The sole authority of Scripture is affirmed, as is justification by faith alone, unconditional election, and the Calvinistic view of the Lord's Supper (spiritual presence in the elements).
The leading Anglican theologian under Elizabeth was Richard Hooker (1554-1600) “who was raised Reformed but converted to Anglicanism with strong Catholic sympathies while studying at Oxford University” (Olson, 432). Hooker outwardly agreed with Cranmer and the continental reformers on both the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and Sola Gratia et Fides. Yet he also endorsed the Eastern orthodox concept of salvation as deification, i.e., salvation is a process by which human nature is gradually transformed into the divine nature through the sacraments. He seriously undermined the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer by endorsing the catholic concept of church government by Bishops who possessed apostolic authority through a visible succession.
(10) One of the Marian Exiles who returned was John Knox, the Scottish reformer. Having studied in Calvin's Geneva, Knox insisted on purifying the church of every last vestige of RC influence. He wrote a treatise entitled, First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [rule] of Women (1558), in which he protested the idea of a female ruling a country. His target was Mary, but Elizabeth was sure the book was aimed at her. Thus Knox was immediately forced into exile in Scotland where he directed his attack against the Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots! Knox's protestant convictions were quite vocal: he once declared that "one Mass was more fearful than if ten thousand armed enemies were landed in any part of the realm."
All of this angered Pope Pius V who proceeded to excommunicate Elizabeth and sent Philip of Spain to take back England for the RCC. Philip himself laid claim to the English throne via his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots [Mary's grandmother was Henry VIII's sister.] Philip's Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. Countless explanations have been given for the demise of the purportedly superior Spanish fleet, one of which is noted by Thompson:
"As the armada came around the northern coast of Scotland and met the gales of the Atlantic Ocean, what remained of the great Spanish engine of war was hurled against the rocks or swamped in midocean. No more than half of the Spanish Armada managed to struggle back to Spanish ports in 1589. History interprets the defeat of the Spanish Armada as an English victory. It was not thought so at the time. The armada had not sunk under English bombardment, but under the wind of God. 'Afflavit Deus,' said the English --- 'God blew!' (And the God who blew was no doubt Protestant). . . . It is probably an instance in which Divine Providence is given too much credit" (656-57).