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The Church in England on the Eve of the Reformation

  • Was there a groundswell of opposition to the church in England?

  • How far was Henry’s break with Rome influenced by new religious ideas and criticisms of the church

  1. The nature and structure of the English church and its doctrine and practice c1520s

  • Christianity played a central role to 16th century people:

faith & belief permeated all areas of society and private life;

also as a way of understanding the world;

Christanity marked and eased the rites of passage (birth, marriage, death);

the church was at the centre of rural and urban communities

  • Make sure you know what the following were:

      • papacy

      • archbishops and bishops, abbots

      • secular and regular clergy

      • the religious orders (monasticism)

      • parish churches

      • religious guilds and confraternities

      • the seven sacraments

      • purgatory and masses for the dead (chantry chapels)

      • images, saint cults (the cult of the virgin), popular religious practice (pilgrimage, devotions, localised rituals such as field blessing

      • the laity and the roles they played in religious life

      • the difference between doctrine and liturgy

  • It is also important to realise the vital importance of Christianity to the political and social elite. All believed: some believed formally but without fervour; however, many of the social elite were devout and increasingly learned about theology

  • It is also important to recognise the great power of the church: canon law and church courts played key roles in people’s lives (and deaths); the church was itself a great landowner, the great bishops and religious houses were great landowners as much as the great nobility (the archbishop of Canterbury was the greatest single landowner after the king.

  1. Criticisms of the church

The key term here is anticlericalism, which is well explained on p111. note that anti-clericalism came in many forms

  • There were ways in which the clergy abused their positions, such as pluralism, simony, absenteeism, nepotism (Lotherington p82). There were also sources of tension such as mortuary fees, benefit of clergy, canon law & the church courts. There were also concerns about the poor standards of some clergy and lack of graduate clergy, and about careerism (Lotherington pp81-83)

  • There were attempts to reform from within the church: Colet and Fisher were reformers from a humanists perspective (Lotherington pp 81-83); Bishop Longland of Lincoln was assiduous in his visitations (inspections) and efforts to ensure that his parish churches and monastic houses were doing their job

  • Wolsey seemed to many to personify what was wrong with the church with his worldliness and wealth. Criticisms of Wolsey from the Skelton likes of Skelton could smack of anti-clericalism and be conflated with it

  • Anti-clericalism was strongest in London (and especially among London lawyers): the Hunne case (Lotherington p83) caused a major stir. It was sometimes associated with more radical religious beliefs and Protestantism, as in the case of Simon Fish (Lotherington p81), Lollardy and even Thomas Cromwell (p111)

  1. Religious Reform in the 1520s

  • In the first half of the 16th century Christian Humanism was one of the most important intellectual trends in the church and among intellectual elites. The key figure was Erasmus, who had strong contacts in England with likes of Colet and More (Lotherington p84).

Erasmus and Christian Humanism

One of the key elements of Renaissance thought was humanism. The term came from the emphasis Renaissance thinkers put upon the humanities (the study of history, moral philosophy and civics), above the theology and metaphysical philosophy associated with medieval learning. It was the reading of the humanities that would help men cultivate virtue and civilisation. In particular, the key texts of the ancient world were revered. However, many versions of their texts had become corrupted by being copied by hand and often altered; it was the job of the scholar to rescue the pure original as the basis for learning.

Erasmus applied these ideas to Christianity. Instead of the emphasis on theology, Erasmus wanted to emphasise the centrality of the Christian life, on the living faith. Furthermore, by his studies of ancient writers and the original Greek New Testament, he came to question the value of some traditional elements of religious practice, seeing some as mere superstition, having no value in leading men closer to God. His emphasis of the life of faith in the world also led him to question the value of the monastic life.

It is the contention of GW Bernard that Henry’s idiosyncratic religious views owed more to Erasmus than any other, and certainly more than to Luther; it is also true that (like Henry) Erasmus was not a Protestant. It is also true, however, that many European men and women of learning started out as Christian Humanists before being converted to Protestantism.

    • The European Protestant Reformation had its origins in Switzerland and Germany, but its ideas soon spread into England (p111

  • Outline where ideas of Imperial kingship and the royal supremacy came from (Lotherington pp 88-90)

  • There were reform movements akin to Protestantism in Europe before the 16th century, such as Lollardy. Trace the Lollards’ history and survival (p111). Lollardy was not a significant force in itself, but it was a seedbed for early Protestantism.

  • Most of the early English Protestants were clerics and intellectuals.

      • William Tyndale, in Antwerp, was a Lutheran (p115)

      • Simon Fish (p115)

      • ‘Little Germany’ is the name given to group of young Cambridge scholars who were influenced by Lutheran ideas (Barnes, Bilney, Coverdale, Latimer; see the Tudor Who’s Who); they also included Cranmer. All seemed to be connected to Anne Boleyn (p115)

Remember, early English Protestantism was closely connected to ant-clericalism. Many who were anti-clerical became Protestant; some Protestants used anti-clericalism as a popular clarion call. However, not all anti-clericalism was Protestant by any means. As the Reformation got underway Protestantism was the the preserve of a tiny minority and was actively persecuted by Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor. Most who had Protestant inclinations steered a very careful course.

A Short Guide to the European Reformation

From 1517, a wave of radical change swept areas of Germany and Switzerland, then spreading to Scandinavia and beyond. It represented to most radical and, ultimately successful, challenge to the authority and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church; in which Western Europe divided itself between Catholicism and Protestantism. The most famous of the early Protestant leaders was the German, Martin Luther. Luther began by challenging some of the church’s practices, but ended by radically challenging fundamental Catholic beliefs. It is important that we understand some of Luther’s key ideas.

  • Sola fide, or the doctrine of justification by faith alone was perhaps the key to understanding Protestantism. The core belief of Christianity is the idea that Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day saved mankind from the consequences of their sins (ie hell). All man needs to do to be saved is believe in Christ. They are saved (justified) by faith alone.

  • The other key belief was Sola scriptura. How did Christians know what to believe? Luther’s answer was that the only source of Christian truth was the bible.

From these starting points Luther went on to draw other radical conclusions. If faith alone saved you, and scripture was the only authority for Christian doctrine, any element of religious practice or doctrine not necessary to salvation or sanctioned by scripture was expendable, even misleading. Therefore, many elements of traditional catholic practice were to be condemned and abandoned: monasticism and ‘superstitious practices’, for example; purgatory did not exist. There were only three sacraments, the ones in the bible: baptism, the Eucharist (the communion service) and confession. Lutheranism also emphasised personal faith and the role of the clergy was to lead men to faith and help them remain: therefore their primary job was preaching and teaching, liturgy and the bible should be in the peoples’ own language (what is called the vernacular liturgy and scriptures). Priests like all others could and should marry.

If one plank of the Lutheran reformation concerned doctrine, the other was ecclesiology: who had authority over the church and who decided true doctrine. Luther came to the conclusion that the papacy had no authority from scripture. Furthermore, the papacy had corrupted true doctrine and misled the people. Therefore, it had to go. Instead, princes (and kings) were given authority over the church; they should reform it.

There was one last major issue. Catholic doctrine taught transubstantiation: in the mass, the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ (what was called the real presence); so precious a miracle that most lay folk normally took communion in one kind (ie the bread alone).

There were other great Protestant Reformers: men such as Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer. Luther, instead of transubstantiation, taught consubstantiation: the body and blood were in the bread and wine as fire is in hot iron. One important Swiss reformer, Zwingli, went further. Christ had died once, and risen again once for all time. There could be no repeat of that sacrifice. Therefore, the bread and wine could not possibly become the body and blood of Christ. Thus, the bread and the wine were symbolic, they commemorated Christ’s death and men fed on hem spiritually. This belief was known as sacramentarianism.

It is important to realise that Protestantism was not united, and was new. Therefore, different Protestants believed different things. Indeed, many would have felt more comfortable with the tag of reformer or evangelical. Some reformers stayed loyal to Rome (like Erasmus or Reginald Pole). Some reformers were Protestant. Might we see Henry VIII as a reformer who broke with Rome but was not Protestant?


There were two central themes to religious reform and the Reformation in the 16th century. One concerned doctrine and practice: things like the real presence, the viability of monasticism or whether some parts of current religious practice (such as saint cults) were valid. The other strand was that of ecclesiology and authority who should exercise authority over the church, and with what justification?

  1. Popular Church or ‘unseaworthy vessel’

  • For AG Dickens the church of the 1520s was an ‘unseaworthy vessel’ (Sce 9.10, p113) threatened by anti-clericalism (GR Elton 9.12), Lollardy, humanism and early Protestantism

  • Christopher Haigh (Sce 9.13, P113), JJ Scarisbrick (9.11) & Eamon Duffy (9.14): vitality, popular acceptance & participation. Guilds & fraternities; wills, bequests & endowments; popular devoution & practice; purgatory & the obsession with death.

  • Do the activity based upon Robert Whitings’ audit (p112)

  1. Influence of these and other ideas on Henry

  • How Henry had been orthodox: Assertium Septem Sacromentorum & Defensor Fide

  • How Henry had been influenced by More & Erasmus. However, humanism could imply going back to scripture as the primary source and using it to question the teachings of the church. Henry went to Leviticus and challenged the divorce.

  • How the campaign for the divorce implied a questioning of papal authority: Leviticus vs papal dispensation; how the campaign carried the implicit threat of an attack on papal authority & even of a break with Rome.

  • The relevance of Imperial kinship to Henry’s position. The idea of Imperial kingship and its implications for the supremacy of royal law above church law and the unlimited authority it implies (and thus denied the papacy). The relation to these ideas of Praemunire.

  • How these ideas were transmitted to Henry: Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, Fish’s Supplication & St Germain. (pp114-15)

  • The growth in influence of the Boleyn circle from 1527; the rise of Cromwell & his role from 1529; how reformers were increasingly influential; the roles of Cranmer and Fox & the Collectanea satis Copiosa, & Opinions of the Universities (pp114-15)

  • The anti-clericalism of the Reformation parliament

  • Show how as the likelihood of getting a divorce from Rome, the idea of a Royal Supremacy became a very viable alternative

Imperial Kingship

Luther was not the first to challenge the pope’s authority. In the middle ages there was a long running and bitter dispute between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire: the papacy claimed that the pope was the overlord of the emperor; whereas the emperors claimed that they were either not subject to the pope, or even the pope’s overlord.

On and off, the two sides fought out these issues across much of the middle ages. Sometimes they fought actual wars; for more than seventy years the popes fled to Avignon in France; there were also rival claimants for the papacy (the so-called anti-popes). Perhaps their chief weapons, in a war of ideas and contested claims of legal authority, were intellectuals and lawyers.

One such intellectual was Marsiglio of Padua, a fourteenth century writer who argued on that empires were ‘of themselves’ and could not be subject to any outside authority. We know that Thomas Cromwell had read Marsiglio’s key work, the Defensor Pacis. A team of scholars (including Edward Foxe and Thomas Cranmer) was appointed to research the merits of Henry’s divorce case both in England and abroad: of the opinions they managed to gather in support from Germany and the University of Paris the most powerful were ones based on legal arguments in support of the Empire’s case. These arguments formed part of the case for Imperial kingship put forward in the volume those scholars presented to Henry, the Collectanea Satis Copiosa (see Lotherington p90). These ideas formed the basis of the case for the royal supremacy over the church. A lawyer, Christopher St Germain also argued the case for Imperial Kingship (p115).


It was the divorce that led Henry towards reform; in particular, towards Protestant and Erastian challenges to papal authority and the idea of a Royal Supremacy. By 1532, Henry was till keeping his options open, but had promoted reformers and seemed more and more attracted to the idea.

The balance of evidence indicates that the majority of English people were broadly happy with their church and there was certainly no widespread desire for radical change in doctrine and practice, or to challenge the authority of Rome. However, among the elites there were those who wanted precisely that. The need for the divorce made some of their ideas, especially on the Royal Supremacy attractive.

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