[  Home  About  Partner  News  Contact  Site Map  ]      [  TV  DVDs  Books  Mission  Store  ]

Short History of The English Reformation

King Henry VIII of England
King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) was a man who loved music, the military arts, and was interested in building England’s navy. All male children born to Catherine and Henry had died. Henry had no heir of his own other than Princess Mary and it was unthinkable in that day and age that a woman should rule England. As Henry had married his brother’s widow, the solution seemed simple; he would have to get his marriage annulled and marry the young, Anne Boleyn. However, the king had not bargained on the obstinacy of Charles V, the most powerful monarch in Europe, nephew of Catherine and, more importantly, the virtual keeper of the Pope.

Thomas Wolsey
Thomas Wolsey joined the king's council in 1509 and as the king enjoyed other pursuits, he left much of the administration in Wolsey’s able hands, appointing him Lord Chancellor in 1515. The ambitious Wolsey then acquired other offices in rapid succession, including those of Archbishop of York, Cardinal and Papal Legate.

King Henry VIII had been given the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Clement for his efforts to keep the forces of Protestantism at bay in England which had first broken out in Wittenburg, in modern day Germany, in 1517 under the leadership of Martin Luther. Wolsey on two occasions tried to get himself elected Pope. Wolsey's failed in getting Henry divorced and was banished from court and eventually summoned to trial on a charge of treason. He died on his way.

Medieval Church, Tyndale and Luther
The Medieval Church (of Rome) was in a fossilised state, out of touch with the vast changes that had been taking place in economics, politics and social conditions. Dissenters known as the Lollards were still preaching against the Catholic bishop. In 1524, William Tyndale left the English shore never to return for the sole ambition of Bible translations in the safety of Cologne, France. By 1526, he had translated from the original Greek and Hebrew into English, and sympathetic merchants smuggled 6,000 Bibles in. Tyndale introduced such words to us as, scapegoat, Jehovah, fishermen and beautiful into the English language. Martin Luther was in Germany and had been preaching against the Roman Catholic Church since 1517; its corruption, godlessness, indulgences (paying for a licence to sin and be forgiven!) and love of traditions rather than the precepts of God. The Reformation had begun.

Reformation Parliament
King Henry VIII obtained his divorce regardless of Charles V and the Pope. He simply used the authority of the state and the so-named Reformation Parliament (first called in 1529) which for the next seven years, effectively destroyed the Medieval Church in England whilst the funds were diverted into his wars. In 1533, Henry married the pregnant Anne Boleyn and upon the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed Thomas Cranmer to do his bidding in that office. The official break with Rome came in April 1533 with the passing of the Act of Restraint of Appeals that decreed “this realm of England is an empire.” One month later, Archbishop Cranmer declared that the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null and void. Ann Boleyn was duly crowned Queen, giving birth to Elizabeth but three months later, the Pope excommunicated Cranmer and Henry VIII.

The Act of Supremacy
After 1534, events moved even more rapidly. The Act of Supremacy of that year declared that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England and the Pope officially designated merely as the Bishop of Rome. There was no Catholic uprising in Britain; Henry still considered himself a staunch Catholic, retaining his title of Defender of the Faith. There was no break with Rome on matters of dogma, the king himself had no great desire for a complete separation, but matters came to a head with the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, considered by many to be the architect of the English Reformation. In 1536, an Act was passed that stated that all smaller religious houses with an income of less than £200 a year should be given to the crown.

The Reformation’s Main Principles:
The Reformation which began under Martin Luther in Wittenburg, Germany on the 31 October 1517 had three main principles. They were:
  • God’s Word as found in the Holy Bible is the final authority on matters of doctrine and dogma. Therefore all doctrines and ceremonies for which there was no clear basis in Scripture was condemned.
  • Salvation was a free and underserved gift obtained through the finished work of Christ Jesus, being saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works. (You cannot buy a ticket to heaven or do enougth good deeds to earn a place, it is by the grace of God, you must repent of your sins, give yourself to God unreservedly and live for Him).
  • The ‘priesthood of all believers’ where every believer is a priest. In the early church there was no precedent for the priest to act as a mediator and no Scriptural support for the secular power of clergy; thereby making one status before God.

    Dissolution of the Monasteries
    Cromwell carried out the policies of Henry. The dissolution of the monasteries in Britain proceeded at a rapid pace. There were about 500 monasteries, which were home to 7,000 monks and 2,000 nuns, and about 50,000 lay workers. They were an easy target to satisfy Henry's need for vast amounts of money for coastal defences and for strengthening the navy.

    In three years, two Acts of dissolution brought to an end hundreds of years of monastic influence in Britain. It is estimated that Henry drew an income of about £37,000 from confiscated property, which when in the hands of the monks had produced five times the amount. It was estimated that the government had annual revenue of £100,000 whereas the church had £300,000 a year! Also the religious houses owned one third of the total land area of England-about two million acres. A feeble protest from Catholics in the North, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace was quickly suppressed. By 1540 the last of the monasteries had been dissolved. Any Abbots who disagreed were had up for treason and executed. Cranmer preached that the king would not need to tax the people anymore and so a lot of the people agreed to the proceedings.

    Many beside the king and his nobles were happy to see the monasteries disappear and the power of the Church (of Rome) diminished. Abbots lived like princes. Piety had almost disappeared. The bishop's house at St. David’s in Wales rivalled the cathedral itself in grandeur. They owned jewels, church plates, relics and gold artefacts. Henry was determined to have it all, thus the monasteries were destroyed and their lands taken over by the Crown. Their vast land-holdings were sold off to those who could afford them. The so-called Act of Union of 1542 and its corrected version of 1543 seemed inevitable. However, the “Statute of Rhuddlan” had really achieved union with England in 1284. By the Act, ‘finally and for all time’ the principality of Wales was incorporated into the kingdom of England.

    The Holy Bible in English
    King Henry’s chief minister and architect of the Reformation in England issued injunctions stating that every parish church should have an English Bible and shrines were to be destroyed. ‘Israel broke the sacred pillars in pieces, cut down the wooden images and threw down the high places and the altars’ (2 Chronicles 31:1).

    The Roman Catholic Church had forbidden the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages. All services were held in Latin, not the language of the people, so church services were mostly meaningless as the common people could not understand what was said. The priests for centuries had generally told the people what the Church of Rome wanted them to hear, not all of which aligned with Scripture, and was often contrary to it. By keeping the people ignorant of God's truths, the Church of Rome had been able to control, dictate and surpress true and honest biblical Christianity to suit their own end.

    Death of Henry VIII and other Kings and Queens
    In 1544, the name The House of Lords first appeared an indication of the rapid rise of the other, Lower House, The House of Commons. The Reformation had been firmly established in England and the power of the Roman Catholic Church irrevocably broken. Henry was obese and gout-ridden and died, in all he had six wives. He was buried along side Jane Seymour (his third wife) in St George’s chapel in Windsor, England.

    Edward VI (1547-1553) uncle, the Duke of Somerset made himself Lord Protector. He continued the late king's policy of religious changes, furthering the Protestant reforms. Cranmer’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’ 1552 was made compulsory in all churches and the Latin mass abolished. A new Act of Uniformity was passed. The rightful heir to the throne was Mary, Henry’s only surviving child by Catherine of Aragon and a committed Catholic. Edward declared Mary to be the heir.

    Lady Jane Grey (July 1553) was queen for only 9 days. In 1546 at aged nine she was sent to live at the court under Catherine’s responsibility (Henry VIII's 6th wife) being of noble parents. Her ambitious parents, along with those of her husband, Guilford Dudley, sought to keep a Protestant monarch on the throne (if Edward were to die) and to have that monarch under their thumbs. The best way to do that was to make their own children King and Queen.

    Four days after Edward’s death on 6 July 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen of England. However, Mary, who was the rightful heir to the throne according to Henry VIII’s will, was gathering support in Suffolk. She and her followers rode into London nine days later and imprisoned Jane and her supporters.

    Mary Tudor and Protestant Martyrs
    Mary Tudor (1553-1558) was daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Argon. She was also known as ‘bloody Mary’ (because she shed so much blood in her persecution of Protestant) and took the throne with hopes of restoring England to Catholicism. The Reformation had taken firm root throughout Northern Europe and in much of England. Mary set about having Parliament repeal the Act of Supremacy, reinstate heresy laws and petition for reunion with Rome. The Latin Mass was restored and Catholic bishops reinstated. The burning of ‘heretics’ began, such Protestant leaders and men of influence such as Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and Hooper, but also hundreds of lesser men and women and children who refused to adopt the Catholic faith. The entire country became enraged and fearful. The nation rejoiced at her death 1558. ‘When the wicked arise men hide themselves; but when they perish, the righteous increase’ (Proverbs 28:28).

    Recommended Book:
    How Christianity Made the Modern World Go

    Related Links:
    The Scottish Reformation Go
    Bible and Church Sitemap Go
    The History of England / Britain Go
    The History / Origins of the English Language Go
    Christianity and the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (1215 - present day Britain) Go
    The End of the Slave Trade - William Wilberforce - A Christian Warrior for Justice Go
    Leviticus: The Mosaic Law. Sacrifices, the Feasts and Festivals; Jesus and the Law Go
    The Bible - its History, Overview and Application Go
    A Brief Overview of each Book of the Bible Go
    In Search of the Exodus Go