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Excerpts, Part Part 5: The English Reformation

It might have been hoped that, with a monarch who had been designated Fidei Defensor by the Pope, the Church in England would be spared the ravages inflicted upon Catholicism in continental Europe. This was not to be the case, but the reason for the Reformation in England was radically different than that for the Reformation in Europe. The difference is that whereas Martin Luther wished to change his religion Henry VIII wished to change his wife, and despite his apparent devotion to the Church the king based his conduct on one fundamental axiom, namely that because he was the king he must have his way. It has been said that history is written by the victors, and for centuries there prevailed a politically correct view of the English Reformation, written by the victorious Protestants, in which the significance of Henry's insistence upon marrying Anne Boleyn is minimized. The Protestant claim, based on the writing of John Foxe, is that because the Reformation happened it must have been necessary and therefore must have been wanted by the people. On the contrary, the best scholarship in the second half of this century has proved this to be untenable. It happened not because it was wanted by the people, but because it was imposed as an act of state.  When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 Catholicism was probably more flourishing in England than anywhere in Europe: "With a rising level of recruitment to the priesthood, a buoyant market for religious books, and more and more altars and images crammed into the churches, Catholic pietywas flourishing in the years immediately before the Reformation." 23 There was vigorous lay involvement in Church life through countless flourishing religious guilds and confraternities. 24 Professor J. J. Scarisbrick considers the unprecedented extent of church building and improvement to be of the greatest possible significance:

Medieval parish churches are one of the glories of England. No other country is more richly endowed. In the hundred and fifty years or so before the Reformation, the high noon of the perpendicular style, an average of two out of every three underwent at least one major building programme of this kind----whether they were humble village churches or grand fanes of town and city. Those who believe in the decline of the late medieval Church have to explain this widespread and enthusiastic building. 25

Despite the remarkable piety of the English laity they did not hesitate to criticise faults among the clergy. They were concerned less with moral lapses, which "were very rare", 26 than with what they perceived as the more frequent fault of avarice. Complaints were made that some priests refused to bury people until they had received gifts for doing so, and for not administering the Sacraments when they were asked. 27 Recent scholarship, based on the examination of episcopal visitations, has shown that such abuses were far less widespread than Protestant historians have claimed:

On the issues of clerical education, morality, and pastoral care, it has been demonstrated in a number of regional studies that deficiencies were exaggerated by earlier historians and that clerical standards apparently satisfied parishioners.  . . . for every Cardinal Wolsey and every Prior More of Worcester there were hundreds of poorly-paid and hard-working curates. 28
Saint Thomas More

St. Thomas More was among the most severe critics of clerical failings in the reign of Henry VIII, but in a detailed examination of More's writing upon this subject, Cardinal Gasquet shows that he rejected any suggestion that the clergy were as a body corrupt. 29 As More made clear, the principal weakness of the pre-Reformation Church was the extent to which many bishops saw themselves primarily as royal officials rather than spiritual shepherds, and this was reflected in the choice that, with the exception of Fisher, they would make when they were required to choose between the king and the pope.

Thomas More regretted the lack of discretion in choosing clerics, and represented this as one of the chief abuses of the Church in England. The higher clergy cared little about possessing the qualities necessary for their state. Since Henry VII's days a bishop had become a royal official drawing a pension from Church revenues; his cleverness had brought him to the king's notice, and he looked to the latter for preferment, and continued to serve him at Court by undertaking either embassies or diplomatic missions. His own diocese never saw him, except when he was worn out, aged, or in disgrace. 30
If the Protestant claim that because the Reformation in England happened it must have been both necessary and wanted is incorrect, then why did it take place? The answer is simple. The innovations in both doctrine and liturgy during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I were imposed on the people from above without any evidence of popular support for the changes among the people. The Protestant historian Sir Maurice Powicke accepts this unequivocally: "The Reformation in England was a parliamentary transaction. All the important changes were made under statutes, and the actions of the King as supreme head of the Church were done under a title and in virtue of powers given to him by statute." 31

MARY TUDORThe only instance of such popular support for religious change in England was for the restoration of the Catholic Faith during the tragically brief reign of Mary Tudor. Another Protestant historian, Professor S. T. Bindoff notes that soon after Mary's accession to the throne in 1553: ". . . the Mass was being celebrated in London churches 'not by commandment but of the people's devotion', and news was coming in of its unopposed revival throughout the country." 32 Catholicism flourished once again in Mary's reign:

Altars, images, crucifixes and candlesticks were restored to the churches with alacrity, and the extent of local investment in service equipment suggests religious enthusiasm rather than reluctant conformism.  . . . prospects for the future seemed good. In parish churches at least, the damage done by the Reformation was repaired, and clerical recruitment boomed again for the first time since the 1520s. In despair, Protestant writers in exile called for rebellion to overturn Mary's regime before the reconstruction of Catholicism became irreversible. 33

23. C. Haigh, The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987), p. 8.
24. E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale University Press, 1992), Chapter 4. This is the best documented study available of the vibrant, English Catholicism before the Reformation, and of the devastating effect on popular piety resulting from state imposed Protestantism.
25. J.J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford, 1984), p. 13.
26. Haigh, op. cit., p. 3.
27. G. Constant, The Reformation in England (London, 1934), p. 15.
28. Haigh, op. cit., pp. 57-8.
29. A. Gasquet, The Eve of the Reformation (London, 1900), p. 136.
30. Constant, op. cit., pp. 19-20.
31. M. Powicke, The Reformation in England (Oxford, 1953), p. 34.
32. S.T. Bindoff, Tudor England (London, 1952), p. 168.
33. Scarisbrick, The Reformation..., op. cit., p. 9.

[Emphasis in bold added.]


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