RELIGION IN ENGLAND IN THE 16TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
In 1501 Arthur the oldest son of King Henry VII married Catherine of Aragon. However Arthur died in April 1502. Henry VII's son Henry now became heir to the throne. Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother's widow in 1509. Normally such a marriage would not have been allowed but the Pope gave a special dispensation.
At the beginning of 1511 Henry had a son. Unfortunately the boy died after only 7 weeks. Catherine had four miscarriages and she only had one child who lived - a girl named Mary born in 1516. Henry was desperate to have a son and heir and Catherine could not give him one.
Henry came to believe that God was punishing him for marrying his brother's widow. Normally that would not have been allowed but the Pope granted him a special dispensation. Henry now argued that the marriage to Catherine was not valid and should be annulled (declared null and void).
Not surprisingly Catherine was totally opposed to any move to dissolve the marriage.
Henry asked the Pope to annul the marriage. However the Pope would not cooperate.
The Henrician Reformation
Meanwhile in 1527 Henry began a relationship with Anne Boleyn. Henry was keen to get rid of Catherine and marry Anne. In 1529 Henry called the 'Reformation Parliament'. Ties between England and Rome were cut one by one. Finally Henry lost patience with the Pope and rejected his authority and in 1534 the Act of Supremacy made Henry the head of the Church of England.
Although Henry broke with Rome he kept the Catholic religion essentially intact. He had no intention of changing the English religion to Lutheranism. In 1539 Henry passed the Act of Six Articles, which laid down the beliefs of the Church of England. The Six Articles preserved the old religion mainly intact. However in 1539 Henry authorized a new translation of the Bible and from 1545 English replaced Latin as the language of church services. Furthermore Protestant ideas were spreading in England.
King Henry also dissolved the monasteries. Parliament agreed to dissolve the small ones in 1536. The large ones followed in 1539-1540.
In 1546 a woman named Anne Askew was tortured then martyred for her Protestant beliefs. She was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London.
Henry VIII died in January 1547. He was succeeded by his 9-year-old son Edward. Since he was too young to rule his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was made protector and ruled in his stead.
Somerset was a devout Protestant as was Archbishop Cranmer. They began to turn England into a truly Protestant country. The Act of Six Articles was repealed and in 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer, the first Anglican prayer book was issued. Meanwhile priests were allowed to marry and pictures or statues of Mary or the saints were removed from churches. In 1552 a second prayer book was issued.
In 1553 Edward died and he was followed by his sister Mary. She was a Catholic and she detested the religious changes of Henry VIII and Edward VI. When Edward became king she continued to attend Catholic mass in her own private chapel. When Edward ordered her to desist she appealed to her cousin, Emperor Charles V. He threatened war with England if she was not left alone.
Mary was determined to undo the reforms of the two previous reigns. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553. In 1554 married clergy were ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. Then, in November 1554 the Act of supremacy was repealed.
In 1555 Mary began burning Protestants. Over the next 3 years nearly 300 Protestants were martyred. Many more Protestants fled abroad. However Mary's cruelty simply gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated ordinary people. She simply drove people away from Roman Catholicism.
The Religious Settlement
Elizabeth I was crowned in January 1559. She restored Protestantism to England. The Act of Supremacy was restored in April 1559 and further Acts replaced Catholic practices. However it was a moderate Protestantism.
All but one of the English bishops refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (recognizing Elizabeth as head of the Church of England) and were removed from their posts. About one third of the parish clergy were also removed.
However most of the population (not all) accepted the religious settlement. People could be fined for not attending church. Nevertheless some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret.
A history of Christianity in England
In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots was forced to flee her own country. She fled to England and Elizabeth held her prisoner for 19 years.
In November 1569 Catholics in the north of England rebelled. The Catholic rebels hoped to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. However the uprising was quickly crushed and the last battle took place on 19 February 1570. Afterwards many of the rebels were hanged.
Meanwhile in 1570 the pope issued a bull of excommunication and deposition. This papal document decreed that Elizabeth I was excommunicated (excluded from the church) and deposed. Her Catholic subjects no longer had to obey her.
Furthermore in 1581 the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services (aimed at Catholics) were increased (although in some areas they were not imposed). In 1585 all Catholic priests were ordered to leave England within 40 days or face a charge of treason.
However most English Catholics remained loyal to the Queen when the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588. (The ships that fought the armada were commanded by a Catholic, Lord Howard of Effingham).
Meanwhile clergymen became much better educated during the 16th century. By the end of the century many of them did a degree.
Religion in the 17th Century
Life in 16th Century England
Last revised 2017