English Reformation

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English Reformation

The English Reformation refers to the series of events in sixteenth century England by which the church in England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

Unlike other reform movements, the English Reformation began by royal influence. Interestingly, Henry VIII was initially a strong defender of Roman Catholicism, defending the papacy in his 1521 AD work The Defense of the Seven Sacraments. For this he was awarded, by Pope Leo X, the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith). The king came into conflict with the papacy, however, when he wished to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, for which he needed papal sanction. Catherine was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, the pope's most significant secular supporter. The ensuing dispute lead to a break from Rome and the declaration of the King of England as head of the English (Anglican) Church. England then experienced a period of frenetic reforms, some more radical and others more traditional, under monarchs such as Edward VI and Elizabeth I, and church leaders such as Thomas Cranmer and William Laud. What emerged was a state church that considered itself both "Reformed" and "Catholic" but not "Roman", along with other "unofficial" more radical movements such as the Puritans.

These events were part of the wider religious process of the Reformation, occurring throughout Northern Europe. The English Reformation began as another chapter in the long running dispute with the Catholic Church over the claim by the church of jurisdiction over the English people, though ostensibly based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment. It was, at the outset, more of a political than a theological dispute, but the reality of political differences between Rome and England nonetheless allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore. The split from Rome made the English monarch head of the English church by "Royal Supremacy," thereby establishing the Church of England, but the structure and theology of that church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations. It led eventually to civil war, from which the emergent church polity was that of an established church and a number of non-conformist churches whose members at first suffered various civil disabilities, which were removed only over time. Catholicism emerged from its underground existence only in the nineteenth century.

Different opinions have been advanced as to why England adopted a Reformed faith, unlike France, for instance. Some have advanced the view that there was an inevitability about the triumph of the forces of new knowledge and a new sense of autonomy set over-against superstition and corruption; others that it was a matter of chance: Henry VIII died at the wrong time; Mary had no child.

Henry VIII and the Break from Rome


Henry VIII ascended the English throne in 1509 at the age of 17. He made a dynastic marriage with Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother Arthur, in June 1509, just before his coronation on Midsummers Day. Unlike his father, who was secretive and conservative, the young Henry appeared to be the epitome of chivalry and sociability, seeking out the company of young men like himself. He was an observant Catholic. Between his young contemporaries and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, there was a state of hostility. So long as Wolsey had his ear, Henry's Catholicism was secure: in 1521 he had defended the Catholic Church from Martin Luther's accusations of heresy in a book he wrote, probably with considerable help from Thomas More, entitled The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, for which he was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" (Fidei Defensor) by Pope Leo X. However, Wolsey's enemies at court included those who had been influenced by Lutheran ideas among whom was the attractive Anne Boleyn.

Anne arrived at court in 1522, from years in Europe, as maid-of-honour to Queen Catherine. By the late 1520s, Henry wanted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. She had not produced a male heir who survived into adulthood and Henry wanted a son to secure the Tudor dynasty. Before Henry's father Henry VII ascended the throne, England had been beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown and Henry wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession. Catherine's only surviving child was Princess Mary. Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was "blighted in the eyes of God." Catherine had been his late brother's wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her (Leviticus 20:21); a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been needed to allow the wedding in the first place. Henry argued that this had been wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, but the Pope refused. According to Canon Law the Pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. Clement also feared the wrath of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops earlier that year had sacked Rome and briefly taken the Pope prisoner.

Break from Rome

Edward VI

Mary I and Catholic Restoration

Elizabeth I

Emergence of Puritanism

It was during the reign of Elizabeth that England saw the emergence of Puritanism. Elizabethan Puritanism encompassed those Protestants who, whilst they agreed that there should be one national church, felt that the church had been but partially reformed. Puritanism ranged from hostility to the content of the Prayer Book and "popish" ceremony, to a desire for church governance to be radically reformed. Grindal was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1575 and chose to oppose even the Queen in his desire to forward the Puritans' agenda. 'Bear with me, I beseech you Madam, if I choose rather to offend your earthly majesty than to offend the heavenly majesty of God', he ended a 6,000 word reproach to her. He was placed under house arrest for his trouble and though he was not deprived, his death in 1583 put an end to the hopes of his supporters. His successor, Archbishop Whitgift more reflected the Queen's determination to discipline those who were unprepared to accept her.

English Civil War



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