All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

Laura Sangha

On Tuesday 16 January, in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishops and Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on ‘the damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church’. It reads:

The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed…

…Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

MANDATORY CAPTION: (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

For a Reformation historian this was a fascinating moment. It was also humorous (in a sort of bitter, 2017 way), since the Daily Mail immediately took offence at this show of remorse, declaring that since Henry VIII’s ‘war with the Pope’ began 500 years ago, and that it wasn’t even a required subject for the National Curriculum, it was hardly a ‘burning issue’. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Strictly Come Dancing Star provided a quote, saying:

These gestures are pointless. The Archbishop has not put anyone to death, as far as I know… Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation… You might as well expect the Italians to apologise for Pontius Pilate.

I’m looking forward to discussing all this with my students this term. There’s certainly a lot to be said of the way that the media are reporting this statement as an ‘apology’, as well as to ponder in the emphasis on unity and the healing of past divisions. Of course, Widdecombe is right that modern Christians are not individually responsible for what happened in the Reformation, but I disagree with the implicit argument underpinning the Mail article, that the Reformation is ancient history, and nothing to do with ‘us’. Since our understanding of the past and of where we came from is intimately tied to the way we conceptualise our contemporary identities, the way that we think of and interpret that past has a direct and immediate importance for the present. Members of the Church of England today are informed by, and understand their institution with reference to the past, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the evolution of the Church and to reconsider contemporary responses to it in this anniversary year.

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Suffering and violence is at the heart of religious identities

Thus whilst the historian’s ‘academic’ response to the Reformation should be to avoid anachronistically judging it according to the morals and expectations of the present, I see no reason why a Christian shouldn’t point to the bits of the past that they find unacceptable, and perhaps regret the violent and damaging actions of their own Church in centuries gone by. Sixteenth-century evangelicals were engaged in precisely that same process, examining the history of their institution and identifying errors that they believed needed reform. This is particularly important since violence plays such a key part in Christian history and understanding: those who suffered persecution and death as witnesses to a particular religious truth are key pillars in the ways that both Catholic and Protestant Churches understand themselves. In many ways, the Reformation itself was an argument about the history of the Church and the paths taken by earlier members of the Christian community, so the Archbishops’ call is hardly an invention of our supposedly politically correct/mad age.

But enough pondering of the ethics of our relationship to the past. The archbishops’ statement also got me thinking about the damage wrought during the English Reformation, the things that caused a legacy of distrust and division. Here are a few particularly damaging moments from the sixteenth century that might be worth reflecting on in our newly divided times.

The dissolution of the monasteries

The process of closing the monasteries began in the reign of Henry VIII, in 1536. By 1540 nearly all of them had gone, perhaps the most significant achievement of the ‘official’ Henrician Reformation. For the most part the larger religious communities ‘voluntarily’ surrendered their houses to the king, with the result that this part of the process was relatively peaceful, though in some instances lay people united to defend them. For instance when the royal officers in Exeter ordered workmen to pull down the rood-loft in the priory church, a mob of local people armed with spades and spikes charged into the Church and forced the carpenter to make an escape by leaping from the tower.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851Such resistance was sporadic and ultimately futile however, and monastic life in England and Wales ended for nearly 300 years. Close to 900 monasteries, priories, convents and friaries were swept away, their walls and roofs plundered for building materials, their artistic treasures packed up in carts to be sent to London and melted down to provide finance for Henry’s military campaigns. And here the longstanding damage can be found:  around 12,000 people were displaced by the suppression (for comparison the total population at the time was around 2.75 million). The removal of religious houses also rent the social fabric, ending the charitable provision of food and alms for the poor and destitute and upsetting patterns of land ownership. It is hard to imagine the shock waves produced as these prominent centres for learning and the arts disappeared virtually overnight – the destruction of the monastic libraries was perhaps the greatest cultural loss of the Reformation. Indeed, it didn’t take long for English Protestants to start expressing their regret for ‘this Chief Blemish of the Reformation’, as the mutilated ruins of the religious houses became a reminder of the shameful disrespect for the sacred that had scarred the cultural and moral landscape.[1]

The Pilgrimage of Grace

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The five wounds of Christ – the ‘pilgrims’ banner

The attack on the monasteries was one of the chief causes of the massive outbreak of popular unrest in 1536, known to history as The Pilgrimage of Grace. This was a series of linked rebellions, often led by local gentry, which engulfed Lincolnshire and the northern countries, and it was absolutely huge – in Yorkshire alone there may have been as many as 40,000 men under arms. The rebels called themselves ‘pilgrims’, marched under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, and among their demands were the restitution of the pope’s supremacy, the re-establishment of monasteries, and the restoration of the liberties of the Church. Henry was forced to negotiate with the rebels, since no royal force could come close to matching the rebel armies. He offered pardon and a parliament and as a consequence the rebel leader, Robert Aske, persuaded the pilgrims to return home in December. Alas, when Henry VIII failed to act quickly on his promises new disorders broke out in January and February 1537. The royal response to these lesser movements was brutal: around 180 rebels were executed, including seventy-four people strung up under martial law. Later trouble in Cornwall in January, and Walsingham in April resulted in further executions.

Henry VIII’s show trials

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Robert Barnes and fellow prisoners from a 1887 ed. of Foxe’s Actes & Monuments.

On 30 July 1540 Henry VIII had three people burnt to death, and three people hanged to death at Smithfield.

Robert Barnes, William Jerome and Thomas Gerrard were Protestant reformers. They were burnt for heresy under the Act of 6 Articles.

Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherstone and Edward Powell were Catholics. They were hanged for refusing to accept Henry’s Act of Royal Supremacy.

As Ethan Shagan has pointed out, this bizarre and viciously flamboyant act was paradoxically intended as a statement of the Church of England’s moderation. Though the Church had rejected the authority of Rome, it would not countenance any who openly questioned the key beliefs contained in the Act of 6 Articles. Although numerically this is not the bloodiest day in the English Reformation, it stands as a poignant reminder of the suffering of both Protestants and Catholics as the reforming process unfolded.

The Prayer Book Rebellion

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Tudor Exeter, engraving by Hogenberg, 1587

The reign of Edward VI bought more radical religious reform to English shores. The interiors of parish churches were transformed and public worship was dramatically altered when the liturgy was rewritten. In 1549 people in the south-west had had enough and rebellion broke out in Cornwall. The Cornish rebels soon joined with a separate revolt that had begun in Devon, and together they laid siege to Exeter and sent their demands up to London. Though the evidence suggests that a mix of economic and religious concerns prompted this trouble, religious concerns loomed largest in the rebels’ demands, which represented a rejection of Edwardian reforms. They demanded the return of prayers for the dead, objected to the new English Prayer Book (preferring the return of Latin), and asked that Bibles be removed from churches.

In July a well organised royal army routed the rebels in a series of pitiless skirmishes – it is likely that more than 4,000 West Country folk died at the hands of the royal soldiers at this time. Exemplary punishment also followed: the rebel vicar of St Thomas Exeter was bought to his own parish church:

and by a rope about his middle drawn up to the top of the tower and there in chains hanged in his popish apparel… having a holy water bucket… a pair of beads and such other like popish trash hanged about him.

In 2012 the Bishop of Truro apologised for this brutal repression.

Marian martyrs

Due to the notoriety of ‘Bloody Mary’, and in part as a legacy of their commemoration in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, the Protestant martyrs of Mary I’s reign are the best known victims of the violence unleashed by the English Reformation.

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Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, 1563 ed.

Beginning with a series of show trials of the Edwardian clerical leadership, Protestants were burnt for heresy with regularity in Mary’s reign. Victims included prominent men such as John Rogers, John Hooper, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. But increasingly the victims of the burnings were ordinary folk, sentenced for their adherence to a faith that had been established by law in their country just a few years before. Around 280 people suffered this most horrible of deaths between 1555 and 1558.

Elizabethan persecution

Less well known is the persecution carried out by Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I. Following the 1569 rising of northern Catholic nobles, and Elizabeth’s papal excommunication, increasingly harsh legislation was enacted aimed at eliminating the remaining Catholic presence in England and Wales.

In 1571 it became treason to call the Queen a heretic, and an offence to import any sort of Catholic devotional object. In 1581 the fines for non-attendance at Church were increased to twenty pounds per month, and it became a treasonable offence to convert anyone, or to be converted to Rome. In this Elizabeth was cleverly insisting that a Catholic’s greatest crime was disloyalty to their monarch – the logic being that following conversion to Rome you withdrew the allegiance to the crown and transferred to the Pope in Rome instead. In 1585 it was decreed that any priest ordained overseas was by definition guilty of treason as soon as he set foot on English shores, and lay people could be executed if they harboured any such men.

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Arrests for attending a Catholic mass, from Martyrology of Campion, Richard Verstegen, 1582

Persecution soon followed. Between 1577 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603 around 123 Catholic priests were executed, along with fifty-nine lay helpers. These victims were hung for treason and political disloyalty, rather than burned as heretics.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the violence and bloodshed that is part and parcel of the process of the English Reformation. But these six examples indicate the scale and ruthlessness of the damage initiated in the turbulent years of sixteenth-century religious reform. They are part of the history of the Christian churches, whether we choose to reflect on that or not.


[1] As early as 1580 reformers were expressing ambivalent views about the destruction of the monasteries, as Alexandra Walsham shows in The Reformation of the Landscape (2011), pp. 275-89.

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2 thoughts on “All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

  1. Interesting post Laura, and I might follow your lead in asking my students what they think about this apology, perhaps now towards the start of term, and then again at the end of the module.

    On a slight tangent, but I find it interesting that Anne Widdicombe has come out criticising the archbishops for this, when a few years ago now she presented an (in many ways) very strange documentary on the reformation. I seem to remember her talking about having converted to Catholicism, and so she took some on-screen offence at the burning of the pope in effigy at the bonfire celebrations in Lewes, and also I think at some soundbites from Rev. Ian Paisley decrying the pope as antichrist, so she’s clearly changed her mind (surely not compromising her principles for financial gain?) about the long-lasting legacy of the reformation, The documentary info is here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/christianity-a-history/episode-guide/.

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