The Reformation was the beginning of the transformation of a society based on faith in authority, to a society based on the authority of the individual’s own faith ─ from a society where there had been a high level of faith in a central dogma to, after many a bloody struggle, a new form of community where the individual’s authority was based on the relevance of their own belief.1
In appropriating to himself the spiritual authority of the pope, Henry shattered the Christian cosmos that had held together for fifteen hundred years. Once tasting that authority, Henry’s lust for further power ─ as well as for the love of Anne Boleyn ─ (in which order it’s hard to say) grew apace. He convinced himself that all the bishops and clergy of England should be subject to his spiritual as well as temporal power. By May 1532 he had bludgeoned the clergy into accepting him as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and granting him his divorce. Immediately Henry married the heavily pregnant Anne only to find his hopes dashed four months later when the baby turned out to be a girl, the Princess Elizabeth, not the male successor he yearned for. The couple tried again, and three years later Anne tragically gave birth to a still-born boy. Henry turned his rage onto the woman for whom he had sacrificed the Catholic Church in England, and ordered that she be beheaded.2
Henry’s blood was up; faced with a possible invasion from Catholic Europe he needed money for his army. If he were already Supreme Head of the Church was he not also the owner of its enormous riches ─ its lands, building, and its quite enormous investments? Here Henry turned to one of the nastiest characters in English history and appointed Thomas Cromwell as his chancellor. On the rumour that three abbots had dared to criticize Henry from their pulpits they were arrested, found guilty, and summarily executed. Clerical opposition collapsed completely. In five years all the monasteries of England were dissolved, including all the schools that had been set up over such long periods of time to provide England with an educated middle class3.
The King seized the portable treasures of the monasteries, burnt many of their libraries, sold off their lands and stripped down their magnificent buildings, and sold off their stone, lead, and timber to be recycled to build comfortable homes for the newly rich. The total number of monks, nuns and clerics who were displaced amounted to just over one percent of the total population. It’s of perhaps more than passing interest to note that, in terms of 2006, this would be the equivalent of turning onto the streets all the teachers in primary and secondary schools together with all the lecturers at the universities, and then selling off the land as future hyper-markets or retail parks, a useful visual indication of the scale of the paradigm shift. In little more than twenty years ─ a generation ─ Henry’s need to produce a male heir became the context in which Luther’s attack on the Church found its champion, and Machiavelli’s4 advice (see Introduction) led to the creation of the first genuine nation state in England. In the cruel turbulence of a Tudor dynastic struggle a new world was painfully born5.
Yet when Henry died in 1547 his was a lavish, catholic funeral. Henry might have reformulated the relationship between the monarchy and the Pope but, at that stage, protestant England certainly was not. It was in the six years that followed when the young King Edward (only legitimate surviving son of Henry Viii by Jane Seymour)6, initially under the guardianship of the overtly protestant Archbishop Cranmer, and his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, that England was transformed into a protestant country. Protestant lawyers and clergy started to come out of the woodwork in which they had been burrowing since the time of Wycliffe. Those chanteries that had not been suppressed alongside the monasteries were seized in 1550 and at least some of their wealth used to endow a string of new grammar schools. Cranmer’s prayer Book of 1552 created a complete Protestant liturgy, in which is to be found some of the finest prose in the English language7; “Oh God, from whom all holy desires, all good councils, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give”. Peace was not to come for a very long time, as Englishmen tried to work out just what it was they now believed.
At the age of sixteen Edward suddenly died of a fever. The Catholic Mary became queen and vowed to return England fully to the Catholic faith8. Some three hundred men and women were sent to the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer. Then Mary, having had two phantom pregnancies, died of cervical cancer in 1558. To an unstable throne came the princess Elizabeth9, at twenty-four years of age already a proven survivor determined to find a ‘via media’ (a middle way).
Thesis 27: 24th August 2006