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The term used to describe the series of different ecclesiastical and cultural changes that affected religion in England in the course of the 16th century. It is common now to use the term in the plural, in order to emphasize that it was not a single uniform movement, and did not progress smoothly from stage to stage. It began in the 1520s with the arrival of what were later to be termed Protestant ideas from Germany, and it ended with the failure of the Presbyterian movement in the 1580s. The conflicts of the 17th century took place largely within the reformed English Church (see Church of England), and although they arose out of the Reformation proper, they are separate and will not be considered here.


Three main streams fed into the English Reformation. First, there was an indigenous tradition of religious dissent, normally called Lollardy (see Lollards). This was derived, sometimes indirectly, from the teaching of the late 14th-century Oxford divine, John Wycliffe. Secondly, there were the theological ideas stemming first from Martin Luther, and later from Huldreich Zwingli and John Calvin. These ideas were to some extent Anglicized for popular consumption. And, thirdly, there were the political actions that stemmed from the search of Henry VIII for an annulment of his first marriage—the king’s “great matter”.

In addition, there were currents of thought that provide a background and help to explain how the second and third of these streams were received. The most important of these was the intellectual movement known as humanism. This had originally developed in Italy as an interest in the pagan writers of Greek and Roman antiquity, but it also had a Christian dimension, which focused upon the original Biblical languages, and led to an increased emphasis upon the example of the early Church. There was also a pattern of secular thought that emphasized royal power at the expense of both the Church and the nobility, a pattern sometimes known as absolutism. Finally, and critically, there was the reaction of the Orthodox Church to the attacks made upon it. This took both a positive form—a search for an enhanced spirituality—and a negative form of denial and persecution.


The medieval English Church was first and foremost an institution, as it was everywhere in Europe, fully integrated with contemporary society. Its archbishops, bishops, and abbots were great lords, with large estates and extensive manred, who owed allegiance to the king in respect of their temporalities. Its priests were officers of their parish communities, charged with duties of mediation and leadership, and supported by taxes in the form of glebe and tithe. This had come about because the agents of the original conversion had succeeded in convincing the rulers of that period that they had a monopoly in administering the grace of God. The Church thus controlled the ultimate destiny of mankind, determined what was acceptable in the sight of God, and mediated salvation to lay society. Men were divided into three sorts: those who fought (and also ruled—the nobility), those who worked (the peasantry, but also artisans and craftsmen), and those who prayed (clergy and monks). Of these, it was the latter that set the moral standard, and validated the functions of the others in the name of God.

At its most exalted, the medieval papacy had claimed to validate all temporal authority, to depose unsatisfactory rulers, and to prescribe agendas to emperors, kings, and princes. The key to this power, which was known as the potestas ordinis, was the sacramental authority of the priest, who pardoned sinners, validated marriages, and affected the miracle of the Mass whereby the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine were transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. It was this feat that gave him his unique intercessory function, enabled him to wield the sanction of excommunication, and gave him the power of life and death over his neighbours. His ability to do that depended solely upon the validity of his orders, conferred by the Church. This power in turn explains the lavish endowments that the Church had received over the years, from those convinced that such benefactions would earn them a place in paradise. The clergy was thus a privileged caste, and its function was epitomized in the opus dei, the constant fount of prayer and praise that the regular religious offered to God on behalf of their unprivileged compatriots. This value system was deeply embedded in lay society, and the great majority of laymen and laywomen were content to seek salvation by obeying the rules prescribed, and by offering their humble pieties in the hope of earning grace. Everyone, from the prince to the pauper, must tread the same road, and be measured by the same standard. The Church maintained itself by sophisticated theological and philosophical structures, and by a monopolistic control over education that precluded any effective ideological challenge.

It was, however, vulnerable in certain respects. Because the Church held a large amount of property, it had an extensive interface with the property-holding laity, and this meant constant disputes over rights, and endless litigation. In England all property rights were adjudicated in the king’s courts, and the clergy was constantly tempted to use its spiritual muscle to gain advantages. This was bitterly resented. Popes were also tempted to use their positions to provide their own servants and kinsmen to benefices in the various kingdoms of Western Europe, and this was resisted at the highest level—in England by the statutes of Provisos (Stipulations) and Praemunire “The offense under English law of appealing to or obeying a foreign court or authority, thus challenging the supremacy of the Crown of the late 14th century, which allowed the king to licence ecclesiastical jurisdiction—and by implication to withhold that licence”.

By the 15th century there was also a great gulf between the wealth and pretensions of the Church, and the humble world of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. This had been noticed before, but the English Lollards were persistently subversive on the issue, and since they also denied transubstantiation, their attack was truly radical. The Lollards had been fiercely repressed, and had little intellectual leadership or cohesion—indeed, Lollardy has been described as a state of mind rather than a creed—so they did not in themselves constitute a threat, but their existence was to be important.

The third challenge was less radical, but more insidious. For a variety of reasons lay education was developing in the 15th century, and the clerical monopoly was being eroded. Questions began to be asked, not at first hostile, and many clergy welcomed the intellectual debate. The Church as an institution did not. Changes in patterns of worship, and improvements in clerical discipline were canvassed, usually in a positive spirit of desiring improvement, but the papacy saw these increasingly as a threat. In England, reformers like John Colet were threatened with charges of heresy. The works of the great (and orthodox) humanist reformer Desiderius Erasmus ended up on that list of forbidden books promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1559, and known as the Index of Forbidden Books.

In spite of the Lollards, in 1500 England was regarded as a model of orthodox practice. The king was a good churchman, and the Church supported him. Clerical discipline was relatively good, and most laymen did not expect too much from their (usually) worthy but poorly educated priests. Regular religious vocations had never really recovered from the Black Death, but that was not a problem high on anyone’s agenda. Church building and lay piety were flourishing as never before. The only worm in the bud, as it transpired later, was that much of this devotional activity was fuelled not by satisfaction but by anxiety. A religious angst was developing, as happens from time to time for obscure reasons, and the first reaction was to multiply religious practices because that was the only way that people knew to address such concerns. The first person to ask the question, “Has the Church really got it right?” was going to find an audience.


That first person was Martin Luther. Luther was first stirred to action by the selling of indulgences. As even the orthodox soon agreed, this was an abuse, but Luther did not treat it simply in that way. To him indulgences symbolized a shallow, mechanistic view of the faith, based on commercial metaphors, and giving the impression that salvation was for sale. This, he soon concluded, was based upon the false teaching that good works (which could be very broadly defined) contributed positively to the performers’ eternal destiny. Faith, he concluded, following St Augustine, was a gratuitous divine gift, and all that was necessary for salvation. The Church therefore ministered divine grace, but did not control it. Sacraments were helpful, but not essential. All that the believer needed was true teaching, and that was to be found in the Bible. Sola fide, sola scriputra—by faith alone and by the Bible alone could grace come to the elect. The implications of this for the established Church were totally subversive.

Luther wrote in Latin and in German, and his original impact in England was confined to educated clergy. A few embraced his ideas, the majority did not, and Henry VIII earned a papal title by defending the traditional seven sacraments. However, his ideas touched responsive chords in two ways. Humanist scholars had for some time been advocating vernacular translations of the scripture, and responded positively to his Biblical teaching. And when a few clergy began to use him in their sermons, the similarity of some of his ideas to Lollard opinions quickly became apparent. Two of these connections proved to be particularly potent. In the first place, William Tyndale was inspired to translate the New Testament into English, and, secondly, a number of gentlemen and citizens of London scented an opportunity to diminish the pretensions of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, which they were finding irksome and which were epitomized by the vainglorious Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Luther’s sacramental theology never became influential in England, where the more radical ideas expressed by Huldreich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger were later adopted, but his emphasis upon the Bible and his attack upon the potestas ordinis were fundamental. Luther was condemned (inevitably) as a heretic, and his books were publicly burned by Wolsey and Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London. But Tyndale’s New Testament (begun 1525) was a best-seller. It was also condemned, but it was welcomed by many who had no desire to be thought heretics, and it had an incalculable influence upon the development of the language. The positive reception of this work is something of a puzzle, but it may well be that the increasing number of people with theological questions to ask believed that they might find there the answers which the Church was so reluctant to provide. The negative response of most clergy is much less surprising. Insofar as they were trained at all, it was to do a limited job in a limited way; the last thing they wanted was a Bible-learned laity firing questions at them. This was not only embarrassing it also undermined their status.


Henry detested Luther (the feeling was mutual), and his chief minister, Wolsey, was a cardinal whom he would have been glad to see as pope. Nevertheless, between 1529 and 1534 he first challenged and then broke with the papacy, taking the English Church into a schism that is usually identified as the first phase of the Reformation. The reasons for this had nothing to do with the faith and everything to do with ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Henry had no son, and his wife, Catherine of Aragón, was past the age of childbearing. He could have accepted this as the will of God but he chose not to and sought an annulment of his marriage.

There were precedents, and in most circumstances the pope would have been happy to oblige. Unfortunately he could not because he was effectively controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was Catherine’s nephew, and refused to countenance such a move. Unfortunately, also, Henry chose to plead his cause, not on the grounds of convenience, but of divine law. Catherine had been the widow of his brother, Arthur, when he had married her, and this (he later convinced himself) had invalidated their union. Catherine, who was particularly pious, was outraged, and the pope did not appreciate being lectured about divine law. Henry set out to challenge ecclesiastical jurisdiction over his marriage, and discovered that he could only do that by challenging such jurisdiction altogether. At this point, most kings would have drawn back, but Henry was obstinate, and had also fallen in love with another woman, Anne Boleyn, the daughter of one of his courtiers. Anne had nothing to do with his original decision to seek an annulment, but everything to do with his persistence.

After several years of uncertainty, the king eventually found an adviser, Thomas Cromwell, who came up with an answer. It only needed a slight shift of viewpoint to convince Henry that God really intended him (and indeed all kings) to rule the Church in their dominions. He was, after all, the Lord’s anointed, and such a solution would remove at a stroke the problem of the clergy’s double allegiance that had been troubling him for years. It would also effectively end England’s theoretical status as a papal fief, which went back to the troubles of King John. Henry, who was a deeply conservative man, thus became convinced of the need for a revolutionary move. Of course, he did not see it that way, but convinced himself that he was restoring an ancient “right order” that had been subverted by clerical usurpation. He bullied and persuaded Parliament into agreeing with him, and the result was a series of statutes establishing the royal supremacy, which had thus been given the highest validity of which English law was capable.

None of this had anything to do with the faith, but Henry’s most committed allies were naturally those who rejected papal jurisdiction for ideological reasons—and that included his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had accommodatingly declared his first marriage null. Neither Cranmer, nor Cromwell, nor Anne, or most of their supporters were at this stage what would later be called Protestants. However, they had an agenda which led in that direction, and they persuaded the king first to authorize the English Bible, then to declare against pilgrimages and destroy the great shrines, and finally to dissolve the religious houses. Henry was largely persuaded on the grounds that such moves would increase his own control—and his wealth—without damaging any of the essentials of the faith. Each step took him further away from orthodoxy, but this was a fact that he refused to acknowledge, even when the pope, responding to his provocation, excommunicated him. When Catherine had died, and Anne had been destroyed by her enemies, in 1536, the king could have renegotiated his relations with the Church, and lifted his excommunication. He did not do so, mainly as he was convinced that he was justified in the sight of God.


The royal supremacy which was generally accepted by 1547, determined every subsequent move in the English Reformation, and gave it its unique profile. The Church that Henry had established by 1540 was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. It was not Protestant because it rejected what had by then become the essential characteristics of both Lutheran and Reformed Churches—justification by faith alone, the unique authority of the Bible, and a congregational and commemorative Eucharist. It was not Catholic because it rejected the pope, religious vows, and the doctrine of purgatory. Its stability was only preserved by the authority of the king. Henry knew that he would not last forever, and the royal supremacy was important to him. He therefore entrusted the education of his son Edward VI, and later the control of his affairs to those of his servants whom he judged most committed, and best able, to preserve that supremacy. These were the reformers, or Evangelicals, led by Cranmer and Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and including his last queen Catherine Parr. Because the king’s mind was so set, this group was able to defeat its more conservative opponents, such as Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, in the factional battles of the 1540s. Henry suspected (probably correctly) that these men would abandon the supremacy as soon as he was dead, because their allegiance was to himself and not to the principle.

As soon as the old king’s dominant personality was removed, these Evangelicals were revealed, as their enemies had suspected, to be true Protestants. A royal visitation in the summer of 1547, and a series of Homilies to be read in churches pointed the way. The Homilies were a mixed bag, but that by Cranmer on justification was entirely Protestant. Cranmer had also insisted on all bishops, including himself, being issued with new commissions in the name of the new king. This emphasized that their jurisdiction derived from their appointment and not, as the conservatives argued, from their orders. This was logical, but was much resented; and it was, in the event, the only time it happened. An English language Order of Communion was issued in 1548, and at the end of that year an Act of Uniformity was passed by Parliament. This abolished all the traditional rites, and replaced them with a Book of Common Prayer, also in English. At the same time the archbishop, backed by the Protector and Council, commenced a campaign to remove images from the churches, and to replace the altars with communion tables. An act of 1545, abolishing all intercessory foundations, and confiscating their property, which had been frustrated by Henry’s death, was repeated, and implemented by Royal Commission.

All these were acts of political will. There were individuals and congregations that welcomed them, particularly in London, but by and large the ruling elite was out of step with public opinion. However, 16th-century England was not a democracy, and that only mattered if majority opinion could be focused and mobilized into resistance. With the exception of the counties of Devon and Cornwall in the summer of 1549, that did not happen. The rebellion was suppressed, and the widespread discontent elsewhere was effectively ignored. Conservative bishops such as Gardiner and Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who refused compliance, were deprived and Protestants placed in their rooms. When Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was overthrown as the Protector in October 1549, a conservative reaction was expected, but that did not happen because the Earl of Warwick gained control of the Council, and with Cranmer’s backing, continued the Protestant Reformation.

By this time the Council was listening exclusively to reforming voices, including those of refugee continental divines such as Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr. As a result, a second Act of Uniformity in 1552 revised the prayer book in a Protestant direction, Royal Commissions were set up to confiscate redundant Church property, and a Protestant creed was drawn up in the form of the Forty-Two Articles. The reformers quarrelled among themselves, but there was no effective conservative resistance, and by 1553 the English Church was officially and fully reformed in a distinctive but entirely Protestant mode, derived partly from Strasbourg, but mostly from Archbishop Cranmer himself.

What brought this to an end was not popular resistance, but a turn of the political wheel, which brought to the throne Henry’s elder daughter, Mary I, a determined and notorious conservative. Mary was generally expected to reverse her brother’s Protestant settlement, and she did so at once and to general applause, returning the Church to the position of 1547. The Protestant minority was noisy and resentful, but did not resist, particularly because Mary had gone down the technically correct path of causing Parliament to repeal the legislation of Edward VI. However, beyond that point conviction politics began to outstrip prudence.

In the summer of 1554 Mary married Philip, Prince of Spain (later Philip II), and with his help began a determined attempt to overthrow the royal supremacy and restore the papal jurisdiction. After some tough bargaining over the lands of the dissolved abbeys (widely dispersed through the land market), this was successful, and in January 1555 Cardinal Reginald Pole was accepted as papal legate. This immediately had two unfortunate consequences. The restored Catholic Church became associated with the deeply unpopular Spanish ascendancy, and Mary began to discharge her conscience with a fierce persecution of heresy. In three and a half years nearly 300 Protestants were burned. The English were not squeamish, and did not object to incinerating a few dissenters, but this was unprecedented. The Spaniards were generally (and quite unjustly) blamed, and the Protestant minority, which had been unpopular during its time in power, began to be differently perceived. These were not political opportunists, but men and women of conviction. Mary’s Church was doctrinally positive, and quite well run, but the absolute conviction of the queen and her bishops was not shared at the grassroots, any more than the Protestant convictions of Cranmer had been.

The failure of Mary’s settlement resulted partly from this, because there was no committed papist party in the House of Commons in 1559 to defend it, and the party that did exist in the House of Lords was not strong enough. It also failed because, in spite of strenuous efforts, it did not destroy the Protestant opposition, and because Mary died, childless and relatively young. Elizabeth I followed her father and her brother rather than her sister, and by an act of political will reverted to her brother’s ecclesiastical settlement. Her sister’s bishops were removed and replaced with Protestants. Elizabeth’s Council and Court were dominated by men and women of a similar persuasion. After 1559 the English Church was governed in accordance with the Act of Supremacy, by Royal Commission, and its doctrine and worship were determined by a new Act of Uniformity. The personal supremacy envisaged by Henry VIII was dead, and replaced with a Parliamentary supremacy, partly because of Elizabeth’s gender, and partly because of the expedients that had been necessary to cope with Edward’s minority.

The queen’s Protestantism was genuine, if in some ways rather eccentric, but she was also committed to a policy of inclusion and reconciliation. This immediately created tension between those who wished her to reform the structure of the Church as well as its doctrine, and the queen who strongly believed in her own responsibility to God. As the clergy became increasingly Protestant under the leadership of the new bishops, there were quarrels in the convocations of 1563 and 1566 over the use of vestments and ornaments; and the Church also felt threatened by the possibility that Elizabeth would marry a Catholic prince. A number of councillors and other royal servants sympathized with this reforming pressure, believing that it was important for the realm to establish a stronger evangelical identity. Those who shared this priority soon became known to their opponents as “the puritans”, or “the precisians” (see Puritanism).

Their cause was greatly helped in 1570 when Pope Pius V issued the papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, excommunicating Elizabeth and absolving her subjects from their allegiance. This was a declaration of war, and thereafter no one who accepted the authority of the pope could be regarded as a loyal subject of the Crown. This probably did more than any positive action by the queen to establish the Protestant credentials of England, a process completed after 1585 by war against the Catholic champion of Europe, Philip II.

Full Catholicism or recusancy (see Recusants), remained the religion of a determined minority, and remained a political problem; but after 1570 most religious conservatives (the majority of the population) moved steadily into conformity, many of them by way of the intermediate stage known as Church Popery. On the other side, frustrated Protestant radicals were faced with a choice. Either they could move into full separatism (an option chosen by very few), or to continue to press for change from within the system, using Parliament rather than convocation as their forum. In the 1570s they divided, with one group, led by Thomas Cartwright, pressing for a Presbyterian system that would have effectively ended the royal supremacy. This struggle went on throughout the 1570s and 1580s, the reformers hands strengthened by acknowledged weaknesses within the ecclesiastical establishment, and by the support of powerful laymen. However, in 1588-1589 an effective but misguided anti-episcopal campaign embodied in a series of pamphlets known as the Marprelate Tracts alienated the lay nobility (see Marprelate Controversy), and forced the Presbyterians to adopt a lower political profile. Effectively, this ended their challenge to the queen’s policy, which was generally accepted by 1600.


The English Church became effectively Protestant in 1549. It had already divested itself of its medieval shrines, of its religious houses, and of the doctrine of purgatory; and it had embraced the English Bible. Nevertheless, the Chantries Act and the Act of Uniformity brought great changes. Most important for ordinary worshippers, the liturgy was now in English, and the Mass (the focus of traditional worship) was now a congregational communion. Protestant doctrine was deeply hostile to what it called “idolatry”, that is the worship of created matter as though it were divine. To the reformers, the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine might symbolize the spiritual presence of Christ, but they remained bread and wine. Similarly, images should not be placed in churches, for fear of encouraging the same superstition, and the altar upon which the sacrifice of the Mass had traditionally been offered, should be replaced with a communion table, symbolic of the shared meal of the communion.

In 1550 the Book of Common Prayer was supplemented with a reformed Ordinal (recognizing only the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon), and a campaign was launched to remove all “objects of superstition” from the churches. Considering what disruption this caused, and what offence to traditional believers, it was surprisingly effective, and there was very little resistance. Almost equally offensive to many was the other legislation of the same year that permitted the marriage of priests. Clerical celibacy had always been more honoured in the breach than the observance. This positive encouragement to human weakness was much resented, although no pressure was put on anyone to avail themselves of the opportunity.

In spite of all this, there were men in influential positions who thought that the 1549 liturgy, which was largely an adaptation of the Old Sarum (Salisbury) Rite, allegedly established by S. Osmund in the late 11th century, was too ambiguous. There were conservative clergy who were ignoring the rubrics, and so using it that it was impossible for the congregation to tell what language it was written in. In 1552 a second Act of Uniformity therefore replaced it with a more austere rite, in which no ambiguity was possible. Churches were whitewashed and adorned with texts of scripture, and traditional almsgiving was converted to secular uses. Prayers for the dead disappeared entirely, and the ancient links between the living and the dead that such prayers had maintained were broken. It is debatable whether the old Lollard ideas had any influence on this position or not. For the most part the doctrine and liturgy of 1552 was derived from the Reformation in the Rhineland, particularly Strasbourg, but the use of English went some way towards domesticating it.

To Mary I and to those who thought like her, all such developments were blasphemous, and as soon as she succeeded to the throne she began to encourage their reversal. Parliament duly obliged, and the Prayer Book became illegal in December 1553. The Mass returned, and great efforts were made to enforce clerical celibacy again, at a high cost in human misery. Using first her own authority, and then the authority of Reginald Pole as cardinal legate, Mary restored the Latin rite, prayers of intercession, and those ordinary parochial pieties that had been the backbone of popular religion. However, her regime was not entirely reactionary. Through some of her bishops, and later through her husband’s clerical servants, she kept in touch with the religious changes being worked out in Spain and Italy, and endeavoured to keep her Church free from the abuses that had so weakened the old order. Her own humanist education was reflected in the retention of the English Bible (although without enthusiasm), and in an emphasis upon spiritual renewal rather than simple restoration. She supported new religious foundations, but reactively rather than proactively, and did not revive such traditional pieties as pilgrimages. Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, issued a series of Catholic Homilies modelled on the Protestant Homilies of Cranmer, and there was much emphasis upon preaching and clerical education.

Whether this effort might have succeeded in time, we do not know. What we do know is that however well it may have rooted in the average parish it did not root at the political level. Elizabeth I had little difficulty in mustering enough support in Parliament to sweep it all away. The Prayer Book of 1559 was effectively that of 1552. Clerical marriage was again permitted (in the sense of not being forbidden—it was never officially licensed), and the English Bible came back with a high profile. The doctrine of the Forty-Two Articles of 1552 came back in the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563. Nevertheless, the austerity of 1552 did not return. Thanks very largely to the queen’s personal preference, some ornaments remained in churches, and a new style of church music developed. Above all, Episcopal government—severely threatened by the sequestrations of 1550-1553, and restored in full by Mary—survived the change of regime.

Elizabeth did not much like bishops (or any clergy), but they were her chosen instruments and she protected them from attack. The disputes that racked the Elizabethan Church in the 1560s and 1570s were not about doctrine (except in debate with the Catholics), but about usages, and later about government. The issues of clerical education, and of the shortage of suitable clergy, which had plagued both the Edwardian and the Marian Churches, continued to afflict the Elizabethan. There were never enough preachers or men capable of setting an example in godly living. Zealous Protestant clergy continued to lament (as they had done under Edward VI), the superstitious preferences of their flocks, and the deeply rooted traditional pieties that they struggled in vain to replace.

Nevertheless, in one respect they succeeded. Bible reading, which had been increasingly popular since 1530, and had only been marginally set back by the discouraging climate of Mary’s reign, soon began to flourish exceedingly. The phraseology of Tyndale and Miles Coverdale entered the language. At the same time the massive anti-Catholic polemic (arguments), Acts and Monuments, by John Foxe, had an impact that it would be hard to overemphasize, particularly among the basically educated “middle sort”. By the time the third edition appeared in 1583, the image of the Catholic Church had been completely sabotaged. It was a theatre of cruelty and superstition—an alien intrusion into the wholesome fabric of English life. Of course, not everyone believed that, but in the battle for hearts and minds between reformers and conservatives that ran right through the first half of Elizabeth’s reign, this massive book played a crucial part.


In spite of its massive institutional wealth, the medieval Church was often under-endowed at the parochial level, and the average parish priest was poorly paid. Wealthy livings tended to be monopolized by graduate clergy being fast tracked for promotion, which very seldom went near them and paid starvation wages to curates to look after their flocks. Nevertheless, a priest had a recognized status and authority, which depended upon his orders, not his education, wealth, or lifestyle. As a result, parochial clergy tended to be drawn from the communities that they served, and to be mostly decent men, but minimally trained and almost entirely uneducated. There is very little evidence that they were resented in those communities, either for what they did or for what they did not do; and such disputes as arose were usually ad hominem (relating to a specific person) and about money. There was, inevitably, the occasional “bad egg”, but of anti-clericalism in the sense of principled hostility to the whole clerical order, there was little or none.

The dislike of clerical jurisdiction that certainly existed in London, and among certain of the gentry, was very much the exception rather than the rule. Two things served to change this. The first, as we have seen, was the rise of lay education. Urban parishes in particular started to produce in some quantity a type of literate merchant or craftsman who had been very rare before the late 15th century. These men were often impatient of unlettered clergy, expecting them to be able to deal with intellectual doubts and queries in which they had no training or expertise. This produced friction, because the clergy tended to fight back by describing such doubts as heretical. The second factor was the appearance of Protestantism. One of the first Protestant ideas to take root (and also a Lollard survival) was the rejection of transubstantiation, and with it of the potestas ordinis. This not only touched the clergy on the raw, it also provoked the dissident to denounce the priest as a confidence trickster—one who was wilfully deceiving his flock in order to extract obedience and money from them.

This was true anticlericalism, because the objection was not to the man, or to his behaviour, but to his orders. An uneducated conservative priest was thus doubly exposed. He might be denounced as a dunce and a fraud by literate critics and as a hypocritical extortioner by evangelicals who were moving into Protestantism. In England, therefore (unlike parts of Germany), anticlericalism was a product of the Reformation, rather than a cause of it. Men were not so much inclined to Protestantism by their hatred of the traditional priesthood, but were inclined to hate priests because they were Protestants. The reformed ministry was not open to attack in the same way, because they could not claim the same authority, but they were still exposed to criticism. An Elizabethan clergyman might fall foul of his flock because he did not preach, or catechize, or carry out some other aspect of his ministry. He might be a conservative in a puritanical parish or a puritan in a conservative one. Those advanced Protestants known as Puritans were not anticlerical—they had a very high view of the ministry—but they were savagely critical of those who did not measure up to their standards. Clerical education improved steadily in the later part of the 16th century, but that was only part of the issue. An educated priest was just as likely to fall out with his equally educated congregation, and theological arguments raged in a manner that would have been inconceivable 100 years before.

The Reformation brought a sense of identity to England, a degree of Bible learning, and a lot of theological debate, but it did not bring peace or harmony. However, the idea that every man was entitled to approach God direct through prayer and Bible reading was a truly revolutionary concept, which in due course was to have a major impact upon the manner in which people conducted the other business of their lives. The manner in which Protestant teaching became identified with political authority was not quite unique to England—there are (or were) parallels in Scandinavia—but it was distinctive. It also created a sense of evangelical mission, which at the time was equalled on the Catholic side in Spain, but which later made a huge contribution to the “manifest destiny” school of imperial propaganda, and to the ethos of those who built the British Empire, like Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the lines “Beneath whose awful hand we hold dominion over palm and pine…as an invocation of the will of God.”

Further reading
These sources provide additional information on English Reformation.
The whole of subsequent English (and British) history was to some extent shaped by the Reformation
Contributed By: David Loades.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2005 © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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