The English Reformation – Introduction.

Reformation in England, that is the establishment of a national Protestant church, is often blurred by the essentially personal act of Henry VIII to facilitate his divorce to Catharine of Arragon.
However, the Reformation was not exclusively about religion,  change
was already taking place driven by new thinking, art, philosophy, inventions
( especially reusable type and the printing press), discovery, and
intellectual changes that impacted Europe as a whole. Important in its own
right is the fact that the Reformation saw the removal  of political
power from the hands of the clergy. The break with the
past was therefore as much political and accompanied by  vast economic 
and social changes. It was also a time of serious discontent that
underpinned the growing momentum of the people to be rid of  oppression
and oppressors of all kinds.  In essence the Reformation was about
reform of religion and rejection of the Church in politics; but most
importantly with liberty of conscience, thought,
and free speech.

Neither was the Reformation
mainly in England. In Germany there had been three hundred years of
complaints at the tyranny exercised by Rome and the worldliness of the
clerics which would be highlighted by Martin Luther.

As a religious movement, the Reformation was an effort to get back to the Christianity of the primitive Church, as depicted in the New Testament and in the writings of the early Fathers. This meant  getting rid of  a number of additions  to faith and discipline  which had been made ,without Divine authority, in the course of ages, and which had not only obscured, but had utterly disfigured the teaching of Christ and His Apostles and their immediate followers.Rev Alfred Plummer,MA, DD. The Continental Reformation (1912).

 There had long been opposition to the collection of `Peters Pence` and the diversion of rents, tithes etc from England being channeled to Rome and used to support its clerics. In 1229 for example Simon de Monfort, Earl of Leicester, and other nobles, issued warning letters (allegedly under the authority of the king) requiring rents, tithes and benefices etc to be paid to their nominees and not to Rome on pain of punishment by burning of their homes, goods and chattels. This was followed by a similar `official` letter in 1231  requiring  restraint `of the Benefices of the Romans within the Realm.`  

The Kings and princes of the time often exacerbated the situation by appointing clerics to positions of power within the temporal government. Understandably they sought to use educated men and this almost inevitably meant a university graduate, most of whom entered the church. From Rome`s perspective they could see their
priests,   bishops and cardinals involved in government throughout the states of Europe and it gave them great confidence. In England between 1376 and 1386 thirteen of some twenty five bishops held high office under the crown, and several more played a part as ambassadors and the like.

 It has to be said that there were some very capable people among the clerics  (Cardinal Wolsey is a classic example – see Wolsey`s reforms ) and they did a good job – depending on your point of view. In some states, particularly where the King was an autocrat,  they were employed in lesser jobs as administrators but even so they were important cogs in the machinery of government. It did nothing to resolve the problem of being the servant of two masters. In this way the influence of Rome in Europe  stemmed from centuries of  direct involvement in government – both local and national, and with the care and education of the people. The cumulative knowledge and presence of emissaries, cardinals and legates at the various Courts led to a situation where the Pope claimed to be the supreme ruler to whom sovereign rulers owed allegiance.

At an extreme there is the instance of Pope Alexander III who accepted the submission of the Emperor, Frederick I (aka Barbarossa) in 1164. This he did by placing his foot on the neck of the prostrate Emperor and quoting a psalm “Thou shalt walk upon the adder and  on the basilisk, and shalt tread down the  lion and the dragon”.  Frederick replied that his submission was to St Peter, not Alexander. The arrogant Alexander responded  “Both to me and Peter”.

Perhaps with this example in mind, Pope Celestine in 1191  received Emperor Henry, King of the Almains, and his Empress Constantia in Rome. He then proceeded to St Peters and, after receiving an oath of fidelity and the return of the town of Frascati to Rome, anointed Henry and Constantia.

 ” who there sitting in his chair pontifical, held the crown between  his feet, and so the emperor, bowing his head down to the pope`s feet, received the crown; and in like manner the empress also. The crown  thus being set  upon the emperors head, the pope immediately  with his foot struck  it off again from his head unto the ground, declaring thereby, that he had the power, to depose him in case he  so deserved.”

The point about this kind of
arrogant behaviour by the Pope to Kings and Emperors  is that the underlings, whether cardinals, bishops or priests, were encouraged to behave similarly towards the people
of lesser rank.

In England  King John, desperate for help in his fight with the barons, had acknowledged himself a vassal to Pope Innocent III in 1213.
In a display of the greatest humiliation for both king and country, John
cravenly laid his crown at the feet of the papal legate, Pandulf, who
promptly  kicked it about as a worthless bauble to show his master`s
dominance. But resistance by the barons and lords led to his signature of Magna Carta
on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede. This was the first  time that the papacy had encountered the modern idea of a national
and constitutional liberty that defied Papal absolutism. It  sounded a
salutary warning to Rome and revealed to the people the warlike countenance of  popery. King John was forced to bring in mercenaries who laid waste to England by fire and sword and caused the barons to submit.  Shortly after John  lost his baggage train in the tidal waters of the Wash, and died from drunkenness and, it is said, of fright. Interestingly Foxe in his Acts and Monuments relates several sources that say that a monk from Swineshead in collaboration with  others, poisoned King John on direction of the pope. John`s reign was a salutary lesson to the people who from this juncture were enthused with the principles of liberty, and suspicious, if not fearful, of popery. Some historians would place the start of the Reformation at this point.

 This was the age of the Inquisition and the use by the Church of peremptory powers largely conferred on itself by itself, to order trial and execution for heresy and `error`. This included, for example a Papal Bull by  Boniface VIII in 1296 which sought to limit the power of kings to tax the clergy. France retaliated by prohibiting the export of money, armour or subsidy to Rome and Edward I responded by a threat to remove the royal protection from the clergy. The same Pope later issued in 1301 another bull  emphasising the pope`s superiority  over secular leaders. This evoked a serious breach between France and Rome and led to the excommunication of the French King. This sort of response was indicative of a sea change among European Princes and Kings as nationalism showed its face. Increasingly nations first resented, then rejected, the overlord-ship of the Pope and were no longer prepared to `bend the knee`  or to slavishly follow the will of Rome, especially in secular matters.
There were even open dissents among the clergy against Papal diktat such as
Robert  Grostete ( or Greathead, known as
Capito) who refused to make an infant nephew of the Pope a canon in Lincoln

Edward III  was a brave and resolute prince who sought to recover his royal authority  and England`s glory. In this he undertook to recover the former possessions in France. At Crecy his army of 34,000 men faced 100,000 Frenchmen and won the day. In 1350 , with the consent of  Parliament  the
Statute of `Provisors `  voided every ecclesiastical  appointment that was contrary to the rights of the king, the chapters or the patrons. This preserved the religious liberties in England and protected against intrusion by foreigners. The penalty for offenders was imprisonment or banishment for life. The stern defiance alarmed the Papacy who were then assailed by the
Statutes of Praemunire . These were stringent laws and writs that interdicted all appeals to Rome, all bulls from there, excommunications, and any act that infringed the rights of the crown. It directed that anyone bringing documents into England, or receives, or publishes, or executes them should be arrested, and deprived of their property. They should then be brought before the King in Council for trial.   The scale of  benefices held by foreign personages, prelates and cardinals were revealed by a census  on the order of Edward III in 1374. This showed that a large amount of the wealth of England was being drained away by the avarice of the Church of Rome. At one point it was estimated that Rome received five times as much from the English than the King of England received in taxes. But there still remained within the kingdom the problems of the mendicant friars, the so called begging friars, mainly Franciscans, who were doing their best to suck the economy dry to the great resentment of the people.

There was also a gathering swell of resentment to the doctrines of medieval Catholicism that had its origins among the learned masters, scholars and teachers at universities throughout Europe during the fourteenth century. Wyckcliffe, for example, was especially caustic in his comments on the mendicant friars in Oxford. Their almost rapine behaviour , not only lured away pupils from the university, but also took the food and what little money the people had. As these professors commented on the excesses of the Church, and especially the prelates – bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope himself, so the people became more aware and the Church of Rome generally fell into disrepute. Pope Urban V was most arrogant when he demanded of Edward III that he pay the feudal rental of 1000 marks begun by King John as tribute. In the case of refusal Edward was to appear before the Pope  in Rome. It had been paid irregularly in the intervening  thirty three years and Edward refused to pay or to appear. It was appropriate that John Wyckcliffe, by then a forty year old teacher and philosopher, came to defend against the papal arrogance with the stated opinion “the canon law has  has no force when it is opposed to the word of God”. This effectively stemmed the clamour by Rome`s supporters that by canon law the king ought to be deprived and that England belonged to the Pope. There has not been any explicit claim to the sovereignty of England since.

 Prominent among the professors at this time were John Wyckcliffe 
in England; the Bohemians Jan Hus  and Master Jerome in Prague;
and their followers the Lollards. It is noteworthy that the infamous Inquisition never managed to get a hold in either England or Bohemia such was the influence of these professors in their homelands. But it was not just the universities, as dissatisfaction was also shown in the non Latin publications and plays by the likes of William Langland (c1330 – 1400),the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)  who wrote a scathing  treatise entitled ” Jack Upland” that consisted of over forty questions to a `begging friar` to justify his actions. The work
paints a portrait of friars as devious, hypocritical, greedy, simoniacal, unchristian, undisciplined, clannish, and lovers of luxury.
It exposes them as disobedient and disloyal to the lawful  authorities.

 Repression of the people at large, and martyrdom at the stake if heresy could be claimed, became widespread, with “Lollards” a favoured target. John Clayton of London was burnt at Smithfield in 1415 for privately publishing in English his articles of faith in `The Lanthorn of Light`. In 1416 Archbishop Chichesley issued his Constitution which was directed at English books being evidence of heresy.

The essential fact was that society was changing and responding to an information explosion long before the age of computers and the internet. The Black Death (1347) had scoured Europe of a third of its population and remained a threat for centuries – London suffered near extinction from it in 1665. Greater movement of the people both at home and abroad, increasing trade, all led to exchange of ideas and a wider understanding of the world outside their hitherto narrow boundaries. Printing came to England with William Caxton (1422-1491), although it was probably invented by a German goldsmith, John Faustus in Strasburg ca 1440 who inscribed letters on a metal plate and inked the image to produce print on paper; he later collaborated with Johan Guttenberg who experimented with moveable metal type. The danger, or benefits, inherent in a source of information that was not within the control of the church was soon recognised. The vicar of Croydon, in Henry VIII`s time, preaching at St Paul`s Cross summed it up

” either we must root out printing or it  will rout out us.”

 In the midst of the widespread desolation and starvation the church did not move with the times. It continued to claim omniscience which it wrapped in great pomp and splendour while all around the common people suffered.

The death of Edward III in 1377 saw the accession of the ten year old Richard II and the rule of a Regency. This environment was highly suitable for the prelates and the Church to exert its influence to the maximum and there was a ramping up of action against heretics. In this the Church became obsessive and excessive to the extent that in 1382 they even made their own `private statute` to take action against heretics, without the consent of Parliament. It was subsequently repealed. Richard`s Parliament however, soon got the measure of the papacy and the Statute of Praemunire of 1393 put a stop to direct intrusions by Rome. Richard was a young man whose support was influenced by whomsoever he happened to be with at the time.  In his dealings over religion in Parliament a tough line was adopted via Parliament and statute, yet in his correspondence with the Pope and archbishops he tended to be obliging and accepting of suggestions, including the secular authority`s duty to execute heretics. It may well have been the case that Richard himself was tolerant of the church and its Catholic creed within his realm so long as it did not rock the boat; but it was usually the clerics who  pushed against the boundaries.

 In 1395  [ 122 years before Martin Luther posted his Theses ] a document – The Book of Conclusions or Reformations was posted on the door of St Paul`s cathedral and  presented to Parliament. It greatly criticised the Roman Church and its validity ( essentially the views of Wickcliffe) , but returning from Ireland in haste Richard was most upset with the proceedings. Yet the evidence is that a number of statutes were passed that inhibited the church, particularly in the collection of tithes and first fruits from going abroad, and preserved the rights of English clerics (even though Roman faith). On two occasions at least, the archbishops in Parliament were forced to clearly state that they would not support any legislation that impacted Rome – but the legislation was passed anyway.

The criticism of papal protection and promotion of abuses hardened attitudes on both sides. Soon criticism changed a gear and moved from clerical abuses ( many of which were accepted by the ordinary people anyway) to root and branch changes of a hide bound system. The consequence was that the hierarchy of the Church of Rome brooked no opposition to its doctrine, and its leaders violently pursued their personal critics to the death. To confuse things further, for much of the fourteenth century the pope was a succession of Frenchmen based in Avignon. There were two popes from the beginning of the fifteenth century,  which polarised the loyalty of European kings and their relationships with one another. On the one side supporting Clement VII were France, Scotland, Savoy, Loraine, Castile and Arragon; while Italy, England, Germany Sweden, Poland and Hungary supported Urban VI. In 1409 this became three popes. The discord in the papacy was finally resolved and a single pope, Martin V, was appointed in 1417 by the Council of Constance. This brought up an interesting and important principle, that Martin V was appointed by a Council and not elected by the college of cardinals, nor was he God`s appointed. The arguement then ran that the pope was therefore secular and subject of the temporal laws like other men, and thus could not be the superior of other kings. One of Pope Martin`s first bulls was to continue the pursuit of Lollards; and he particularly ramped up the pursuit of followers of Hus and Master Jerome in Bohemia.

England in the 15C.