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The English Reformation

The English Reformation : Introduction
The king takes over from the pope
The monasteries

The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index

The Anglican Church

English Protestantism differs essentially from other forms of Protestant religions because it developed in the opposite way. Whereas Luther and Calvin advocated religions which caused them to separate from the Catholic Church, England separated from the Catholic Church first and then brought about changes.

Although Henry VIII had taken the title of Head of the Church of England and had been excommunicated, he was essentially still a Catholic and so were most of his subjects. Protestant ideas filtered into the new Church of England during Henry's reign and Henry himself had agreed to certain changes on Protestant lines.


Edward VI

Portrait of Edward VI (unknown artist c. 1546)


After Henry died it was relatively easy to change the status quo during the reign of his son, Edward VI. Edward was young, ill and manageable. In the six years he was on the throne English was substituted for Latin during church services, the mass was abandoned and a common prayer book was introduced.

Being separated from Rome had brought many benefits, mostly financial. A good deal of ex-Church land had become available, as well as the money which would have gone to Rome. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that only the most devout Catholics were pleased when Queen Mary I declared Catholicism the state religion in 1553. It also explains why, after her death in 1558, most people heaved sighs of relief and England readily returned to the Anglican Church.

Henry VIII's sixth (and last) wife, Catherine Parr, was known to have read Protestant literature which Henry had banned from circulation. On Henry's death Catherine Parr became the guardian of the Princess Elizabeth. This explains why Elizabeth was "more Protestant than Catholic" in outlook. When Elizabeth came to the throne after Mary's death, she deliberately tried to make the Church of England acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics. The Anglican Church, therefore, finished up as a hybrid, showing, perhaps, more Protestant characteristics. Of course there were always extremists to be dealt with, and throughout her reign Elizabeth was plagued by Catholic plots against her and an increasing number of Puritans (Calvinists) in Parliament.



Mary I

Portrait of Mary I by Antonius Mor c. 1554


Changes under Elizabeth I

  • She appointed Protestant Lords as ministers.

  • She refused to marry Philip II of Spain.

  • In 1559, an Act of Supremacy was passed, making her the head of the Church of England.

  • The 1552 prayer book was returned but with some changes to make it less Zwinglian.

  • The ornamentation of the churches was changed to that of the early reign of Edward VI.

  • Bishops who opposed her were sacked.


The changes were not as radical as they had been under Edward VI because Elizabeth did not want a return to the burnings of "Bloody Queen Mary". She also did not want to argue with Spain, as she needed the Spaniards help against a possible French attack.

The Reformation in England went through many periods and was very complex. In the end England did not follow a Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian or even Roman Catholic model, but became Anglican.


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The English Reformation

People in the English Reformation


  • Henry VIII - King Of England

  • Thomas Cromwell - Chancellor

  • Thomas Wolsey - Chief Minister

  • Thomas Cranmer - Chief Minister and a Protestant

  • Edward VI - son of Henry VIII and boy king

  • Somerset - Lord Protector (1)

  • Northumberland - Lord Protector (2)


Edward VI

When Henry VIII died his son, Edward VI (1547-1553) became king. However, he was only nine years old. Lord Somerset became the Protector and he was a supporter of Church reform.


Changes under Somerset

  • Protestants could remove idols from churches.

  • Books could be written attacking the mass.

  • Priests should wear plain clothes.

  • Priests were allowed to marry.

  • The English Bible could be read in Church.


In 1549 the mass was abolished and an English prayer book was introduced.

All these changes were Lutheran rather than Calvinist or Zwinglian. They changed what was regarded as too ornate but did not revert to only what was in the Bible.

The prayer book was criticised by both radical reformers - for not changing enough - and by the Catholics - for changing too much.

In 1550 Lord Somerset was removed from office as Lord Protector following rebellions and was replaced by the Duke of Northumberland. From then on the English Church was radically reformed along Swiss lines.


Changes under Northumberland

  • Services were simple and all in English.

  • Churches were stripped of images and statues.

  • The high altar was replaced by a holy table.

  • Catholic ceremonies were forbidden.

  • Bishops who opposed this were sacked.

  • A new, more radical prayer book was published in 1552.


An example of how the 1549 book differed from the 1552 book:

1549: "The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life."

1552: "Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving."

The difference is that the first refers to a physical "real" body and the second is spiritual. The former is Lutheran, the second Calvinist.



Mary I

Mary was the eldest child of Henry VIII and was half-Spanish. Unlike Edward, she had been brought up as a Catholic. She was determined to make England a Catholic country again.

Mary married King Philip II of Spain in 1554. In 1555 she had all the church bells in London rung and a holiday declared for the birth of her first child. The only problem was that she had invented her pregnancy and no child was ever born.


Changes under Mary

  • Five sacked bishops were given their jobs back.

  • The Latin mass was restored.

  • Opposing bishops were imprisoned.

  • 2000 clergy were sacked for being married.

  • All of Edward's reforms were repealed.

  • Transubstantiation was declared to be true.

  • An attempt was made to re-found monasteries.

  • The pope was acknowledged as head of the Church


Many of theses changes were difficult to enforce. Restoring churches to what they had been like before 1548 cost money - Parliament did not supply it.


The Burnings

The most controversial events happened from 1554 onwards when Protestant people were burnt at the stake for heresy. In a three year period over 300 people were killed on Mary's orders. Similar events happened in France and Spain, but the difference was that in England men such as Thomas Cranmer, who had been the chief minister for Henry VIII and Edward VI, were executed.

The burnings caused many people to rebel against the government and Mary. Catholics were attacked and killed. Many blamed Mary's Spanish husband, Philip, for these events. On top of the religious issue, England and Spain fought in an unsuccessful war against France in 1557, whereby Calais (the last piece of French land owned by England) was lost.


Elizabeth I


Elizabeth I

Portrait of Elizabeth I by George Gower c. 1588


Mary died in 1558 and her sister Elizabeth, the other daughter of Henry VIII, became Queen. Her reign saw a return to Protestantism.


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