What happened after Henry decided Rome was unnecessary? What might it have been like to live through the Reformation?
By Bruce Robinson
Last updated 2011-02-17
What happened after Henry decided Rome was unnecessary? What might it have been like to live through the Reformation?
England on the eve of the Reformation was predominantly agricultural. Ninety per cent of Englishmen worked on the land and such capitalism as existed was crawling around in nappies. However, economics had already begun to polarise society between the highly-educated governing (and trading) élite and the poor, illiterate peasant majority, for whom life was nasty, brutish and short. Average life expectancy was 38 years and 30 per cent of children died before the age of ten - even Catherine of Aragon lost five of her six children in infancy. Pneumonia was prevalent, the bubonic plague was endemic, and doctors were little more than optimistic quacks.
It is against this background that the role of the pre-Reformation Church must be viewed. The Church was the institution that bound communities together. The prevalence of death and the hazards of life tied people to the Church with its imagery, rituals and comforts. To a parishioner in 1530, a service would consist of gazing at the pictures in the stained-glass windows while the priest chanted incomprehensibly in Latin and performed the miracle of transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine of communion actually became the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This was institutionalised magic and the priest was central to it all - he was God's intermediary on earth. Without him there could be no salvation. He was a trusted figure with some powerful friends and some useful tricks. He could invoke saints and employ relics, sprinkle holy water and exorcise the devil. The church was a vast reservoir of magical power that could be used in almost every aspect of sixteenth-century life.
The Church was the institution that bound communities together.
Historians have been long divided on the level of popular support for the Church on the eve of the Reformation. However it is generally accepted that all but the most extreme of critics wished the Church to reform itself from within, tackling the abuses and corruption that undeniably existed. While many preferred the alternative activities of archery and gambling, dancing and drinking - and Church attendance never reached 100 per cent - the Church was the foundation of society. The parish was the smallest unit of local government and the Church calendar, into which pagan ritual had been deliberately incorporated in its earliest days, was a timetable for ordinary life. So what happened after Henry decided Rome was unnecessary? What was the common Reformation experience?
To start with, there was probably no such thing as an average reformation experience. Communication was slow and messages travelled at the speed of the fastest horses. The extremities of the Kingdom - the North, Wales and Cornwall - were days away and the local impact of the break from Rome was very different in Yorkshire than it was in Essex or London. Regional differences were enormous and a labourer in Norfolk would have been struggling even to understand what his counterpart in Northumberland was saying. For a person of conscience in Essex or the South East, close to London and well within the increasingly strong arm of the new Treason Laws, the Reformations in sixteenth century England might have been very scary. Conscience or King, treason or heresy?
...altars were removed and stained-glass windows demolished.
The first tangible signs of change would probably have been the steady dissolution of the monasteries from 1536 to 1540. This made almost 10,000 monks, friars, nuns and assorted servants homeless, and brought the sudden demise of some local hospitals and schools. From then on saints and pilgrimages were attacked, altars were removed and stained glass windows demolished. Pious hitsquads under Thomas Cromwell's instructions made intimidating 'visitations' to all extremities to ensure compliance. In 1551-2 the pace accelerated considerably, and few would have missed the suppression of Catholic ceremonies and associated folk rituals like maypoles, condemned as superstitious. Even alehouses were licensed.
Yet the pace of reform depended on the local gentry enforcing it. This was uneven. While some 20 per cent of Londoners were Protestant by Henry's death in 1547 they hardly featured elsewhere, especially in the north and Wales, where isolated examples of Catholicism survived as late as 1595. On Mary's accession, however, the whole process was rewound. Altars and images were replaced and Catholic rites restored. But Mary, like Cromwell, also brought with her the dark side of faith: terror, suspicion and, of course, the smell of burning flesh. As in the 1540s, there was the chance to settle local scores. In Edward's reign, many Catholics had stayed to identify those removing church furniture in order to exact revenge after his death.
But Mary, like Cromwell, also brought with her the dark side of religious faith...
1530s only some 330 people were executed for treason, of whom 287 died as rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. For those arrested under the new treason laws, due judicial process was observed, with many acquitted. Similarly, although 287 people were burned for heresy under 'Bloody Mary', 85 per cent of these executions occurred in London, the south-east and East Anglia. Only one person was executed in the north and three in Wales. However, in those areas where martyrdom was more common, the impact of the burnings was immense and counter-productive. Most of those burnt were poor wage-labourers, without the means to flee abroad. Many were young: 75 per cent of those whose ages are known were under 14 years at the time of the break from Rome and so would have been under 35 at the time of their excruciating death.
The extremities of the Counter-Reformation proved unproductive. Unfortunately, Mary's fidelity to her faith was matched only by her loyalty to her Spanish blood, and much had changed since the break from Rome. For the sixteenth century saw the realisation of the power of the printing press, and the start of state propaganda that was to change entirely the way our parishioner viewed himself. Regional loyalties in 1500 had been replaced a century later by belief in Crown and country. It was perfectly acceptable for Henry VIII to marry the Spanish Catherine of Aragon in 1509 - but the marriage 45 years later of her daughter Mary to Philip II of Spain was politically disastrous, prompting Thomas Wyatt's rebellion in Kent.
For the sixteenth century saw the realisation of the power of the printing press...
Cromwell was quick to appreciate the power of the printed word. Immediately following the break from Rome in 1534, he launched a massive campaign of propaganda printing - in Latin for the few and in English for the many - witty, persuasive pamphlets encouraging unity, conformity and obedience to authority while attacking the Pope and Spain. Bibles translated from Latin into English followed and by 1545 every parish had its own copy. The onslaught continued through Edward's reign, with over 100 titles appearing every year, many of which were filled with Protestant polemics.
By the time Mary gained control, propaganda had diminished popular belief in purgatory and pilgrimage, which helps explain why even her best efforts were insufficient to kick-start Catholicism. The propaganda moved abroad, producing pamphlets and cartoons that filtered their way back home, their cause strengthened greatly by the martyrs on the stake. In 1563 John Foxe produced the first edition (of many) of Acts and Monuments. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, as it became known, outlined in gory detail the suffering of Protestant martyrs and became the bedrock of Anglican belief.
The identification of Protestantism and patriotism accelerated after Elizabeth's excommunication in 1570 and as the Catholic threats from France and Spain became ever more real. Again, the local church played its part. If the printing press was the television of the sixteenth century, the pulpit was the newsroom. Services were in English, the parishioners could understand what the minister was saying, and it wasn't just the scriptures. A service would include official homilies (pre-packaged sermons), notices and government propaganda. Too often a largely illiterate congregation would be urged to read the Bible and familiarise themselves with arcane theology that never before had they needed to know.
...the alternative was, like today, the alehouse and a game of football...
The Catholic Church had stressed duty and ritual - belief had been an optional extra. Now belief was essential and attendance was compulsory, at least in theory. Sunday services comprised interminable lecturing followed by a party political broadcast with no remote control to ease the pain. When the alternative was, like today, the alehouse and a game of football, little wonder that people talked, laughed and slept through services. In the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield churchwardens were required in 1565 to choose four to eight 'bouncers' in each parish to maintain order during services.
Small surprise that the status of the priest also suffered - for much of the mystery had left religion. English replaced Latin, the miracle of transubstantiation had been denied, priests no longer mediated between man and God, they just preached. They could no longer summon saints or dispense holy water; they just spread the Word. As standards of lay education slowly increased over the century and as the Reformation extinguished the shared certainties of common experience, parishioners had more doubts and more questions.
Occasionally it was clear that the clergy were simply incapable. Of 311 clergy in the diocese of Gloucester in 1551, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments and ten could not repeat the Lord's Prayer. Matters were not helped by the decline of individual churches. Only 19 churches were built or restored in Elizabeth's reign and 'damp green walls, rotting earth floors, and gaping windows' were sometimes reported. Allowing for inflation, religious benefactions dropped from a total of over £80,000 in 1501-10 to under £2,000 in 1591-1600.
...parishioners had more doubts and more questions...
For a long time, the confusion of change was compounded by the lack of any replacements for lost rituals. Destruction was relatively fast: the creation of a something new took more time. In the meantime, life's problems hadn't gone away. Life was still hard, death was still commonplace and superstition still understandable when so much remained inexplicable. Divine Providence - that nothing happened without God's will - existed before the Reformation but Protestantism depended on this explanation to an extent Catholicism, with its saints and miracles, had never required. That the hope of immortal bliss and the peace of a pious mind did bring real consolation to some is not in doubt, but for others?
Magic had been a cottage industry in England for centuries and it continued to fulfil a role. Bewitched? Ask a white witch to cast a protective spell. Sick relative? Buy a charm. Property stolen? Hire a wizard.
The private use of magic was not confined just to the ignorant laity; in 1583-4 the churchwardens of Thatcham, Berkshire used a cunning woman to find out who had stolen cloth from their communion table and in 1586 three Norfolk priests were accused of conjuring. The difference now was that the dividing line between miracles and magic, always murky in Medieval Catholicism, had been starkly clarified. Magic was a tool that could be used to solve specific problems - a tool that the Church no longer sponsored, but a tool that was nonetheless still required.
Magic was a tool that could be used to solve specific problems...
But it does not do to overstate the use of magic. Wizardry could never hope to compete with organised religion in the long term, and was necessary only until something better came along. What eventually killed it was the Protestant affirmation of human potential and the value of human endeavour. Magic became discredited as the easy option, the loser's way out. The England of 1600 was a very different place from that of 1530. The new religion was based on an individual relationship with God, far removed from the rites and rituals that by the end of Elizabeth's reign had largely died out. Our parishioner had lived through the removal, replacement and removal again of altars and stained-glass windows. If unlucky, they might have lost family members to the terror that periodically swept parts of the country. Alternatively, the experience could have been peacefully baffling. However, by 1600, they would realise that their loyalties lay with Crown and Church, now one and the same. They would know their enemies and spit at the name of Spain.
Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual and Religion in Tudor and Stuart England by D. Cressy (1997)
The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1580 by E. Duffy (1992)
The Spoil of Melford Church: The Reformation in a Suffolk Parish by D. Dymond and C. Paine (1989) remains an interesting local study.
The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The ritual year 1400-1700 by R. Hutton (1994)
Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 by Lawrence Stone (1990) is an authority on family life in this period.
Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas (1971) remains the authority on popular magic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 by T. Watt (1991)
Bruce Robinson is a professional journalist who graduated with a first class degree in History from Cambridge University, specialising in English Social, Political and Economic History from 1300 to 1600.