Statue of St Mary © Wayne Carter

12: The Protestant Reformation

Religion in late medieval Wales

Devotion to traditional religion was intense in Wales in the half century before the Protestant Reformation. There was a great devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary. Fine town churches were built in Cardiff, Tenby, Wrexham and elsewhere. The Vale of Clwyd was graced with two-aisled churches and images such as the Virgin of Penrhys (Rhondda) were held in high regard.

Yet, despite their popularity, these religious practises of Wales had little intellectual content. Among the Welsh, there were few with the ability or the motivation to defend the old, and only a few eager to embrace the new. Thus their general reaction to religious change was a sullen acceptance of the ordinances of the government.

The break with Rome

By the late 1520s Henry VIII was anxious to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Only the Pope could end the marriage, and he was reluctant to offend Catherine's nephew, Emperor Charles V.

St Peters in Rome
St Peters in Rome

In 1529, the king convened a parliament in which the anti-papal sentiments of the English ruling class were given free rein. A process was set in train which soon had a momentum of its own.

By 1535 Henry, aided by his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, had secured a series of statutes which abolished the authority of the pope in the territories of the English crown and elevated the king to the status of supreme head of the Church of England.

Further religious changes

The Protestant Reformation had been under way in Germany since 1517, but in breaking with Rome Henry did not intend to embrace Protestantism. All he sought was to end the power of the Pope in his realms and to take those powers himself. Protestants were persecuted, with Thomas Capper of Cardiff dying at the stake in 1542.

Yet Henry did follow some semi-Protestant policies, in particular with regard to monasticism. Between 1536 and 1540, all religious houses were suppressed. There were 47 in Wales, if various cells and hospices are included as well as monasteries, nunneries and friaries.

Monastic life had long been in decline. By 1536, the 13 Cistercian houses of Wales had only 85 monks between them, and some of them had a very dubious reputation. Yet the monasteries were dissolved, not because of their weaknesses but because the king was covetous of their wealth.

The dissolution involved a change in ownership of hundreds of thousands of hectares of Welsh land. The beneficiaries were the gentry, with the Mansel family, for example, gaining possession of Margam Abbey and its lands, and the Somerset family of Raglan enriching itself with the property of Tintern. While the Benedictine abbey churches survived as parish churches, most of the monasteries fell into ruin, a cruel blow to the architectural heritage of the Welsh.

By the time of Henry VIII's death in 1547 further religious changes had come about, particularly the destruction of religious icons such as that at Penrhys and the suppression of centres of pilgrimage.


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