Reformation and dissolution

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Tintern Abbey © Mary Jones

The foundation of the Tudor dynasty. Under Henry VIII Wales and England left the Roman Catholic Church, and one consequence was the translation of the Bible into Welsh.

The Battle of Bosworth in 1485 effectively marked the end of the dynastic conflict in England, popularly known as the Wars of the Roses. Following his victory, Pembroke-born Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. Some Welsh individuals gained from this change, and Welsh clergy were promoted to positions previously closed to them.

Henry VIII succeeded his father, and his quarrel with the Pope over his wish to divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn eventually led to England and Wales leaving the Roman Catholic Church.

The dispute took place during the birth of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. While Henry did not become a Protestant, in asserting his authority over the Pope in his kingdom, some of the measures taken were influenced by these new ideas.

The monasteries were the first victims of this change. They had been in decline for many years, and their closure by government order caused little or no protest. The land and contents were sold off, with the profit going to the king. The buildings were stripped and left to the mercy of the elements.

This freeing up of land formerly owned by the monasteries gave new opportunities for ambitious members of the Welsh gentry to increase their estates. Owning land could be a complicated business for a Welshman due to old Welsh property law dating back to the tenth century king, Hywel Dda . Many Welsh nobles petitioned for the right to literally become 'English' and be governed by English law. Such tendencies coincided with the wider Tudor concerns of enforcing administrative uniformity throughout the kingdom in the face of possible threats from anti Reformation forces on the continent.

These were the underlying currents leading to the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542 which abolished the remaining Marcher Lordships and incorporated Wales into England. Wales was given representation in Parliament, with the Welsh granted equal rights with the English, and what was left of original Welsh law was abolished. One side effect was that English was made the sole 'official' language throughout Wales.

Many of the gentry who gained from the dissolution of the monasteries remained Catholics. As the Protestant Reformation progressed in Wales and England under the Tudor dynasty, except during Mary's reign, Catholics began to face persecution. In Wales one poet's response was to label the new order 'ffydd Saeson' - 'faith of Saxons', and there was a strong feeling that the Welsh were being forced to abandon the old religion due to English demands.

A number of Welsh Catholics were to be martyred, although many embraced their fate joyfully. At Tyburn the Welsh priest Edward Morgan was reproved by a minister on the scaffold for being too cheerful at the prospect of going to heaven.

There were Catholics who passively resisted the changes by staying away from the new church services. Legislation was passed which punished these non-attenders, and they were called 'Recusants', a term which also was applied to some of the early Protestant dissenters. They faced substantial fines for non-attendance as well as incurring the suspicion of the authorities.

Most Welsh people seemed to have accepted these changes, although they probably mourned the banning of colourful religious events like pilgrimages under the new regime. But it was the translating of the Bible into Welsh during Elizabeth I's reign which enabled their eventual transformation into a Protestant people.

Making the Word of God understandable to the people was a very important part of the Protestant Reformation. A result of this was the emergence of differing opinions on the role of a monarch in a Christian society. As Charles I was to find out, the consequence in his case was to be quite literally fatal.


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