display | more...

The English Reformation certainly began in Henry VIII’s reign, however it happened only after he had been King for many years. Before the reformation he was known as the “defender of the faith,” the catholic faith, in fact he wrote a book in which he argued that marriage should be forever. So, after more than two decades of the staunchly papist and catholic rule, what impact did the Reformation have on the English people?

The first major impact was the change in policy itself, the trial and execution of Thomas Moore was, presumably, a shock to many of the political class. Moore had been Henry’s chief advisor and ambassador of the pope, and was therefore responsible for almost all religious law in England. With Moore alive and politically active there was hope of a return to normal, papal, Catholicism. With Moore gone there was little hope left for those who refused to convert. This would have initially affected the clergy, since they would likely lose out in this new anti-papal regime. However, during the actual reformation it was only really the monastic orders that were affected, the regular clergy were not generally persecuted until much later, when most had already converted. This was because Henry was not opposed to most Catholic doctrine (for instance he believed in transubstantiation, and argued the case for it in many books). Henry was merely anti-papal.

Anti-catholic feelings rose with the appointment of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was a great supporter of Protestantism and looked to use his influence over the King to move the country in that direction. The King was reluctant to pass blatant anti-catholic laws, either because he was afraid of a popular uprising (such as the Pilgrimage of Grace), or because he did not believe in them, and so either did not lay them down at all or did so under the guise of “cleansing the church.” The reason that there might have been an uprising was because after years of Catholic teaching and indoctrination, this sudden change of policy did not ring true with the public. It is, in fact, how the political theory of an absolute (or almost absolute) monarch is meant to govern. He can take unpopular decisions, but only if the people can see the logic behind them. A very unpopular decision will lead to uprising and rebellion. Henry was very worried about this.

Cromwell also began the dissolution of the monasteries. This was perhaps the most sweeping act of the reign on Henry VIII. Henry did not, however, necessarily condone it. Again this was for the reasons stated above (personal feelings and fear of revolution), and so Cromwell had to work to disguise it as yet more cleansing. There were of course financial benefits that were probably what led Henry to approve the process in the first place. To make it clear to the people that this was in their interests, Henry and Cromwell dissolved the smaller monasteries first and allowed the larger ones to stay open. This was so that the people could see that the larger financial and potentially papal centres were kept open and so have the protestant ulterior motive be made less obvious.

The ten articles, which were very protestant acts were all but four nullified by the six articles, allowing the country to believe that there had been very little move towards Protestantism, when in fact there had been a very substantial step towards it. Again this was because of Henry’s own Catholic sympathies. The reformation happened after a great deal of Catholicism, and so to introduce Protestantism slowly it was very much a case of two steps forward one step back.

Cromwell however had made a fatal error. He had fallen into his own trap of covering up the fact that Henry was not interested in reform unless it directly benefited him. The Cleves marriage was political and not romantic. This meant that while it would secure a protestant ally, Henry would not be happy. If Henry was kept happy he would approve more acts and reforms than if he was not. Unfortunately for Cromwell there was no spark between Henry and Anne of Cleves and the marriage ended. This lead to Cromwell’s downfall and execution, after which Henry passed a series of fairly catholically orientated acts, many undoing the work that Cromwell had set into motion.

In conclusion the reformation did affect the English greatly, but happened slowly. This was due to Henry’s personal reluctance to convert himself to Protestantism. The fact that Henry had been a catholic monarch for many years meant that he could not convert the English people quickly anyway. I had to be a slow and methodical process to avoid active rebellion. Rash action such as the Ten Articles promoted revolt. But slow and careful dissolution met only little opposition as many people were not aware of it happening.