Shedding further light on the English Reformation under Edward VI

Shedding further light on the English Reformation under Edward VI

Michael Daniel

On 28 January 1547, the middle-aged Henry VIII died, leaving as the heir to his throne the nine-year-old Edward VI. In Edward's short reign (1547-1553), the religious life of the English people was to undergo one of the most dramatic and lasting shifts it has ever undergone, from what was essentially a Catholic form of Christianity to one that was akin to reformed-style Protestantism.

The Edwardian Reformation has been the subject of a range of interpretations. In his highly acclaimed, recently published work Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation, Reformation Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that from the latter period of Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), English churchmen attempted to distance themselves from aspects of the Edwardian Reformation. This trend reached its peak in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the Anglo-Catholic apologists. "What was particularly offensive to such commentators about the Edwardian adventure was that it was a religious revolution, demolishing the traditional Church in order to rebuild another" (p. 158).


Such interpretations, however, fail to consider the legacy the Edwardian Reformation bequeathed to the Church of England. The 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer was restored with only minor modifications by the Act of Uniformity in 1559. The Forty Two Articles were reissued with slight modifications as the Thirty Nine Articles. The Book of Homilies, a series of sermons to be read out by clergy, and added to in Elizabeth's reign, were (together with a collection published during her reign) commonly used until the 1640s. Similarly, the furnishing of churches under Elizabeth I reflected furnishings mandated under Edward VI's reign.

Like Eamon Duffy, author of The Stripping of the Altars, MacCulloch agrees that the Edwardian Reformation marked a break with the religious past. However, he tends to see the Edwardian Reformation in a more positive light. While there is some discussion in Tudor Church Militant of the impact it had on ordinary people, he focuses on the leading players, that is the reformers and their leading conservative rivals, particularly to provide a rationale for the shape of the reform and the way it unfolded.

He acknowledges that the devotional life of the English at the death of Henry VIII was substantially unchanged. While religious houses no longer existed and pilgrimages were impossible with the destruction of most shrines, Mass was still celebrated and ceremonies such as palms for Palm Sunday and ashes for Ash Wednesday were yet to be abolished. Where there were prohibitions against burning lights before statues and relics, people simply got around these prohibitions by burning lights before the images on the rood screen dividing the sanctuary from the body of the church.

The response to the reforms suggested a less than popular reception amongst a significant proportion of the population. In 1549, a not insignificant number of the population was either in open revolt against the government, or had assembled, demanding reform. Many of these groups - particularly the latter - were, as MacCulloch argues, not protesting against religious reform. Indeed, the wording of many petitions from such groups suggests an acceptance of the reform, their main grievances being agrarian, particularly enclosure of tracts of land. On the other hand, the Western, or "Prayer Book" rebellion, did constitute an armed struggle to defend traditional religion against the Book of Common Prayer and required the intervention of foreign mercenaries to quell.

Other indications of a less than enthusiastic response to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer are discussed by MacCulloch. Non-attendance at church services was sufficient for it to be noted and to prompt government action. Likewise, Bishop Hooper of Gloucester orchestrated an inquiry to establish whether the laity "refuse their own parish and frequent and haunt other, where the communion is more like a mass than in his own" (p. 107). Thus, a significant proportion "boundary hopped", looking for a more traditionalist liturgy.


Absenteeism was also a problem in Mary I's reign, indicative of some success in attracting a proportion of the English people to the Reformation. MacCulloch explores factors that influenced the conversion of many to the Protestant cause. One factor was the Lollards - small groups of individuals who followed the teachings of the 14th century theologian Wycliffe, who shared many of the beliefs of the reformers.

Another factor was location. The highest percentages of Protestants were to be found in the south- east counties, traditionally the stronghold of Lollards as well. By contrast, the western and northern counties were bastions of the traditional religion. Why the south-east counties? MacCulloch suggests that proximity to the continent was an important factor. Linked to this factor were trade routes throughout England: that is to say, records indicate pockets of Protestants in internal trade routes and important coastal cities on the trade grid, for example, Bristol.

Another major factor suggested by MacCulloch that made Protestantism attractive to a number of people was the underlying theme of "liberty" in its discourse, typified by Martin Luther's Freedom of a Christian, which was itself a primary theme of the European Reformation. Such was the impact of an emphasis upon freedom that the Edwardian government began to impose restraints when it believed things were getting out of hand. Thus, in 1551, censorship of the press was restored.

If an examination is made of the social classes attracted to Protestantism, significant proportions were from the artisan classes. Were these people more receptive to freedom, because they prided themselves on being able to support themselves independently, through their own industry? Similarly, documents from Queen Mary's reign talk of youthful apprentices and serving girls being attracted to Protestantism. Were these people stereotypical teenagers expressing their autonomy?


That the Edwardian Reformation had gained a significant number of converts is indicated by the numbers of emigres during Queen Mary's reign and absenteeism from Mass. Approximately 300 were to be burnt at the stake for heresy, although it must be noted that a significant proportion of the latter were radical Protestants such as Anabaptists, whose agenda was also anathema to Thomas Cranmer and his colleagues.

However, surviving evidence in the form of parish records suggests that the bulk of the people remained attached to the traditional forms of religion. Although MacCulloch argues that a focus on Churchwardens' accounts tends to give an unduly negative assessment of the impact of the Edwardian Reformation, it would seem that they remain one of the few sets of documents that provide an insight into the impact of both the Edwardian Reformation and Marian Catholic restoration.

The survey undertaken by Eamon Duffy suggested that the changes to the furnishings of churches which entailed countless acts of iconoclasm were reluctantly carried out. However, the restoration of traditional religion mandated by Mary was, on the whole, enthusiastically accepted, even in counties such as Kent with the highest proportion of Protestants. Indeed, a significant aspect of Mary's restoration was the sudden reappearance of many items of church furnishing that had been secreted by parishoners in the hope of a restoration.

Much of MacCulloch's study focuses the manner in which the leaders of the Reformation implemented it and the factors affecting the way in which the changes were gradually introduced, in what many perceive as an uncoordinated, piecemeal approach. Contrary to some interpretations, the bulk of evidence suggests that King Edward was not a passive child observer but, instead, a convinced Protestant and a willing collaborator. In much of the discourse surrounding the reforms, Edward was imaged as the Old Testament kings Josiah and Solomon. Like the boy king Josiah, Edward was responsible for purging the land of "popish idolatry"; like Solomon, he built the temple of "Reformed Religion" which his father King Henry, as King David, had prepared the ground for by breaking with Rome and introducing some very modest reforms.

The problem that faced Cranmer throughout his reformation was the opposition of conservative elements, such as Bishops Gardiner and Bonner. MacCulloch argues that the reformers, particularly Cranmer, were masters of what he called a "double-message" strategy (cf. p. 89), that is, appearing to conciliate conservative elements while at the same time allowing evangelical reforms to continue.

Other factors that the Edwardian regime had to consider when pursuing reform were the need to placate the Holy Roman Emperor and the impact of the Edwardian Reformation on the continental Reformation - the latter being of particular importance for the Reformers.

Forty Two Articles

Of particular significance was the division of continental Protestants into Zwinglians, Calvinists and Lutherans. An agreement was reached between Zwinglians and Calvinists in May 1549, the Reformed Churches ultimately emerging from this agreement. MacCulloch argues that it would have been fatal for England, as the strongest surviving evangelical power within Europe, to make an official pronouncement while delicate negotiations were in place. A comprehensive doctrinal pronounce- ment, in the form of the Forty Two Articles, was promulgated only after Thomas Cranmer realised that one of his most cherished hopes - a Protestant General Council to counter Trent and unite Protestant bodies throughout Europe - was not going to eventuate.

The ultimate strength of the Edwardian Reformation was in the Elizabethan Settlement. Elizabeth adopted all of the major aspects - with minor, largely insignificant changes - that had been implemented in Edward's reign. It seems that the program of reform in Edward's reign was at the time of his death, incomplete. Elizabeth did not advance the reform any further, and this failure to complete, what many regarded as an "incomplete" Reformation, became a criticism of Elizabeth's policies and to be a major reason for the subsequent emergence of Puritanism in the 17th century.

'Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation' by Diamaid MacCulloch, hardback, 222 pp, plus notes and bibliography, RRP $60.00. Inquiries AD Books, (03) 9326 5757.

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