The Tudor era witnessed the most sweeping religious changes in England since the arrival of Christianity, which affected every aspect of national life. The Reformation eventually transformed an entirely Catholic nation into a predominantly Protestant one.
THE OLD ORDER
Before Henry VIII’s break with the papacy in the 1530s, the Roman Catholic Church remained all powerful in England. Only a small, persecuted minority questioned its doctrines. The early years of his reign also saw traditional religious practices – such as pilgrimages, saints’ holidays and religious plays – enthusiastically observed, together with the continued building and embellishment of churches that had been a major feature of Henry VII’s reign.
But when Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1533, following the Pope’s refusal to sanction Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his decision initiated the Reformation of English religion. With it came the sweeping away of institutions that symbolised medieval Catholicism – and monasteries became the main focus of the king’s attack.
The monastic impulse was long past its peak: excepting those run by stricter orders like the Carthusians, monasteries had become property-owning corporations – some very rich – with few inhabitants. Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, which had about 650 monks at its peak, had only about 20 by the 1530s; massive Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, had only ten.
Some smaller abbeys had already closed because of a lack of recruits when Henry VIII forcibly suppressed all monasteries between 1536 and 1540.
REACTION AND ACCELERATION
The Suppression of the Monasteries was largely accepted in the south, especially by those who acquired monastic lands. But in parts of the north it provoked the 1536–7 Pilgrimage of Grace, the largest peacetime revolt in English history.
But although Henry now rejected papal authority, he remained doctrinally a Catholic and burned Protestant ‘heretics’. Real religious change only began to speed up under the radically Protestant Edward VI (r.1547–53), before being reversed when the Catholic Mary I (r.1553–8) tried to restore the old order, burning nearly 300 Protestants in the process.
THE CHURCH TRANSFORMED
For ordinary worshippers, the rapid changes to parish churches between 1538 and 1558 must have been bewildering. Shrines, images of saints and other ‘popish’ trappings were destroyed, removed or (as was the case with the medieval paintings at Binham Priory, Norfolk) whitewashed over.
Under Mary, these were renewed or replaced by royal command, only to be removed again when the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded in 1558.
The Reformation similarly resulted in striking changes to religious practice – and in time, belief.
The Bible was now accessible to all literate people in English translations. Instead of being spectators at Latin Masses, congregations became participants in English-speaking services that focused on sermon-preaching, Bible readings and set forms of prayer. From 1549 these were formalised in the hugely influential Book of Common Prayer.
THE ELIZABETHAN SETTLEMENT
The present Church of England is effectively the product of the religious compromises promoted by Elizabeth. She declared that she had ‘no desire to make windows into men’s souls’. As long as her subjects remained loyal and publicly orthodox, their private beliefs would not, in theory, be challenged.
Elizabeth’s Church was nevertheless essentially Protestant. Periodic crises of national security led to the persecution of Catholics, particularly after the arrival of the Armada in 1588: Catholics who had been free to worship in private were hunted out, fined, imprisoned or executed. Priest-holes were built in many Catholic homes to provide hiding places.
Yet for some, the settlement did not go far enough to ‘purify’ the old Catholic practices. This confrontation between ‘puritans’ and the official state Church would dominate the Stuart period.