The Importance of the Reformation.

This post, though not breaking news, is of interest.  I’m preparing an assignment for the Open University course I’m doing in which I must write 1200 words on the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism in England during the 16th Century.  While hunting down a few external sources (aside from the course material), I found some highly useful material and was able to construct this timeline to assist me in my task.  In the meantime I thought it may be of interest to others as well as my fellow students.

Year Event
14th and 15th Century Papacy began to reap benefits of compromise. (Robinson, 2011)

Great schism saw several individuals claiming to be the Pope.Early 15th century saw a power struggle between the Bishops and the Pope. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Hindered papal government,
  • Harmed the reputation of the Church in the eyes of the laity.
  • Led early 16thcentury Popes to resist reform and bolster their own position.
    • Used their spiritual power and international diplomacy to become territorial princes in Italy and boosting their incomes.

Same period saw John Wyclif, an Oxford academic, anticipate the arguments of Martin Luther (over a century later) produce the first English Bible. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Wycliffs supporters were driven underground after a failed rebellion in 1414.
  • Remained a persecuted minority for another hundred years.

Piers Plowman, a satiric poet, attacked abuses in the church but without results. (Robinson, 2011)

  • The church carried on selling offices and indulgences and became a political toy to the aristocracy and a source of income for second sons and con-artists.
  • The literate laity was no longer confined to those involved with the church.  They were better educated than many priests who claimed to be the only path to salvation while taking fees and taxes.
    • The Catholic church was already deeply unpopular.

Criticism, led by the humanists (Colet, More and Erasmus), was stepped up. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Went back to studying the scripture as they would, any classical text
  • Remained Catholics, attacking corruption but keen to make changes from within.
  • Stressed tolerance and humankind’s dignity.

Depressed cleric, Martin Luther, lit the fuse for the Reformation in Europe. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Was provided no comfort by Catholic ritual.
  • Horrified by abuses committed by other clergy.
    • Concluded that salvation was a private matter between God and man, that traditional church ceremony was irrelevant and that the sale of indulgences was immoral and fraudulent.
    • Nailed his list of 95 objections to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, prompting a massive theological debate.
    • Challenged people to think and argue.
    • Condemned as a heretic and an outlaw.
  • Church could not tolerate opposition and Luther posed a direct threat to their authority.
1501 Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII marries Catherine of Aragon (Lambert). 
1502 Arthur dies childless leaving his younger brother Henry the heir to the throne. (Lambert). 
1509 Organisation of the Church when Henry took the throne(Trueman, 2000-2011):

  • Head of the Church was the Pope, based in Rome.
  • Church Services in Latin.
  • Prayers all in Latin.
  • Bible written in Latin
  • Priests forbidden from marrying and expected to be celibate.

Henry marries brother’s widow, Catherine after obtaining special dispensation from the Pope as normally it would have been forbidden. (Lambert)


1511 Catherine and henry have a son. (Lambert)

  • Child dies after 7 weeks.
1516 After 4 miscarriages Catherine gives birth to a girl; her only surviving child, Mary. (Lambert)

  • Henry left desperate for a male heir and believed god was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow.  Argued that the marriage to Catherine was invalid and should be annulled.
    • Blame also fell to Catherine for failing in her duty but she was opposed to any consideration of annulment.
    • Roman Catholic faith believed in marriage for life; did not recognise let alone support it. (Trueman, 2000-2011).
    • Separation was forbidden. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
    • Only those who had been widowed were free to re-marry. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
  • Henry asked for a second dispensation from the pope for the marriage to be annulled but the Pope refused:  Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain, had captured Rome and the Pope was his prisoner.
    • Papal dispensation was meant to allow Henry’s request for a divorce because he was a king.  It was not meant to change the rules for anyone else (Trueman, 2000-2011).
1521 Henry VIII publicly refuted Luther’s ideas and was rewarded with the title ‘Fidei Defensor’ (defender of the faith) but Luther’s ideas had already spread fast. (Robinson, 2011).
1527 Catherine considered too old to have any more children.(Trueman, 2000-2011)

Henry began relationship with Anne Boleyn, niece of Thomas Cromwell (Duke of Norfolk) after ending an affair with her married sister, Mary. (Lambert)

Anne refused to be Henry’s mistress and declared that she would be his queen or nothing after she witnessed his abandonment of her sister.(Robinson, 2011)

By the mid-1520s England was already dissatisfied by the church. (Robinson, 2011).

Again Henry asked the Pope for a divorce on scriptural grounds but Charles V of Spain was unsympathetic to Henry’s wishes; the Pope had to be as well and this meant that Henry had to find another way.(Robinson, 2011)

Henry was in a very difficult position.  If he merely announced that he was granting himself a divorce, the Pope could excommunicate him. (Trueman, 2000-2011)

  • Meant that, under Catholic law, he could never go to heaven.
  • This threat and fear was very real at the time and was used by the Catholic Church to maintain control of the masses. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
    • Control through fear.


1530 Thomas Cranmer of the White Horse Group suggested a legal approach.(Robinson, 2011)

  • The Collectanea argued that Kings of England enjoyed Imperial Power, similar to that of the first Christian Roman Emperors.
  • This meant that the Pope had no authority over Henry and that any jurisdiction he claimed in England was illegal.
    • If Henry wanted a divorce he could have it if the Archbishop of Cantebury agreed.
    • William Warham did not agree until Henry applied pressure and charged the Clergy with Preamunire; the unlawful exercise of spiritual jurisdiction.
1529 Henry called the ‘Reformation Parliament. (Lambert)

  • Ties between England and Rome cut one by one.
1530 A new Act of Parliament asserts England’s judicial independence from Rome. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Anne was already pregnant and Henry had to marry her for the child to be legitimate.
  • Warham had died and was replaced by Thomas Cranmer.
  • The divorce was cleared within months (Lambert) against the wishes of the Pope (Trueman, 2000-2011).
1533 Henry loses patience with the Pope. (Lambert)

  • Rejects the Pope’s authority.
    • Act of Supremacy declares Henry the head of the Church of England.
    • Confirmed the break from Rome. (Robinson, 2011).
    • Few were brave enough to contradict him. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
    • Religion kept mostly intact (Robinson, 2011).
    • Country remained Catholic: only Pope’s power had ended. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
  • Henry remains a Catholic and had no intention of converting or changing the English religion to Lutheranism (Lambert).
    • Anne Boleyn pushed reform as far as it would go, using Cranmer and Cromwell as her tools. (Lambert)
    • The years up to 1540 saw Cromwell’s men touring the country assessing the wealth of the church; once he knew what there was to take, he took it. (Robinson, 2011)

The majority of the population were tired of the way that the church used them as a source of income. (Trueman, 2000-2011)

  • Had to pay to get married.
  • Had to pay to baptise a child which, according to the Catholic Church was needed in order to go to heaven.
  • Had to pay to bury someone on church land, which was also required, according to the Catholic Church, in order for a soul to go to heaven. (Trueman, 2000-2011)

 As a result the Catholic Church had become very wealthy at the expense of everyone else. (Trueman, 2000-2011)

  • They were working to pay taxes and the Catholic Church (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • No great protests occurred as many hoped that the financial burden would ease (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Most wealth of the Church held by the monasteries.  They were also the most loyal supporters of the pope (Trueman, 2000-2011).
    • This made them a threat to Henry.
  • The monks were lazy and had grown fat.
  • They did not serve the community, but expected the community to support them. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
  • Took money from the poor and produced/provided nothing in return. (Trueman, 2000-2011)
  • Monasteries were vast and the Church owned huge tracts of land. (Trueman, 2000-2011)


1536 The Pilgrimage of Grace: Robert Aske, a lawyer, wanted the monasteries left alone(Trueman, 2000-2011).

  • Marched to London, along with thousands of others.
  • Were promised by Henry that their complaints would be looked into so many went home satisfied with this but their concerns were never addressed (Trueman, 2000-2011).

Aske was arrested and hung in chains from a Church tower until he died of Starvation (Trueman, 2000-2011).


1539 Act of Six Articles passed (Lambert)

  • Laid down the beliefs of the Church of England and preserving the ‘Old Religion’ again left mostly intact (Lambert)
    • Monasteries dissolved and 2/3 of church lands and property sold to laity to fund wars with France. (Robinson, 2011)
    • Destruction of ecclesiastical treasures viewed by some as one of the greatest acts of vandalism in English History: also an act of political genius, creating a vested financial interest in the reformation as those now owning former monastic lands were unlikely to embrace a return to Catholicism. (Robinson, 2011).
    • Further reforms were halted by the Act.


1540 By this time, the monasteries had been dissolved.  Lands sold off to the laity and money squandered on was. (Trueman, 2000-2011)

To make it appear as though it was backed by law, Henry sent officials to oversee the activities of the Monks (Trueman, 2000-2011)

  • Supervised by Thomas Cromwell (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Officials knew what the King wanted to see in their reports; that the monks were neglecting their duties and acting and exploiting the poor etc (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Anything to discredit them was useful (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Officials were not above the use of trickery to gain this information (Trueman, 2000-2011).
    • One report to Cromwell stated that the head of the Monastery visited was a ‘virtuous man’ but his monks were ‘corrupt and full of vice’.
  • The vice included having ‘girlfriends’ (they were meant to be celibate).
    • This was all Cromwell needed in order to shut them down.
    • The allegations against the monks and nuns spoke for themselves.
      • At Bradley monastic house: Prior accused of fathering six children (Trueman, 2000-2011).
      • At Lampley Convent: Mariana Wryte had given birth to three children and Johanna Standen to six.
      • At Lichfield: two nuns found to be pregnant (Trueman, 2000-2011).
      • At Pershore Monanstic House: Monks found to be drunk at Mass (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Few people sorry to see them go.
    • Monks given pensions or jobs where there monasteries were, while some chief monks –though rarely- were hanged for their corruption (Trueman, 2000-2011).
    • The abbot of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, Marmaduke Bradley, was given a pension of £100 a year for life (Trueman, 2000-2011).
  • Monastery buildings brought to ruins as the locals were allowed to take what they needed for building even though the other valuables went to the crown.  The free building materials also created popular support for the reformation from the population already unhappy with the monasteries and the Catholic Church (Trueman, 2000-2011).
1545 Henry authorises new translation of the Bible from Latin to English. (Lambert)English replaces Latin as the language of church services.
1547 Organisation of the Church of England when Henry died(Trueman, 2000-2011):

  • Head of the Church was the King.
  • Church Services in Latin.
  • Prayers mostly in Latin; the Lord’s Prayer was said in English
  • Bible written in English
  • Priests forbidden from marrying and expected to be celibate.

Edward V becomes king at 10 yrs. old but is too young to reign. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Secretly educated by Protestants. (Robinson, 2011)
  • The Duke of Somerset (Edward’s uncle) was made regent and protector. (Lambert)
    • He was as devout a Protestant as Thomas Cranmer and desired to make England a Protestant country. (Lambert)
    • Reforms had stagnated but he and Cranmer managed to reaccelerate them considerably. (Robinson, 2011)
      • First Anglican prayer book issued.
      • 1939 Act of Six Articles repealed. (Lambert) (Robinson, 2011)
      • Priests allowed to get married. (Robinson, 2011) (Lambert)
      • More land confiscated (Robinson, 2011)
      • Images of Mary and the saints were removed from churches. (Lambert)
      • Alters removed from churches and stained glass was smashed. (Robinson, 2011)
1552 2nd prayer book issued and Chantries were closed though some Mary as a Catholic continued to attend Mass in her private Chapel. (Lambert)

  • Edward ordered her to desist but she appealed to her cousin Charles VI, who threatened war with England if she was not left alone. (Lambert)
1553 Edward dies and is succeeded by devoutly Catholic Mary I. (Lambert)

Mary detested the religious changes made by her father and the Regent and was determined to undo them. (Lambert)

  • Was going to be difficult to undo 20 yrs. of changes.

Protestantism remained a minority even though it was established and substantial. (Robinson, 2011)

  • Mary reinstated and enforced Catholic doctrines and rites (Robinson, 2011)
  • Tried to use force and fear.
  • Replaced alters and images (Robinson, 2011)
  • Restored Catholic mass in December. (Lambert)
1554 Clergy again forbidden from marrying.  (Lambert)

  • Married clergy ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. (Lambert)
  • Act of Supremacy repealed. (Lambert)


1555 Mary began burning protestants for heresy. (Lambert)

  • First martyr was John Rogers on the 4th February.
  • Over the next 3 yrs. Nearly 300 Protestants were executed.
    • Most were from the SE of England, where it had spread the most widely.
    • Many more fled abroad.
  • Mary’s cruelty only gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated people from the Roman Catholic Church. (Lambert) (Robinson, 2011)
    • Unpopularity was compounded by her marriage to Phillip II of Spain, whose father had thwarted her own in 1527. (Robinson, 2011)
  • The burnings, Spanish Courtiers and Phillips lack of any attempt to learn English fuelled further sympathies and protestant propaganda. (Robinson, 2011)
  • Confirmed fears of a ‘Catholic menace’ threatened since 1534. (Robinson, 2011)
1558 War against France for Phillip lost Calais for Mary.(Robinson, 2011)

  • England’s last territory in France. (Robinson, 2011)

Military loss turned distrust into hatred and xenophobia. (Robinson, 2011)

Thomas Wyatt rebelled in Kent and religious civil war seemed imminent. (Robinson, 2011)

After two phantom pregnancies (Robinson, 2011), Mary dies in November and is succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth. (Lambert).

  • Inherited a nervous kingdom where Catholicism dominated everywhere but the major cities, the South East and East Anglia. (Robinson, 2011)
1559 Elizabeth I crowned. (Lambert)

  • Moderate Protestant.
  • To inject some stability
    • Religious settlement was intended to be inclusive.

 Reissued Cranmer’s 1552 Prayer Book (Robinson, 2011)

  • 39 Articles closely modelled on Cranmer’s work in 1553. (Robinson, 2011).
  • Disliked extremists and disapproved of Puritans (who wanted to ‘Purify’ the CofE for remaining Catholic elements) (Lambert)

 Restored Act of Supremacy (Lambert) and Act of Uniformity(Robinson, 2011)

    • Reintroduced vestments and a more Catholic Eucharist (Robinson, 2011).
    • Alters were replaced. (Robinson, 2011)
    • Clergy were permitted to get married with permission. (Robinson, 2011)
    • All but one of the Catholic Bishops refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and, removed from their posts. (Lambert) (Robinson, 2011).
  •  1/3 of the English Clergy were also removed. (Lambert)Replaced by men hand-picked by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister. (Robinson, 2011)
  • Most Protestant clerics were far more radical than Elizabeth, as were the Clergy who filled the positions left by the resigning Catholic Priests.
  • Alters were theoretically allowed but in practice they were removed by Church commissions that toured the country to check compliance. (Robinson, 2011)
  • Further Acts replaced Catholic Practices.
    • Most of the population accepted the settlement.
    • People could still be fined for non-attendance of Church Services.
  •  Some Catholics continued to practice in secret.
1563 Church bolstered. (Robinson, 2011)

Another Act of Uniformity made refusal to take either the Oath, or the defences of Papal authority, a treasonable offence. (Robinson, 2011).

1569 Foreign threat became real.(Robinson, 2011)

  • Began with a revolt, the papal invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth’s excommunication from the church, and the arrival of priests from France.
    • Underlined the insecurity of the Anglican Church. (Robinson, 2011)
    • Severity of treason laws increased alongside the anti-Catholic sentiments, and neutralising the threat by driving it underground for the rest of her reign.

The length of Elizabeth’s reign secured Anglicanism and established it as Protestant (Robinson, 2011).

  • After the intermittent and sometimes reversing reforms of Edward and Mary, 45 yrs. of Elizabeth helped to establish its stability. (Robinson, 2011)
  • Had she died of the Smallpox in 1562, a religious war may have followed (Robinson, 2011)


1581 Fines for non-attendance of CofE services increased but in some areas they were not imposed at all. (Lambert)

  • Directed at Catholics. (Lambert)
1585 Catholic priests ordered to either leave England within 40 days or face charges of treason. (Lambert)

  • Penalty was execution.
1588 Majority of English Catholics remained loyal to the Queen despite these measures. (Lambert)

  • Clergymen also became better educated during the 16th century and by the end many held degrees (Lambert).
1603 Elizabeth I died, unmarried and childless.

  • Unity, where it had been impossible and unthinkable in the previous decades, was now a fact.
  • Common religion.
  • Common enemy, Spain.
  • Patriotism became synonymous with Protestantism.
  • Currency still bares the title ‘Fidei Defensor’.

Importance of the Reformation.

Established the image in English minds of an imperial island nation,

  • Separate and supreme.
  •  Policy became increasingly repressive in Ireland.
  •  Imported Protestant landowners to oppress Catholics who resisted conversion.
  •  Lingering sense of anti-Catholicism remained potent enough to ignite a civil war a century later.



6 thoughts on “The Importance of the Reformation.

  1. Barry Johnstone says:

    Fantastic! I wasn’t a history buff in my (callow) yoof, but I’m starting to get there! I can’t help wondering though, if OLIVER Cromwell had actually gone to the US, what the result would NOW be. (Just a query)


    • Good question and one that I’m hoping ‘Cromwell’ by Antonia Fraser (ISBN 978-0-7538-1331-7) will answer.

      Another point worth noting is that allot of the tyranny blamed on ‘Cromwell’ happened long before his time or when he was elsewhere in the country. He began his career as a secularist so it is alarming, though not entirely surprising, that his character is painted as wholly ‘bad’ (I don’t know anyone who is wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘bad’, do you?) or that only his military career seems to matter, whether it be due to their of interest or lack of understanding. It is equally probable that people don’t know their history and are mistaking the deeds of Oliver Cromwell for those of, his great uncle, Thomas Cromwell, Duke of Norfolk (a ruthless social climber who orchestrated the marriage of two of his nieces to Henry VIII to secure his own position as Henry’s chief minister and oversaw the trials which led to both of their executions).

      He was descended from Katherine Cromwell (born circa 1482), an older sister of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell


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