Skip to comments.Never forget the bloody horrors of the English Reformation
Posted on 11/28/2017 5:49:26 PM PST by Coleus
Amid celebrations of the Reformation's 500th anniversary, we should remember the mass persecutions of 16thC England
Martin Luther was a theologian. If you read the Ninety-Five Theses he reputedly tacked up on the door of Wittenbergs Schlosskirche in October 1517, it is clear his interest lay in the nature of sin, repentance, absolution, penance and salvation. Whatever else his wider agenda was or became his initial arguments were presented as scriptural debate on the revealed path to salvation.
The English Reformation, on the other hand, had no basis in theological debate. King Henry VIII despised Luther and all he stood for. Henrys robust defence of the seven sacraments in the Assertio septem sacramentorum of 1521 was the first royal refutation of Luthers ideas, and it did not pull its punches, using phrases like filthy villain and deadly venom. In recognition of its vigour, Pope Leo X granted Henry the title Defender of the Faith, and the book went through multiple reprints.
A decade later, Henrys mind had moved on from the sacraments, and was preoccupied with the politics of the bedchamber and his dynasty. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henrys marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry concluded that the most effective solution would be to sideline the Holy See.
Once settled on the plan, it all got going in 1533.
In January, Henry bigamously married Anne Boleyn, his pregnant mistress. In March, on Passion Sunday, the relatively unknown Protestant-leaning Thomas Cranmer was consecrated 69th Archbishop of Canterbury. In April, Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, cutting off all legal recourse to Rome. And in May, Cranmer pronounced the long-desired annulment of Henrys marriage to Katherine, then presided over Annes coronation.
Henry now had what he wanted. But his new wife had come at a high cost. He had changed the countrys religion to get her, and now he had to implement the new faith nationwide.
What Henry needed were loyal lawyers and theologians to reshape the religion.
In Thomas Cromwell, he found the former. And in Cranmer the latter. Cromwell began enriching himself by pillaging and razing the monasteries. Cranmer legitimised Henrys every move spiritually.
Henry was secure in the knowledge he had ambitious fixers around him, but what about the response of the rest of the country? It quickly became apparent that despite passing the Act of Supremacy in 1534 making himself head of the English Church (Ecclesia Anglicana), legislation alone was not going to be sufficient to ensure the cooperation of the English people. Nor were Cranmers sermons and those of the other new bishops.
With little alternative, Henry resorted to the most basic tool of his power: violence.
Burning people for heresy was an option, but it would raise a few eyebrows. The problem was that Henry largely believed in the same traditional theology that his people did. He had not changed his views from the time of writing the Assertio. This ruled out widespread heresy trials. The solution his circle came up with was more radical.
Treason was originally a common law offence, but put on to a statutory basis by King Edward III in the Treason Act 1351. (It is still in force, although heavily modified, and last used in 1945 against William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw.)
The punishment for high treason was hanging, drawing, and quartering first recorded in 1238 for an educated man-at-arms (armiger literatus) who tried to assassinate King Henry III. Other famous early victims included Dafydd ap Gruffydd in 1283 and William Wallace in 1305. The victim was drawn (dragged) to the place of execution on a hurdle or sledge. There he was hanged (slowly strangled), and while alive his genitals were cut off, his abdomen was sliced open, his bowels were pulled out, and they were burned in front of him. Once dead, he was cut down, beheaded, sliced into quarters, and a section sent to each of the four corners of the kingdom for public display. For a woman, the punishment was burning and quartering.
Henrys first victim was a 28-year-old nun, Elizabeth Barton. She had visions which earned her a following among leading clergymen, and she had even enjoyed an audience with Henry. However, when her prophecies spoke of the wrong Henry was doing by abandoning Katherine and marrying Anne, she crossed a line. Her visions, in fact, suited Cranmer, as condemning her gave him the chance to damage some of her theologically conservative clergy supporters. He and Cromwell obtained her confession to having faked trances, to heresy, and to treason. On April 20, 1534 she was hanged and beheaded at Tyburn along with five of her supporters (two monks, two friars, and a secular priest). Her head was then spiked on London Bridge, making her the only woman in English history to suffer this fate.
As the new religion was promulgated from London, there was deep resentment in the countryside. Particular objection was taken to Cranmers Ten Articles of 1536 (the new churchs canon of beliefs), to Cromwells ransacking of the monasteries, and to his attempts to increase his personal power in the north.
On October 1, 1536, people gathered at Louth in Lincolnshire. Others joined and, before they knew it, thousands had occupied Lincoln demanding an end to the changes. Henry countered with threats of military reprisals, and the uprising melted away.
In the aftermath, Nicholas Melton (Captain Cobbler), the vicar of St Jamess in Louth where the uprising began, and its other leading figures, were duly hanged, drawn and quartered.
Further north, 40,000 people from Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, and Lancashire took York, demanding a return to the old ways. This was the famous Pilgrimage of Grace. After securing the surrender of 300 men guarding the royal castle at Pontefract, the pilgrims were led by royal representatives to believe their requests had been met. They stood down, and then the reprisals began. Some 220 to 250 were executed, including the leaders: Robert Aske and Baron Darcy of Templehurst, as well as Sir Francis Bigod, who led a simultaneous uprising in Cumberland and Westmorland.
Wriothesleys Chronicle confirmed that hanging, drawing, and quartering was performed in more or less the traditional way at this time. One terse description reads that the victim was, hanged, membred, bowelled, headed, and quartered.
One of the most shocking executions was that of Margaret Pole, the 67-year-old Countess of Salisbury, who was beheaded without trial in 1541 because Henry was furious with her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had slipped abroad.
Not all were executed for treason. A limited number of heresy trials were brought. In the case of John Forest, a senior member of the Franciscan community at Greenwich, Cromwell and Cranmer accused him of identifying the church in the creed with the Church of Rome. When he persisted in this belief, he was burned at Smithfield in the presence of Cromwell, Cranmer and Latimer.
Henry was followed on the throne by three of his children: Edward VI (154753, son of Jane Seymour), Mary I (15538, daughter of Katherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth I (15581603, daughter of Anne Boleyn).
At Whitsun 1549, when Edward had been on the throne two years, Cranmer introduced the first compulsory Anglican compendium of liturgy: the Book of Common Prayer, and it led to riots in the West Country. There was a specific complaint against the imposition of a text in English, as Catholic spiritual and devotional literature in Cornish was well established.
Edward sent in loyal retainers, bolstered by German and Italian mercenaries. At Clyst Heath the troops of John Russell, Earl of Bedford, bound, gagged and slit the throats of 900. By the time the uprising was suppressed, an estimated 5,500 West Country people lay dead.
Heresy trials continued to be useful against Catholics and the wrong sort of Protestants. On May 2, 1550, Cranmer was involved in the burning at Smithfield of Joan Bocher, an Anabaptist from Kent. The following year, Cranmer, Ridley, and Coverdale all tried George van Parris, a member of the Strangers Church, resulting in him being burned at Smithfield on April 25.
After Edward came Mary and a Catholic restoration. According to Foxes Book of Martyrs, her administration executed 289 Protestants for heresy.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, she passed the 1559 Act of Supremacy to restore the English church. But there were still plenty who were anguished by the changes.
In 1569, the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland mobilised the Northern Uprising in support of Mary, Queen of Scots, but it was soon crushed, with 450 of its participants executed.
In response, on February 25, 1570, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in excelsis excommunicating Elizabeth, and threatening an anathema on all who obeyed her. A harsh anti-Catholic crackdown in England followed, and to ease the persecution Pope Gregory XIII softened the bull in 1580 by permitting provisional obedience until present circumstances changed. But the damage was done.
Elizabeth unleashed a mass persecution. By 1585 tensions were so high that any priest ordained after 1559 found on English soil was automatically guilty of treason, as was anyone who sheltered him.
Despite the harsh penalties, the priests still came. Perhaps nothing sums up the missionary spirit better than Campions Brag, delivered as a defence before his execution at Tyburn in 1581:
Be it known to you that we have made a league cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood.
The Anglican cleric William Harrison said that Henry VIII executed 72,000 great thieves, petty thieves and rogues. It is not now possible to know whether these numbers are accurate, or whether they include those who opposed the new Tudor church.
Although accounts of Reformation violence have traditionally focused on Bloody Marys victims gorily catalogued in Foxes polemical Book of Martyrs the reality was not nearly so one dimensional. Henry, Edward, and Elizabeths policies demonstrate that the entire family imposed its religious will on the country by force, top down, and with the complicity and assistance of their religious and judicial establishment.
The fractures and wounds caused by this interminable religious violence not only marred their reigns, but also spilled over into the following centuries, leading to the Civil War, the regicide of Charles I, the Revolution of 1688 and the Jacobite uprisings. Although Henry must have gone to his grave with little concept of what was to follow, the blood price for his dynastic ambitions was still being paid by the British people more than 200 years later.
Dominic Selwood is a historian, author and barrister. Visit dominicselwood.com
A Catholic Bloodbath, I, for one, am not celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, pray for Us, Pray for Religious Liberty and tolerance in the USA.
And don't think the term "Separation of Church and State" had everything to do with Thomas Jefferson and nothing with Judge Hugo Black...Hugo Black, was a protestant, anti-Catholic bigot, KKK member, who stopped at nothing to destroy the Catholic Church and all it's hospitals and schools.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Anti-Catholic Bigot, who used the so-called "wall of separation of church and state" to push his anti-Catholic agenda trying to close Catholic Schools and Hospitals by using skewed interpretations of the First Amendment and Jefferson's letter.
There is a fundamental disconnect in the very premise: the emergence of the CoE had NOTHING to do with the Reformation. Even the article points out the lack of difference in theology. It was purely a political matter: the power of King vs Pope.
If you want to consider the Reformation in England, Scotland and Wales you had better look instead at folks like the Presbyterians.
Exactly. Henry Tudor served one thing and one thing only, himself..
The monks were imprisoned and chained to pillars - unable to lie down or relieve themselves without soiling themselves. One of Thomas More's daughter's (actually one of his wards), snuck into the jail and fed them and cleaned them. Henry wanted to know why they had not died yet and she was not allowed into the jail. They all starved to death.
When this woman was one her death bed, all of these monks appeared to her, surrounding her bed and they escorted her to heaven.
Thank you for this post!
It might have helped for the Catholic Church to refrain from trying to overthrow and kill Queen Elizabeth...
Judging by his girth later in life he had several helpings of serving himself. *bada*boom*kisk*
(Confession: the joker is not thin; however, like gold, comedy is often where you find it)
This was...the most intense period of persecution in English history, in which overall about the same number of Catholics and Protestants died. It produced a celebrated band of martyrs: More and Fisher [Catholics]...,Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer [C of E]...Were they "men for all seasons"? Not entirely for ours. None of them defended the values we cherish - freedom of speech, pluralism and liberty of conscience. They died not for tolerance, but for truth. All had been to some extent persecutors before being persecuted.
Church of England - its founding doctrine was convenience and expediency.
It hasn’t changed to this day, as it now hurriedly adapts to the desires of its new king, Mohammed.
Burning people for heresy was an option, but it would raise a few eyebrows.
He was likely afraid people would think he was Catholic.
“There is a fundamental disconnect in the very premise: the emergence of the CoE had NOTHING to do with the Reformation. Even the article points out the lack of difference in theology. It was purely a political matter: the power of King vs Pope.”
No. Leadership of the Church is a purely religious issue in itself. To say it was a purely political issue is to ignore the obvious: the Church WAS NOT THE STATE and the STATE WAS NOT THE CHURCH - until the Reformation which Henry VIII started. Also, to say there were no differences in theology misses a key issue: leadership of the Church is a theological issue. Christ sent Apostles, not Kings or Parliaments. Also, in terms of practice there was a huge break with the Catholic past under Henry VIII. How else would you explain the destruction of over 2,000 churches, chapels, monasteries, convents, colleges, orphanages, tombs and the killing of monks, priests and bishops who disagreed with it?
“If you want to consider the Reformation in England, Scotland and Wales you had better look instead at folks like the Presbyterians.”
So you would ignore the iconoclasm, new Prayer Book, and “Reformed” theology of Edward VI? Really?
"XVII. Of Predestination and Election:Clearly, this doctrine is Calvinist, and thus reformed. Now as to how many actually believed the 39 Articles, it is hard to say. What is safe to say is that today, the Church of England ignores its own foundational documents and confession of doctrine. I suppose one could call them "cafeteria Anglicans".
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind. and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour …
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, …
I am smocked and bewildered by the constant stream of articles by Catholics bemoaning the Reformation and todays Protestants on this forum, at a time where all Christians, no matter their tradition nor even the strength of their faith, should be locked arm in arm against the forces who wish to destroy their shared heritage. I mean complaining about oppression during the reign of the Tudors? There was a reason the Catholic queen became known as Bloody Mary!
It is on the blood of the Catholic martyrs that the Church of England is sailing right back to Rome. They did not die in vain. Imagine being drawn and quartered for having the audacity to attend or celebrate mass?
Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us!
Government - the biggest killer of mankind by far
History is written by the victors.
How is what Henry did to English Catholics any different than what Xi is doing to Chinese Christians?
Up to 30000 French Protestants were killed in the St Bartholomews Day massacres in 1572. These were harsh times on all sides
There was persecution on all sides throughout the reformation period
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