332 “Stripping the Altars”–The Anglican Reformation

Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene I learned we were Wesleyans—a theological position demonstrably different from both Catholicism and Calvinism.  In time I also learned that John Wesley was, throughout his life, a priest in the Church of England, so Nazarenes derive their heritage not from Luther and Calvin but from the church brought into being by King Henry VIII in the 1530s.  In graduate school I studied ancient and medieval history, but my knowledge of the English Reformation was largely derived from textbooks—and they generally cast a positive light on the English Reformation and its established Protestant church.  However, my understanding of that era was significantly challenged and changed by reading Eamon Duffy’s deeply-informative reassessment of Reformation historiography:   The Stripping of the Altars:  Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 1992).  Born in Ireland and a “cradle Catholic,” Duffy is a professor of history at Cambridge University, and he describes (drawing almost exclusively from primary sources) and illustrates (providing extensive photographs) the rich and vibrant religious life in late Medieval England before the Reformation—or what is more accurately labeled the “Anglican Schism.”  The bulk of the book is devoted to describing the laity’s religious life in the late Medieval period, whereas the final third of the book is devoted to the changes wrought in the church by Henry VIII and his children.  It is, as Jack Scarisbrick said:  “A mighty and momentous book . . . which re-orders one’s thinking about much of England’s religious past.”  

“It is the contention of the first part of the book,” Duffy writes, “that late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation.  Traditional religion had about it no particular marks of exhaustion or decay, and indeed in the whole host of ways, from the multiplication of vernacular religious books to adaptations within the national and regional cult of the saints, was showing itself well able to meet new needs and new conditions” (p. 4).  Documenting the various realms of religious activity—liturgical practices, mass attendance, seasonal feasts, pilgrimages, educational materials, devotional materials and practices, corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, etc.—Duffy shows how surprisingly literate and spiritually satisfied were these Medieval English believers.  

Consider, for example, the many “prayers of late medieval English men and women” which survive “in huge numbers, jotted in the margins or flyleaves of books, collected into professionally commissioned or home-made prayer-rolls, devotional manuals, and commonplace books, all gathered into the primers or Books of Hours (Horae) [scriptural prayer books], which by the eve of the Reformation were being produced in multiple editions in thousands, in formats ranging from the sumptuous to the skimpy, and varying in price from pounds to a few pence” (p. 209).  Remarkably, most all of these primers were written in Latin, indicating how widely it was used and understood by large numbers of laymen.  Handwritten entries in these primers indicated “a minimal competence” in both English and Latin and show “a wide spectrum of lay people using and supplementing the Latin devotions of the primers with familiarity and freedom” (p. 225).  

This flourishing spirituality ended abruptly in the 1530s when the “violent disruption” of Henry’s Reformation (the “Henrician religious revolution” as Duffy terms it) quickly and effectively demolished “traditional religion” in England.  Though Henry VIII stoutly denounced Luther’s reformation in its first decade, retaining an allegiance to Catholic liturgy and (to a degree) Catholic doctrine, his determination to divorce his first wife (Catherine) and marry his mistress (Anne Boleyn) led him to create a new church, the “Church of England,” with himself as head.  From that position he appointed utterly amoral men, most notably Thomas Cromwell, to carry out his edicts, including the rapid dismantling of hundreds of monasteries that were a vital part of the Catholic world.  Monastic lands were thence given to powerful nobles, supporters of the king, who thenceforth staunchly supported the revolution and its dividends.  Churches, too, were despoiled, losing great quantities of gold and silver reliquaries, jewels and tapestries—anything of monetary value.  Revealingly, when a devout man entered the despoiled shrine of Our Lady of Worcester, he lamented:  “‘Lady, art thou stripped now?  I have seen the day that as clean men hath been stripped at a pair gallows as were they that stripped thee’” (p. 403).  Within a handful of years, Henry’s “stripping of the altars” eliminating 1000 years of English piety and worship.  

With Cromwell’s “Injunctions” in 1536 and 1538, the radical dimensions of the Henrician revolution became clear.  Popular devotional practices, including processions, pilgrimages, lighting candles before saints’ statues, praying for the dead, reciting the rosary, were outlawed.  Even the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury was pillaged and his bones scattered.  Pilloried as “a maintainer of the enormities of the Bishop of Rome, and a rebel against the King,” he was declared a persona non grata and his name was “to be erased from all liturgical books and his Office, antiphons, and collects to be said no more” (p. 412).  But then, in 1539, a scant five years after his divorce, the king paused the process and promulgated the Act of Six Articles, which “marked a decisive turning-point for the progress of radical Protestantism” (p. 424) as he tried to reverse some of Cromwell’s endeavors.  Indeed, Cromwell himself would soon fall from favor and lose his head to the busy executioner.  Many traditional ceremonies and devotional practices were restored to favor, and the “unauthorized reading of the scriptures”—especially Tyndall’s New Testament— was forbidden since they threatened to undermine royal authority.  

In the 1540s Thomas Cranmer replaced Thomas Cromwell as Henry’s chief overseer of the reformation.  Skillfully trimming to the wind, Cranmer managed to stay in the king’s good graces while continuing to implement certain aspects of his own radical Protestant agenda.  Whereas Cromwell had employed violence in the extreme, Cranmer (a gifted scholar) relied on education and ecclesiastical pressure, setting forth new primers for devotions and prescribing revised liturgies for the Church of England.  When Henry VIII died in 1547 his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, succeeded him.  Edward would be clay in the hands of a “Council” (powerful nobles who had been enriched by the dissolution of church properties), which supported Cranmer as he moved quickly to advance the reformers’ iconoclastic agenda—destroying, for example, images in stained glass church windows as well as statues in the walls.  Even images and pictures in private homes were outlawed.  He composed and issued a Book of Homilies and demanded they be read every Sunday in every church.  In 1549 Cranmer issued a prayer-book which sought “to transform lay experience of the Mass, and in the process eliminated almost everything that had till then been central to lay Eucharistic piety” (p. 464).  In 1553 he issued his epochal Book of Common Prayer and make clear his intent “to break once and for all with the Catholic past, and to leave nothing in the official worship of the Church of England which could provide a toehold for traditional ways of thinking about the sacred” (p. 473).  

Young Edward died in 1553 and his half-sister Mary succeeded him.  As the daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine, she was quite like her mother—a kindly, devout Catholic.  And she sought to bring England back to the Catholic fold, a move which was widely welcomed throughout the countryside.  (Inasmuch as Duffy has written a treatise on her which I’ll review a bit later, I’ll not deal with the “Marian restoration” here.)  Following Mary’s death in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth (Anne Boleyn’s daughter) succeeded her as Queen of the realm.  Since she was considered illegitimate by the Roman Catholic Church and thus ineligible to rule, Elizabeth naturally re-imposed an Henrician/Edwardian Protestantism upon England, issuing an Act of Uniformity in 1559 that abolished the Mass and required identical rites in all parishes.  She moved decisively to control all aspects of religious life.  

Throughout these tumultuous decades, Duffy says:  “The picture that emerges from them is unmistakably that of a slow and reluctant conformity imposed from above, with little or no evidence of popular enthusiasm for or commitment to the process of reform” (p 573).  Many rebellions and widespread resistance showed the people’s attachment to the traditional religion, but the ruthlessness with which Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth responded finally established the new church throughout England.  By the 1570s it was clear that the Church of England had become not only the established church but the accepted authority now shaping religious life.  “But for most of the first Elizabethan adult generation,” Duffy concludes,” Reformation was a stripping away of familiar and beloved observances, the destruction of a vast and resonant world of symbols which, despite the denials of the proponents of the new Gospel, they both understood and controlled.  The people of Tudor England were, by and large, no spartans, no saints, but by the same token they were no reformers.  They knew themselves to be mercenary, worldly, weak, and they looked to religion, the old or the new, to pardon these vices, not to reform them” (p. 591).  

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More than a decade after publishing The Stripping of the Altars, wherein he noted that there was no reliable study of Mary Tudor, Eamon Duffy sought to rectify the deficit by writing Fires of Faith:  Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 2013).  Rather recently “a good deal of scholarly work” has led historians to move away from the “Bloody Mary” epithet and judge her more positively.  In 1553 the deeply Catholic queen inherited a church deeply wounded by the “reforming” endeavors of her father and half-brother.  Their regimes “had bulldozed away centuries of devotional elaboration, and had stripped bare the cathedrals and parish churches of England.  The most devastating impact had probably been in music, since the heavy emphasis of reformed protestantism on the intelligibility of the written or spoken word in worship left no place for Latin word-setting and elaborate polyphony.  . . . .  But, after music, it was architecture and its attendant arts—paintings, statuary, stained glass—that suffered most.  Virtually all the altars had been pulled down, their consecrated table-slabs or mensal often deliberately broken up, or profaned by use” in various construction projects (pp. 3-4).  Desperate for money, Edward’s government had “carried through the largest government confiscation of local property in English history” (p. 4).  

Queen Mary and Cardinal Reginald Pole moved to undo all this and make England Catholic again.  Taking issue with many historians, Duffy insists their endeavors were (briefly) effective examples of the Counter-Reformation, restoring the ancient Catholic faith in many contested places in Europe.  Cardinal Pole, especially, had a vision and commitment that, had Mary reigned longer, might well have accomplished their goals.  Having played a prominent role in the initial sessions of the Council of Trent, Cardinal Pole returned to his native land following Mary’s accession to the throne.  And he was, Duffy says, “in charge” of the movement to make England Catholic again.  Addressing Parliament in 1554, Pole made a “remarkable speech” that endeavored to “reconcile England to the Holy See” (p. 43).  He condemned the overturning of traditional religion and the parallel erosion of civic justice, lamenting:  “‘Neither was any man so sure of his goodes and possessions, but he stood continually in abject danger and hazard of his life too’, and ‘the best sorte, and the most innocente’ had the most to fear” (p. 44).  To Duffy, “Pole’s long-pondered analysis of the English reformation, indeed of the whole sweep of English religious history, provided a rationale for theological renewal that was stark, clear and uncompromising, and that endorsed the conservative instincts of the majority of the population, while shaking itself free of the intellectual and moral compromises of Henry’s church” (p. 46).  Following Pole’s intellectual guidance, the clergy under Mary largely returned to the ancient Catholic traditions.  

They were aided by a number of pro-Catholic literary works that clearly emphasized “the real presence of Christ in the eucharist and the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass; the spiritual primacy of the pope; the antiquity, unity and holiness of the visible catholic church, embodied in European Christendom generally, and specifically in the restored church of England; the sold authority of the church to interpret scripture; the value of penance and good works for salvation; the freedom of the human will” (p. 62).  Conversely, they decried much of the Reformation, including:  “the novelty, contradictions and confusions of protestant teaching; the lust, licentiousness and avarice of its founding fathers, from Luther to Henry VIII; the arrogance and ignorance of rank-and-file protestant believers; the singularity and lack of charity in their withdrawal from the parish and its ceremonial round; and the wedge that protestantism drove between its followers and the rest of society” (p. 62).  

But the Marian counter-reformation entailed force as well as persuasion and led to the execution (mainly by burning) of 284 Protestants.  Given the prominence of this phenomenon in the public mind, Duffy devotes a significant, deeply-detailed section of his book to it.  These were the men and women celebrated in John Foxe’s famous and thoroughly polemical Actes and Monuments (popularly known as The Book of Martyrs) and are the main reason for labeling the queen “Bloody Mary.”  In fact, her father, step-brother, and half-sister executed dissidents and “heretics” in equal numbers, for religious persecution was widely practiced in that era and was endorsed by eminent Protestants such as Thomas Cranmer and esteemed Catholics, including Cardinal Pole.  In fairness to Pole, he energetically tried to “convert rather than punish heretics.”  But when necessary, he thought capital punishment acceptable.  One of the most prominent Protestants, the Duke of Northumberland, who’d helped Edward VI pursue his radical agenda, renounced on the scaffold his earlier views and “attributed the ruin of England and his own corruption to the heresy into which the country had been led” for the past 16 years “‘by seditious preachers and teachers of new doctrine.  He called on those present ‘to remember the ould learning’ and return to the faith and unity of the catholic church” (p. 88).  

Most of the “martyrs,” however, died courageously, staunchly defending their reformation views.  Bishops Ridley and Latimer were, in John Foxe’s view, the finest exemplars of their faith, with Latimer famously saying:  “‘Be of good comfort master Ridley, and play the man:  we shall this day light such a candle by Gods grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out’” (p. 155).  Ever the diligent researcher, Duffy concludes this speech was a “pure invention, added by Foxe in the 1570” edition of his book.  But it certainly entered the hagiography of Reformation lore and, to a degree at least, certifies the courage and commitment of the dying faithful.  Less resolute than Ridley and Latimer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer first renounced his reformed beliefs but then recovered them shortly before his execution, holding his hand in the fire to signify his repudiation of his earlier recantation.  

Within five years the Marian counter-reformation, by mixing persuasion and force, had largely succeeded, Duffy says, and was widely embraced throughout the realm, for Duffy contends that “the spirit of the counter-reformation was in fact alive and well in Marian England” (p. 190).  Had Mary lived England may very well have returned to the Catholic fold.  Yet though England returned to the Reformation world, Duffy thinks the work of Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole laid out the agenda for a counter-reformation that famously succeeded in many European lands.  Their Catholic “reform programme, embodied in the published acts of Pole’s synod, would help shape one of Trent’s most momentous innovation—the seminary.  The revived populism that was Pole’s legacy was the inspiration for what can fairly be described as the heroic stand made by those most unexpected heroes, the bishops and dignitaries of the English church.  Marian catholicism inspired the generation of ardent activists who would provide Elizabethan catholicism with its core convictions, its best writers, its most characteristic institutions and its martyrs.  It set adrift in mainland Europe a diaspora of talented academics and administrators whose interest and convictions merged seamlessly into those wide movements for reform that we call the counter-reformation, and who would themselves contribute to its creative ferment.  The Latin term ‘Inventio’ is a very rich one:  it carries the meanings to devise or create, as well as to find or discover.  In  both senses, the Marian church ‘invented’ the counter-reformation” (p. 207).  

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Historians, whenever possible, endeavor to thoroughly research “primary sources” when probing the past.  Providing much valuable first-hand information on the English Reformation is Nicolas Sander’s The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (Rockford, IL:  Tan Books and Publishers, c. 1988), first published in Latin in 1588.  The book’s English editor says it is “the earliest and most trustworthy account which we possess of the great changes in Church and State that were wrought in the reign of Henry VIII,” and it became the primary source for Roman Catholic historians writing about the period.  An English priest, born to a distinguished family, and educated at Oxford during King Edward VI’s reign, Sander emerged under Queen Mary as an expert in canon law and enjoyed the respect and support of the Catholics trying to reclaim England for the ancient faith.  When Elizabeth came to power he sought refuge on the Continent and spent most of his remaining days in exile, working to reestablish the Catholic faith in his native land.  

He began his treatise by noting that:  “The Britons are said to have been first converted to the faith of Christ by Joseph of Arimathia, then confirmed therein by Eleutherus, the Roman Pontiff” in the second century.  Thus for precisely 1000 years “none other than the Roman Catholic faith prevailed in England” before King Henry VIII established his own Church with himself as a Protestant Pope.  Marrying his deceased brother Arthur’s wife Catherine in 1509, Henry wed a saintly woman considerably older than himself who bore him several children, including Mary, but no boys.  Unlike his godly wife, Henry disdained chastity and was soon “was giving the reins to his evil desires, and living in sin, sometimes with two, sometimes three of the queen’s maids” (p. 8).  After two decades, when Catherine failed to provide him a male heir he determined to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn.  

Many pages of the book are devoted to describing the assorted maneuvers Henry launched to get papal approval to divorce Catherine, and his associates realized that he was prepared to “renounce the faith together with his wife, rather than live without Anne Boleyn” (p. 50).  He offered bribes to distinguished professors in various universities to support his cause but found most of them upholding the validity of his first marriage—though in Germany Luther’s associate, Philip Melanchthon simply urged Henry to stay married to Catherine and “treat Anne Boleyn as a concubine” (p. 84).  Then Thomas Boleyn suggested the king to get the Pope to make his chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, for “he will do whatever may be asked or even desired, for any subject’” (p. 87).  When eminent counselors, including Bishop John Fisher and the Lord Chancellor Thomas More, refused to accept his break with the Catholic Church they would be imprisoned and executed.  The swordsman beheading More, Sander said, “struck off the head of justice, of truth,, and of goodness” (p. 126).  

Though far more polemical than Eamon Duffy’s historical works, Sander anticipated (by 400 years) his conclusions:  the Anglican Schism not only birthed a new Protestant denomination but in the process destroyed a vibrant religious society, leading to a land despoiled of its cultural legacy and charitable economic structures—described in elaborate, statistical detail by a celebrated modern historian, W.G. Hoskins, in The Age of Plunder:  The England of Henry VIII, 1500-1547.