Connecting Faith and Life

Reformation in England: A Historical Study

The 16th century religious landscape of Europe was marked by reformation movements. England was no exception. Although reform undercurrents in England could be identified right from the days of John Wycliff (1329-84), a great majority of historians believe that the English Reformation began with Henry VIII, the second of the Tudor monarchs. The English Reformation had many things in common with the European Reformations, such as dissatisfaction with the fiscal and political engagements of the church, criticism of the clergy, new religious and theological messages, zeal for reform, and consolidation of a new church.1 Nevertheless, the English Reformation was different in many ways to its European counterparts. The aim of this paper is to study the English Reformation and highlight some of its distinctiveness. The period covered in the study is between 1509 and 1603.2


Reformation From on High

By and large Historians believe that Henry VIII’s decision (1534) to break ties with Rome marks the beginning of the reformation process in England. This not mean that there were no attempts to revive the church in England before that. In the fifteenth century, there was widespread Anti-clericalism, and groups like Lollards (followers of Wycliff) were raising their voices against evil practices within the church and society. Similarly, humanists were denouncing ecclesiastical abuses. Added to these, Lutheran views were gradually diffusing into England and making waves specially in universities.3 Nevertheless, one cannot overestimate the impact of these undercurrents in igniting the Reformation movement in England. Groups like Lollards were small in number and they were effectively suppressed by the establishment. It was certainly Henry’s decision to disassociate the English church from the Roman clutches that brought about the first change/move. The initial sparks of the English Reformation was not ‘from below’ like in the case of many other European Reformations. Instead, it was ‘Reformation from on High.’ It was from the ruler. Hans Hillerbrand succinctly writes, “Whatever the popular religious sentiment, however lively the theological discourse, however strong the Catholic sentiment, the English Reformation was an act of state and had to do with the king.”4

We see this trend throughout the sixteenth century. The monarchs played the lead role in bringing about changes. It should not be implied that the monarchs brought out reforms single-handedly. They certainly had the help of able people like Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Edward Seymour, John Dudley, and Mathew Parker. However, these officially appointed men had to submit themselves totally to the rulers. Their hands were tied unlike the reformers of Europe. The final say in all religious matters came from the monarchs. For instance, Cranmer’s attempt to bring some progressive reforms (Ten Articles) were curbed down by Henry VIII in 1539 (Six Articles).

The English Reformation was ignited and officially controlled by the monarchs. This is contrary to many other European Reformations where the reformers (Martin Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc) were in control. It is true that they sought the help of local rulers, princes and councils to implement their reforms but they never yielded themselves to be controlled by the state authorities. In sum, the English Reformation, unlike other Reformations, was more the work of the Principalities and Powers.5

A Matter of Political Expediency

In the beginning, unlike many European Reformations, the English Reformation was not driven mainly because of theological reasons. The theological factors that sparked Reformation in Luther’s Germany, Calvin’s Geneva, Zwingli’s Zurich were not the ones that stirred England. Henry’s actions (reforms) came out of political and personal considerations and not because of religious convictions. In other words, he broke ties with Rome not because he somehow realized the need for reforms, rather he wanted annulment of his marriage with Catherine. The Six Articles, issued by him in 1539, summarise his religious beliefs – Transubstantiation, Communion of bread only and no wine for laity, Priestly celibacy, Monastic vows, Private masses and Confessions.6 The Articles clearly show that Henry VIII was still a staunch Roman Catholic after the break. Thus, the English Reformation, unlike that of the Continent, was initially brought about not so much by religious fervor for change, but more a matter of political expediency.

In Germany, the catalyst for reformation was a religious concern (the practice of indulgences) which subsequently became embroiled in economic and political machinations. In England the situation was the reverse, a political and dynastic issue, “the king’s matter,” stood at the beginning and promptly took on a religious dimension.7 Gary Garner beautifully summarizes Reformation under Henry, “Never really abandoning the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic faith, the beginnings of the English Reformation was unleashed by Henry’s obsession with matrimonial involvements, the eruption caused by internal revolution, and a grab for money and power from an increasing unpopular domestic church.”8

Pre-Occupation with Ecclesiastical Reforms

The English Reformation for a long time focussed mainly on ecclesiastical changes. Accordingly, we see Articles being re-framed frequently, liturgies being altered every now and then, and Act of Uniformity issued regularly. Nevertheless, we do not see reform measures touching moral or social issues until the Puritan revolution. Reformation only changed ecclesiastical structures and not lives. Reformation as a reforming force (as witnessed in many European reformations) did not happen until the middle of the Elizabethan period.9 It was the rise of Puritans and Separatists at the close of the sixteenth century which actually brought forth religious reformation in England. They emphasized personal conversion, the reading of Scriptures, stressed rigid morals and enforced church discipline.10

A striking feature of religious reform in England was that official religion changed several times in the course of the century. Between 1529 and 1559, change occurred no fewer than six times. Changes implemented by Henry VIII in 1539 was altered by Edward VI in 1547. And what was introduced by Edward in 1547 was totally reversed by Mary in 1553. Similarly, Elizabeth reversed back most of what Mary implemented in 1558. Each time the common people and clergy had to adjust themselves to the change newly ordered by the king, the queen, or Parliament. It is remarked that nowhere else in Europe were people exposed to such repeated alterations of the official religion in the land.11 Such a scenario was least favorable for producing real change in the lives of people. It only created confusion and chaos. It is obvious that because of this situation thousands of English people almost became indifferent to religious changes. They least bothered about real convictions. Instead, they adjusted themselves to the religious demands of the king or queen. Those who did not compromise were either exiled or killed. This gradually changed after the Elizabethan Settlement.

 The Church of England (Anglicanism) – Via Media

The shape of the Reformation church that eventually emerged in England needs to be observed carefully. When Elizabeth I came to the throne, Protestantism by then had established itself strongly in England. It successfully withstood severe persecution under Mary I. However, there were many who still held on to the Roman Catholic faith. Protestantism’s hold was evident in Southeast whereas Northwest was traditionally close to Catholicism.12

One cannot be very sure of Elizabeth’s personal theological leanings. She seems to have believed in moderation in all things religious. It is believed that she aimed at strengthening the national unity by unifying religion. Hence, she initiated a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, which came to be called as the Elizabethan Settlement.13 It was basically a compromise. Howard Vos comments, “The liturgy, prayer book, architecture and the church government were largely Catholic; the Thirty-Nine Articles and the theology, generally the preaching, and the service in vernacular were Protestant elements.”14 The following illustrates this point. Queen Elizabeth loved an ornate service and she allowed the continuation of cathedrals. The cathedrals were a hangover from Henry’s reformation which had no parallel anywhere else in Protestant Europe. Dairmaid MacCulloch observes,

Not even the more conservative Lutherans preserved the whole panoply of cathedral deans and chapters, minor canons, organs and choristers, and the rest of the life of cathedral close as did the English. Most Northern European Protestant cathedrals (where they survived at all) simply as big churches, sometimes retaining a rather vestigial chapter of canons in Lutheran territories. Why the cathedrals were not dissolved like the monasteries it is not clear…Within their walls, they made Cranmer’s Prayer Book something he had not intended: it became the basis for a regular (ideally daily) presentation of a liturgy in musical and ceremonial form.15

In sum, the emergence of the Church of England as a Via Media was unique. It had no parallels in the European Reformation. In spite of the middle position promoted by Elizabeth I, England continued to move along Protestant lines. Later, in 1689, the Protestant status of England was settled. The king was required to take Oath saying, “the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.”16

An Amalgam of Prominent Theological Traditions

The influence of different European reformation traditions can be found in a unique composition within the English church. As pointed out earlier, some of Luther’s radical views found its way into England during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. It certainly reached the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. The English reformers who were trained there during this time came under the influence of the Lutheran views. This was true in the case of Cromwell and Cranmer. However, Henry suppressed the diffusion of Lutheran ideas within his kingdom.

Things changed during the time of Edward I. Leading Continental reformers were welcomed. Among them were Peter Martyr, Ochino, and Bucer, each of whom was given an important post within England’s ecclesiastical structure.17 Similarly, many of the Marian exiles who returned to England during Elizabeth’s time brought with them Reformation ideas that represented Zwinglian and Calvinistic traditions. In this way, the English Reformation was unique. It cannot be described as distinctly described as Lutheran, Zwinglian or Calvinist. Hrangkhuma comments, “It stands alone, a fantastic compromise, a weird and wonderful product and as H.A.L. Fisher put it, the English church is ‘Erastian in government, Roman in ritual, Calvinist in theology.’”18

Concern For Practical Matters Rather than Theological Issues

It seems that Christians in England were more interested in practical matters like Church government and the conduct of worship rather than sharp theological issues. Diarmaid MacCulloch observes, “English Reformation was remarkably barren of original theologians at least until the coming of that quietly wayward figure Richard Hooker.”19 It is difficult to see heated theological debates or discussions happening within England as in some European countries. While the Continental European theologians argued about the matter of justification by faith, predestination, and two natures of Christ, the English religious parties were divided over the issue of Church governance, calling themselves Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregationalist.20 The later part of Elizabethan Reformation was characterized by such debates.


The English Reformation was unique and different from many of its European counterparts. While many of the European Reformations had religious concerns as their starting point, the English Reformation started as a political event and then took religious dimensions. The English reformers had to work under the English monarchs and their freedom to implement reforms was less when compared to the European reformers. The English Reformation was primarily an act of the state and can be called as Reformation from on High. In contrast to this, in the European Reformations, the factors from below played a crucial part. The English Reformation was centred more on ecclesiastical and practical issues whereas the European Reformations revolved around key theological issues. The outcome of the English Reformation was also unique – the emergence of Anglicanism (Via Media), which was distinct from that of Lutheranism and Calvinism.


1Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 212.

2Henry VIII who initiated the English Reformation came to power in 1509 and Elizabeth I who played an important role in consolidating the reformation died in 1603.

3F. Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 2002), 235.

4Hillerbrand, The Division of Christendom…, 211.

5Don Alban, “Reform From on High,” Christian History 14/4 (1995) 22.

6[n.a.], “The English and Scottish Reformation,” (accessed 20 February 2009).

7Hillerbrand, The Division of Christendom…, 214.

8Gary Garner, “Evolution of the English Reformation,” (accessed 20 February 2009).

9Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), 136.

10Howard F. Vos, Exploring Church History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 97.

11Hillerbrand, The Division of Christendom…, 213.

12Gregory Johnson, “Competing Narratives: Recent Historiography of the English Reformation Under Henry VIII,” (accessed 20 February 2009).

13Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History, 244.

14Vos, Exploring Church History, 97-98.

15Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Putting the English Reformation on the Map,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (2005) 91. (accessed 20 February 2009).

16Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History, 251.

17Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode Limited, [n.d.]), 806.

18Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History, 234.

19MacCulloch, “Putting the English Reformation on the Map,” 77.

20Alan Thomson, New Movements: Church History AD 1500-1800 (New Delhi: ISPCK, 1992), 59.

By Sam K John


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