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Anglicanism in United Kingdom

In the Sixteenth Century

Anglicanism is the name frequently applied to that form of Protestantism which stamped the state church in England in the sixteenth century and which is now represented by the Episcopal Church in the United States as well as by the established Church of England. The Methodist churches are comparatively late off-shoots of Anglicanism.

The separation of England from the papacy was a more gradual and halting process than were the contemporary revolutions on the Continent; and the new Anglicanism was correspondingly more conservative than Lutheranism or Calvinism.

English Catholicism in 1500 and the Church of England

At the opening of the sixteenth century, the word “Catholic” meant the same in England as in every other country of western or central Europe —belief in the seven sacraments, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the veneration of saints; acceptance of papal supremacy and support of monasticism and of other institutions and practices of the medieval Church. During several centuries it had been customary in legal documents to refer to the Catholic Church in England as the Ecclesia Anglicana, or Anglican Church, just as the popes in their letters repeatedly referred to the “Gallican Church,” the “Spanish Church,” the “Neapolitan Church,” or the “Hungarian Church.” But such phraseology did not imply a separation of any one national church from the common Catholic communion, and for nearly a thousand years—ever since there had been an Ecclesia Anglicana—the English had recognized the bishop of Rome as the center of Catholic unity.

In the course of the sixteenth century, however, the great majority of Englishmen changed their conception of the Ecclesia Anglicana, so that to them it continued to exist as the Church of England, but henceforth on a strictly national basis, in communion neither with the pope nor with the Orthodox Church of the East nor with the Lutherans or Calvinists, abandoning several doctrines that had been universally held in earlier times and substituting in their place beliefs and customs which were distinctively Protestant. This new conception of the Anglican Church— resulting from the revolution in the sixteenth century—is what we mean by Anglicanism as a form of Protestantism. It took shape in the eventful years between 1520 and 1570.

Religious Opposition to the Roman Catholic Church in England

In order to understand how this religious and ecclesiastical revolution was effected in England, we must appreciate the various elements distrustful of the Catholic Church in that country about the year 1525. In the first place, the Lutheran teachings were infiltrating into the country. As early as 1521 a small group at Cambridge had become interested in the new German theology, and thence the sect spread to Oxford, London, and other intellectual centers. It found its early converts chiefly among the lower clergy and the merchants of the large towns, but for several years it was not numerous.

In the second place, there was the same feeling in England as we have already noted throughout all Europe that the clergy needed reform in morals and in manners. This view was shared not only by the comparatively insignificant group of heretical Lutherans, but likewise by a large proportion of the leading men who accounted themselves orthodox members of the Catholic Church. The well-educated humanists were especially eloquent in preaching reform. The writings of Erasmus had great vogue in England. John Colet (1467?-1519), a famous dean of St. Paul’s cathedral in London, was a keen reformer who disapproved of auricular confession and of the celibacy of the clergy. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), one of the greatest minds of the century, thought the monks were lazy and indolent, and the whole body of churchmen in need of an intellectual betterment. But neither Colet nor More had any intention of breaking away from the Roman Church. To them, and to many like them, reform could be secured best within the traditional ecclesiastical body.

Political Opposition to the Roman Catholic Church in England

A third source of distrust of the Church was a purely political feeling against the papacy. As we have already seen, the English king and English parliament on several earlier occasions had sought to restrict the temporal and political jurisdiction of the pope in England, but each restriction had been imposed for political reasons and even then had represented the will of the monarch rather than that of the nation. In fact, the most striking limitations of the pope’s political jurisdiction in the kingdom had been enacted during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War, when the papacy was under French influence, and had served, therefore, indirectly as political weapons against the French king. Before that war was over, the operation of the statutes had been relaxed, and for a century or more prior to 1525 little was heard of even a political feeling against the bishop of Rome.

Nevertheless an evolution in English government was in progress at that very time, which was bound sooner or later to create friction with the Holy See. On one hand, a sense of nationalism and of patriotism had been steadily growing in England, and it was at variance with the older cosmopolitan idea of Catholicism. On the other hand, a great increase of royal power had appeared in the fifteenth century, notably after the accession of the Tudor family in 1485. Henry VII (1485-1509) had subordinated to the crown both the nobility and the parliament, and the patriotic support of the middle class he had secured. And when his son, Henry VIII (1509-1547), came to the throne, the only serious obstacle which appeared to be left in the way of royal absolutism was the privileged independence of the Catholic Church.

Early Loyalty of Henry VIII to the Roman Catholic Church

Yet a number of years passed before Henry VIII laid violent hands upon the Church. In the meanwhile, he proved himself a devoted Roman Catholic. He scented the new Lutheran heresy and sought speedily to exterminate it. He even wrote in 1521 with his own royal pen a bitter arraignment of the new theology, and sent his book, which he called The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, with a delightful dedicatory epistle to the pope. For his prompt piety and filial orthodoxy, he received from the bishop of Rome the proud title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, a title which he jealously bore until his death, and which his successors, the sovereigns of Great Britain, with like humor have continued to bear ever since. He seemed not even to question the pope’s political claims. He allied himself on several occasions with Leo X in the great game of European politics. His chief minister and adviser in England for many years was Thomas Wolsey, the most conspicuous ecclesiastic in his kingdom and a cardinal of the Roman Church.

The Marriage Difficulty of Henry VIII

Under these circumstances it is difficult to see how the Anglican Church would have immediately broken away from Catholic unity had it not been for the peculiar marital troubles of Henry VIII. The king had been married eighteen years to Catherine of Aragon, and had been presented by her with six children (of whom only one daughter, the Princess Mary, had survived), when one day he informed her that they had been living all those years in mortal sin and that their union was not true marriage. The queen could hardly be expected to agree with such a definition, and there ensued a legal suit between the royal pair.

To Henry VIII the matter was really quite simple. Henry was tired of Catherine and wanted to get rid of her; he believed the queen could bear him no more children and yet he ardently desired a male heir; rumor reported that the susceptible king had recently been smitten by the brilliant black eyes of a certain Anne Boleyn, a maid-in-waiting at the court. The purpose of Henry was obvious; so was the means, he thought. For it had occurred to him that Catherine was his elder brother’s widow, and, therefore, had no right, by church law, to marry him. To be sure, a papal dispensation had been obtained from Pope Julius II authorizing the marriage, but why not now obtain a revocation of that dispensation from the reigning Pope Clement VII? Thus the marriage with Catherine could be declared null and void, and Henry would be a bachelor, thirty-six years of age, free to wed some princess, or haply Anne Boleyn.

Difficult Position of the Pope

There was no doubt that Clement VII would like to do a favor for his great English champion, but two difficulties at once presented themselves. It would be a most dangerous precedent for the pope to reverse the decision of one of his predecessors. Worse still, the Emperor Charles V, the nephew of Queen Catherine, took up cudgels in his aunt’s behalf and threatened Clement with dire penalties if he nullified the marriage. The pope complained truthfully that he was between the anvil and the hammer. There was little for him to do except to temporize and to delay decision as long as possible.

The protracted delay was very irritating to the impulsive English king, who was now really in love with Anne Boleyn. Gradually Henry’s former effusive loyalty to the Roman See gave way to a settled conviction of the tyranny of the papal power, and there rushed to his mind the recollection of efforts of earlier English rulers to restrict that power. A few salutary enactments against the Church might compel a favorable decision from the pope.

Henry VIII seriously opened his campaign against the Roman Church in 1531, when he frightened the English clergy into paying a fine of over half a million dollars for violating an obsolete statute that had forbidden reception of papal legates without royal sanction, and in the same year he forced the clergy to recognize himself as supreme head of the Church “as far as that is permitted by the law of Christ.” His subservient Parliament then empowered him to stop the payment of annates and to appoint the bishops without recourse to the papacy. Without waiting longer for the papal decision, he had Cranmer, one of his own creatures, whom he had just named archbishop of Canterbury, declare his marriage with Catherine null and void and his union with Anne Boleyn canonical and legal. Pope Clement VII thereupon handed down his long-delayed decision favorable to Queen Catherine, and excommunicated Henry VIII for adultery.

Separation of England from the Roman Catholic Church: the Act of Supremacy

The formal breach between England and Rome occurred in 1534. Parliament passed a series of laws, one of which declared the king to be the “only supreme head in earth of the Church of England,” and others cut off all communication with the pope and inflicted the penalty of treason upon any one who should deny the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy.

One step in the transition of the Church of England had now been taken. For centuries its members had recognized the pope as their ecclesiastical head; henceforth they were to own the ecclesiastical headship of their king. From the former Catholic standpoint, this might be schism but it was not necessarily heresy. Yet Henry VIII encountered considerable opposition from the higher clergy, from the monks, and from many intellectual leaders, as well as from large numbers of the lower classes. A popular uprising—the Pilgrimage of Grace—was sternly suppressed, and such men as the brilliant Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the aged and saintly bishop of Rochester, were beheaded because they retained their former belief in papal supremacy. Tudor despotism triumphed.

The “Six Articles”

The breach with Rome naturally encouraged the Lutherans and other heretics to think that England was on the point of becoming Protestant, but nothing was further from the king’s mind. The assailant of Luther remained at least partially consistent. And the Six Articles (1539) reaffirmed the chief points in Catholic doctrine and practice and visited dissenters with horrible punishment. While separating England from the papacy, Henry was firmly resolved to maintain every other tenet of the Catholic faith as he had received it. His middle-of-the- road policy was enforced with much bloodshed. On one side, the Catholic who denied the royal supremacy was beheaded; on the other, the Protestant who denied transubstantiation was burned! It has been estimated that during the reign of Henry VIII the number of capital condemnations for politico-religious offenses ran into the thousands— an inquisition that in terror and bloodshed is comparable to that of Spain.

Suppression of the Monasteries

It was likewise during the reign of Henry VIII that one of the most important of all earlier Christian institutions—monasticism—came to an end in England. There were certainly grave abuses and scandals in some of the monasteries which dotted the country, and a good deal of popular sentiment had been aroused against the institution. Then, too the monks had generally opposed the royal pretensions to religious control and remained loyal to the pope. But the deciding factor in the suppression of the monasteries was undoubtedly economic. Henry, always in need of funds on account of his extravagances, appropriated part of the confiscated property for the benefit of the crown, and the rest he astutely distributed as gigantic bribes to the upper classes of the laity. The nobles who accepted the ecclesiastical wealth were thereby committed to the new anti-papal religious settlement in England.

Protestantizing the Church of England: Edward VI

The Church of England, separated from the papacy under Henry VIII, became Protestant under Edward VI (1547-1553). The young king’s guardian tolerated all manner of reforming propaganda, and Calvinists as well as Lutherans preached their doctrines freely. Official articles of religion, which were drawn up for the Anglican Church, showed unmistakably Protestant influence. The Latin service books of the Catholic Church were translated into English, under Cranmer’s auspices, and the edition of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1552, made clear that the Eucharist was no longer to be regarded as a propitiatory sacrifice: the names “Holy Communion” and “Lord’s Supper” were substituted for “Mass,” while the word “altar” was replaced by “table.” The old places of Catholic worship were changed to suit a new order: altars and images were taken down, the former service books destroyed, and stained-glass windows broken. Several peasant uprisings signified that the nation was not completely united upon a policy of religious change, but the reformers had their way, and Protestantism advanced.

Temporary Roman Catholic Revival under Mary Tudor

A temporary setback to the progress of the new Anglicanism was afforded by the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558), the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and a devout Roman Catholic. She reinstated the bishops who had refused to take the oath of royal supremacy and punished those who had taken it. She prevailed upon Parliament to repeal the ecclesiastical legislation of both her father’s and her brother’s reigns and to reconcile England once more with the bishop of Rome. A papal legate, in the person of Cardinal Reginald Pole, sailed up the Thames with his cross gleaming from the prow of his barge, and in full Parliament administered the absolution which freed the kingdom from the guilt under Mary incurred by its schism and heresy. As an additional support to her policy of restoring the Catholic Church in England, Queen Mary married her cousin, Philip II of Spain, the great champion of Catholicism upon the Continent.

But events proved that despite outward appearances even the reign of Mary registered an advance of Protestantism. The new doctrines were zealously propagated by an ever-growing number of itinerant exhorters. The Spanish alliance was disastrous to English fortunes abroad and distasteful to all patriotic Englishmen at home. And finally, the violent means which the queen took to stamp out heresy gave her the unenviable surname of “Bloody” and reacted in the end in behalf of the views for which the victims sacrificed their lives. During her reign nearly three hundred reformers perished, many of them, including Archbishop Cranmer, by fire. The work of the queen was in vain. No heir was born to Philip and Mary, and the crown, therefore, passed to Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, a Protestant not so much from conviction as from circumstance.

Definite Fashioning of Anglicanism: the Reign of Elizabeth

It was in the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) that the Church of England assumed definitely the doctrines and practices which we now connect with the word “Anglicanism.” By act of Parliament, the English Church was again separated from the papacy, and placed under royal authority, Elizabeth assuming the title of “supreme governor.” The worship of the state church was to be in conformity with a slightly altered version of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. A uniform doctrine was likewise imposed by Parliament in the form of the Thirty-nine Articles, which set a distinctively Protestant mark upon the Anglican Church in its appeal to the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith, its insistence on justification by faith alone, its repudiation of the sacrifice of the Mass, and its definition of the Church. All the bishops who had been appointed under Mary, with one exception, refused to accept the changes, and were therefore deposed and imprisoned, but new bishops, Elizabeth’s own appointees, were consecrated and the “succession of bishops” thereby maintained. Outwardly, the Church of England appeared to retain a corporate continuity throughout the sixteenth century; inwardly, a great revolution had changed it from Catholic to Protestant.

Harsh laws sought to oblige all Englishmen to conform to Elizabeth’s religious settlement. Liberty of public worship was denied to any dissenter from Anglicanism. To be a “papist” or “hear Mass”—which were construed as the same thing—was punishable by death as high treason. A special ecclesiastical court—the Court of High Commission—was established under royal authority to search out heresy and to enforce uniformity; it served throughout Elizabeth’s reign as a kind of Protestant Inquisition.

English Dissent from Anglicanism

While the large majority of the English nation gradually conformed to the official Anglican Church, a considerable number refused their allegiance. On one hand were the Roman Catholics, who still maintained the doctrine of papal supremacy and were usually derisively styled papists, and on the other hand were various Calvinistic sects, such as Presbyterians or Independents or Quakers, who went by the name of “Dissenters” or “Non-conformists.” In the course of time, the number of Roman Catholics tended to diminish, largely because, for political reasons which have been indicated in the preceding chapter, Protestantism in England became almost synonymous with English patriotism. But despite drastic laws and dreadful persecutions, Roman Catholicism survived in England among a conspicuous group of people. On the other hand, the Calvinists tended somewhat to increase their numbers so that in the seventeenth century they were able to precipitate a great political and ecclesiastical conflict with Anglicanism.


Further Reading

In the Cambridge Modern History, Vol. I (1902), a severe indictment of the Church is presented (ch. xix) by H. C. Lea, and a defense is offered (ch. xviii) by William Barry. The former opinions are developed startlingly by H. C. Lea in Vol. I, ch. i, of his History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. An old-fashioned, though still interesting, Protestant view is that of William Roscoe, Life and Pontificate of Leo X, 4 vols. (first pub. 1805-1806, many subsequent editions). For an excellent description of the organization of the Catholic Church, see André Mater, L’église catholique, sa constitution, son administration (1906). The best edition of the canon law is that of Friedberg, 2 vols. (1881). On the social work of the Church: E. L. Cutts, Parish Priests and their People in the Middle Ages in England (1898), and G. A. Prévost, L’église et les campagnes au moyen âge (1892). The most recent and comprehensive study of the Catholic Church on the eve of the Protestant Revolt is that of Pierre Imbart de la Tour, Les origines de la Réforme, Vol. I, La France moderne (1905), and Vol. II, L’église catholique, la crise et la renaissance (1909). For the Orthodox Church of the East see Louis Duchesne, The Churches Separated from Rome, trans. by A. H. Mathew (1908).

Frederic Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers, 3d ed. (1887), a sympathetic treatment of Colet, Erasmus, and More; F. A. (Cardinal) Gasquet, The Eve of the Reformation in England (1899), and, by the same author, an eminent Catholic scholar, England under the Old Religion (1912). General histories of the English Reformation: H. O. Wakeman, An Introduction to the History of the Church of England, 8th ed. (1914), ch. x-xiv, the best brief “High Church” survey; J. R. Green, Short History of the English People, new illust. ed. by C. H. Firth (1913), ch. vi, vii, a popular “Low Church” view; W. R. W. Stephens and William Hunt (editors), A History of the Church of England, Vols. IV (1902) and V (1904) by James Gairdner and W. H. Frere respectively; James Gairdner, Lollardy and the Reformation in England, 4 vols. (1908- 1913), the last word of an eminent authority on the period, who was convinced of the revolutionary character of the English Reformation; John Lingard, History of England to 1688, Vols. IV-VI, the standard Roman Catholic work; R. W. Dixon, History of the Church of England from the Abolition of the Roman Jurisdiction, 6 vols. (1878-1902), a thorough treatment from the High Anglican position; H. W. Clark, History of English Nonconformity, Vol. I (1911), Book I, valuable for the history of the radical Protestants; Henry Gee and W. J. Hardy, Documents Illustrative of English Church History (1896), an admirable collection of official pronouncements. Valuable special works and monographs: C. B. Lumsden, The Dawn of Modern England, being a History of the Reformation in England, 1509-1525 (1910), pronouncedly Roman Catholic in tone; Martin Hume, The Wives of Henry VIII (1905); F. A. (Cardinal) Gasquet, Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, 3d ed., 2 vols. (1888), popular ed. in 1 vol. (1902); R. B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 2 vols. (1902), a standard work; Dom Bede Camm, Lives of the English Martyrs (1904), with special reference to Roman Catholics under Henry VIII; A. F. Pollard, [Footnote: See also other works of A. F. Pollard listed in bibliography appended to Chapter III, p. 110, above.] Life of Cranmer (1904), scholarly and sympathetic, and, by the same author, England under Protector Somerset (1900), distinctly apologetic; Frances Rose-Troup, The Western Rebellion of 1549 (1913), a study of an unsuccessful popular uprising against religious innovations; M. J. Stone, Mary I, Queen of England (1901), an apology for Mary Tudor; John Foxe (1516-1587), Acts and Monuments of the Church, popularly known as the Book of Martyrs, the chief contemporary account of the Marian persecutions, uncritical and naturally strongly biased; R. G. Usher, The Reconstruction of the English Church, 2 vols. (1910), a popular account of the changes under Elizabeth and James I; H. N. Birt, The Elizabethan Religious Settlement (1907), from the Roman Catholic standpoint; G. E. Phillips, The Extinction of the Ancient Hierarchy, an Account of the Death in Prison of the Eleven Bishops Honored at Rome amongst the Martyrs of the Elizabethan Persecution (1905), also Roman Catholic; A. O. Meyer, England und die katholische Kirche unter Elisabeth und den Stuarts, Vol. I (1911), Eng. trans. by J. R. McKee (1915), based in part on use of source-material in the Vatican Library; Martin Hume, Treason and Plot (1901), deals with the struggles of the Roman Catholics for supremacy in the reign of Elizabeth; E. L. Taunton, The History of the Jesuits in England, 1580-1773 (1901); Richard Simpson, Life of Campion (1867), an account of a devoted Jesuit who suffered martyrdom under Elizabeth; Champlin Burrage, The Early English Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research, 1550-1641, 2 vols. (1912).

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  • Article Name: Anglicanism
  • Author: International
  • Description: In the Sixteenth Century Anglicanism is the name frequently applied to that form of Protestantism which stamped the state [...]

This entry was last updated: October 30, 2016



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