Catholic and Protestant
in the Tudor Monarchy

It is a common and mistaken view of history that, having become Supreme Head of the Church of England (understood as already existing in the Supremacy Act of 1534), Henry VIII moved the country in a Protestant direction.

He certainly attacked the monasteries, a significant wealthy and landed base of Roman Catholic power in the land. He nationalised religion. What he did not do, however, was agree with the movement on the continent towards Protestantism.

The man who did the dirty work on the monasteries, Thomas Cromwell, was in the end executed by Henry. Cromwell became Earl of Essex and was arrested two months on, and pronounced guilty of plotting against Henry and intending to marry princess Mary, not accepting royal power, and heresy (not being religiously correct!). He was beheaded after he provided evidence for Henry to annul his marriage to Ann of Cleves. She was the ugly one Henry had admired in art but disliked in vision - and Cromwell was blamed. Cromwell also had too close a relationship with German Protestant princes.

Henry VIII passed an Act of Six Articles in 1539 which entrenched Catholic doctrines. This was because Henry wanted to keep in with Catholic governments in Europe. It was a very repressive act, intending to remove heretics and reinforce Catholic views, whilst Henry remained in charge.

In 1545 Henry was ready to attack more institutions for their money, like hospitals and colleges, but in 1547 he was dead and the removal of assets had hardly begun. Henry would have raided chantries, which financed priests who carried out the Catholic practice of masses for the dead. This one area of asset stripping and repression did continue in 1547 - but for theological reasons.

Edward VI was only nine years old when he became King in 1547, and the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, acquired the title of Protector (of the boy King) after a power struggle. Somerset was in charge. He was strongly Protestant, and now Catholic practices would be stamped out. This created a reaction in the country in 1549, and the Privy Council removed him. The Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, worked the Privy Council better and avoided the title of Protector, but was just as Protestant.

Only the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and then 1552 could be used in churches pushed Protestantism forward. Services were in English, not Catholic Latin, and the congregation was emphasised and not the priesthood. The eucharist (bread and wine) became a remembrance of Christ rather than a re-enacting of his death (when the bread as body is broken), although the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine as such was not denied in 1549 and then was in 1552.

The Duke of Northumberland schemed to get his daughter in law Jane Grey to succeed the deceased in 1553 boy King, as by his nomination, but Parliament did not agree. He wanted a Protestant succession. Mary, the heir as Henry's first daughter, avoided being captured by the Duke of Northumberland's army, but in any case the Privy Council supported her accession.

Mary would now take the country towards a truly Roman Catholic position. She repealed the Supremacy Act in 1554. When Elizabeth I came to power, she became the Supreme Governor in 1559 and adopted a moderate Protestant position.

Imagine you are a Church of England priest in the period 1538 to 1560. Write down the changes you were expected to accept as if you are writing an autobiography.


A. Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful