The Political Climate Of 16th Century England

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Rarely has there been a time in history where there has been a convergence of scholarly mind, political activism and ardent spiritual concern as that of the four Thomas’s of 16th century England. The four men represented in this research were all born within 16 years of each other, attained to the pinnacles of religious and political power and fell to meet there demise in disfavor, and with the exception of Wolsey (who died on the way to trial for treason) met their end at the hand of an executioner. Subsequently, having the same name was only one of many commonalities that each of these contemporaries possessed. Yet, the most important attribute by far (whether that was a blessing or bane), was that each had the ear of King Henry the VIII.

How did they use their influence? Was this influence wielded in favor of their religious conviction? Were they primarily motivated by self-interest? This research asserts that a combination of the two motivations existed.

Two of the men here focused upon were influential Catholics (Cardinal Wolsey and Saint Thomas More) and two were instrumental in establishing the reformed position in the Anglican Church (Cromwell and Cranmer). It might be noted that each had varying degrees of commitment to a reformed agenda, especially in the case of Cromwell; however the influence of these men set the stage for a breech between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic See, which remains to this day. In fact, the issues that were a precursor to this division still provides constant fodder for the present Archbishop of Canterbury and others who seek a reunion with the Church at Rome. In order to examine the extent of the influences of the “four Thomas’s” on 16th century England, it becomes necessary to first survey the political and religious climate that existed, as well as the Roman church and the seeds of Protestantism that were planted by the Reformed movement in Continental Europe.

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Perhaps the most monumental time in the history of English reformation, and therefore one that would later directly impact religious development in the North American colonies, was the period in the 16th century between the reign of King Henry the VIII and Elizabeth I. The reign of the Tudor’s proved at times to be as much controversial, as it was tumultuous. This was due in large part to the relationships surrounding Henry VIII and his six wives. Therefore, Henry was not a reformer at heart, or for theological reasons as much as for the legal ramifications surrounding his annulment to Catharine of Aragon, and the reluctance of the Pope to recognize this annulment. In fact, the pope was requested to reverse an earlier Papal “dispensation” that would then make Henry’s first marriage, (a marriage to Catharine, his brother’s widow) of no effect. Henrys position was that this marriage should be annulled because it went against Cannon law which was based on a passage from Leviticus. This ordinance made it unlawful to marry a brother’s widow, based on a passage in Leviticus. However, Catharine was the aunt of Charles V, Who was the leader of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Emperor, and as Gonzalez states, “The pope, cement VII, could not invalidate Henry’s marriage to Catherine without alienating Charles V”. Most historians suggest that this position was the primary factor for further alienation between the house of Tudor and Rome, yet Henry had been a dedicated catholic and even came to the defense of the church, writing a remonstrance of sorts to the work of Luther. Newcombe states, “But Henry VIII’s agenda was quite different and he was generally hostile to the reforming ideas that began to find their way to England from continental Europe”. This hostility took the form of a pamphlet written, probably with the help of the theologian Thomas More, called Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Marinum Lutherum (defense of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther) which first appeared in 1521. Henry was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, and this recognition was so pleasing to the king that he continued to acknowledge it and “kept it in his royal style even after the break with Rome. Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest that Henry was dissatisfied with the doctrines or practices of the church in themselves”.

The Religious/Political Climate of 16th Century England

At the end of the Wars of Roses, Henry Tudor ascended to the throne (as Henry the VII) and until the civil war in 1642, the reign of the house of Tudor was generally a peaceful one. After the death of Henry VII the throne was passed to Henry VIII in 1509. Forgeng states, “Henry had no desire to make any significant changes in church teachings, but there was growing pressure in the country to follow the lead of the continental Protestants such as Martin Luther; English Protestants were later heavily influenced by Calvin, a French Protestant who established a rigidly Protestant state in Geneva”. This form of religious awakening would continue to have an effect on the populace, some of which would express itself in the Puritan movement in later years. Noll states, “In most general terms, the Puritan movement had represented a desire to finish the English Reformation, to complete the work of purifying church, society and self that began under henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) and Edward VI (1547-1553) which was temporarily reversed under the Roman Catholic Mary I (1553-1558), but which was eventually secured under Elizabeth I (1558-1603)”. It would seem that even though Henry was very firmly ground in the Catholic faith and tradition, the new waves of Protestantism on the continent of Europe were lapping, as it were, at the white cliffs of Dover. The seeds of reformation were being sown which in turn would make the movement grow in earnest during the reign of Edward.

The Catholic Church in the Tudor Period

In a much broader sense, the Catholic Church was in the midst of withstanding an onslaught of reformation activities which was to decrease its influence in Europe exponentially. This was in part, due to the erosion of Papal authority which was a direct result of its intervention in affairs of state. British author and historian A. G. Dickens states, “Standing on the summit of this huge pyramid, the medieval Popes, however unwillingly, became political rivals of emperors and kings. Thomas Hobbes must admittedly be accounted a hostile witness, yet he did no more than overstate a genuine historical insight when in 1651 he looked back on the Papacy and called it ‘the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof’. So long as the church maintained friendly contacts with the Empire and its powerful successor-states, it could normally call upon physical force to crush doctrinal dissenters, and usually, in the authentic Roman style, without permitting any two-way arguments”. So it was that the Pope, at the time of the conflict with Henry VIII, saw the wisdom in avoiding alienation of the Holy Roman Empire, and in particular, Charles V who was at its head, and also was directly related to Catherine, Henry’s first wife. Dickens also notes that, “Without question the English Reformation belonged to that far larger breakaway which detached half Europe from the Papacy”.

The Protestant Reformation in Tudor England

It seems that the Protestant Reformation was quite inevitable in 16th century England, given the winds of change blowing from the continent of Europe and bolstered by the teaching of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. It was only a matter of time until the force of these teachings found its way into the heart of the people of Great Britain. However, the endeavor received impetus that was quite unexpected, in the form of the tenuous relationship that arose between the Pope and the Crown. Rosman states, “According to the laws of the land, England became a Protestant realm in 1559. This legislative definition of religion was more important that twentieth-century readers may appreciate. The nation-states that emerged in sixteenth-century Europe were validated by religion. People who adhered to alternative faiths in preference to the official one challenged the political as well as the religious order. In England citizenship and creed were inseparable, as they were in most other European states. To be an English person was to be a member of the Church of England”. This paradigm or way of thinking, serves to amplify the magnitude of what was taking place in Tudor England. Though there were many complex issues that constituted this irrevocable change, it must also be noted that the actions and influence wielded by certain individuals, close to the crown, played a decisive role in the events that would follow. These events would shape the Reformation, and it is here that we examine the four Thomas’s.

The Influence of Four Contemporaries

Thomas Wolsey (1478-1530)

Thomas Wolsey served as the chief advisor to Henry the VIII in a position known as “Lord Chancellor”. He was born in humble surroundings, yet received a fine education and then becoming ordained as a priest in 1498. Through a series of advancements, he was appointed Royal Chaplain for Henry the VII, and it can clearly be seen that he would naturally have the ear of the royal prince who succeeded his father. In fact, Henry the VIII made Wolsey part of his “privy council”, and eventually “Lord Chancellor” In 1515. Wolsey continued to grow in stature and cultivated favorable relationships with those who could profitably help his causes. Those that did not, were equally disregarded. Wolsey was rewarded for his service to the crown and was made Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York. Wolsey was not only faithful in his service to the crown, but he also held favor with Pope Leo X, who made him a Cardinal in 1515 and later, a Papal Legate in. Wolsey became one of the most powerful servants to the Crown in English history. However, this divided allegiance came to a crossroad when the issue of Henry’s annulment to Catharine of Aragon came to a head. Although Wolsey appealed to the Pope more than once to disregard the Papal “dispensation” that allowed the marriage in the first place, the Pope disregarded these attempts and as “Papal Legate” Wolsey found himself in conflict with Henry, who began to question his allegiance. By 1528, there was little more Wolsey could do and by 1529, he was arrested and accused of treason. Ordered to London to stand trial, he died en-route in 1530. To Wolsey’s credit, he did promote the education of the clergy, seeing he himself had benefited from this. Taunton states, “There are two ways of bringing about a reform; and they can be summed up in the two words, “don’t” and “do”. It is easy enough to issue prohibitory laws, and it is just as easy to evade them. This Wolsey understood; and the absence of such decrees in all his educational work is noteworthy. He built upon the more reasonable and therefore more lasting foundation of teaching men to know, and then desire to work. Ignorance, he knew, was the root of most of the mischief of the day: so by education he endeavored to give men the means to know better”. In this way, Wolsey, with his influence in the rise of a number of the universities, contributed to education reform as well.

Thomas More (1478-1535)

The role of Thomas More in this period and the influence he wielded proved a bit more complex. More, like Wolsey, rose through the ranks of faithful service also becoming a member of Henrys “privy counsel” in 1517, was knighted in 1521 and became the King’s personal secretary and advisor but later, served as a liaison between Wolsey and King Henry VIII. It can clearly be seen that his sphere of influence, though not as extensive as Wolsey’s, was however rather intimate with regard to his relationship to the king. After Wolsey was deposed in 1529, More was appointed “Lord Chancellor” in his place.

Despite More’s close relationship with Henry, a series of religious reforms enacted by the latter, caused the Chancellor to elevate his opinions in favor of the Church at Rome and therefor against the King. One of the telling events was the refusal of More to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, but of greater importance still, was his disagreement with the King order to forbid the payment of Annates, or other contributions to Rome. But the biggest issue was More’s refusal to loyalty to the king as the head of the church. This was due to the “Act of Succession” passed by parliament in 1534. The act not only assured that title to the English Crown would pass to the Children of Henry and Anne Boleyn, (Elizabeth) but it also required all subjects to swear an oath to the King’s supremacy as head of the Church of England. This was something More was not prepared to do and later, he was charged with treason and finally beheaded in 1535. More, having been a staunch supporter of the Roman church was later beautified by the Pope and finally canonized, and “In 1935, four hundred years after his death, Thomas More’s name was added to the official list of saints of the Roman catholic church”. However Marius states, “So More died for the sacral church. He thought that the pope was the head of that church, but the papacy was merely one office among many in the priestly order, and it is a critical error to say that he died for the authority of the pope in England and to leave it at that, not explaining that he held none of the high-flown doctrines of papal infallibility that have spread their black wings over the skies of catholic modernity”. Regardless of ones views on Mores commitment to papal infallibility, one thing is for certain. He supported papal authority as head of the church, and he paid for this conviction with his life.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

Of all those who could be counted as leaders in the reformation movement in Great Britain in the 16th century, Cromwell was one of the strongest proponents. After being instrumental in assisting Henry in the annulment of his marriage to Catharine, Cromwell was rewarded as vice-regent and vicar-general, overseeing the affairs of the Church of England. Though he had earlier been an aid to Wolsey, he avoided being associated with Wolsey’s positions and Cromwell himself was named a member of the “privy council”, growing in favor with the King. Cromwell’s importance can particularly be seen as an enforcer of the many new acts of parliament that supported the “Act of Supremacy” which made Henry and subsequently, his heirs, head of the church. It might also be noted that Cromwell helped to shape religious reform by calling a “synod of bishops” along with Cranmer and Foxe and the result was a document known as “The Institution of the Christian Man”. This doctrinal treatise was used to help quell the uprising of several of the clergy who balked at the suppression of the monasteries in England. So it may be seen that Cromwell was more so interested in the doctrinal aspect of the reformation, howbeit, these position supported his own agenda as well. It would see that his real voice was found in the political arena and to that end, he was instrumental in the proceedings of what was known as “the Reformation Parliament”. However, not long after, his manipulations were short lived in that he helped to arrange the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves and this proved to be his undoing. Coby states, “Cromwell was answerable for this disaster of a marriage. He conducted the long-distance negotiations with Cleves. Correspondence passed through him and his office without ever receiving comment by henry. The honor or the King required that he not be seen begging for a mate, so underlings had to woo in his stead. That was one reason for Cromwell’s taking the lead; but so too was the objective of a German alliance, which Cromwell pursued more avidly than any other. Thus as Henry soured on his new wife and despaired of begetting additional heirs, he looked around for someone to blame; and who better than the Lord Privy Seal, who first reported on Anne’s preeminent beauty.” Bolstered by a substantial retinue of Cromwell’s political enemies, the King had him arrested and he was charged with several crimes including treason. Though he sought to show support for the King, he was executed in 1540. In recent years Cromwell has been called everything, from Henry VIII’s most trusted minister, to his most Notorious minister. Regardless of one’s opinion in this regard, there can be no doubt that he had the ear of the sovereign and did push the advancement of Protestant reform in England. Though he was highly motivated by a number of issues, in the end, the means that he employed to bring about his designs were considered somewhat Machiavellian and he faced the scourge of his antagonists when his day finally came in court. It has rightly been pointed out that service to the King at this time was a very precarious proposition.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Cranmer studied theology at Cambridge eventually attaining his doctorate and was associated there for over 30 years. When Cardinal Wolsey turned to the universities over the annulment issue, Cranmer gave a good showing and assisted Henry with his support of the annulment and later assisted with the proceedings. Cranmer was then chosen to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Perhaps the most monumental decisions Cranmer made was to denounce the marriage of Henry to Catharine as illegal and in so doing, opened the door for his marriage to Anne. Being archbishop, and therefore under the supposed supervision of the Pope, Cranmer’s actions infuriated Clement VII. Soon after, both Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated. Cranmer’s theological positions continued to change and by 1534, it was clear that he took up a Reformist position which continued and helped to solidify the English churches break with the Church of Rome. Shortly thereafter, Anne was sent to the Tower of London for purported infidelities and Cranmer was summonsed to hear her confession. Though he supported Anne’s innocence, he declared Henry’s marriage to her null and void, and shortly after this, she was executed. Reforms continued under the guidance of Cromwell and Cranmer and after the death of Cromwell, Cranmer’s influence grew even more.

Cranmer was to come under fire by conservatives who accused him of several misdeeds and though Cranmer escaped their plot with the support of the king, these men, who were opposed to any more reformist ideas continued in their attacks. These too were thwarted and Cranmer continued with his Reformation agenda which culminated in “The Book of Common Prayer” which effectively changed the liturgy of the church eliminating much of the Catholic form and doctrine. This was one of the most significant changes in the early Reformation period in England. The Book of Common Prayer, for the first time, “gave the English people a liturgy in their own language”. Cranmer continued to serve, even beyond the death of Henry in 1547 and through the rise of Edward VI. Since Edward ascended the throne at such an early age, the door was open for Cranmer to continue making reforms and this he did with diligence. Advances were made for several years and this continued until the death of Edward. It was Edward’s desire to put his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne to succeed him and she, being a protestant, was supported by Cranmer. However, after the death of Edward, support for Jane fell in the council and, in her stead, the staunchly Catholic Mary was put on the throne.

In Queen Mary’s reign, and earnest attempt was made to restore Catholicism and most of the reformist bishops were replaced by conservatives. Cranmer’s continued support of reformed doctrine led to his arrest and charged with sedition and treason. Cranmer succumbed to pressure and recanted the doctrine of the reformation and instead espoused the doctrines of the catholic faith. However, when he looked to have his sentence commuted, Mary did not stay the execution. In the end, Cranmer renounced the fact that he recanted from the Reformist doctrine and determined to die a martyr of the Protestant faith. In his final statement, he determined to thrust his own had first into the fire, which signed the recantation, and this promise he kept, when he was burned at the stake in 1556. However, as was true of the blood of the martyrs who died in faith in the past generations, the death of this man also played a role in steeling the courage of those that would follow.

Observations and Conclusion

Try as she may, Mary could never undo the seeds of reformation that had earlier been planted and these efforts proved to be short lived because she died in 1558. Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth who would enjoy one of the longest sovereign reins up until that time. Elizabeth was a staunch Protestant. Gonzalez states, “If the head of the church in England was the pope, and not the king, it followed that the marriage of Henry VII with Catherine of Aragon was valid, and that Elizabeth, born from Anne Boleyn while Catherine still lived, was illegitimate”. While Elizabeth was not a protestant extremist in practice, it was certain that she felt that Henry was justified in proclaiming himself head of the Church of England.

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Elizabeth did not stamp out the practice of Catholicism in the realm, but only suppressed it. However, some Catholics sought to make Mary Stewart, who was in exile, the next sovereign and according to them, rightful heir to the throne. A series of plots to undermine Elizabeth were thwarted and subsequently, Mary was executed, having been found to be a part of them. The seeds of reformation began to grow, and so England saw the rise of a growing number of puritans who were influenced by the teachings of Calvin and one of the primary goals of this group was to return to Biblical Christianity based on the teachings of the New Testament. This growing focus on authentic Christianity lead the way to further reforms and paved the way for a great awakening and evangelical revival in England.

Of the four Thomas’s it is concluded that Cranmer had the most profound and substantial effect on the English reformation in the 16th century. However, it can also be found that political expediency played as much a part of early English reform as did a shift in theological opinion. In balance, all four Thomas’s, wittingly or unwittingly, hastened the Protestant Reformation in 16th century England. In the case of Cranmer on the protestant side, and More on the Catholic side, these two men seemed to be guided more by conviction than political favor. Wolsey and Cromwell were, as it would seem, more of an opportunist than anything else.

In balance, never has there been a time, or religious circumstance for that matter, quite like the 16th century rule of the Tudors. Furthermore, it would seem that the self-interest of the second sovereign (Henry VIII) more than anything, provided the catalyst for reforming work in this period. The researcher therefore concludes that some of the subjects of this research indeed used their substantial influence in favor of their religious convictions, while others were primarily motivated by expediency and self-interest. Therefore, a combination of the two motivations existed.

Bibliography of Selected Works

Coby, J. Patrick. Thomas Cromwell: Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation. Lantham: Lexington Books, 2009.

Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Forgeng, Jeffrey L. Daily Life in Elizabethan England. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Marius, Richard. Thomas More: A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Newcombe, David G. Henry VIII and the English Reformation. New York: Routledge Publishing, 2003.

Noll, Mark A. The Rise of Evangelicalism. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2003.

Rosman, Doreen Margaret. From Catholic to Protestant: Religion and the People in Tudor England. London, University College Press, 1996.

Taunton, Ethelred L. Thomas Wolsey: Legate and Reformer. New York: John Lane Publication, 1902.


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