Reformation in England

Descending on England like soft dew and advancing noiselessly as the light of the rising sun, the Word of God, given to the common people by Tyndale, began to work, laying the foundation for the Reformation. While there were many martyrs who would yet lay down their lives before England would fully accept the reformed faith, there were signs that popular feeling was turning against the old faith. From time to time there was destruction of public symbols. Many of the crucifixes that stood along the roadways were pulled down. Images of saints were found destroyed. Though there were a few arrests made and the perpetrators of the act hanged, in most cases they remained unknown.

As the years passed and Catherine gave Henry VIII no sons, the kings affection for his queen began to wane.

Cardinal Wolsey, archenemy of the Protestant faith, had twice been promised the Roman tiara by Charles V, the emperor and nephew of Catherine. Twice Charles broke his promise and Wolsey saw another become pope in his place. A man as proud and powerful as Wolsey could scarcely pardon such an affront. A plan to avenge himself began to form in Wolsey’s mind, though it might convulse all of Europe in the process.

The cardinal knew that Henry had harbored secret doubts about the lawfulness of his marriage to Catherine and that the king was less favorably disposed towards her than he had been in the early years of their marriage. Taking advantage of the king’s intense fear of having no heir to the throne and the apparent hopelessness of obtaining one by Catherine, Wolsey saw the means of breaking the alliance between Henry and Spain and at the same time humiliating the emperor by having removed his aunt in disgrace from being the queen. In all of his planning, Wolsey did not see that his scheme would result in his own downfall and the fall of popedom in England.

Going to the king in private, he pointed out to him that the salvation of his soul and the welfare of his kingdom were in jeopardy. Three days later, he again approached the king and told him: “Most mighty prince, you cannot like Herod, have your brother’s wife. Submit the matter to proper judges.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3, 375. The fact that Charles V had previously objected to an alliance with Princess Mary, the daughter of Catherine, on the grounds that she was the issue of a forbidden marriage helped to influence the king; and the pope was approached and asked for his blessing in granting Henry a divorce. The divorce would not have cost Clement VII so much as a second thought, had it not been that he greatly feared the emperor, Charles V, whose armies surrounded him.

Wolsey, made it clear to Clement and his cardinals that if the divorce were not granted, England was lost to the papacy. The fact that Charles’ armies were at that minute in retreat before the French armies gave courage to Clement, and he allowed himself to be persuaded that Charles was as good as driven out of Italy. On June 8, 1528, the pope issued a commission empowering his nuncio Campeggio and Wolsey to declare the marriage between Henry and Catherine null and void. A few days later he signed a decretal by which he himself annulled the marriage. This document he entrusted to Campeggio, instructing him to travel by slow stages, delaying as long as possible his arrival in England. If the emperor were finally beaten, the decretal was to be made public and acted upon; but should Charles recover, it was to be burned.

At last, to the great joy of the king, Campeggio arrived in England with the bull dissolving the marriage. His conscience at rest, the way was opened for Henry to contract another marriage. And so, while the newly acquired Scriptures were separating England from the bondage of the papacy, the papal decretal was serving to bind the realm even more tightly. “But like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God’s purposes know no haste and no delay.” Desire of Ages, 31

Eight months passed before Campeggio opened his commission to consider the propriety of Henry’s proposed divorce of Catherine. On the way to England he had been overtaken with messengers from the pope with new instructions. The tide of war had changed and the armies of the emperor had triumphed. Campeggio’s instructions, therefore, were to try to persuade Catherine to enter a nunnery. Should he fail in this, he was not to decide the case but to refer it back to Rome.

Campeggio approached Catherine, but she refused to cooperate. He was left with the unhappy task of trying to convince Henry to abandon his plans for a divorce. The king became irate and asked if this was how the pope kept his word, repaying his faithful service of the past. Campeggio responded by showing the king the bull annulling the marriage, but nothing the king could say could prevail upon the legate to part with it.

After a series of delays, on June 18, 1529, a commission was opened and both the king and queen were cited to appear. The hearings lasted for about a month. It was believed by everyone that on July 23 a verdict would be announced. On the appointed day, the hall was crowded. The king himself slipped into a gallery adjoining the hall so that unobserved he might watch the proceedings. Slowly Campeggio arose. The silence grew intense. The moment was great; the fate of the papacy in England was at stake. Speaking, the nuncio adjourned the hearings until the 1st of October. The words fell on the crowded room with a stunning effect, but none were more shocked than was Henry. Clearly he saw that he was being played for a fool by the pope and that Clement cared nothing for his welfare or for the peace of his kingdom.

Of the two men who had incurred his anger—Clement and Wolsey—Wolsey was the first to feel the king’s wrath. The cardinal’s fall from favor was quickly apparent to the courtiers who were not slow to hasten to the king with additional proofs of Wolsey’s willingness to sacrifice England for the papacy. There was scarcely a nobleman at court whom Wolsey had not offended; and wherever he looked, he saw only hostility. The prospects abroad were no better for he had used both Charles the emperor and Francis, king of France, for his own purposes, plunging Europe into war. Rarely has a career climbed to such splendid heights, to end so quickly in such utter defeat.

The king was completely disgusted. Two years had been worse than wasted in dealing with Clement, for which he now had nothing to show. Charles and Clement were now fast friends, and Henry was left without a single ally on the Continent. More than that, he had been bitterly humiliated at home. The realization came to him that he had but two courses to choose from. He must either abandon the idea of a divorce or withdraw his case from the jurisdiction of Rome. The first he would not do, but the second was a course that required much consideration.

“In the annals of human history the growth of nations, the rise and fall of empires, appear as dependent on the will and prowess of man. The shaping of events seems, to a great degree, to be determined by his power, ambition, or caprice. But in the Word of God the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.” Education, 173

Just as with the stars, an overruling hand of Providence brings men upon the stage of action at just the time they are needed to fulfill His divine purpose. Just as the most ardent foe of Protestantism was removed from the stage, two more men, each destined to play an important part in the events that were to shape the future of the nation, made their entrance.

The king, on his way to London from Grafton where he had retired to escape the vexations of mind that had resulted from the duplicity of the pope stopped to enjoy a chase in the forest. As there were too many courtiers to all be entertained in the abbey, two of his servants were entertained in the house of a citizen named Cressy. At the evening meal, they unexpectedly met a former acquaintance, Thomas Cranmer.

Cranmer, born in 1489 near Nottingham, was then a professor at Cambridge. As the teachings of Luther were stirring much controversy in England just then, Cranmer set himself to know the truth of the matter. Setting aside all other material, Cranmer was determined to know the truth from the Bible. After three years of study, without commentaries or the assistance of other humans, the darkness of scholasticism which had until now obscured his vision, cleared; and for the first time, he saw the beauty of the plan of salvation.

His two friends, knowing his eminence as a scholar and theologian, directed the conversation so as to draw from him an opinion as to the matter of the royal divorce. Speaking frankly, little dreaming that his comments would be heard outside of the room in which he spoke them, he asked, “Why go to Rome? Why take so long a road when by a shorter you may arrive at a more certain conclusion?” His friends inquired as to what approach he spoke of, and he replied: “The Scriptures. If God has made this marriage sinful, the pope cannot make it lawful.” His friends asked how one might know what the Scriptures said on this point, and the doctor replied: “Ask the universities; they will return a sounder verdict than the pope.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3, 392

Two days later, the words of Cranmer were related to the king. On an earlier occasion he had approached the universities, but the question he had asked was not that which Cranmer proposed. Earlier he had asked both Oxford and Cambridge what they thought of his marriage, but Cranmer was suggesting that they tell him what the Bible said of the marriage. In this proposal, Henry thought that he saw a possible solution to his dilemma, little realizing that in doing so he was accepting the formal, fundamental principle of Protestantism—appealing the case from the pope to God, from the Church to the Scriptures. Cranmer was immediately summoned to court and commanded to begin gathering the opinions of the scholars as to what the Bible taught about his marriage. Clement VII had summoned the king of England to his bar; but instead, Henry would summon the pope to the tribunal of God’s Word.

At this point, we must introduce a second man who was to play a significant role in the emancipation of England from the Roman yoke. Thomas Cromwell, after returning to England as a military adventure, became connected with Wolsey, whom he served faithfully. In Wolsey’s overthrow, which was largely the result of Wolsey’s subservience to the pope, he saw a new course set for himself. Going to Henry, with great courage and clearness, he pointed out to the king the great humiliation and embarrassment that both he and his kingdom had suffered because of their dependency on the pope. Who was the pope, he asked, that he should be monarch of England? And, who were the priests, that they should be above the law? He pointed out that for Henry to submit his case to an Italian court was to be but half a king. He raised the question as to why the king should not declare himself head of the church in his own realm. If the king were to declare himself head of the church, it would put the clergy on the same level with all the rest of his subjects. As things then stood, the clergy did, indeed, swear allegiance to the king, but they then took a second oath to the pope that virtually annulled the first and made them more the pope’s subjects than the king’s.

During the few minutes that Henry listened to these courageous words, a revolution took place in his thinking. Fixing his eyes on the speaker, he asked him if he could prove the things he had said. Anticipating such a question, Cromwell pulled from his pocket a copy of the oath every bishop was required to take. This was enough for Henry. As he listened with mingled astonishment and delight, a new future seemed to be opening to Henry.

In the days and weeks that followed, sweeping changes were instituted. The laws were changed, making the clergy amenable to the laws of the land, curbing to a large extent the abuses that had existed. An end was made to many of the payments to Rome, by which an enormous amount of wealth had been drained from the country. The law was repealed by which heretics might be burned on the sentence and by the authority of the bishop, and without writ from the king. Though this did not fully abolish the stake as a punishment for heresy, it was restricted to a less arbitrary, possibly more merciful tribunal.

It was foreseen that the new policy might eventually lead to the nation being placed under interdict; but this threat had lost much of the terrors it once had, even though it might yet cause considerable inconvenience. In order to help avoid a crisis should this take place, a law was passed that the English bishops were to have power to consecrate new bishops without license from the pope. It was forbidden from that time on for the archbishop or bishops to be nominated or confirmed by the pope.

Henry found himself in the position of fighting Rome on the one hand and Lutheranism on the other. Many crimes stained Henry’s hands, and he has been severely blamed by both Protestants and Catholics. When however, Henry’s record is compared with that of his contemporaries, Francis I and Charles V, he contrasts very favorably. Though at times cruel, he did not spill nearly as much blood as did Charles V; and he was never guilty of some of the barbarities practiced in both France and Spain. In giving to England the Bible, breaking the chains of foreign tyranny, and in destroying the monastic system, though he did these things form very mixed motives, Henry’s policies laid the groundwork for making England a Protestant nation and foremost among the nations of Europe.

On January 28, 1547, Henry VIII died, and Edward VI ascended the throne at ten years of age. During his reign, Protestantism prospered; but six short years later, when Edward died at the age of sixteen, Mary, the daughter of Catherine, became the ruling monarch of England. Without losing a day, she proceeded to undo all that had been accomplished under the reigns of her father and brother, and the night again closed around the Reformation.