A Very Brief History of the English Reformation in the 16th Century

I recently finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s biography of St. Edmund Campion, an Oxford scholar-turned-Jesuit priest who was martyred under Queen Elizabeth I.

I find the history of the English Reformation fascinating, in part because England was not at all a likely place to succumb to protestantism. Much has been made of the anti-clericalism of the time, due in large part to the moral failings of priests. But, according to Hilaire Belloc, the English clergy were by no means the biggest offenders, and were in fact among the healthiest in all of Christendom in this regard. England had been historically a very Catholic realm. Henry VIII, in fact, before the annulment debacle, had been named Defender of the Faith for penning a pamphlet (though it was likely ghost-written by Thomas More) against the heresies of Martin Luther. His love for the Apostolic Faith is evident, and even after his split from the Roman Church–due to the very human desire to produce a legitimate male heir and so avoid another succession crisis–he never intended to do away with the Sacraments.

There was a period when the Church in England could easily have been reconciled with Rome: after the death of Queen Catherine and the birth of Edward to Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour. It is my understanding that Henry was not terribly opposed to a reconciliation, but by then there was a new class of English gentry who had so benefited from the Crown’s dissolution of the monasteries–of which the proceeds were used to pay off royal debt and buy political favors–that they now did everything in their power to prevent their restoration, which would undoubtedly have followed a reunion with Rome. At the same time, Calvinism was beginning to take hold amongst the merchant class in London, for whom the new doctrines were appealing in their lack of emphasis on good works and appreciation for spiritual poverty. This proved another obstacle to reconciliation.

Henry, either in his distractions on other matters (his subsequent marriages to protestant sympathizers and his failed foreign military expeditions) or just his lack of resolve in his later years, made little attempt to ameliorate the situation. Nor did his successor, Edward, who was educated by protestants in his youth and advised (or, rather, controlled) by them during his brief reign.

Edward’s elder sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, and granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, attempted to restore the Apostolic Faith in England, but her reign was too short and her power too limited to root out the animosity toward Catholicism that had then become part of the establishment. (For this she was given the nickname “Bloody Mary,” even though the persecution of Catholics under her younger sister, Elizabeth, was far bloodier.)

Actually, from the accounts I have read, Elizabeth was not an ideologue bitterly opposed to Catholicism. She had a real love for her sister Mary, and though she was educated by protestants, she would likely have been content to live as a Catholic if that were the norm. The Monarchy, however, had been weakened and the treasury depleted by Henry’s frivolity, and Elizabeth, pragmatic as she was, sought the support of Parliament–composed at this point almost exclusively of the protestant merchant class–without which she had no power to levy taxes. Desperate to hold on to power, she increasingly became the puppet of the protestant faction, and in particular of her chief advisor, William Cecil, whose strong financial interests dictated his animosity to the Catholic Church.

It was due to Cecil’s influence that harsh penalties were imposed on those Catholics remaining in England who wished to practice their religion in peace. Refusal to submit to the spiritual authority of the Crown came to be seen as treasonous. Cecil and his cohorts instituted a propaganda campaign linking the practice of Catholicism with support for Spain–England’s chief rival at the time–and made up all sorts of horrible lies about the atrocities of Spanish Catholicism, many of which are still generally accepted uncritically in America today.

This was the atmosphere in England upon Edmund Campion’s return in June of 1580. He traveled secretly from Catholic household to Catholic household, saying Mass and hearing confessions (both of which were punishable by death) and otherwise ministering to the underground Catholic population. He wrote a brief statement of his intentions, to be published in the case of his imprisonment, in which he emphasized his loyalty to England and to the temporal authority of the Queen, and explained that his only purpose was the salvation of souls. This document, nicknamed “Campion’s Brag,” got out prematurely and became widely disseminated throughout the Realm, though it was illegal to possess a copy. He was caught saying Mass one day by a professional priest hunter and was captured by the local authorities. He endured several interrogation sessions on the rack–by which he was permanently deprived the use of his limbs–without divulging any secret information, was put on trial for treason (which was obviously a farce; he was clearly being persecuted for his Catholicism), and was sentenced to death. On December 1st, 1581, he was taken to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered, a fate far worse than being burned alive.

Edmund Campion was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. He is recognized as a Martyr of the Church.

We live in a time that is not so different from that of St. Edmund Campion. Let us all strive for sanctity in whatever way God calls us.


About Emmett Hall

I'm a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas, working on a theology degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. My views are solely my own, based on a reasonable grounding in the Western Tradition, and subject to correction if necessary. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or any institution with which I am associated.
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6 Responses to A Very Brief History of the English Reformation in the 16th Century

  1. Very concise but inclusive history of the time, although I will always refer to it by the less popular name of the Protestant Revolt. Most Protestants did not wish to reform the Church, but to break away from it and to break it apart as best they could. I had not hear that Elizabeth was fond of her sister though. Interesting points to consider.

    • Emmett says:

      Thank you very much! I’ve never heard it called that before, but you’re right: that’s a fitting name.

      • I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you weren’t homeschooled? I was, and it was almost entirely for religious reasons (i. e. our local schools were bad, but our parochial school was almost as bad in every respect, including the lack of religious education). Have you ever read any history texts by Dr. Warren H. Carroll? I think you’d find them quite interesting, insightful, and most of all, honest.

      • Emmett says:

        You are correct: public school until college (where most of the smartest kids I met happened to have been homeschooled, by the way).

        I had never heard of Carroll before. But since you mentioned it, I did a little investigating and found we have a few of his works in the library here at NAC. So now he’s officially on my fun-reading list. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Paul says:

    Emmett, I have two of Carroll’s books if you ever want to borrow them. (v.1 and v.3)

    • Emmett says:

      Nice! I’ll probably bring Belloc’s history of the French Revolution with me to China, then start on Carroll when I get back to Rome.

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