Beacon Lights of History— Volume 3 (Part 2)

Author: John Lord

Thomas Cranmer. A. D. 1489-1556. The English Reformation.

As the great interest of the Middle Ages, in an historical point of view, centres around the throne of the popes, so the most prominent subject of historical interest in our modern times is the revolt from their almost unlimited domination. The Protestant reformation, in its various relations, was a movement of transcendent importance. The history of Christendom, in a moral, a political, a religious, a literary, and a social point of view, for the last three hundred years, cannot be studied or comprehended without primary reference to that memorable revolution.

We have seen how that great insurrection of human intelligence was headed in Germany by Luther, and we shall shortly consider it in Switzerland and France under Calvin. We have now to contemplate the movement in England.

The most striking figure in it was doubtless Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, although he does not represent the English Reformation in all its phases. He was neither so prominent nor so great a man as Luther or Calvin, or even Knox. But, taking him all in all, he was the most illustrious of the English reformers; and he, more than any other man, gave direction to the spirit of reform, which had been quietly working ever since the time of Wyclif, especially among the humbler classes.

The English Reformation—the way to which had been long preparing— began in the reign of Henry VIII.; and this unscrupulous and tyrannical monarch, without being a religious man, gave the first great impulse to an outbreak the remote consequences of which he did not anticipate, and with which he had no sympathy. He rebelled against the authority of the Pope, without abjuring the Roman Catholic religion, either as to dogmas or forms. In fact, the first great step towards reform was made, not by Cranmer, but by Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, as the prime minister of Henry VIII.,—a man of whom we really know the least of all the very great statesmen of English history. It was he who demolished the monasteries, and made war on the whole monastic system, and undermined the papal power in England, and swept away many of the most glaring of those abuses which disgraced the Papal Empire. Armed with the powers which Wolsey had wielded, he directed them into a totally different channel; so far as the religious welfare of the nation is considered, although in his principles of government he was as absolute as Richelieu. Like the great French statesman, he exalted the throne; but, unlike him, he promoted the personal reign of the sovereign he served with remarkable ability and devotion.

Thomas Cromwell, the prime minister of Henry VIII., after the fall of Wolsey, was born in humble ranks, and was in early life a common soldier in the wars of Italy, then a clerk in a mercantile house in Antwerp, then a wool merchant in Middleborough, then a member of Parliament, and was employed by Wolsey in suppressing some of the smaller monasteries. His fidelity to his patron Wolsey, at the time of that great cardinal’s fall, attracted the special notice of the King, who made him royal secretary in the House of Commons. He made his fortune by advising Henry to declare himself Head of the English Church, when he was entangled in the difficulties growing out of the divorce of Catharine. This advice was given with the patriotic view of making the royal authority superior to that of the Pope in Church patronage, and of making England independent of Rome.

The great scandal of the times was the immoral lives of the clergy, especially of the monks, and the immunities they enjoyed. They were a hindrance to the royal authority, and weakened the resources of the country by the excessive drain of gold and silver sent to Rome to replenish the papal treasury. Cromwell would make the clergy dependent on the King and not on the Pope for their investitures and promotions; and he abominated the idle and vagabond lives of the monks, who had degenerated in England, perhaps more than in any other country in Europe, in consequence of the great wealth of their monasteries. He was able to render his master and the kingdom a great service, from the powers lavished upon him. He presided at convocations as the King’s vicegerent; controlled the House of Commons, and was inquisitor-general of the monasteries; he was foreign and home secretary, vicar-general and president of the star-chamber or privy-council. The proud Nevilles, the powerful Percies, and the noble Courtenays all bowed before this plebeian son of a mechanic, who had arisen by force of genius and lucky accidents,—too wise to build a palace like Hampton Court, but not ecclesiastical enough in his sympathies to found a college like Christ’s Church as Wolsey did. He was a man simple in his tastes, and hard-working like Colbert,—the great finance minister of France under Louis XIV., whom he resembled in his habits and policy.

His great task, as well as his great public service, was the visitation and suppression of monasteries. He perceived that they had fulfilled their mission; that they were no longer needed; that they had become corrupt, and too corrupt to be reformed; that they were no longer abodes of piety, or beehives of industry, or nurseries of art, or retreats of learning; that their wealth was squandered; that they upheld the arm of a foreign power; that they shielded offenders against the laws; that they encouraged vagrancy and extortion; that, in short, they were dangerous to the realm.

The monks and friars opposed the new learning now extending from Italy to France, to Germany, and to England. Colet came back from Italy, not to teach Platonic mysticism, but to unlock the Scriptures in the original,—the centre of a group of scholars at Oxford, of whom Erasmus and Thomas More stood in the foremost rank. Before the close of the fifteenth century, it is said that ten thousand editions of various books had been printed in different parts of Europe. All the Latin authors, and some of the Greek, were accessible to students. Tunstall and Latimer were sent to Padua to complete their studies. Fox, bishop of Winchester, established a Greek professorship at Oxford. It was an age of enthusiasm for reviving literature,—which, however, received in Germany, through the influence chiefly of Luther, a different direction from what it received in Italy, and which extended from Germany to England. But to this awakened spirit the monks presented obstacles and discouragements. They had no sympathy with progress; they belonged to the Dark Ages; they were hostile to the circulation of the Scriptures; they were pedlers of indulgences and relics; impostors, frauds, vagabonds, gluttons, worldly, sensual, and avaricious.

So notoriously corrupt had monasteries become that repeated attempts had been made to reform them, but without success. As early as 1489, Innocent VII. had issued a commission for a general investigation. The monks were accused of dilapidating public property, of frequenting infamous places, of stealing jewels from consecrated shrines. In 1511, Archbishop Warham instituted another visitation. In 1523 Cardinal Wolsey himself undertook the task of reform. At last the Parliament, in 1535, appointed Cromwell vicar or visitor-general, issued a commission, and intrusted it to lawyers, not priests, who found that the worst had not been told, and reported that two thirds of the monks of England were living in concubinage; that their lands were wasted and mortgaged, and their houses falling into ruins. They found the Abbot of Fountains surrounded with more women than Mohammed allowed his followers, and the nuns of Litchfield scandalously immoral.

On this report, the Lords and Commons—deliberately, not rashly— decreed the suppression of all monasteries the income of which was less than two hundred pounds a year, and the sequestration of their lands to the King. About two hundred of the lesser convents were thus suppressed, and the monks turned adrift, yet not entirely without support. This spoliation may have been a violation of the rights of property, but the monks had betrayed their trusts. The next Parliament completed the work. In 1539 all the religious houses were suppressed, both great and small. Such venerable and princely retreats as St. Albans, Glastonbury, Reading, Bury St. Edmunds, and Westminster, which had flourished one thousand years,— founded long before the Conquest,—shared the common ruin. These probably would have been spared, had not the first suppression filled the country with rebels. The great insurrection in Lincolnshire which shook the foundation of the throne, the intrigues of Cardinal Pole, the Cornish conspiracy in which the great house of Neville was implicated, and various other agitations, were all fomented by the angry monks.

Rapacity was not the leading motive of Henry or his minister, but the public welfare. The measure of suppression and sequestration was violent, but called for. Cromwell put forth no such sophistical pleas as those revolutionists who robbed the French clergy,—that their property belonged to the nation. In France the clergy were despoiled, not because they were infamous, but because they were rich. In England the monks probably suffered injustice from the severity of their punishment, but no one now doubts that punishment was deserved. Nor did Henry retain all the spoils himself: he gave away the abbey lands with a prodigality equal to his rapacity. He gave them to those who upheld his throne, as a reward for service or loyalty. They were given to a new class of statesmen, who led the popular party,—like the Fitzwilliams, the Russells, the Dudleys, and the Seymours,—and thus became the foundation of their great estates. They were also distributed to many merchants and manufacturers who had been loyal to the government. From one-third to two-thirds of the landed property of the kingdom,—as variously estimated,—thus changed hands. It was an enormous confiscation,—nearly as great as that made by William the Conqueror in favor of his army of invaders. It must have produced an immense impression on the mind of Europe. It was almost as great a calamity to the Catholic Church of England as the emancipation of slaves was to their Southern masters in our late war. Such a spoliation of the Church had not before taken place in any country of Europe. How great an evil the monastic system must have been regarded by Parliament to warrant such an act! Had it not been popular, there would have been discontents amounting to a general hostility to the throne.

It must also be borne in mind that this dissolution of the monasteries, this attack on the monastic system, was not a religious movement fanned by reformers, but an act of Parliament, at the instance of a royal minister. It was not done under the direction of a Protestant king,—for Henry was never a Protestant, but as a public measure in behalf of morality and for reasons of State. It is true that Henry had, by his marriage with Anne Boleyn and the divorce of his virtuous queen, defied the Pope and separated England from Rome, so far as appointments to ecclesiastical benefices are concerned. But in offending the Pope he also equally offended Charles V. The results of his separation from Rome, during his life, were purely political. The King did not give up the Mass or the Roman communion or Roman dogmas of faith; he only prepared the way for reform in the next reign. He only intensified the hatred between the old conservative party and the party of reform and progress.

How far Cromwell himself was a Protestant it is difficult to tell. Doubtless he sympathized with the new religious spirit of the age, but he did not openly avow the faith of Luther. He was the able and unscrupulous minister of an absolute monarch, bent on sweeping away abuses of all kinds, but with the idea of enlarging the royal authority as much, perhaps, as promoting the prosperity of the realm.

He therefore turned his attention to the ecclesiastical courts, which from the time of Becket had been antagonistic to royal encroachments. The war between the civil power and these courts had begun before the fall of Wolsey, and had resulted in the curtailment of probate duties, legacies, and mortuaries, by which the clergy had been enriched. A limitation of pluralities and enforcement of residence had also been effected. But a still greater blow to the privileges of the clergy was struck by the Parliament under the influence of Cromwell, who had elevated it in order to give legality to the despotic measures of the Crown; and in this way a law was passed that no one under the rank of a subdeacon, if convicted of felony, should be allowed to plead his "benefit of clergy," but should be punished like ordinary criminals,—thus re-establishing the constitutions of Clarendon in the time of Becket. Another act also was passed, by which no one could be summoned, as aforetime, to the archbishop’s court out of his own diocese,—a very beneficent act, since the people had been needlessly subject to great expense and injustice in being obliged to travel considerable distances. It was moreover enacted that men could not burden their estates beyond twenty years by providing priests to sing masses for their souls. The Parliament likewise abolished annats,—a custom which had long prevailed in Europe, which required one year’s income to be sent to the Pope on any new preferment; a great burden to the clergy; a sort of tribute to a foreign power. Within fifty years, one hundred and sixty thousand pounds had thus been sent from England to Rome, from this one source of papal revenue alone,—equal to three million pounds at the present time, or fifteen millions of dollars, from a country of only three millions of people. It was the passage of that act which induced Sir Thomas More (a devoted Catholic, but a just and able and incorruptible judge) to resign the seals which he had so long and so honorably held,—the most prominent man in England after Cromwell and Cranmer; and it was the execution of this lofty character, because he held out against the imperious demands of Henry, which is the greatest stain upon this monarch’s reign. Parliament also called the clergy to account for excessive acts of despotism, and subjected them to the penalty of a premunire (the offence of bringing a foreign authority into England), from which they were freed only by enormous fines.

Thus it would seem that many abuses were removed by Cromwell and the Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII. which may almost be considered as reforms of the Church itself. The authority of the Church was not attacked, still less its doctrines, but only abuses and privileges the restraint of which was of public benefit, and which tended to reduce the power of the clergy. It was this reduction of clerical usurpations and privileges which is the main feature in the legislation of Henry VIII., so far as it pertained to the Church. It was wresting away the power which the clergy had enjoyed from the days of Alfred and Ina,—a reform which Henry II. and Edward I., and other sovereigns, had failed to effect. This was the great work of Cromwell, and in it he had the support of his royal master, since it was a transfer of power from the clergy to the throne; and Henry VIII. was hated and anathematized by Rome as Henry IV. of Germany was, without ceasing to be a Catholic. He even retained the title of Defender of the Faith, which had been conferred upon him by the Pope for his opposition to the theological doctrines of Luther, which he never accepted, and which he always detested.

Cromwell did not long survive the great services he rendered to his king and the nation. In the height of his power he made a fatal mistake. He deceived the King in regard to Anne of Cleves, whose marriage he favored from motives of expediency and a manifest desire to promote the Protestant cause. He palmed upon the King a woman who could not speak a word of English,—a woman without graces or accomplishments, who was absolutely hateful to him. Henry’s disappointment was bitter, and his vengeance was unrelenting. The enemies of Cromwell soon took advantage of this mistake. The great Duke of Norfolk, head of the Catholic party, accused him at the council-board of high treason. Two years before, such a charge would have received no attention; but Henry now hated him, and was resolved to punish him for the wreck of his domestic happiness.

Cromwell was hurried to that gloomy fortress whose outlet was generally the scaffold, he was denied even the form of trial. A bill of attainder was hastily passed by the Parliament he had ruled. Only one person in the realm had the courage to intercede for him, and this was Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; but his entreaties were futile. The fallen minister had no chance of life, and no one knew it so well as himself. Even a trial would have availed nothing; nothing could have availed him,—he was a doomed man. So he bade his foes make quick work of it; and quick work was made. In eighteen days from his arrest, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Knight of the Garter, Grand Chamberlain, Lord Privy Seal, Vicar-General, and Master of the Wards, ascended the scaffold on which had been shed the blood of a queen,—making no protestation of innocence, but simply committing his soul to Jesus Christ, in whom he believed. Like Wolsey, he arose from an humble station to the most exalted position the King could give; and, like Wolsey, he saw the vanity of delegated power as soon as he offended the source of power.

"He who ascends the mountain-tops shall find
The loftiest peak most wrapped in clouds and storms.
Though high above the sun of glory shines,
And far beneath the earth and ocean spread,
Round HIM are icy rocks, and loudly blow
Contending tempests on his naked head."

On the disappearance of Cromwell from the stage, Cranmer came forward more prominently, he was a learned doctor in that university which has ever sent forth the apostles of great emancipating movements. He was born in 1489, and was therefore twenty years of age on the accession of Henry VIII. in 1509, and was twenty-eight when Luther published his theses. He early sympathized with the reform doctrines, but was too politic to take an active part in their discussion. He was a moderate, calm, scholarly man, not a great genius or great preacher. He had none of those bold and dazzling qualities which attract the gaze of the world. We behold in him no fearless and impetuous Luther,— attacking with passionate earnestness the corruptions of Rome; bracing himself up to revolutionary assaults, undaunted before kings and councils, and giving no rest to his hands or slumber to his eyes until he had consummated his protests,—a man of the people, yet a dictator to princes. We see no severely logical Calvin,—pushing out his metaphysical deductions until he had chained the intellect of his party to a system of incomparable grandeur and yet of repulsive austerity, exacting all the while the same allegiance to doctrines which he deduced from the writings of Paul as he did to the direct declarations of Christ; next to Thomas Aquinas, the acutest logician the Church has known; a system-maker, like the great Dominican schoolmen, and their common master and oracle, Saint Augustine of Hippo. We see in Cranmer no uncompromising and aggressive reformer like Knox,—controlling by a stern dogmatism both a turbulent nobility and an uneducated people, and filling all classes alike with inextinguishable hatred of everything that even reminded them of Rome. Nor do we find in Cranmer the outspoken and hearty eloquence of Latimer,—appealing to the people at St. Paul’s Cross to shake off all the trappings of the "Scarlet Mother," who had so long bewitched the world with her sorceries.

Cranmer, if less eloquent, less fearless, less logical, less able than these, was probably broader, more comprehensive in his views,— adapting his reforms to the circumstances of the age and country, and to the genius of the English mind. Hence his reforms, if less brilliant, were more permanent. He framed the creed that finally was known as the Thirty-nine Articles, and was the true founder of the English Church, as that Church has existed for more than three centuries, neither Roman nor Puritan, but "half-way between Rome and Geneva;" a compromise, and yet a Church of great vitality, and endeared to the hearts of the English people. Northern Germany— the scene of the stupendous triumphs of Luther—is and has been, since the time of Frederick the Great, the hot-bed of rationalistic inquiries; and the Genevan as well as the French and Swiss churches which Calvin controlled have become cold, with a dreary and formal Protestantism, without poetry or life. But the Church of England has survived two revolutions and all the changes of human thought, and is still a mighty power, decorous, beautiful, conservative, yet open to all the liberalizing influences of an age of science and philosophy. Cranmer, though a scholastic, seems to have perceived that nothing is more misleading and uncertain and unsatisfactory than any truth pushed out to its severest logical conclusions without reference to other truths which have for their support the same divine authority. It is not logic which has built up the most enduring institutions, but common-sense and plain truths, and appeals to human consciousness,—the cogito, ergo sum, without whose approval most systems have perished. In mediis tutissimus ibis, is not indeed an agreeable maxim to zealots and partisans and dialectical logicians, but it seems to be induced from the varied experiences of human life and the history of different ages and nations, and applies to all the mixed sciences, like government and political economy, as well as to church institutions.

As Cromwell made his fortune by advising the King to assume the headship of the Church in England, so Cranmer’s rise is to be traced to his advice to Henry to appeal to the decision of universities whether or not he could be legally divorced from Catharine, since the Pope—true to the traditions, of the Catholic Church, or from fear of Charles V.—would not grant a dispensation. All this business was a miserable quibble, a tissue of scholastic technicalities. But it answered the ends of Cranmer. The schools decided for the King, and a great injustice and heartless cruelty was done to a worthy and loyal woman, and a great insult offered to the Church and to the Emperor Charles of Germany, who was a nephew of the Spanish Princess and English Queen. This scandal resulted in a separation from Rome, as was foreseen both by Cromwell and Cranmer; and the latter became Archbishop of Canterbury, a prelate whose power and dignity were greater then than at the present day, exalted as the post is even now,—the highest in dignity and rank to which a subject can aspire,—higher even than the Lord High Chancellorship; both of which however, pale before the position of a Prime Minister so far as power is concerned.

The separation from Rome, the suppression of the monasteries, and the curtailment of the powers of the spiritual courts were the only reforms of note during the reign of Henry VIII., unless we name also the new translation of the Bible, authorized through Cranmer’s influence, and the teaching of the creed, the commandments, and the Lord’s prayer in English. The King died in 1547. Cranmer was now fifty-seven, and was left to prosecute reforms in his own way as president of the council of regency, Edward VI. being but nine years old,—"a learned boy," as Macaulay calls him, but still a boy in the hands of the great noblemen who composed the regency, and who belonged to the progressive school.

I do not think the career of Cranmer during the life of Henry is sufficiently appreciated. He must have shown at least extraordinary tact and wisdom,—with his reforming tendencies and enlightened views,—not to come in conflict with his sovereign as Becket did with Henry II. He had to deal with the most capricious and jealous of tyrants; cruel and unscrupulous when crossed; a man who rarely retained a friendship or remembered a service; who never forgave an injury or forgot an affront; a glutton and a sensualist; although prodigal with his gifts, social in his temper, enlightened in his government, and with very respectable abilities and very considerable theological knowledge. This hard and exacting master Cranmer had to serve, without exciting his suspicions or coming in conflict with him; so that he seemed politic and vacillating, for which he would not be excused were it not for his subsequent services, and his undoubted sincerity and devotion to the Protestant cause. During the life of Henry we can scarcely call Cranmer a reformer. The most noted reformer of the day was old Hugh Latimer, the King’s chaplain, who declaimed against sin with the zeal and fire of Savonarola, and aimed to create a religious life among the people, from whom he sprung and whom he loved,—a rough, hearty, honest, conscientious man, with deep convictions and lofty soul.

In the reforms thus far carried on we perceive that, though popular, they emanated from princes and not from the people. The people had no hand in the changes made, as at Geneva, only the ministers of kings and great public functionaries. And in the reforms subsequently effected, which really constitute the English Reformation, they were made by the council of regency, under the leadership of Cranmer and the protectorship of Somerset.

The first thing which the Government did after the accession of Edward VI. was to remove images from the churches, as a form of idolatry,—much to the wrath of Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the ablest man of the old conservative and papal party. But Ridley, afterwards Bishop of Rochester, preached against all forms of papal superstition with so much ability and zeal that the churches were soon cleared of these "helps to devotion."

Cranmer, now unchecked, turned his attention to other reforms, but proceeded slowly and cautiously, not wishing to hazard much at the outset. First communion of both kinds, heretofore restricted to the clergy, was appointed; and, closely connected with it, Masses were put down. Then a law was passed by Parliament that the appointment of bishops should vest in the Crown alone, and not, as formerly, be confirmed by the Pope. The next great thing to which the reformers directed their attention was the preparation of a new liturgy in the public worship of God, which gave rise to considerable discussion. They did not seek to sweep away the old form, for it was prepared by the sainted doctors of the Church of all ages; but they would purge it of all superstitions, and retain what was most beautiful and expressive in the old prayers. The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the early creeds of course were retained, as well as whatever was in harmony with primitive usages. These changes called out letters from Calvin at Geneva, who was now recognized as a great oracle among the Protestants: he encouraged the work, but advised a more complete reformation, and complained of the coldness of the clergy, as well as of the general vices of the times. Martin Bucer of Strasburg, at this time professor at Cambridge, also wrote letters to the same effect; but the time had not come for more radical reforms. Then Parliament, controlled by the Government, passed an act allowing the clergy to marry,—opposed, of course, by many bishops in allegiance to Rome. This was a great step in reform, and removed many popular scandals; it struck a heavy blow at the conditions of the Middle Ages, holding that celibacy sprung from no law of God, but was Oriental in its origin, encouraged by the Church to cement its power. And this act concerning the marriage of the clergy was soon followed by the celebrated Forty-two Articles, framed by Cranmer and Ridley, which are the bases of the English Church,—a theological creed, slightly amended afterwards in the reign of Elizabeth; evangelical but not Calvinistic, affirming the great ideas of Augustine and Luther as to grace, justification by faith, and original sin, and repudiating purgatory, pardons, the worship and invocation of saints and images; a larger creed than the Nicene or Athanasian, and comprehensive,—such as most Protestants might accept. Both this and the book of Common Prayer were written with consummate taste, were the work of great scholars,—moderate, broad, enlightened, conciliatory.

The reformers then gave their attention to an alteration of ecclesiastical laws in reference to matters which had always been decided in ecclesiastical courts. The commissioners—the ablest men in England, thirty-two in number—had scarcely completed their work before the young King died, and Mary ascended the throne.

We cannot too highly praise the moderation with which the reforms had been made, especially when we remember the violence of the age. There were indeed two or three capital executions for heresy. Gardiner and Bonner, who opposed the reformation with unparalleled bitterness were only deprived of their sees and sent to the Tower. The execution of Somerset was the work of politicians, of great noblemen jealous of his ascendency. It does not belong to the reformation, nor do the executions of a few other noblemen.

Cranmer himself was a statesman rather than a preacher. He left but few sermons, and these commonplace, without learning, or wit, or zeal,—ordinary exhortations to a virtuous life. The chief thing, outside of the reforms I have mentioned, was the publication of a few homilies for the use of the clergy,—too ignorant to write sermons,—which homilies were practical and orthodox, but containing nothing to stir up an ardent religious life. The Bible was also given a greater scope; everybody could read it if he wished. Public prayer was restored to the people in a language which they could understand, and a few preachers arose who appealed to conscience and reason,—like Latimer and Ridley, and Hooper and Taylor; but most of them were formal and cold. There must have been great religious apathy, or else these reforms would have excited more opposition on the part of the clergy, who generally acquiesced in the changes. But the Reformation thus far was official; it was not popular. It repressed vice and superstition, but kindled no great enthusiasm. It was necessary for the English reformers and sincere Protestants to go through a great trial; to be persecuted, to submit to martyrdom for the sake of their opinions. The school of heroes and saints has ever been among blazing fires and scaffolds. It was martyrdom which first gave form and power to early Christianity. The first chapter in the history of the early Church is the torments of the martyrs. The English Reformation had no great dignity or life until the funeral pyres were lighted. Men had placidly accepted new opinions, and had Bibles to instruct them; but it was to be seen how far they would make sacrifices to maintain them.

This test was afforded by the accession of Mary, daughter of Catharine the Spaniard,—an affectionate and kind-hearted woman enough in ordinary times, but a fiend of bigotry, like Catherine de’ Medicis, when called upon to suppress the Reformation, although on her accession she declared that she would force no man’s conscience. But the first thing she does is to restore the popish bishops,—for so they were called then by historians; and the next thing she does is to restore the Mass, and the third to shut up Cranmer and Latimer in the Tower, attaint and execute them, with sundry others like Ridley and Hooper, as well as those great nobles who favored the claims of the Lady Jane Grey and the religious reforms of Edward VI. She reconciles herself with Rome, and accepts its legate at her court; she receives Spanish spies and Jesuit confessors; she marries the son of Charles V., afterwards Philip II.; she executes the Lady Jane Grey; she keeps the strictest watch on the Princess Elizabeth, who learns in her retirement the art of dissimulation and lying; she forms an alliance with Spain; she makes Cardinal Pole Archbishop of Canterbury; she gives almost unlimited power to Gardiner and Bonner, who begin a series of diabolical persecutions, burning such people as John Rogers, Sanders, Doctor Taylor of Hadley, William Hunter, and Stephen Harwood, ferreting out all suspected of heresy, and confining them in the foulest jails,—burning even little children. Mary even takes measures to introduce the Inquisition and restore the monasteries. Everywhere are scaffolds and burnings. In three years nearly three hundred people were burned alive, often with green wood,—a small number compared with those who were executed and assassinated in France, about this time, by Catherine de’ Medicis, the Guises, and Charles IX.

In those dreadful persecutions which began with the accession of Mary, it was impossible that Cranmer should escape. In spite of his dignity, rank, age, and services, he could hope for no favor or indulgence from that morose woman in whose sapless bosom no compassion for the Protestants ever found admission, and still less from those cruel, mercenary, bigoted prelates whom she selected for her ministers. It was not customary in that age for the Churchmen to spare heretics, whether high or low. Would it forgive him who had overturned the consecrated altars, displaced the ritual of a thousand years, and revolted from the authority of the supreme head of the Christian world? Would Mary suffer him to pass unpunished who had displaced her mother from the nuptial bed, and pronounced her own birth to be stained with an ignominious blot, and who had exalted a rival to the throne? And Gardiner and Bonner, too, those bigoted prelates and ministers who would have sent to the flames an unoffending woman if she denied the authority of the Pope, were not the men to suffer him to escape who had not only overturned the papal power in England, but had deprived them of their sees and sent them to the Tower. No matter how decent the forms of law or respectful the agents of the crown, Cranmer had not the shadow of a hope; and hence he was certainly weak to say the least, to trust to any deceitful promises made to him. What his enemies were bent upon was his recantation, as preliminary to his execution; and he should have been firm, both for his cause, and because his martyrdom was sure. In an evil hour he listened to the voice of the seducer. Both life and dignities were promised if he would recant. "Confounded, heart-broken, old," the love of life and the fear of death were stronger for a time than the power of conscience or dignity of character. Six several times was he induced to recant the doctrines he had preached, and profess an allegiance which could only be a solemn mockery.

True, Cranmer came to himself; he perceived that he was mocked, and felt both grief and shame in view of his apostasy. His last hours were glorious. Never did a good man more splendidly redeem his memory from shame. Being permitted to address the people before his execution,—with the hope on the part of his tormentors that he would publicly confirm his recantation,—he first supplicated the mercy and forgiveness of Almighty God, and concluded his speech with these memorable words: "And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than anything I ever did or said, even the setting forth of writings contrary to the truth, which I now renounce and refuse,—those things written with my own hand contrary to the truth I thought in my heart, and writ for fear of death and to save my life. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for if I come to the fire, it shall first be burned. As for the Pope, I denounce him as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrines." Then he was carried away, and a great multitude ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself. "Coming to the stake," says the Catholic eye-witness, "with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he took off his garments in haste and stood upright in his shirt. Fire being applied, he stretched forth his right hand and thrust it into the flame, before the fire came to any other part of his body; when his hand was to be seen sensibly burning, he cried with a loud voice, ’This hand hath offended."’

Thus died Cranmer, in the sixty-seventh year of his age, after presiding over the Church of England above twenty years, and having bequeathed a legacy to his countrymen of which they continue to be proud. He had not the intrepidity of Latimer; he was supple to Henry VIII.; he was weak in his recantation; he was not an original genius,—but he was a man of great breadth of views, conciliating wise, temperate in reform, and discharged his great trust with conscientious adherence to the truth as he understood it; the friend of Calvin, and revered by the Protestant world.

Queen Mary reigned, fortunately, but five years, and the persecutions she encouraged and indorsed proved the seed of a higher morality and a loftier religious life.

"For thus spake aged Latimer:
I tarry by the stake,
Not trusting in my own weak heart,
But for the Saviour’s sake.
Why speak of life or death to me,
Whose days are but a span?
Our crown is yonder,—Ridley, see!
Be strong and play the man!
God helping, such a torch this day
We’ll light on English land,
That Rome, with all her cardinals,
Shall never quench the brand!"

The triumphs of Gardiner and Bonner too were short. Mary died with a bruised heart and a crushed ambition. On her death, and the accession of her sister Elizabeth, exiles returned from Geneva and Frankfort to advocate more radical changes in government and doctrine. Popular enthusiasm was kindled, never afterwards to be repressed.

The great ideas of the Reformation began now to agitate the mind of England,—not so much the logical doctrines of Calvin as the emancipating ideas of Luther. The Renaissance had begun, and the two movements were incorporated,—the religious one of Germany and the Pagan one of Italy, both favoring liberality of mind, a freer style of literature, restless inquiries, enterprise, the revival of learning and art, an intense spirit of progress, and disgust for the Dark Ages and all the dogmas of scholasticism. With this spirit of progress and moderate Protestantism Elizabeth herself, the best educated woman in England, warmly sympathized, as did also the illustrious men she drew to her court, to whom she gave the great offices of state. I cannot call her age a religious one: it was a merry one, cheerful, inquiring, untrammelled in thought, bold in speculation, eloquent, honest, fervid, courageous, hostile to the Papacy and all the bigots of Europe. It was still rough, coarse, sensual; when money was scarce and industries in their infancy, and material civilization not very attractive. But it was a great age, glorious, intellectual, brilliant; with such statesmen as Burleigh and Walsingham to head off treason and conspiracy; when great poets arose, like Jonson and Spenser and Shakspeare; and philosophers, like Bacon and Sir Thomas Browne, and lawyers, like Nicholas Bacon and Coke; and elegant courtiers, like Sidney and Raleigh and Essex; men of wit, men of enterprise, who would explore distant seas and colonize new countries; yea, great preachers, like Jeremy Taylor and Hall; and great theologians, like Hooker and Chillingworth,—giving polish and, dignity to an uncouth language, and planting religious truth in the minds of men.

Elizabeth, with such a constellation around her, had no great difficulty in re-establishing Protestantism and giving it a new impetus, although she adhered to liturgies and pomps, and loved processions and fetes and banquets and balls and expensive dresses,—a worldly woman, but progressive and enlightened.

In the religious reforms of that age you see the work of princes and statesmen still, rather than any great insurrection of human intelligence or any great religious revival, although the germs of it were springing up through the popular preachers and the influence of Genevan reformers. Calvin’s writings were potent, and John Knox was on his way to Scotland.

I pass by rapidly the reforms of Elizabeth’s reign, effected by the Queen and her ministers and the convocation of Protestant bishops and clergy and learned men in the universities. Oxford and Cambridge were then in their glory,—crowded with poor students from all parts of England, who came to study Greek and Latin and read theology, not to ride horses and row boats, to put on dandified airs and sneer at lectures, running away to London to attend theatres and flirt with girls and drink champagne, beggaring their fathers and ruining their own expectations and their health. In a very short time after the accession of Elizabeth, which was hailed generally as a very auspicious event, things were restored to nearly the state in which they were left by Cranmer in the preceding reign. This was not done by direct authority of the Queen, but by acts of Parliament. Even Henry VIII. ruled through the Parliament, only it was his tool and instrument. Elizabeth consulted its wishes as the representation of the nation, for she aimed to rule by the affections of her people. But she recommended the Parliament to conciliatory measures; to avoid extremes; to drop offensive epithets, like "papist" and "heretic;" to go as far as the wants of the nation required, and no farther. Though a zealous Protestant, she seemed to have no great animosities. Her particular aversion was Bonner,—the violent, blood-thirsty, narrow-minded Bishop of London, who was deprived of his see and shut up in the Tower, put out of harm’s way, not cruelly treated,— he was not even deprived of his good dinners. She appointed, as her prerogative allowed, a very gentle, moderate, broad, kindhearted man to be Archbishop of Canterbury,—Parker, who had been chaplain to her mother, and who was highly esteemed by Burleigh and Nicholas Bacon, her most influential ministers. Parliament confirmed the old act, passed during the reign of Henry VIII., making the sovereign the head of the English Church, although the title of "supreme head" was left out in the oath of allegiance, to conciliate the Catholic party. To execute this supremacy, the Court of High Commission was established,—afterwards so abused by Charles I. The Church Service was modified, and the Act of Uniformity was passed by Parliament, after considerable debate. The changes were all made in the spirit of moderation, and few suffered beyond a deprivation of their sees or livings for refusing to take the oath of supremacy.

Then followed the Thirty-nine Articles, setting forth the creed of the Established Church,—substantially the creed which Cranmer had made,—and a new translation of the Bible, and the regulation of ecclesiastical courts.

But whatever was done was in good taste,—marked by good sense and moderation,—to preserve decency and decorum, and repress all extremes of superstition and license. The clergy preached in a black gown and Genevan bands, using the surplice only in the liturgy; we see no lace or millinery. The churches were stripped of images, the pulpits became high and prominent, the altars were changed to communion-tables without candles and symbols. There was not much account made of singing, for the lyric version of the Psalms was execrable. For the first time since Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, preaching became the chief duty of the clergyman; and his sermons were long, for the people were greedy of instruction, and were not critical of artistic merits. Among other things of note, the exiles were recalled, who brought back with them the learning of the Continent and the theology of Geneva, and an intense hatred for all the old forms of superstition,—images, crucifixes, lighted candles, Catholic vestments,—and a supreme regard for the authority of the Scriptures, rather than the authority of the Church.

These men, mostly learned and pious, were not contented with the restoration as effected by Elizabeth’s reformers,—they wanted greater simplicity of worship and a more definite and logical creed; and they made a good deal of trouble, being very conscientious and somewhat narrow and intolerant. So that, after the re-establishment of Protestantism, the religious history of the reign is chiefly concerned with the quarrels and animosities within the Church, particularly about vestments and modes of worship,— things unessential, minute, technical,—which led to great acerbity on both sides, and to some persecution; for these quarrels provoked the Queen and her ministers, who wanted peace and uniformity. To the Government it seemed strange and absurd for these returned exiles to make such a fuss about a few externals; to these intensified Protestants it seemed harsh and cruel that Government should insist on such a rigid uniformity, and punish them for not doing as they were bidden by the bishops.

So they separated from the Established Church, and became what were called Nonconformists,—having not only disgust of the decent ritualism of the Church, but great wrath for the bishops and hierarchy and spiritual courts. They also disapproved of the holy days which the Church retained, and the prayers and the cathedral style of worship, the use of the cross in baptism, godfathers and godmothers, the confirmation of children, kneeling at the sacrament, bowing at the name of Jesus, the ring in marriage, the surplice, the divine right of bishops, and some other things which reminded them of Rome, for which they had absolute detestation, seeing in the old Catholic Church nothing but abominations and usurpations, no religion at all, only superstition and anti- Christian government and doctrine,—the reign of the beast, the mystic Babylon, the scarlet mother revelling in the sorceries of ancient Paganism. These terrible animosities against even the shadows and resemblances of what was called Popery were increased and intensified by the persecution and massacres which the Catholics about this time were committing on the Protestants in France and Germany and the Low Countries, and which filled the people of England,—especially the middle and lower classes, with fear, alarm, anger, and detestation.

I will not enter upon the dissensions which so early crept into the English Church, and led to a separation or a schism, whatever name it goes by,—to most people in these times not very interesting or edifying, because they were not based on any great ideas of universal application, and seeming to such minds as Bacon and Parker and Jewell rather narrow and frivolous.

The great Puritan controversy would have no dignity if it were confined to vestments and robes and forms of worship, and hatred of ceremonies and holy days, and other matters which seemed to lean to Romanism. But the grandeur and the permanence of the movement were in a return to the faith of the primitive Church and a purer national morality, and to the unrestricted study of the Bible, and the exaltation of preaching and Christian instruction over forms and liturgies and antiphonal chants; above all, the exaltation of reason and learning in the interpretation of revealed truth, and the education of the people in all matters which concern their temporal or religious interests, so that a true and rapid progress was inaugurated in civilization itself, which has peculiarly marked all Protestant countries having religious liberty. Underneath all these apparently insignificant squabbles and dissensions there were two things of immense historical importance: first, a spirit of intolerance on the part of government and of church dignitaries,— the State allied with the Church forcing uniformity with their decrees, and severely punishing those who did not accept them,—in matters beyond all worldly authority; and, secondly, a rising spirit of religious liberty, determined to assert its glorious rights at any cost or hazard, and especially defended by the most religious and earnest part of the clergy, who were becoming Calvinistic in their creed, and were pushing the ideas of the Reformation to their utmost logical sequence. This spirit was suppressed during the reign of Elizabeth, out of general respect and love for her as a Queen, and the external dangers to which the realm was exposed from Spain and France, which diverted the national mind. But it burst out fiercely in the next reigns, under James and Charles, about the beginning of the seventeenth century. And this is the last development of the Reformation in England to which I can allude,—the great Puritan contest for liberty of worship, running, when opposed unjustly and cruelly, into a contest for civil liberty; that is, the right to change forms and institutions of civil government, even to the dethronement of kings, when it was the expressed and declared will of the people, in whom was vested the ultimate source of sovereignty.

But here I must be brief. I tread on familiar ground, made familiar by all our literature, especially by the most brilliant writer of modern times, though not the greatest philosopher: I mean that great artist and word-painter Macaulay, whose chief excellence is in making clear and interesting and vivid, by a world of illustration and practical good-sense and marvellous erudition, what was obvious to his own objective mind, and obvious also to most other enlightened people not much interested in metaphysical disquisitions. No man more than he does justice to the love of liberty which absolutely burned in the souls of the Puritans,—that glorious party which produced Milton and Cromwell, and Hampden and Bunyan, and Owen and Calamy, and Baxter and Howe.

The chief peculiarity of those Puritans—once called Nonconformists, afterwards Presbyterians and Independents—was their reception of the creed of John Calvin, the clearest and most logical intellect that the Reformation produced, though not the broadest; who reigned as a religious dictator at Geneva and in the Reformed churches of France, and who gave to John Knox the positivism and sternness and rigidity which he succeeded in impressing upon the churches of Scotland. And the peculiar doctrines which marked Calvin and his disciples were those deduced from the majesty of God and the comparative littleness of man, leading to and bound up with the impotence of the will, human dependence, the necessity of Divine grace,—Augustinian in spirit, but going beyond Augustine in the subtlety of metaphysical distinctions and dissertations on free-will election, and predestination,—unfathomable, but exceedingly attractive subjects to the divines of the seventeenth century, creating a metaphysical divinity, a theology of the brain rather than of the heart, a brilliant series of logical and metaphysical deductions from established truths, demanding to be received with the same unhesitating obedience as the truths, or Bible declarations, from which they are deduced. The greatness of human reason was never more forcibly shown than in these deductions; but they were carried so far as to insult reason itself and mock the consciousness of mankind; so that mankind rebelled against the very force of the highest reasonings of the human intellect, because they pushed logical sequence into absurdity, or to dreadful conclusions: Decretum quidem horribile fateor, said the great master himself.

The Puritans were trained in this theology, which developed the loftiest virtues and the severest self-constraints; making them both heroes and visionaries, always conscientious and sometimes repulsive; fitting them for gigantic tasks and unworthy squabbles; driving them to the Bible, and then to acrimonious discussions; creating fears almost mediaeval; leading them to technical observation of religious duties, and transforming the most genial and affectionate people under the sun into austere saints, with whom the most ascetic of monks would have had but little sympathy.

I will not dwell on those peculiarities which Macaulay ridicules and Taine repeats,—the hatred of theatres and assemblies and symbolic festivals and bell-ringings, the rejection of the beautiful, the elongated features, the cropped hair, the unadorned garments, the proscription of innocent pleasures, the nasal voice, the cant phrases, the rigid decorums, the strict discipline,— these, doubtless exaggerated, were more than balanced by the observance of the Sabbath, family prayers, temperate habits, fervor of religious zeal, strict morality, allegiance to duty, and the perpetual recognition of God Almighty as the sovereign of this world, to whom we are responsible for all our acts and even our thoughts. They formed a noble material on which every emancipating idea could work; men trained by persecutions to self-sacrifice and humble duties,—making good soldiers, good farmers, good workmen in every department, honest and sturdy, patient and self-reliant, devoted to their families though not demonstrative of affection; keeping the Sunday as a day of worship rather than rest or recreation, cherishing as the dearest and most sacred of all privileges the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience enlightened by the Bible, and willing to fight, even amid the greatest privations and sacrifices, to maintain this sacred right and transmit it to their children. Such were the men who fought the battles of civil liberty under Cromwell, and colonized the most sterile of all American lands, making the dreary wilderness to blossom with roses, and sending out the shoots of their civilization to conserve more fruitful and favored sections of the great continent which God gave them, to try new experiments in liberty and education.

I need not enumerate the different sects into which these Puritans were divided, so soon as they felt they had the right to interpret Scripture for themselves. Nor would I detail the various and cruel persecutions to which these sects were subjected by the government and the ecclesiastical tribunals, until they rose in indignation and despair, and rebelled against the throne, and made war on the King, and cut off his head; all of which they did from fear and for self-defence as well as from vengeance and wrath.

Nor can I describe the counter reformation, the great reaction which succeeded to the violence of the revolution. The English reformation was not consummated until constitutional liberty was heralded by the reign of William and Mary, when the nation became almost unanimously Protestant, with perfect toleration of religions opinions, although the fervor of the Puritans had passed away forever, leaving a residuum of deep-seated popular antipathy to all the institutions of Romanism and all the ideas of the Middle Ages. The English reformation began with princes, and ended with the agitations of the people. The German reformation began with the people, and ended in the wars of princes. But both movements were sublime, since they showed the force of religious ideas. Civil liberty is only one of the sequences which exalt the character and dignity of man amid the seductions and impediments of a gilded material life.


Todd’s Life of Cranmer; Strype’s Life of Cranmer; Wood’s Annals of the Oxford University; Burnet’s English Reformation; Doctor Lingard’s History of England; Macaulay’s Essays; Fuller’s Church History; Gilpin’s Life of Cranmer; Original Letters to Cromwell; Hook’s Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury; Butler’s Book of the Roman Catholic Church; Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical biography; Turner’s Henry VIII.; Froude’s History of England; Fox’s Life of Latimer; Turner’s Reign of Mary.


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Chicago: John Lord, "Thomas Cranmer. A. D. 1489-1556. The English Reformation.," Beacon Lights of History— Volume 3 (Part 2), ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Whiston, William, 1667-1752 in Beacon Lights of History—Volume 3 (Part 2) (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: Lord, John. "Thomas Cranmer. A. D. 1489-1556. The English Reformation." Beacon Lights of History— Volume 3 (Part 2), edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Whiston, William, 1667-1752, in Beacon Lights of History—Volume 3 (Part 2), Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Lord, J, 'Thomas Cranmer. A. D. 1489-1556. The English Reformation.' in Beacon Lights of History— Volume 3 (Part 2), ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Beacon Lights of History—Volume 3 (Part 2), Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from