WOE betide anyone daring to change a church service. But, in the
spring of 1534, parish priests in England were ordered to do
exactly that. Midway through a village high mass, there was a pause
to "bid the bedes" - that is, pray in English for the Church, the
nation, and the local community. On that Sunday, however, instead
of prayers for the Pope, the bishops, the clergy, and only then the
King, the opening prayer was for "our sovereign lord King Henry
VIII, being immediately under God the only and supreme lord of this
Catholic Church of England".
That was how thousands of English men and women first heard that
the King had ousted the Pope.
At Westminster, there had been two years of controversy, but few
of the population at large knew or cared about such distant
happenings. The Reformation was not only about national issues: to
most of the country's peasants - who made up the bulk of the
population - what mattered was the local parish.
Most parishioners were illiterate. All the Church expected of
them was that they should be able to repeat the Paternoster, Creed,
and Ave Maria, in Latin; know the Ten Commandments; and to know
what were the seven deadly sins and the seven sacraments. They were
also expected to confess to a priest before they received
communion, once a year, at Easter - known as "taking one's
What peasants valued was the Church's practical support for
living and dying: "sacramentals", such as holy water, to ward off
demons; and prayers, which were effectively pro-tective charms.
Repeating "a bone of him shall not be broken" was held to be a good
remedy for toothache.
Supremely, there was the mass. This was said by a priest, at the
altar, sotto voce and in Latin, but, when he elevated the
consecrated wafer ("the host"), people believed that they were
The mass was the only effective insurance available. In 1530, an
auditor, travelling to Chester, paid for a mass to be said for him
every morning, and added the cost to his bill. Above all, it was
believed that masses could expedite an individual's passage through
purgatory, and, in consequence, religion became "a cult of the
living in the service of the dead".
FAST-forward 30 years. Now, you find English services that use a
Book of Common Prayer, with congregations required to join in;
"lining out" - people repeating each line after the priest or
clerk; everyone, not just boys and male choirs, but women for the
first time, singing the psalms and canticles; integral Bible
readings; a sermon or a homily scheduled for each Sunday; and no
prayers for the dead.
What this amounted to was a change from a religion of images and
actions to a religion of ideas and words. Shrines and pilgrimage
sites no longer dispensed divine grace. The eucharist ceased to be
a drama where, his back to the people, a priest in eucharistic
vestments recited words at a stone altar, and then held up the body
of God. Instead, it was a symbolic meal at a moveable table in the
nave or chancel, led by a minister wearing - or possibly not
wearing - a surplice.
The laity joined in the liturgy, and received not just a wafer,
but both wheaten bread and wine. The visual props were gone,
including statues - some churches had had dozens. Instead of sacred
pictures, walls were whitewashed and decorated with texts. In
windows which had taught through images, there was now plain glass.
There were no more sacramentals, and no more appeals to saints.
Most noticeably, in place of the lifesize figures of the crucified
Christ with his mother and St John, there appeared the royal coat
There was a downside - there were no supports for the illiterate
- but the future lay with print.
THE first driver of this change was the new "Supreme head of the
Church". Henry VIII certainly did not maintain "Catholicism without
the pope". He adhered to the doctrine of transubstantiation, but
otherwise intro- duced reforms as he thought appropriate, including
changes and additions to the liturgy. For the first time,
parishioners heard the Gospel and the epistle in English.
Henry undermined the death industry. The doctrinal formula that
he laid down reduced prayer for the dead to prayer "for the
universal congregation of Christian people, quick and dead".
Monasteries and chantries were abolished.
Most significant of all, the King overturned a century-old ban
by insisting that every church should provide an English Bible for
all to read, although a statute of 1543 did attempt to prohibit
"the lower sort" from reading the scriptures (publicly or
The second impetus for change was a religious revival, which had
been building up for more than a century. Thoughtful Christians
were beginning to seek a more intimate experience of Christ, and
personal devotions, such as to the Holy Name of Jesus, became
increasingly popular. The buoyancy of the Lollard heresy points in
the same direction.
Julian of Norwich and others found Christ through mysticism.
Thomas à Kempis's masterpiece The Imitation of Christ was
translated into English by order of Henry VII's mother. This
revival was the seedbed of 16th-century reform, both Protestant and
TENSIONS that would eventually split the revival began to emerge
only in the 1510s. New and better Bible translations called in
question core teachings of the Church. The peculiarity of England's
ban on translation meant that reformers such as John Fisher and
Thomas More, who initially welcomed better texts, found themselves
attacking William Tyndale's New Testament when it was smuggled in
from the Low Countries.
London was the hub. In 1535-36 a law student there, Robert
Plumpton, sent his mother a contraband copy of Tyndale's New
Testament, assuring her that God "will give knowledge of the
scriptures as soon to a shepherd as to a priest". Continental ideas
of reform began to spread through the trading networks of the
south-east, with its easy communication with Europe. As the Bishop
of Norwich complained, it was "merchants and such that hath their
abiding not far from the sea" who became infected.
Royal action and spiritual revival were not comfortable
bedfellows, and the result was a parochial roller-coaster.
Reforming numbers grew, and so, too, did the noise they made.
Preachers became bolder. Proclaiming the "word of God", Bible in
hand, carried an authority that no traditional exhortation could
Some parishes became hotbeds of reform. Increasingly,
transubstantiation was questioned, despite savage royal repression.
On the other hand, a majority of parishes clung to tradition. In
1536, John Kene told Bristol that the new ideas were bringing in
"damnable darkness and endless damnation". The parson of Wincanton
attacked readers of Henry's approved Bible translation as
"heretics, knaves, and Pharisees".
WHY, then, was change not resisted? Armed protest did erupt in
1536, but only in the sparsely populated north. At Lavenham, in
Suffolk, in 1525, threats of violence had helped to force the
withdrawal of a tax demand, but, when royal agents stripped the
town's magnificent church of its treasures, some years later,
nobody went on the march.
This suggests that only a minority of parishioners was committed
absolutely. Traditional services were comforting - especially
valued were rites of passage - but shops and alehouses stayed
defiantly open during services, and youths played football. At
Colchester, in 1542, half the parishioners dodged church: some were
working, some were in the pub, one stayed in bed. These, the less
engaged, are crucial to the Reformation story. Only they explain
why loyalty to Henry VIII usually trumped dislike of his religious
Perhaps the incidence of serious religion was much the same as
it is in Britain today. There were, too, material advantages in
conformity. There was confiscated church land to buy, and savings
from pilgrimages, church ceremonial, and the veneration of shrines
did not, as the Government asked, go to the poor. Once the late
John Trotte's sons realised that he no longer needed praying for,
they repossessed his Cullompton almshouse.
Henry VIII died claiming that "religion has been restored and .
. . the truths of God . . . begun to be held in due reverence." He
was wrong. Changes over the next 25 years would determine the
future of religion in England.
Reformers welcomed Edward VI's moves to unequivocal
Protestantism - one London parish even jumped the gun. Churches
were stripped of such traditional furnishing as remained, most
noticeably the roods. Successive prayer books abandoned
transubstantiation; altars disappeared; and, in 1552, the prayer to
consecrate the communion bread and wine was dropped.
Conservatives had tolerated English in the mass, but this was
different. A rebellion alleging that "the new service is only like
a Christmas game" got little support outside Cornwall and Devon.
But many conservative parishes concealed sacred artefacts, and
evasion flourished. Until prohibited, "Our Lady's mass" masqueraded
as "Our Lady's communion"; and the Protestant advance hardened
UNDER Mary Tudor, that identity sharpened further. Cardinal Pole
introduced the Roman Catholic emphases that would shortly be
embraced by the Council of Trent. Protestants, equally, became
better defined. To avoid the reintroduced mass, the wealthy went
abroad, and many that remained kept their heads down. Mary burned
the most prominent of them as a warning, only to find ordinary folk
prepared to die for their faith. An official, exasperated by a
Londoner, Juliana Living, burst out: "You care not for burning, by
God's blood there must be some other way found for you." She
replied: "What will you find any worse way than you have
At the end of her life, Mary was still having to burn four or
five "heretics" a week.
Hardening identities destroyed the hopes of the incoming Queen
Elizabeth for minimum unity, based on a modified Edwardian Prayer
Book. Some priests, especially in the north, opted out, and offered
Catholic sacraments illegally. In 1566, the Pope forbade attendance
at Anglican services, and recusants, as non-attenders were called,
increased in numbers. Few could survive in isolation, but what
guaranteed recusancy a long-term future was the protection of
powerful families with local influence, who dared to harbour
fugitive priests, and so maintained the sacraments. And, by an
irony, such embattled communities were the perfect nursery for
Protestants, too, were unhappy with Elizabeth's somewhat
old-fashioned settlement. Pressure on her to conform to advanced
continental churches got nowhere. What did emerge was a "godly"
lifestyle nicknamed "Puritan". Puritans did not desert the parish
church, but sought to add a more intense spiritual experience. The
clergy felt an overriding commitment to preach, and the laity
"gadded" assiduously, travelling miles to hear an "edifying"
What of those outside both communities? Undoubtedly, many
remained "neuters", going through the motions each Sunday.
Nevertheless, Prayer Book religion is not to be written off as mere
routine. The vernacular Bible, and services in "a tongue
understanded of the people", exposed serious listeners to
Christianity's demand for personal response. Liturgy and creeds,
repeated Sunday by Sunday, instilled a double message almost by
osmosis - trust God, and live a moral life. The Reformation was not
There were abominations - Christians' slaughtering each other,
supposedly to glorify God. But, despite that, religious revival did
come, in the spirituality of Tridentine Catholicism, and the
Puritan experience of vibrant faith and quiet, Prayer Book
understanding of faith, and duty to God and others.
Professor Eric Ives is the author of The Reformation
Experience (Lion, 2012).