*** DEBUG END ***

Tudor Reformation: a world turned upside down

16 December 2022

The Reformation in Tudor England affected more than religion, Lucy Wooding argues


A Fete at Bermondsey c.1570 by Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

A Fete at Bermondsey c.1570 by Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

EARLY Protestantism possessed a close affinity with the cause of social reform, which could be both appealing to the populace at large and a source of worry for those in authority.

The same work addressed to parliament noted that where once “fatte priestes” had stood in the way, “even so now at this daye there be many fatte marchauntes which wold have no reformation in the comon wealth”. Some Protestant reformers were keen to cast the gospel as “the writynges of poore fysher men and symple creatures, even taken for the dregges of the worlde”.

Robert Crowley responded to the rebellions of 1549 by writing The Waie to Wealth, which began by deploring sedition, but then took the more unusual route of noting the plight of the dispossessed, and blaming those who so neglected true religion as to oppress the poor, rather than instructing them in their faith.

He saw a combination of worldly greed and spiritual negligence at work, and he gave a passionate defence of the powerless and indigent, against the offences of the rich. “You ungentle gentlemen! You churles chikens, I say! Geve me leve to make answere for the pore ideotes over whom ye triumphe in this sorte.”

This way of thinking promised to make the regime as anxious as it made the Protestant creed beguiling.

Protestantism had other forms of appeal. Freedom from fasting could prove popular: eating meat in Lent, while everyone else was denied it, offered an opportunity to feel both rebellious and sated. Convocation in 1536 had noted that some were teaching that “it is no synne or offence to ete white metes, eggs, butter, chese, or flesh” during Lent or on other fasting days, and Catholic accusations that Protestants were libertines who opposed fasting and celibacy must have had some foundation.

There were more cerebral attractions, too: some apprentices clearly neglected their work to attend Protestant sermons, or dispute religious questions. Cuthbert Scot, fellow of Christ’s College Cambridge, complained in 1544 about the kind of apprentice who was lured “to stande in his owne conceyte, to disdayne his mayster, to neglecte his office, and dewtie”.

Scot observed that “these specially wyll have in their handes the new testament, and they wyll talke much of the scripture, and goddes word, and yet wyll not learne therof to be obedient, and gentle unto theyr maysters”.

A year later, Scot complained to Stephen Gardiner, as chancellor of the university, about a play performed at Christ’s which questioned ceremonies of the Church, such as Lenten fasting. London apprentices and Cambridge undergraduates did not have a great deal in common, apart from their youth, but both seemed to have appreciated the subversive potential of the Protestant message.


NOT only could the radical edge of Protestantism prove troublesome for the authorities, but it might also bring the creed itself into disrepute. It was one thing for reformers to counsel against devotion to the saints, but in 1535 someone was preaching in London that the Virgin Mary was a “maintainer of bawdery”, and others had allegedly declared “that Our Lady was no better than another woman, and like a bag of saffron or pepper, when the spice is out”.

Reformers could be sensitive to claims that they had preached such things: Miles Coverdale went to some trouble to defend Robert Barnes against the claim that he had compared the Virgin Mary to a saffron bag (saffron being a very precious and costly spice); and Latimer also tried to argue that Barnes had not used the analogy — and that if he had, it was not as rude as it sounded.

A year later, one William Collins was in trouble for firing arrows at sacred pictures and mocking the sacrament: during mass, when the priest elevated the host, Collins had lifted a dog up over his head.

Any radical message might find particularly willing listeners among the young. The 1543 Act for the Advancement of True Religion noted with displeasure how people had perverted the scriptures through books, ballads, “playes, rymes songes and other fantasies”, misleading the king’s people “and speciallye the youthe of this his Realme”.

The Dominican friar William Peryn published his sermons in 1546, because he was worried about heresy creeping “secretly in to the hearts of many of the younger and carnal sort”. Many Catholic commentators cast Protestantism as a creed with natural appeal to the young, licentious and unruly.

The Marian Catholic bishop, John Christopherson, described the young gospeller who complained that “My father is an old doting fool . . . and my mother goeth always mumbling on her beads”.

It was certainly the case that the earliest Protestant groupings in England had begun as a student movement in Cambridge. It was also the case that the young were more likely to suffer the effects of poverty, which Protestantism also promised to address. The promise of both social and spiritual revolution could be a potent one.


RELIGIOUS life, which had always been so focused on the parish, the patterns of worship, and the rhythms of the ritual year, was increasingly something with an added dimension that was personal and private, its chief truths contained within the pages of a book. This rendered religion more sustainable under persecution, more concerned with ideological definitions, more independent of communal expectation and more resistant to political control.

If there was a single point in time that separated the old world and the new, it would be 9 June 1549. This was Whitsunday, the feast of Pentecost, when the Church remembered how the Holy Spirit was sent down to a small bunch of terrified men locked in an upper room, converting them into the fearless apostles, saints, and martyrs who went on to build the Christian Church.

That Sunday in 1549 saw another kind of conversion, as in many churches, when the people gathered as usual, they found that the familiar hallowed ritual of the Latin mass had been replaced by something in English read out of a book.

It was with the transformation of the liturgy that England’s Reformation came of age, and the conflicts over religion began to form a gulf that would never again be bridged. From this point onwards, England was a divided nation.

This was not because the new liturgy was particularly radical in its theology, or because the Edwardian regime had found any new means of coercing the populace into accepting religious change. This was, however, the first really convincing nexus between the ideals and aspirations of scholars and churchmen, the authority of the Crown and the patterns of popular worship at a local level.

Nothing prior to this had connected the experience of these disparate pieces of society in such a noticeable departure from the past. Political power had engaged with theological innovation, and parish life would never be the same again.

The responses to the new service on Whitsunday 1549 were many and varied. In the south-west of England, a rebellion was triggered, amidst some passionate avowals of the strength of traditional religion. Elsewhere, others enthusiastically welcomed the new service.

There would be many reversals ahead, but the idea of division was beginning to sink in as never before, with the Edwardian regime starting to institutionalise what had previously been unimaginable.

Just before Whitsunday 1549, at a school in Bodmin, there had been a disturbance. Upon inquiry, it was discovered that the children had been divided into two playground gangs to fight; significantly, they had formed “two factions, the one whereof they called the old religion, the other the new”. It is perhaps the most incontrovertible testimony to social upheaval when children start enacting the conflicts of their elders.

The reference to “common prayer” in the new order of service was a gesture towards unity, towards a liturgy celebrated in common with the rest of the realm, using a common language. It was supposed to be a unifying experience. In reality, this was the moment when deep fissures began to appear within English society.


WHILE divisions were widening, however, the authority of the state held firm. England’s Reformation remained something first and foremost implemented by the Crown, through parliaments, royal injunctions, official publications and the authority of the magistrates, supported by the mechanisms of the church hierarchy.

When royal commissioners were sent out to the provinces to ensure compliance, they frequently reported that they had found the people “very quiet and conformable”. Churchwardens’ accounts from up and down the country show parishes dutifully removing statues, lights, and ritual objects, and whitewashing over wall-paintings.

Much of this was done not out of religious conviction, but out of obedience to the authorities. William Paget commented in 1549 that “what countenance so ever men make outwardly was to please them in whom they see the power resteth”.

Yet such obedience was in itself rooted in the religious conviction that a monarch was set over his or her people by God, and that to follow royal command was therefore to act in accordance with divine law.

Even someone such as Robert Crowley, who was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the poor, accepted that it was wrong for them “to take weapen in hand against Goddes chosen ministers”, reminding his audience that “be they good or bad, they are Goddes chosen, if they be good, to defende the innocente, if they be evell, to plage the wicked”.

On these grounds, the only moral choice was to submit. It was hard to distinguish between the will of the monarch and the will of God. Political stability was therefore preserved, but beneath the surface the religious ferment was growing all the time.

The biblical narrative of Babel ends with a people confounded, unable to understand one another. The early years of Reformation in England were at least as much about the spread of confusion as the dawn of enlightenment.


This is an edited extract from Tudor England: A History by Lucy Wooding, published by Yale University Press, £30 9780300162721

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)