Martin Luther
When Martin Luther nailed 95 arguments (theses) to a church door in Italy in 1517, few people could have known what an impact he would have on European history. These 95 arguments would shake the Catholic Church to its foundations and would ultimately lead to an enormous division within the Christian Church. Martin Luther was an angry Catholic monk. He thought that the Catholic Church had lost touch with the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was angry with the way the Church made money from the sale of indulgences. He believed that the Church, and many of its priests and monks, had become corrupt and decadent. Martin Luther aimed to get rid of the traditions and rituals of the Church and to follow only the teachings of the Bible itself.
The Reformation Spreads across Europe
Martin Luther started a huge debate within the Catholic Church. It was obvious that he was not alone in his criticism of the Church. The protesters (soon-to-be-called Protestants) argued that beautiful altars, golden goblets and stained glass windows were not necessary to communicate with God. They thought that faith, sincerity and simplicity were all that were needed to pray to God. Additionally, they wanted to bring the message of the Bible to as wide an audience as possible and started translating Bibles from Latin into the various European languages. They made wide use of the newly invented printing press to get their message to as wide an audience as possible. The Protestant message spread rapidly through Northern Europe. Realising that the protesters did have some reasonable grounds for criticism, the Catholic Church itself organised Councils to discuss how it could best reform itself.
The Reformation in England
Originally, Henry VIII had been one of the first European Kings to denounce Martin Luther. The Pope actually praised Henry VIII for his words and awarded him the Papal title: Defender of the Faith in 1521. Henry VIII was happy to remain within the Catholic fold. However, Protestant ideas were crossing the English Channel - thanks to the cheap printing press. These ideas were mainly discussed by theologians in the South-East of England and in London. Henry VIII might never have considered breaking with Rome, if it were not for his own advisers being influenced by this Protestant debate. By 1527, King Henry had fallen in love with a woman who was not his wife. Her name was Anne Boleyn. He desperately wanted to divorce his current wife, Catherine of Aragon. He asked the Pope, if he could have special permission to divorce his Spanish wife. Unfortunately, one of the main advisers and supporters of the Pope was the King of Spain. He also happened to be the Nephew of Catherine of Aragon. He made sure that the Pope would not even consider granting a divorce. Henry was a disappointed king.

It was at this point that an adviser to the king, Thomas Cranmer, suggested that if England were independent of Rome, Henry would have the final say in all Church matters. Henry liked the sound of this and so made Cranmer into the Archbishop of Canterbury. Parliament then prevented appeals in Church matters being sent to Rome. The Archbhisop of Canterbury, appointed by the king, was now the head of the Church in England. The Pope retaliated by ex-communicating Henry VIII and his supporters. Thomas Cranmer granted his king the divorce he wanted - and quickly - as Anne Boleyn was already pregnant by Henry.

Once the break had been made, Henry realised that there were other advantages to being independent from Rome. He looked enviously at the Church lands of the powerful monasteries. He realised that by closing them all, he could take all their possessions and sell the land to his supporters. This he did and by doing so, he created a group of loyal land-owning Protestant supporters. The last thing that these people wanted was for the Catholic Church to return to England and to take all their land back.

Henry VIII was never really interested in the theological reasons for the Reformation. For him, it was a convenient way of overcoming a particular problem and for increasing the independence and power of his nation. In fact, Henry persecuted hard-line Protestants who wanted to bring even more reforms to the Church. He also allowed Catholic teachings to return to the churches in England and for confession to be re-introduced. When he died, he thought that he had been 'a good Catholic.'

Henry VIII planned for his nine year old son's kingship by preparing a Council to guide him. This Council was supposed to be made up of an equal number of Catholics and Reformers. In reality, this did not happen. The Reformers seized control of the Council and made sure that Edward's policies were firmly Protestant in nature. A great deal was achieved in a short time: two evangelical Prayer Books, a new English order of service and the stripping of the remaining Catholic paraphernalia from the churches. Unfortunately for them, the sickly king would die at the young age of sixteen. He would be replaced by his deeply Catholic sister Mary.

The Counter-Reformation in England
Queen Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It was his divorce from her that started the Reformation in England. From 1553, Mary tried to turn the clock back by twenty years. She tried to fully re-instate the Catholic church; Catholic prayer books, altars and images were all re-introduced. Unfortunately, England had changed more than she had realised.

Whilst only a minority were interested in Protestantism, this minority was a powerful and active one. They were active campaigners with land, money and influence, especially in London and the South-East. To try and overcome this powerful lobby, Mary embarked on executing the Protestant ring leaders. This policy was a disaster as it turned the Protestants into Martyrs willing to die for their cause. Mary lost a great deal of sympathy with this policy.

She made herself even more unpopular when she married the Catholic Prince Philip II of Spain. Many English people saw this as selling out to a foreign power. Worse was to follow when, fighting on behalf of the King of Spain, Mary lost the last English possession in France, Calais, to the French. Incompetence, terror and foreign meddling all helped to make Mary a deeply unpopular Queen.

Mary was to remain childless and died only five years after taking the throne. Fate would pass the throne back to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.

The Middle Way!
Elizabeth took control over a deeply divided country. Protestants and Catholics were deeply suspicious of each other and both grappled for power. Elizabeth tried to find a way of bringing the worst excesses of both religions under control. Her adviser, Robert Cecil, suggested that they declare England to be Protestant, but that Catholics should be allowed to hold their own beliefs as long as they were loyal to the Crown. This was called 'The Middle Way.'

In reality, though, this middle way was biased towards the Protestants. It reissued Cranmer's Protestant Prayer Book of 1552. All but one of Mary's Bishops were removed from office after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy. The new Protestant Bishops were far more radical than Queen Elizabeth. As were the clergy who filled the parishes vacated by resigning Catholic priests.

Catholic threats to England also had the effect of strengthening Protestantism. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots bid for power, the Papal invasion of Ireland and the Spanish Armada of 1588 all had the effect of making people rally around the flag. They may not have been particularly Protestant, but they were English nationalists and they did not want to see any loss of independence.

More than anything, it was the length of the reign of Elizabeth that did more than anything to keep Britain Protestant. She was Queen for 45 years. This was a long time for Protestant ideas to become wide-spread and the norm. There was also the element of success breeding success. Protestant England's power rose over this period just as Catholic Spain's and Portugal's was beginning to fade. This was divine proof to many English people that Protestantism must be more acceptable to God than Catholicism.

Illustration from Luther's Bible
Illustration from Luther's Translation of the Bible
Henry VIII's Wives
Significant Individuals
Worksheets Available
Timeline Gapfill
Student Work
Examples of Pieces of Work
Learning Tasks
Martin Luther Exercise
The Reformation in England Exercise
The Counter-Reformation Exercise
The Middle Way Exercise
Put Henry VIII's wives in the correct order
Return Wells Cathedral to its Pre-Reformation Glory
1509 Henry VIII becomes King
1517 Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to a Church door in Italy
1520 Martin Luther is ex-communicated from the Catholic Church
1526 William Tyndale translates New Testament into English
1534 Henry VIII breaks with Rome
1536 John Calvin reforms Church in Switzerland
1537 Henry VIII seizes all the monasteries
1545 Roman Catholic Council of Trent meets to organise reforms of Catholic Church
1547 Protestant Edward VI becomes King
1553 Catholic Mary I becomes Queen
1558 Protestant Elizabeth I becomes Queen
Online Resources
BBC Guide to the Reformation
This is a very well organised website
Chronology of Reformation
An overview of the important dates in the Reformation
Martin Luther Chronology
This timeline tells us more about the life of Martin Luther
95 Theses
You can read the 95 arguments for yourself
Catholic Encyclopedia
This is a guide to the Reformation It is very in-depth
Resources Available in School
Dorling Kindersley CD-ROM
History of the World
You can find more about the Reformation on this CD-ROM
Reference Books
Collinson, Patrick
The Religion of Protestants: the Church in English Society, 1559 - 1625
Dickens, A.
The English Reformation (2nd edition)
Duffy, Eamon
The Stripping of the Altars - Traditional Religion in England, c 1400 - c 1580
Elton, G
Reform and Reformation
Guy, John
Tudor England
Haigh, Christopher
English Reformations - Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors
Marshall, Peter
The Impact of the English Reformation 1500-1640

| History | Humanities |

by Stephen Luscombe