The Church by the end of Edward VI’s had the characteristics of what could be called a Protestant Church of England. The characteristics of the Church at the end of the reign of Henry VIII still had many Catholic characteristics to it – much to the annoyance of the likes of Cranmer – but by the year of Edward’s death, the Church had clearly been Anglicised.
Edward VI had been educated as a Protestant. This gave hope to those who wanted the Church to be Lutheran or Calvinist. Somerset was seen as a reformer and as he had been appointed the young king’s Lord Protector in 1547, many felt that reform simply a matter of course.
However, Somerset proved to be a disappointment to those who wanted religious reform. Somerset was a moderate Protestant who favoured religious toleration. It is known that he corresponded with John Calvin but there is little evidence that Calvin influenced him as Lord Protector. Somerset wanted to be all things to all people, including Catholics – hence his desire for religious toleration.
The religious members of the Privy Council were split on the issue of reform. The likes of Cranmer and Ridley wanted reform while bishops such as Gardner and the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, opposed reform. The breakdown among the bishops on the Privy Council was nearly even – nine wanted reform; ten did not while eight could not make up their minds. However, the bishops were united on two issues. The first was the support of royal supremacy and the second was support for the break from Rome.
Outside of government, the views of others are more difficult to assess. It seems that the noble elite were in general either supportive of reform or, at the least, not willing to oppose it. However, the evidence suggests that the clergy in the localities were more conservative in their views and the not supportive of reform. However the evidence for this is sketchy at best. In East Anglia, there was a great deal of support for change as many Protestants from mainland Europe had settled there after fleeing for their lives.
The Privy Council had to tread warily with regards to religious reform. They knew that religion probably formed the most important part of people’s lives in rural England and the last thing the government wanted to do was to spark off civil unrest as a result of hurriedly pushed through reforms.
The Privy Council decided to review the state of the Church in England and sent royal commissioners to all bishoprics. These commissioners were ordered to send their reports to the Privy Council by the autumn of 1547. The Council wanted to know the state of the clergy at a local level and what doctrines and practices were being pursued. Every parish was also ordered to have copies of Cranmer’s ‘Book of Homilies’ and ‘Paraphrases’ by Erasmus. This was to ensure that all parishes had access to Protestant ideas. In July 1547, the Council used the law to order all bishops to instruct their clergy that services had to be in English and that there had to be a service every Sunday. Further to these, bishops were ordered to remove all ‘superstitious’ images from churches and to ensure that all parishes had an English Bible. Parishioners were also encouraged to read the Bible – something in the past that only priests had done.
These reforms were deemed to be moderate by the Privy Council. However, to many Protestants they did not go far enough while many Catholics felt that they went too far. To try to ensure fairness in debate, the Council did not enforce the laws passed on treason, heresy and censorship during the reign of Henry VIII. While the middle way attempted by the Privy Council may be seen as a modern method to solving a difficult problem, ironically it caused more. The leadership of the Privy Council over the religious issue was seen as being weak and more radical protestors took matters into their own hands.
In London, East Anglia, Lincoln and Essex riots broke out and churches were attacked. Any images deemed superstitious were destroyed, stained glass windows were destroyed and gold and silver candlesticks were taken, melted down and the money raised by the sale of the metals was given to local poor families. The Privy Council was alarmed but took no action. This provoked the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, to make a vehement protest against the Council. This resulted in him being imprisoned for two months.
In November 1547 Parliament and Convocation met. Both were in favour of reform and Convocation agreed to support clerical marriage. Though this did not became law, it did show the way Convocation was thinking. Despite the support of both Parliament and Convocation for reform, the Privy Council was still reluctant to make any major changes, as it feared general public unrest. Radical Protestant reformers also became more vocal as they knew that they were effectively free from the laws introduced in the reign of Henry VIII to stop public dissent. The winter of 1547-48 saw many Protestant pamphlets published and distributed. The writings of Luther and Calvin were also more widely circulated.
The Privy Council continued to confuse many by its approach. It ordered the use of transubstantiation but also the destruction of all Catholic images in churches. In September the Privy Council took the potentially dangerous decision to ban all public preaching – despite the growth of this as a result of the non-enforcement of Henrician laws. Having seemingly given its blessing to debate, now the Council wanted to stifle it. If there was one thing that could provoke public unrest, it was this.
By November 1548, Somerset felt more secure in power after a successful campaign against the Scots. This campaign boosted his standing and he felt more confident about confronting the religious issues in the land. The one thing Somerset wanted to do was to end the uncertainty over religious doctrine. This he hoped had been achieved when Parliament passed the First Edwardian Act of Uniformity in January 1549.
This formalised the reforms that had been brought in from 1547 on. Many Catholic rituals were no longer allowed. Clerical marriage was introduced. The practice of singing masses for the souls of the dead was stopped. Holy communion (mass, matins and evensong) had to be conducted in English. The laity, along with the clergy, was allowed to take both the sacramental wine and bread. The worship of saints was discouraged though not banned.
However, there still remained elements of the Catholic Church. The new communion service followed the order of the old Latin mass and Cranmer’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’ was a mixture of Catholic and Lutheran beliefs. No change was made to the Eucharist, which was still transubstantiation – a doctrine very much associated with the Catholic Church. This lack of change greatly angered those who wanted a total break from the Catholic Church.
This middle way was meant to appeal to everyone. The Privy Council ordered that members of the laity who did not attend services were not to be punished whereas any clergyman who did not work with the new reforms faced at least a fine or, at worst, imprisonment. Bishops were required to travel throughout their see and test members of the public on their knowledge of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This was a move designed to reinforce the establishment of a Protestant Church throughout the land. Most of the country seemed to accept these changes. There was opposition in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Yorkshire. However, to what extent this opposition was based solely on religion is difficult to ascertain. Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, where the ‘Western Rebellion’ occurred, were also experiencing economic and social problems. Enclosure and accusations amongst the people that the gentry were exploiting them, coincided with these religious reforms.