King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Religious reformation was a 16th century phenomenon that affected a large swath of European nations, but the reformation in England was unique. The continental reformations were creatures of their mercurial instigators, men such as Luther and Calvin. The English reformation was more so a creature of the state, undertaken by the king and Parliament for largely political reasons.

The first major step in the English Reformation came during the reign of Henry VIII. He is infamous as the king who had several of his wives beheaded, but he also had a profound influence on the development of organized religion in England. When Henry attempted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, her refusal to go quietly caused quite the problem for the king. Though Henry attempted, through the aid of Cardinal Wolsey, to convince the Pope that the marriage should be annulled, his pleas were ignored by Rome. Wolsey ended up receiving the brunt of Henry’s displeasure and it was his successor, Thomas Cromwell that would succeed in engineering the first major reform in the English Church. This reform would come about mostly as a side effect of Henry’s search for a way to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.


Portrait of Thomas Cranmer, Gerlach Flicke (1545), National Portrait Gallery, London.

In a move that consolidated his power in England and significantly weakened papal influence over the English church, Henry saw the Act of Supremacy passed in 1534. The Act elevated the king to be the head of the English church–a position that allowed him to obtain the new marriage he sought–and brought the extensive lands and wealth of the monasteries under the crown’s control. Wars in France and Scotland drained the king’s newfound wealth, and over time monasteries began to be dissolved. The south of England saw little resistance to the Henrician religious reforms, but northern England as a whole was more loyal to the Catholic church and it still valued monasteries as places of learning and worship. In 1536 and ’37 Henry suppressed a series of five religiously motivated rebellions (one of which is called the Pilgrimage of Grace) by force. The remainder of Henry’s reign was characterized by the conflict between the two religious factions. On one side Cromwell and the Archbishop Canterbury Thomas Cranmer pushed Henry to increase the Protestant reforms in the church; on the other side Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, worked to keep Catholic traditions in the church.

Little reform took place during the final stages of Henry VIII’s reign. His death in 1547 removed the principal obstacle to new religious reform as his chosen successor–also his only son–was nine years old in 1547. As a regent Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, oversaw the practical control of the government directly following Henry’s death. Seymour encouraged Archbishop Cranmer to move forward with gradual reform of the English church. In 1544, prior to Henry’s death, Cranmer had composed the first English-language vernacular service, the ‘Exhortation and Litany.’ In 1548 Cranmer composed a Communion rite in English. In that same year Cranmer, along with a group of bishops and church leaders, began to meet together and work on a new prayer book. They felt that it was important, and even necessary, to compile a prayer book in the “mother tongue,” as they called it.


Title page from the Book of Common Prayer, 1549, made mandatory by the first Act of Uniformity.

Since the Church of England was now a state-run institution, Cranmer and his committee also prepared a Bill to put before Parliament. The Bill proposed the adoption of a ‘Book of Common Prayer,’ the same prayer book that had been composed by Cranmer and his group of bishops. Parliamentary debate over the Bill revealed the hostility to reform that was still deep-seated in parts of England. In the end, the first Act of Uniformity was passed on 21 January 1549. It allowed for a one-year transition period after which English churches were required to adopt the Book of Common Prayer. Clergy who refused to adopt the prayer book after the one-year period were met with stiff penalties. A first offense resulted in the confiscation of income for an entire year in addition to a six-month prison sentence with no chance of bail. A second-time offender could expect a one-year prison term, again without bail. When he emerged from prison, he would be stripped of his position in the church and his ‘job’ would be given to another “as though the party so offending were dead.” The harshest punishment was reserved for any three-time offender: life in prison.

As would be expected from the harsh nature of the punishments involved, the first Act of Uniformity was met with open rebellion in certain regions of England. This unrest was further exacerbated by poor economic and social conditions. Devon, in particular, mounted a strong resistance to the first Act of Uniformity and its Book of Common Prayer. In the summer of 1549 Devon submitted the following petition to the crown:

We demand the restoration of the Mass in Latin without any to communicate, and the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament: Communion in one kind, and only at Easter: greater facilities for Baptism: the restoration of the old ceremonies—Holy bread and Holy water, Images, Palms, and Ashes. We will not receive the new service, because it is but like a Christmas game; but we will have our old service of Matins, Mass, Evensong and processions in Latin, not in English.


The title page to the 1552 Book of Common Prayers, Cranmer’s revised version of the first mandated English prayer book.

The protest from Devon was accompanied by an armed rebellion, the same measure of protest to which dissenters in Cornwall resorted. The open rebellion was short lived. Before long the 1549 Book of Common Prayer became more widespread in English churches. By 1552, Cranmer had completed a revised version and the first Act of Uniformity was superseded by a second such act in 1552. The 1552 Book of Common Prayer would be fleeting, as Edward VI’s death in 1553 resulted in the ascension of Mary I to the throne and along with her the restoration of Roman Catholic worship.