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The Story of the English Reformation

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I believe that in the end the truth will conquer.

—John Wycliffe, letter to the Duke of Lancaster (1381)

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

—Thomas Cranmer, The 39 Articles (1563)

Continuing the Story

elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Names and dates.  These are aids to memory, pegs to hang stories on.  Americans, for example, remember 1776, 1861, and 1963.  We generally tie our stories to wars, assassinations, and disasters instead of, say, presidential administrations.  Our presidents normally serve for four years or maybe eight, and we’ve had 44 of them.  But in two thousand years, England has nearly the same number of reigning kings and queens, so it make some sense to tie major events in English history to particular reigns.  And often the reigning king or queen was right in the middle of the story anyway.

But not always.

John Wycliffe, d. 1384

Long before Luther and Calvin, John Wycliffe challenged the sacerdotal theology of his day. Wycliffe was an Oxford professor, a scholar, and a preacher.  He called England back to the Bible, the written word of God.  He taught it; he translated it into English; he sent out men, two by two, to preach it to the common people. Taking his stance on Scripture alone, Wycliffe rejected indulgences, private confession, and transubstantiation (the Roman doctrine of the Mass).  He taught that the true Church is the company of the elect.  He taught the necessity of true faith for salvation.  He called the pope an Antichrist.

The effects of his work never wholly died out, but they never achieved a substantial reformation of the English church, either.  And so Church historians call Wycliffe “The Morning Star of the Reformation.  The sun would rise later.

Henry VII and Bosworth Field, 1485

The Battle of Bosworth Field ended the Wars of the Roses and brought Henry Tudor to the throne of England as Henry VII.  A shabby monarch, Henry spent a good deal of time securing his crown and questionable title.  In consequence, he didn’t have time to listen to Columbus’s plan of finding the East by sailing west.  He did eventually dispatch another Italian, John Cabot (Zuan Chabotto), to “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.”  But neither Henry nor his heirs would act on Cabot’s discoveries for nearly a hundred years.

Henry VIII and the Act of Supremacy, 1534

Henry VIII had learned one lesson from the Wars of the Roses:  the monarch who dies without a male heir leaves his realm to civil war.  Henry wanted a boy-child, a legitimate male heir.  His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, bore only a girl, Mary.  Henry claimed it was God’s judgment, for Mary had been his brother’s wife, at least in name.  Henry asked the pope for an annulment.  But the pope was under the thumb of the German Emperor Charles V, and Charles was Catherine’s nephew.

Henry’s solution was direct, if initially covert.  He married the young Anne Boleyn and then obtained a judgment from his own archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, that his marriage to Catherine had been invalid and that his marriage to Anne was legitimate.  Within the year, Anne gave birth to girl-child, Elizabeth.  The following year Parliament made Henry the temporal head of the English church.  Now Henry was officially at odds with Rome, but his sacerdotal theology hadn’t significantly changed.

The new queen, however, favored evangelical preachers, men who leaned towards the doctrines of the Reformation.  She appealed to Henry to authorize an English Bible for the nation, but the project got sidetracked when Anne fell from favor.  For Anne failed to produce a male heir, and Henry divorced and executed her so he could marry Jane Seymour.  Jane gave Henry a son, Edward VI, and died twelve days later.  Henry would, in turn, marry three more wives.  But Edward was his heir, and his Seymour relatives were unflinchingly Protestant.

Edward VI and The Book of Common Prayer, 1549

Edward came to the throne at the age of nine.  He and his realm were managed by regents, all of whom had a Calvinist bent.  Edward himself was a Calvinist and, as a teen-ager, wrote and ruled intelligently in terms of it.  Under Edward’s reign, Thomas Cranmer created the first English prayer book (1549) and later the second (1552).  These moved the English church away from traditional forms of worship toward something more evangelical.  They also involved the congregation more actively in worship, since they were written in the English of the time.  Cranmer also formulated 42 Articles that summed up the evangelical theology behind the prayer book.  The Articles rejected purgatory and papal authority and embraced justification by faith and eternal predestination.

Jane Grey and “Bloody” Mary, 1553

Edward died at 16 from something that looked like consumption—or poison.  In his last days he settled the crown on a cousin, Lady Jane Grey, a devout Protestant.  But his older half-sister Mary raised an army, took back the throne, and reestablished Roman Catholicism in England.  She suppressed the Protestant faith and consigned some 300 Protestants to martyrdom.  She married Prince Philip, the son of Charles V and the future king of Spain.  But the marriage didn’t go well:  it only served to entangle Mary and England in Continental wars, including—to Mary’s dismay—one against the pope.  Mary died without issue, and her half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth ascended the throne amid much rejoicing.  She returned the Church of England to a mild Protestantism.  She restored Cranmer’s prayer book and authorized a revised and rearranged version of his confession:  the 39 Articles.  Elizabeth preferred an ornate liturgy—what today we call “high church”—but the preaching for the most part was evangelical, if not forthrightly Calvinistic.  The government of the church remained episcopal, the rule of bishops.

Elizabeth left Roman Catholics to worship safely in private, but she wary of treachery and assassination plots.  She built up England’s navy and made extensive use of privateers—men like Hawkins, Frobisher, and Drake.  She dangled would-be suitors, but remained, at least officially, the Virgin Queen of England.  Her reign brought religious and political stability to England.  But the enormous power and wealth of Roman Catholic Spain still loomed to the south and west.  She feared that war was inevitable.


The story we’ve been following will seem tedious and irrelevant to most.  But if the Christian Church is God’s own work in history, if the gospel of the Reformers is still the very truth and power of God to salvation, then this is a story of tremendous significance, both for the world and for every soul who comes to understand what God was doing in those fateful years.  In the next article, we’ll follow Elizabeth and her favorite privateer, Francis Drake, into war with Spain.

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