Fierce fighting raged all day on 4 August 1549 in the fields and lanes outside the Devon village of Clyst St Mary. By evening, royal forces had driven the rebels from the streets, and taken the bridge over the river Clyst. But even in the moment of victory, the king’s commanders feared a counter-attack. The order was given for soldiers to kill any prisoner in their custody: perhaps 900 men were, in the words of a chronicler, “slain like beasts”.


This moment of shocking violence was an extreme but not anomalous occurrence in the course of England’s 16th-century Reformation. Recent scholarship on the changes taking place after Henry VIII’s break with the papacy tends to assert their relatively peaceful character, and points to continuities across the Reformation divide. Certainly, some important things didn’t change – most folk carried on worshipping in the same church, for example. It’s also true that England witnessed no slaughter on the scale of the German Peasants’ Rebellion of 1524–25 (when as many as 100,000 people were butchered), or the Wars of Religion breaking out in France after 1562 (in which as many as 4 million may have lost their lives).

Henry VIII. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

But only by such selective comparisons does England’s experience of the Reformation look ‘peaceful’. Thousands died in the convulsions of 1549, and blood was spilled in encounters between armies fighting for religious causes in every decade between the 1530s and 1570s: after the Pilgrimage of Grace (a rising in the north of England against Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1536–37); during Wyatt’s Rebellion (against Mary I in 1554); and in the Rising of the Northern Earls (a Catholic attempt to overthrow Elizabeth I in 1569–70). Over the same period and beyond, hundreds more were put to death for opposing the state’s religious policies. People were willing to die, and to kill, because they rightly believed that momentous, unprecedented, and perhaps irreversible transformations were taking place. For good or ill, England’s first exit from a European union, anchored on the church, rather than the Treaty of Rome, was a hard, not a soft one.

Western uprising

The priests and peasants who rose in rebellion in Devon in the summer of 1549 did so in defence of the mass: the Latin service at which priests repeated Jesus’s words from the last supper – “This is my Body” – and miraculously transformed bread into Corpus Christi, the actual body of Christ. Masses had been said in English churches for almost a thousand years, but Protestants insisted Jesus’s intentions had been misunderstood. The communion service was a thanksgiving and memorial, not a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice. To venerate the bread, as Catholics did, was nothing less than idolatry, the offering to a material thing of worship due to God alone.

To avoid such idolatry, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury and convert to the cause of ‘the Gospel’, issued a new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, transforming the Latin mass into an English ‘Supper of the Lord’. The rebels of Devon and Cornwall mocked the new service as a ‘Christmas game’. It reminded them of entertainments performed locally at Yuletide in places like Ashburton, where, in carefree pre-Reformation days, payments were made to actors from Exeter for “playing a Christmas game in the church”.

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The mass, and the precise meaning of Christ’s injunction, “Do this in memory of me”, divided English society down the middle in the 16th century. During the reign of Edward VI some Catholics fled abroad rather than lose the old service. Edward’s tutor, Roger Ascham, sneered at those who, “to see a mass freely in Flanders, are content to forsake, like slaves, their country”. Edward’s half-sister, Mary I, reintroduced the mass after her accession in 1553. Coming home from church on Christmas Eve, John Come of Linkinhorne in Cornwall gave thanks that he had “seen that day that thing he saw not in four years before”. But two of his neighbours said they wished a vengeance on the queen and her proceedings.

Before the reign was over, nearly 300 English people would die agonising deaths at the stake, mainly for denying Christ’s real presence in the mass. In the succeeding reign of Elizabeth I, scores of priest were hanged as traitors for coming from abroad to say secret masses, and dozens of lay people were executed for sheltering them. One person’s true faith was now another person’s pernicious treason; one person’s sacred mystery, another’s foul blasphemy.

The pursuit of salvation

How had things got to this point? It would be naïve to suppose there was ever a time when all English people were cheerfully content with their church and totally united in their faith. Scepticism about the mass was found in the late Middle Ages among the scattered groups of dissidents known derisively as ‘Lollards’. Unease about the economic and legal privileges of the church was occasionally expressed by lay people from the king downwards. Still, there was little to suggest any fundamental discontent with the old order.

If anything, the late medieval church may have been doing too good a job urging people to be serious and devout about the pursuit of salvation, and to develop a powerful emotional attachment to the figure of the suffering Jesus. For some pious and literate people in the early 16th century, the instinct was to deepen that relationship by reading the life of Jesus in the gospels. But here the church authorities had fatefully closed the door. A century earlier, Lollard followers of the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe had translated the Latin Bible into English. The bishops nervously banned all unauthorised translations, while proving remiss at providing an authorised one.

A Gloucestershire priest, William Tyndale, jumped the gun, and began a translation of the New Testament into English from the original Greek. At first inspired by the reform-minded scholar Erasmus, Tyndale soon turned to the more radical critiques of Martin Luther, and published abroad in 1526 a translation whose word-choices constituted arguments against official Catholic teaching: ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’; ‘elder’ in place of ‘priest’; ‘repent’, rather than ‘do penance’.

At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, among the merchant community of London, in the ranks of the clergy itself, growing numbers in the 1520s embraced Luther’s new teaching that God offered salvation irrespective of human efforts or merits. ‘Evangelical’ converts frequently came from the heart of the Catholic establishment, not from its dissident margins. At first, the authorities were confident non-conformists could be persuaded back into line, but that hope faded. When the brilliant, devoutly Catholic, lawyer and scholar Thomas More replaced Cardinal Wolsey as lord chancellor in 1529, the policy hardened. More scoffed he had never met a heretic “but he would foreswear your faith to save his life”. He was wrong: half a dozen unrepentant evangelicals were burned over the next couple of years.

The making of ‘martyrs’ hardened the divisions between those who cherished traditional teachings about the mass, confession, the saints, purgatory or pilgrimage and those who regarded them as false and superstitious. The language of debate itself fuelled an ‘us and them’ mentality. Traditionalists called reformers ‘heretics’; they in turn denigrated their critics as ‘papists’ – not true Catholics, but deluded disciples of the pope, whom evangelicals like Tyndale were coming to regard as Antichrist.

Abandoning the pope

Even as efforts to crush the heretics escalated, the king of England decided that Catherine of Aragon was not his true wife, and he should be free to marry Anne Boleyn. The pope was unable to agree, so Henry VIII acted unilaterally. In 1533–34, he used parliament to sever the centuries-old link between England and Rome, and to declare himself supreme head, under Christ, of the Church in England.

To many people, there seemed no necessary connection between this political crisis and the arguments over salvation convulsing the wider church. Henry was a firm devotee of the Latin mass, and he insisted in 1534 there was no intention “to decline or vary from the congregation of Christ’s church in any things concerning the very articles of the Catholic faith of Christendom”.

But Henry’s Reformation was never just ‘Catholicism without the pope’. To argue the invalidity of his marriage to Catherine, widow of his brother, Arthur, Henry appealed to the authority of scripture as ardently as any evangelical (Leviticus: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife.”) And it was evangelical sympathisers who could be trusted to help implement the break with Rome: Cranmer as new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cromwell as king’s vice-gerent (deputy) for ecclesiastical affairs. Through the influence of Anne Boleyn, reformers were appointed to key bishoprics: for the rest of the reign, Henry’s episcopate was dysfunctionally divided between evangelicals and traditionalists, each doing their best to advance or impede reform in dioceses under their control.

The break with Rome was a constitutional revolution, but not a bloodless one. Thomas More was beheaded for refusing to swear an oath affirming the new order, as was Bishop John Fisher of Rochester. At the forefront of resistance were members of the Carthusian Order, the most austere and serious of England’s monks: a half dozen were hanged, drawn and quartered for ‘treason’ in the spring of 1535. Chained to posts in Newgate prison, a further 10 starved slowly to death.

‘Papists’ now possessed their own heroic victims: a stream of reports reached the government of disaffected subjects praising Fisher, More and the Carthusians as “martyrs and saints… for holding with our holy father the pope”. In official parlance there was no pope, only a ‘bishop of Rome’, whom preachers were routinely ordered to denounce. Before the Reformation, the pope was a distant figure, generally taken for granted rather than revered. But the ferocity of the attack on him persuaded some Catholics to re-evaluate: English Roman Catholicism was in many ways a new phenomenon of the 1530s, one created by Henry VIII.

Erratic persecutor

Henry was an equal-opportunity persecutor. Along with the Carthusians, at least 10 Dutch immigrants, religious radicals known as ‘anabaptists’, were burned in June 1535 – a signal of Henry’s religious ‘orthodoxy’. The pattern repeated itself: in July 1540, three papalists and three Protestants were executed at Smithfield on the same day. It was a symptom not so much of any coherent ‘middle way’, as of erratic policy swings, while reforming and conservative advisers jostled for influence with an unpredictable monarch. Evangelicals welcomed the dissolution of monasteries, the condemnation of purgatory and provision of an English Bible, but they despaired of the king’s attachment to the mass and his distaste for justification by faith.

In a speech to parliament at Christmas 1545, Henry bewailed how charity had become “refrigerate”, and how people called each other heretic, anabaptist or papist, “names devised by the devil”. The truth was that while the king remained fixated with maintaining his royal supremacy, English people increasingly got on with making up their own minds about the religious questions of the day.

The divisions were deepened, not healed, in the decade after Henry’s death. In the short reign of the boy-king Edward VI (1547–53), evangelicals secured control of the government and pushed forward a bold agenda for reform. Statues and altars were swept from churches, and the Prayer Book of 1549 was replaced by a more resolutely Protestant one in 1552. The agenda was reversed in the equally short reign of Mary I (1553–58), which saw restoration of the mass and ceremonies, and the unceremonial dismissal of priests who had taken the opportunity to get married in the preceding reign.

Bloody vengeance

The conventional view is that most people were thoroughly disorientated and confused by the whirligig of events. The opposite is likely to be true. The removal and replacement of objects and rituals from parish churches, and the alternating condemnation and commendation of the pope, were accompanied by an unprecedented programme of preaching, exhortation and explanation. By the time Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, succeeded in November 1558, people were better informed than ever before about controversial questions of religion, and many had decided where they stood.

The new queen’s inheritance was a bitterly divided nation, with returning Protestant exiles calling for radically accelerated reform, and bloody vengeance against the recent persecutors. Queen Mary’s prelates, wrote the incoming bishop of Norwich, John Parkhurst, should be suspended “not only from office, but from a halter”.

Elizabeth saw things differently. She herself conformed outwardly, attended mass in her sister’s reign, and had no desire (in the words of Francis Bacon) “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts”. Her settlement of 1559 restored the achievements of Edward VI’s Reformation, with a few steps back in a conservative direction. Elizabeth was determined there should be no further changes, and for the people obediently to accept one ‘uniformity’ in religion.

It was already too late for that. Energised by the experience of exile and resistance, godly Protestants (called by their enemies ‘Puritans’) fought a long attritional campaign to make the English church resemble the “best reformed” foreign churches of Zürich and Geneva, with the most zealous calling for abolition of the bishops altogether. The effort stalled in the early 1590s, when the government moved to break up the growing presbyterian movement. But Puritan ministers and lay people were by then planted in parishes across the land, as frustrated as ever with ‘popish’ leftovers corrupting the ceremonies and structures of the church

Inconclusive victory

Catholic efforts to reverse the Reformation also peaked just before 1590, when the mighty Spanish Armada, urged on by exiled English priests, suffered defeat in the Channel. Catholics, most likely a majority of the population in the early 1560s, were a minority a generation later. However, hopes that over time all would be absorbed into the national church proved hollow. Credit for Catholic survival is often bestowed on missionary priests trained on the continent, like the Jesuit Edmund Campion, who on the scaffold in 1581 politely refused prayer with the officiating minister: “You and I, we are not of one religion.” Yet the real groundwork was laid in Mary’s reign: the counterpart to its cruel persecution of Protestants was the assertion of a confident new Roman Catholic identity.

The Reformation in England ‘succeeded’, in the sense that people born after Elizabeth’s accession, and coming to adulthood before the turn of the 17th century, usually identified as Protestants. Their cultural outlook was shaped by the Prayer Book, the English Bible and a sense – long to endure in the English psyche – that Catholic foreigners were not to be trusted.

Yet to see the story of the English Reformation solely as the transformation of a Catholic country into a Protestant one minimises the extent to which its most vital result was an entrenched religious and cultural pluralism. It is also to misconstrue the significance of the process itself. Through decades of incessant public debate, punctuated by episodes of intense suffering and violence, the very meaning of ‘religion’ changed. Before the Reformation, the word meant an attitude of mind, devoted service of God. Afterwards, it came to signify a programme, party or identity: ‘my religion’, ‘the true religion’.

The realisation, by significant numbers of English people, that their monarch was not on the side of ‘true religion’ had momentous, long-lasting effects for political authority. That kinsfolk or neighbours might also be wrong-believers was equally novel and troubling. Five centuries on, the challenge of how to live non-violently with difference remains a very real one.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick and the author of English Reformation, Heretics and Believers (Yale, 2017), which won the Wolfson History Prize 2018


This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine