The Late Medieval English Church and Problems it Faced

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The Late Medieval English Church

During the reign of Henry VIII, England had witnessed the most dramatic enforcement of the power of the king. The events leading up to the English Reformation were the catalyst for major changes to the political and religious power of the king that would be carried on throughout English history. The problems that the Medieval English Church faced were some of the major reasons why the reformation took place.Even though there were external factors that influenced the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, many of the internal problems that the Medieval church faced helped shape the mindset of the English people to want reform.

Since a great portion of English society was based around the church, the ongoing conflict between the church and the king,anti-clericalism , and internal problems within the Catholic Church played a major role in the onset of the English Reformation.

One of the first major problems that the church faced was the Great Schism.

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From 1387 to 1417, three men were considered to be the pope, which had never happened in Catholic history before. In 1305, the papacy was moved to Avignon, France and began taxing bishops and cardinals, and the bishops and cardinals taxed the priests, who in turn demanded money from churchgoers. The reason why they were being taxed was because the papacy was no longer centered in Rome. The Avignon papacy developed a reputation for corruption and greed, which caused for there to be a need for the Pope to be Roman again.

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Around the 1370’s the papacy moved back to Rome, partly because it stimulated the economy for Italy. The new Pope, Urban VI had made drastic changes that the Cardinals didn’t like, so they retaliated by breaking off from Rome and moved the papacy back to Avignon. They elected Clement VII. This conflict quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Finally, in 1389, there was a council held in Constance that declared that Pope Martin V would be the pope that would end the schism between the two secular factions. Even though there has seemed to be universal support for this resolution, this conflict fueled anti-clericalism.

Another problem that the church faced during the late middle ages into early Tudor rule was anti-clericalism and ideological challenges to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. As seen with the Great Schism, many churchgoers were slowly starting to become disenchanted with the church. Many believed that the church needed radical purging and that the English shouldn’t be responsible for economically supporting the church anymore. Those who believed in this form of reform were more positive in their outlook. They believed that the church should put their wealth towards social and educational improvement and not towards maintaining the papacy (MacDonald 28).Another reason that led England to reformation was the opposition to the Roman Catholic Church’s use of heresy to punish those who opposed them. One major event that fueled anti-clericalism was the murder of Richard Hunne. He had been tried with heresy when he refused to offer a mortuary gift after the death of his son. He was excommunicated from his parish and was ostracized by his town, soon leading up to his alleged suicide. Sympathizers of Hunne declared that the Church was guilty of murder and should be brought to trial. Even though Hunner's murders weren’t sentenced to death, there were consequences( Ackroyd 14-15). One of the consequences was that that according to a bill passed in 1512, “benefit of clergy be removed from those in minor orders convicted of murder; the benefit had meant that clerics would be tried in Church courts and spared the penalty of death”( Ackroyd 15). The king had responded by upholding that the Church fell under the jurisdiction of the helm. The societal aftermath of this event did not make the Church look in the best light that they once held. Many stayed faithful to the Church, but many started to see the flaws and hypocrisy within the church. Alongside anti-clericalism, challenges to the Catholic belief of those like Martin Luther, Tyndale, and Erasmus, all contributed to the eventual split of the Catholic Church. All of these men believed in humanism, which was characterized by the “new learning” at the beginning of the 16th century. This new belief was based around the idea of renovation of education and scholarship by the pursuit of newly found or newly translated classical models ( Ackroyd 26). Even though England remained Catholic under the rule of Henry VIII after his break from the Catholic Church, this idea of humanism and the works of Martin Luther helped transition England from a Catholic state to a Protestant state under the rule of Edward VI.

Lastly, one of the main causes of the split from the Roman Catholic Church was that they church did not allow for Henry VIII to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she could not bear him a male heir. This was extremely important that the king had a legitimate male heir to the throne because if he did not have one by the time that he died the country would be thrown into a possible civil war over who would be next in line to the throne. Henry’s reasoning for wanting to divorce Catherine was because she had once been married to his brother, Arthur, and it went against Leviticus, which stated that it was a sin for Henry to be married to his dead brother's wife. In the spring of 1527, Henry attempted to have his marriage annulled by Pope Clement VII (Ackroyd 42). The annulment of the king’s marriage was a major concern for both the Pope and the English people. A royal divorce had never happened before in English history and one had never been granted by the Pope because divorce was against church policy.After turmoil with the church and the judgment of the English people, Henry was able to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533 under the anticipation of a final break with Rome ( Ackroyd 72). Even though the country had celebrated their marriage, a majority of the population opposed the marriage. They did not show their opposition out of fear of being killed, like Thomas More, who sided with the Pope in his decision not to annul Henry and Catherine’s marriage. More was forced to resign his position as chancellor and sentenced to death for not signing the Submission (Ackroyd 70). With the separation of the King and the Church, with the Henry VIII as the head of the English Church, shift of power solidified the problems that the Church faced.

Even though the Church of England remained catholic under the final years of Henry VIII, the problems that the Church faced definitely marked the transition and major reforms that would later be seen with the rise of Protestantism. The late middle ages and early Tudor rule marked a turbulent time of the Church. The Church had once been a center for religious life within England, but with greed, corruption, and challenges to the Catholic Church, people began to be dissatisfied with the Church. They had strayed away from their intended purpose which resulted in a rise in anti-clericalism and finally a complete separation from the Roman Catholic Church. The problems that amounted allowed for humanism to take place. The events that took place prior to the English Reformation could be best described as “ the new learning opened the windows of the Church in search of light and fresh air”(Ackroyd 26). The separation of the Catholic Church and the Church of England would forever change the course of history in England.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Late Medieval English Church and Problems it Faced. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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