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What was the Edwardian Reformation and how successful was it? Essay

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When Edward VI succeeded to the English throne in 1547, it seemed almost inevitable that a sincere Protestant Reformation would follow. The death of Henry VIII had saw the consolidation of power into the hands of those inlcined towards religious reform. The Catholic stronghold had been weakened – both Gardiner and Norfolk were in disgrace and excluded from the regency council. Although the make-up of the Privy Council may have been favourable towards reform, when considering whether the reformation was a success one needs to consider how far it penetrated society. Nicholas Ridley, a reformer, complained that the Edwardian Reformation was never aything more than a political acceptance of the new religion, that had shown only external obedience. This may have been true. One needs to look at the strength of the appartus interacting with the laity, how far geographically the reformation spread and even more interestingly how much of the Edwardian reformation survived into the next reign.

From 1547-1550 Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset whose religious opinions tended towards Protestantism, emerged as the Protectorate of the young king. It was the first time that a Protestant had near monarchial powers. From 1550-1554 the Earl of Warwick became the Lord President of the Privy Concil. He too encouraged the transformation of the Church of England into an unmistakably Protestant body. The first parliament of the reign in October 1547 witnessed the sweeping away of numerous statutes that were opppressive to the reformers.

Included was Henry VIII’s harsh treason laws along with the old De Haeretico Comburendo. There was from the onset a relaxation of religious restraining laws. The Act of Six Articles, or the statute for ‘The Advancement of the True Faith’, that had advocated a reversal back to Catholic doctrine was also repealed. All restrictings on preaching, reading and teaching of the scriptures were abandoned. These first few steps alone appeared to point the Protestant towards a ‘Golden Age’, surpassing that of the Cromwellian years. Parliement from the onset seemedto be set towards a reformatio along reformed lines.

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Along with the slacking of the strait-jacket there was an influx of revolutionary statutes, all be them gradually, that were to change the face of the church and redefine the relationship that it had with the laity. Issued by Proclamation on 18 March 1548 the Order of Communion, composed by Cranmer was revolutionary. It proposed for the first time that the sacrament of the altar should be taken in both kinds, (both bread and wine) by communiants. It also made vernacular insertions into the Latin Mass. It certainly appeared that the appartus of the parliament was being used to push through an esstentially Protestant Edwardian Reformation. The Act of Uniformity (1549) was followed by the First Common Prayer Book (June 1549). Written by Cranmer, it was an attempt to consolidate great diversity in churches.

The Edwardian Reformtion’s certainly appeared to give the Archbisop the freedom to pursue reform. The title of the service, however still included ‘commonly called the mass’ the First Prayer Book was a work of compromise. Cranmer stipulated that one of the reasons for this was ‘lest the people, not having yet learned Christ, should be deterred by too extensive innovations from embracing his religion’ His hestitancy demonstrates how little those pushing through reforms knew of how successful they would be. As a result the Catholic structure of the mass was maintained, along with certain rituals. For the ordinary layman the transformations may not have been that considerable, as the structure of the service did not really alter. The only exception being that the services were to be in English. Its success may have been spurred by the threats of fines, confiscation of property and imprisonment that accompied anyone refusing to use it.

However diversity was also apparent in regards to the religious stance of the Edwardian Reformation. It has been suggested that Cranmer, though not experiencing any true crisis, certainly began to break away from the doctrines of Lutheranism. A hybrid of ideas was circulating: Lutheranism, Zwinglism or Clavinism, to name just a few. An influx of reformed thinkers entered England at the beginning of Edward’s reign and held positions of great prominence. This diversity alone certainly weakened the Edwardian Reformation as a Protestant Reformation. Even the Catholics were known to have scoffed at the lack of unity amongst their opponents, who spent a considerable amont of time quarrelling amongst themselves.

The second prayer book advocated a communion service that was in many ways related to the spiritual presence advocated by Zwingli of Geneva. However the Prayer Book was never intended to be this revolutionary, and we can see in the objection made by Cranmer when John Knox complained of the communiants kneeling to take the sacraments, leading to the so-called Black Rubric, that he was had developed his own thought-patterns. In many ways therefore, the Edwardian Reformation was an a climatic point in England of many diverse beliefs coming together. Its success depended on their being uniformity and if there was dissagreement amongst its principals then it certainly did not help in bringing success.

Reception of the changes, although they differed from area to area, can in part be reflected in the massive threat posed by the so-called Prayer Book rebellion in 1549. The rebels demonstrated unmistakable religious conservatism, demanding the restoration of the Six Articles, of holy bread and water, of communion adminstered in only one kind and the banning of the English Bible. When considering how successful the Edwardian reformation was when put against the rebellion it can be evaluated in two lights.

In the one the Edwardian Reformation was clearly successful in ensuring that new ideas were reaching people, on the other they had been unsuccesful because, at least here, the people had rejected it. On the other hand, the second rebellion of the period, the so-called Kett’s rebellion in Norfolk, had been primarily concerned with the issue of enclosures, and appeared to have embraced the new religion. Matthew Parker actually preached under the ‘Oak of Reformation’. It was not a movement against the Protestant policies of the government. It seems that was the Edwardian Reformation had achieved was a diversity in opinion across the realm, at least amongst those that understood the implications of what the government was proposing.

When considering the success of the Edwardian Reformation it is important to view the persecutions enacted under the reign of Mary I. Seven that were burned at Smithfield on 7th January 1556 are alleged to have said that they were just following the true Gospel that they heard preached during the reign of Edward VI. It is significant that the Edwardian theme is strong and consistent in the confessions made by those persecuted or interrogated under Mary. Whether this was a sign of people just following the faith of the crown, or of then embracing the reformed doctrines devoutedly is debatable.

Confessions such as that made by HenryAldinton appears to be more than just compliance, thus he says that he had been taught in the days of good King Edward by such godly preachers and prophets sent of God. Certainly for so many to have been willing to sacrifice their lives during the reign of Mary implies that the Edwardian Reformation had had at least some amount of success. Additionally what the Edwradian Reformation had achieved was the capturing of a whole generation of youngsters. Of the fifty-two recorded by John Foxe, ‘The Book of Martys’, eight were aged nineteen to twenty. In fact Foxe’s book alleges that those who died under Mary were dying for beliefs, and were strong to the end. Although this may just be a piece of hyperbolic propoganda, it still cannot be ignored that the Edwardian Reformation had produced people who could withstand persecution

It can be argued alternatively however that the persecutions under Mary were only possible because hatred of heresy was still prevalent. Despite the zeal of the preachers their mission was never completed. Peter Matryr complained that throughout the whole kingdom, excepting London, they were very rare. The Edwardian Reformation saw the weakening of the Church on a massive scale, therefore it may be plausible to argue that there was little chance of the Reformation becoming a Protestant reformation if the apparatus was not there to carry it through. There were drops in the number of ordinations, pluralism and non-residence was still endemic, and many parishes were without regular intstruction that mass conversion required. When considering the success of the Edwardian reformation, in a nutshell it might be worth looking at the results of the 1551 visitation in Gloucester carried out by Hooper, which showed that some priests were even ignorant of the Lord’s Prayer. Success depended on the local clergy being able to disseminate ideas, though it is wholly like that these ideas had failed them.

Despite this the Edwardian Reformation did not fail to have an impact on the laity. The Prayer Book however was exceptional bacause it was in English. This must have had a significant impact on the minds of the laity. Their whole religious experience was undergoing a change in which the mystery surrounding the priest and his sermons was beginning to lighten. In fact the impact of the Edwardian Reformation on the laity was extensive. The Edwardian Reformation witnessed not only a change in the way things were practicised but also a change in the physical layout of the church. Images were whitewashed and removed. Yet the most significant alteration was the placement of the altar, or what was to become a plain board covered in a single sheet of white linen.

Communion was now to be taken in the nave rather than in the chancel. This brought the service within the view of the congregation, and effectively made the latter participants in the service. Certainly in 1550 Bishop Ridley of London, whom many Bishops followed the example of, ordered that all churches within his diocese should replace the altars with communion tables, that were to standlength ways. Although it is difficult to establish how effective the orders of parliament were to be, its implications were far reaching. The whole symbolic nature of the communion service was to alter. Its was effectively to be white-washed away, much like the images. There was to be no worshipping of the sacraments, and the service itself was to become less flamboyant.

It will never really be possible to establish how far the Edwardian Reformation had penetrated in the hearts and minds of the laity. Certainly the law had been changed but the relaity of England’s religion at this time is not always one and the same thing. As Ridley had complained, Edward’s time had meerly been a case of external obedience. Altars were removed but the old ones were kept in hiding, along with the old service books. Certainly, as Elton has noted, the Edwardian Reformation did not have time to establish a truly Protestant England, but in regards to there being mass resistance there was none. It was more an a case of pateince and acceptance, which are the two truly essential requirements of conversion. England certainly moved closer to being Protestant than it had ever been, but it certainly fell short of creating a zealous nation.

It is true that the seeds of the reformed religion had been sown and that the Reformation had gone further than it have ever even been contemplated during Henry’s reign. However, the Edwardian reformation was still very much a minority movement. It success did not really penetrate further than extremists, such the Council complaied to Cranmer that ‘some parishes had removed all their images, some none [and] some had restored those that had been previously removed’.

It might be plausible to add that rather than a success the Edwardian Reformation may have caused greater diversity. This can be seen in the conflicting religious doctrines that were entering into England, and even emerging within the revised liturgy. There were also other factors contributing to the push of a Reformation, be them financial, political or religious. It seems it some ways that the Edwardian Reformation saw the risings of people who were willing to exploit the Reformation for whatever ends they desired

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