Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
BA English
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Learning Outcomes

Upon the successful completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:

  •  recognize the important figures and names of the English Reformation.
  • understand the socio- political and religious changes at the time of Reformation.
  • explain the importance of various acts and books that played a part in the English Reformation.
  • Discussion
    5.1.1 Catholics and Protestants
    At the start of the sixteenth century England was an entirely Christian country. There were no other religious groups and everyone followed the version of Christianity that is called Catholicism. The Catholic Church was led by the Pope who was based in Rome. All of the religious services were carried out in Latin. Most people in England attended church regularly and believed in Christianity. The Church was a central point in the community where people came together for births, marriages and funerals. In many areas the church provided support to the poor, access to basic medicine and guidance with problems. Many people could not read or write and they believed what they were told in Church. However, for some people the Catholic Church was considered ‘old fashioned’ and out of date with what people wanted. Some thought that the Church did things that were corrupt, that misled people and took advantage of their belief in God.
    The people who did not want the Catholic Church anymore still believed in Christianity but they wanted a version that more people could understand. They wanted services to be in English with an English Bible. The people who wanted the changes to the Catholic Church were called Protestants. Even though Catholics and Protestants were all Christians and believed in God, the Bible and that Jesus Christ was the son of God their disagreements made them enemies. The two different types of Christian were prepared to kill each other over their disagreements.
    Now let’s proceed to learn English reformation. The Reformation in England was a religious-political movement that lasted over a century. It transformed the English society from the Catholic faith into its own distinct church of faith. The new Anglican Church was diverse from the Roman Catholic Church and from other Protestants. This reformation includes some unique series of events and particular changes that impacted the early modern English society. There are three different perceptions over the English Reformation and its impact on the people. The first view is that the Reformation was imposed on the people by King Henry VIII and his advisers. The second perception is that the seeds of the Reformation were present in the society itself. A section in the society desired the creation of a Protestant church. The third “middle ground” view is that the Reformation was an imposed one but accepted by the people. It was so because of a collaborative effort, resulting in widespread acceptance and little resistance.
    These all views agree with the fact that England’s Reformation was unique from the Reformations that had happened in other parts of Europe. Even though it was developed gradually with a slow pace, it transformed the empire as a whole. It was true that the state was clearly divided because of religion, but that is necessary because revisionism was inevitable. Let’s check the fundamental differences between European reformation and English reformation.
    5.1.2 The Reformation in Europe
  • It was the time when some people began to question some of the teachings of the Catholic Church and to challenge the authority of the Pope.
  • It was started in Germany in 1517 as a protest against the abuses in the church.
  •  Those who supported this movement for reform were called Protestants. Causes of the Reformation
  • The abuses within the Church such as Simony, the selling of positions/jobs in the Church and sale of indulgences, which offered full remission of sins in exchange for monetary payments; Nepotism, the giving of positions in the Church to the family of clergymen. Absenteeism, the practice of Bishops never visiting their di- oceses; Pluralism, the practice of Bishops being in charge of many dioceses at the same time.
  •  The wealth of the Church and extravagance of clergy; the Catholic Church was badly organised as Popes and Bishops paid no attention to their duties as Church- men and instead lived like Princes, fighting and spending vast amounts of money. Priests were uneducated and often could not even read the Bible.
  • The influence of the ideas from renaissance literature.Martin Luther of Germany, an Augustinian unleashed the waves of protest against all of these abuses.

Fig 5.1.1 Martin Luther

Fig 5.1.2 A painting of Luther’s ninety Five Theses

Martin Luther’s arguments were these:

  • Justification by Faith alone.
  • There were only two Sacraments, Baptism and The Eucharist.
  • The bible is the only source of Christian Teaching, not the Bishops.
  •  Clergy should be allowed to mar- ry.
  • He rejected the Church’s belief in Transubstantiation.
  •  Kings should be the Heads of the church in their own Kingdoms.
  • Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 and this has been traditionally considered as the starting date for the commencement of Reformation. After this Luther’s ideas spread rapidly. His new religion became known as Lutheranism and eventually became the main religion in Northern Germany, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Luther himself married a nun named Catherine Von Bora and he died in 1546.
    5.1.3 Characteristics of the Protestant Reformation
    The following features or characteristics were ascribed to Reformation period.
  • The central message of Protestantism was: sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura. That meant “salvation was by grace alone through faith alone as communicated with perfect authority in the Scriptures” (Mark. A. Noll, 2012). This message has endured within most evangelical Christianity till this day and is central to the faith of many evangelicals. Protestants would obey the Bible before all other authorities. And what many Protestants would find in the Bible was a message of salvation by grace at least substantially similar to the one that Luther had discovered for himself in the pages of the Scriptures, Noll argues.
  •  The Priesthood of all believers. Believers do not need a media- tor to go between them and God but can approach directly. Every believer has direct access to God. The ideas argued by Luther on this subject eventually became the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Along with sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers was one of the top ideas of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Bible made available for people in their language. If all believers are priests, then they should have access to the word of God. Then only they can effectively do their priestly duties. As Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German, Protestants have translated the Bible into regional languages. This makes it possible for indigenous people to read in their own mother tongue the words of God.
  •  Mass education of believers. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg was priceless to the propagation of the reformation. It was also a helpful tool for Protestant leaders to train lay people and also start schools to train future leaders. This feature of Protestantism which follows logically from the priesthood of all believers continues to this day in many evangelical circles with great emphasis being made on using print and other modern technologies to teach believers to be able to fellowship with God directly.
  •  The restoration of the sacraments. The sacraments were restored to the people and Luther reduced them to only two (Baptism and Eucharist)
  •  Clerics could marry. Luther married the former nun Katherine von Bora. With that action, he set the example for the Protestant clerical family. Today, most protestant pastors and clerics marry. About 500 years later, Catholic clerics still don’t marry.
  • State churches. Early on, the protestant split from the Roman Catholic Church in different regions didn’t mean the many denominations could exist. That was a much later occurrence. Each region had a national church which often paid loyalty to a local mon- arch as was the case in England.
  •  Executions and Burning at the stake. Unfortunately, it was com- mon during the early days of the reformation for church authorities to label opponents as heretics and kill them. The burning of Jan Hus at the stake and the execution of many Anabaptists are examples. We are fortunate that we no longer live in such an atmosphere.
  • Predestination. Luther believed much more firmly in predestination than many later Protestants.
  • Sacraments. Luther believed that God genuinely regenerated infants in baptism and that Christ was truly present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Those are beliefs that very few Protestants outside the Lutheran churches share today.

5.1.4 Counter Reformation or Catholic Reformation
Due to reformation, Protestantism spread across Europe. The Catholic Church was also forced to reform. The efforts the Catholic Church made to reform itself and to check the spread of Protestantism are known as the Counter Reformation.
These efforts included (a) The Council of Trent 1545 – 1563, (b) The founding of new Religious Orders, such as the Jesuits and (c) The Court of the Inquisition.


  • The Council of Trent: Paul III responded by convening the important Council of Trent (1545– 63) which reacted to Protestant teachings on faith, grace, and the sacraments. It was also an attempt to reform training for the priest- hood. The council was highly important for its sweeping decrees on self-reform and for its dogmatic definitions that clarified virtually every doctrine contested by the Protestants. Despite internal strife and two lengthy interruptions, the council was a key part of the Counter-Reformation and played a vital role in revitalising the Roman Catholic Church in many parts of Europe. The Church and Papacy of Roman Catholicism of modern time is the self-purified version through the council.
  •  The founding of new Religious Orders: There were numerous religious orders that were started during the Counter Reformation. These were concentrated on helping the sick and needy in their locality. The Rome Oratory formed the Theatines. This group wanted to advertise to the local population in Rome how good priests should live and work by setting examples in pastoral care and spiritual learning. The Ursulines were founded in Brescia in 1535. It was an order for women. They worked among the poor and founded a school for poor children. They were to become a major teaching order. The So- mas chi were founded in 1530 in Venetia and they concentrated on helping orphans. The Barnabites were founded in c1530 in Milan and they concentrated on pasto- ral care. The Work of the Jesuits. They saw their job as “spreading the Christian Faith through pub- lic preaching, spiritual exercises, deeds of charity and the training of the young and the ignorant in Christianity”. They formed schools and colleges to teach the sons of the wealthy, believing that these men were the future people of influence in their countries.
  • The Court of the Inquisition: These were special Church Courts set up to deal with those people who had been accused of Heresy. People were tortured to confess and encouraged to spy on their neighbours. Anybody who came before the Court was presumed to be guilty and had to prove their innocence. Various punishments were used including flogging and burning at the stake known as Auto Da Fé. The Court was especially strong in Spain and Italy and as a result Protestantism was wiped out in both of those countries.
    5.1.5 Results of Reformation
  • Germany was divided – the North became Protestant while the South remained Catholic.
  • In 1546, after Luther’s death war broke out between the Catholics and Protestants. It lasted nine years and neither side won. The Peace of Augsburg, provided the decision that the King could decide the Religion of his own Kingdom.
  •  The bible was translated into most European languages for the first time and its use became widespread.
  •  As Protestantism spread across Europe, the Catholic Church was faced with a crisis. It had to re- form. The efforts the Catholic Church made to reform it and to stop the spread of Protestantism are known as the Counter – Reformation. These efforts included; the Council of Trent 1545 – 1563, the founding of new Religious Orders, such as the Jesuits and the Court of the Inquisition.

5.1.6 The English Reformation
When speaking of English Reformation based on the above viewpoints, we can find a marked difference. In English reformation, the creation of an independent national church was directly powered by the events of the life of King Henry VIII. When Henry VIII attempted to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1527 so as to marry Anne Boleyn, the Pope did not comply. It took Henry nearly ten years after he fell in love with Anne to get the break from the Roman church and marry Anne. Henry adopted a solution suggested by his advisor Thomas Cromwell that he take the title of ‘Supreme Head of the English Church’.







Fig 5.1.3 Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn
The Church of England was then founded by King Henry VIII. It eventually became the official religion of England. This branch of Protestantism of England started to be known as Anglicanism. The English church was called the Anglican Church to refer to Anglicanism. In 1549, the Book of Common Prayer, the official prayer book of the Church of England was published and authorised for use in the churches.
In 1533 the English Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which denied papal jurisdiction in England and ended appeals of court cases to Rome. It was followed by the Act of Supremacy (1534) which recognised the king as the Supreme Head of the Church in England with ‘full power and authority’ to ‘reform’ the institution and ‘amend’ all errors and heresies. Henry and his newly-appointed Vice Gerent in Spiritual Affairs, Thomas Cromwell, immediately embarked upon a programme of reform.

  • Cromwell’s Injunctions of 1536,and 1538 attacked idolatry, pilgrimages and other ‘superstitions’.
  •  The lesser monasteries were closed in 1536 and the remaining monasteries were dissolved over the next few years.
  •  People who resisted the closures were imprisoned or hanged.
  • Henry rejected Martin Luther’s theology of justification by faith alone; he did accept the German reformer’s insistence upon the supremacy of Scripture.
  • Consequently, encouraged by Cromwell and Archbishop Thom- as Cranmer of Canterbury, Henry authorised an English Bible that could be read by the laity as well as the clergy.
  • The original heresy laws were brought back and Mary I used these to persecute Protestants. In total 229 men and 51 women were burnt at the stake, most in the South East and East Anglia by the orders of Mary I. As a result of this Mary has been remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’.
  •  Parliament opposed some of Mary’s changes – MPs did not want Church taxes to go to Rome. Instead of making this part of the new church Mary had to collect the money and then send it on to the Pope herself.
  • Mary did not have any children and when she died, she named her sister Elizabeth as her heir.
  • Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558. She had been raised as a Protestant but she wanted the country’s religious problems to calm down.
  •  Elizabeth called a Parliament soon after becoming Queen. It only lasted a short time but it passed a religious settlement, one that is still the basis for the Church of England today.
  •  Elizabeth and Parliament re- formed the church to create a compromise. The Act of Su- premacy made Elizabeth the ‘Su- preme Governor’ rather than the ‘Supreme Head’ of the English church. The Pope, once again, had no say over the Church of England.
  • The Act of Uniformity re-in- troduced the Book of Common Prayer, based largely on Edward VI’s version.
  •  The Church of England was very unusual – it was not Catholic but was also unlike other Protestant churches across Europe. Services were in English, not Latin, and priests were allowed to marry. However, some more traditional aspects remained, such as church music.
  • The compromise was challenged many times. Catholics still felt that Elizabeth’s changes went too far, but some Protestants felt she did not go far enough. Elizabeth stood up to the Protestants and the Catholics in her Parliament and refused to allow England to be led in either direction.
  •  The second Parliament passed the Act for Assurance of the Queen’s Power, which meant that anyone working for the government had to swear to the Oath of Suprema- cy. But many Catholics would not want to do this. From 1563 Catholics could not sit in Parliament and from 1570 they risked losing their jobs in local government as well.
  • Many Protestants continued to push for further changes but Queen Elizabeth refused.
  • In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth. That meant that England remained cut off from the Catholic Church. It also meant that Catholics were sup- posed to oppose Elizabeth in any way they could.
  • The Elizabethan court and Par- liament became convinced that there were Catholic plots every- where. 1585 Elizabeth’s officials uncovered the Babington Plot and named Queen Mary of Scotland, a Catholic, as plotting to kill the Queen and take over. Mary was already under arrest in England.
  • The Sixth Parliament (1586 – 1587) was created to examine the plot and certain MPs pushed Elizabeth to have Mary executed for treason. After she was execut- ed the Spanish sent an Armada to invade England, it was famously defeated.
    5.1.7 Rebellions and Resistances
    Pilgrimage of Grace – It was against Henry VIII in 1536 and the largest and most significant rebellion against Tudor rule. In response to Henry VIII’s religious changes a rising in Lincolnshire spread throughout the North. It primarily aimed to stop the dissolution of the monasteries, although there were other religious, political and economic causes. After initially accepting the rebels’ demands, Henry later executed over 200 of them.Prayer Book Rebellion or ‘Western Rebellion’ – It was in 1549 at the time of Edward VI. It was popular in Devon and Cornwall against changes to the church and the new Prayer book. Over 4000 rebels were killed and the uprising was suppressed.Wyatt’s Rebellion –It was during the time of Mary I in 1554. Thomas Wyatt was the leading figure in this rebellion against Mary I in Kent. It was against Mary I’s proposed marriage to Philip of Spain, but historians believe there were also economic, political and religious motives. Over 20,000 men joined him in Kent, but after marching to London most rebels dispersed and Wyatt admitted defeat. He was executed for high treason.
    5.1.8 Time- line of English Reformation
    The Reformation in England was started with Henry VIII and continued till the close of the 16th century. The process began with a break up from the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome. The Anglican Church was established and the English monarch became its supreme head. Other consequences included the dissolution of the monasteries, the abolition of the Mass, the use of the English language in services and in the Bible used, the replacement of altars with communion tables, and a general doing away of the more decorative and showy elements of Catholicism both within services and the churches themselves. The majority of people went along with the change. But there were objections from both Catholics and more radical Protestants such as the several Puritan groups who would go their own way and establish their own churches which adhered more closely to the thoughts expounded by such reformers as John Calvin.
  • Henry VIII & the Break Up
    The origins of the English Reformation were personal and it involved the need for Henry to get papal approval for his divorce. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury formally annulled Henry’s first marriage in 1533 and Parliament passed the Act of Succession in 1534. The Act of Supremacy was followed in November 1534 through which Henry, and all subsequent English monarchs were declared as head of the English Church. The Treason Act got sanction of the Parliament through then first- minister, Thomas Cromwell in 1534. These regulations restrict people to speak out and criticise their king or his policies.
  •  Thomas Cromwell Begins the Reformation
    Cromwell assumed the role of vicar-general, that is, the king’s vicegerent in Church affairs. By1535, in order to carry out his reform of the church, he made full use of his powers and took the opportunity to interfere on a daily basis in Church affairs. Cromwell next issued The Injunctions of 1536, especially over the clergy. The English Reformation progressed apace following Cromwell’s Ten Articles of 1536. Taking inspiration from the writings of Martin Luther, rejected the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism and left but three (baptism, penance, and the Eucharist). It was enforced through new doctrine in The Bishop’s Book, published in July 1537.
    The bill, Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1536, allowed the closure and abolishment of Catholic monasteries. The official excuse was that monasteries were no longer relevant, they were full of corrupt and immoral monks and nuns, and they did not help the poor as much as their wealth indicated they should. Beginning with the smaller monasteries, Cromwell ensured the whole operation went smoothly by paying off senior monks, priors, and abbots with generous pensions. It was followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in 1536 which involved around 40,000 protestors. The rebellion was peacefully disbanded but 200 ringleaders were executed. The 1539 act of parliament resulted in the closure of all remaining monasteries regardless of size or income.
    Cromwell produced even stronger-reform measures in the following years. The 1538 injunctions recommended that relics of saints were removed from churches; pilgrimages should be avoided and insisted to keep records in every parish of all births, marriages, and deaths. There was clear division amongst the church hierarchy over reforms. Thomas Cranmer led the more radical faction while the Catholic conservatives were led by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester.
  •  Edward VI and His Reforms
    Edward VI ascended the throne following Henry VIII and introduced even more radical changes than seen previously. Cranmer issued the Book of Homilies (1547) and the Book of Common Prayer (1549) to ensure compulsory regulations under the Act of Uniformity. The prayer book which was updated with radical departure from Catholicism (1552) rejected the Catholic idea of transubstantiation (that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ).
    By this time Protestantism became prominent. Iconography, murals, and pictorial stained glass windows were all removed from churches, and instead of Latin, services were now conducted in English. Catholic altars were replaced by communion tables. The worship of saints was discouraged. Priests were now permitted to marry. Religious guilds were suppressed; endowments were abolished. There were protests and rebellions over these issues in Cornwall and then Norfolk in 1549.
  • Reformation’s Reversal during Mary I
    In 1553, following the death of Edward, his half-sister Mary I became the Queen of England. Being a strict Catholic, she set about reversing the Reformation. She reversed all the religious-aimed legislation of Edward VI though ‘The First Act of Repeal’ in October 1553. The Second Act of Repeal of 1555 abolished all post-1529 legislation concerning religious matters. Through these legislations, the Act of Supremacy was also annulled and so finally the Pope was back officially as head of the Church in England. She got the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ derived from the 287 Protestant martyrs. They were burned at the stake during her reign, including Thomas Cranmer in 1556. When Mary died 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth.
  • Further Reforms under Elizabeth I
    Being a Protestant, Elizabeth I set about restoring the Church of England into Protestantism. Hard-line Protestants and Catholics were both dissatisfied with Elizabeth’s pragmatic stance. So she went for a mid-way approach which appealed to the majority of her subjects. The Elizabethan Settlement was a collection of laws and decisions introduced between 1558 and 1603. The Act of Supremacy (April 1559) put the English monarch back again as the head of the Church. Now she assumed the title ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church rather than the ‘Supreme Head’.
    In 1559, the Act of Uniformity put regulations over churches and the services. Church attendance was made compulsory and failure to do so resulted in a small fine. Those who refused to attend Anglican services were known as recusants. She issued the Royal Injunctions which was a set of 57 regulations on Church matters. It contains instructions like a preacher’s licence, compulsory English language Bible, and a ban on pilgrimages. Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was reinstated. Finally, the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) attempted to definitively define English Protestantism (otherwise known as Anglicism). There was opposition to the Settlement from both radical Catholics and radical Protestants. But there was a degree of toleration in her religious policy. The Queen herself stated that she would “open windows into no man’s soul”. But she removed remaining pro-Catholic bishops through the Act of Exchange of 1559 and confiscated their estates.
    5.1.9 Impact of Reformation on Literature
    The Reformation was a great 16th century religious revolution in the Christian Church which influenced the political, economic, social and cultural life of England. It had notable literary effects too. Sidney, Spenser and Bacon were the great supporters of the Reformation. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare were the other major writers during the Reformation period.
    Chaucer was the first great poet to satirise the clergy in his Canterbury Tales. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus revealed the true Reformation spirit. Milton combined the spirit of Reformation and Renaissance in his Paradise Lost. Bacon expressed Reformation in his prose. Because of the literary contributions during the reformation, England was known as The Nest of Singing Birds.


  •  The Reformation in England was a religious-political movement that lasted over a century. It transformed the English society from Catholic faith into its own distinct church of faith.
  • The main cause of the English Reformation was King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, which the Pope would not allow.
  • The English Reformation split the Church in England from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope.
  • The Reformation resulted in the monarch becoming the head of the Protestant Church of England; monasteries were abolished and their wealth confiscated, and there were significant changes in church services, notably the use of the English language and not Latin.

Objective Type Questions

1. Which year did the Reformation start in Germany?
2. Who put forth the idea of ‘Justification by Faith alone’?
3. During whose reign did the English Reformation start?
4. When was Elizabeth I coronated as Queen?
5. When was the Act of Supremacy passed by the British parliament? 6. When did the Prayer Book Rebellion happen?
7. When did the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ occur?
8. Which year did the Wyatt’s Rebellion occur?
9. When was ‘The First Act of Repeal’ happened?
10. When did the Second Act of Repeal happen?


Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. 1517
2. Martin Luther 3. Henry VIII 4. 1558
5. 1534
6. 1549
7. 1536
8. 1554
9. 1553
10. 1555


1. Discuss on the ‘Reformation movement and its impact/effect on English reli- gious life.’
2. Narrate the contributions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to English Reformation.

Suggested Readings

1. Cannon, John and Anne Hargreaves. The Kings and Queens of Britain. OUP, 2009.
2. Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. Schocken, 1964.
3. Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580. Yale UP, 2005.
4. Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. Routledge, 2018.
5. Ferriby, David. The Tudors. Hodder Education, 2015.
6. Haigh, Christopher. The English Reformation Revised. CUP, 1993.
7. Miller, John. Early Modern Britain, 1450-1750. CUP, 2017.
8. Scarisbrick, J.J. The Reformation and the English People. Basil Blackwell, 1984.
9. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, Baker Academics, 2016.