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English Reformation

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To what extent was Protestant Culture only available to the literate and wealthy before the Civil War?


The Protestant Reformation in England was very much tied up with politics. It was for political reasons that Henry the Eighth felt the need to break with the Church of Rome, and it was largely because of politics that Queen Elizabeth was compelled to reaffirm the Protestant stance of England whether she really desired to or not. Protestantism however was not unwelcome. It gave the monarch independence from Rome, and a greater control over ecclesiastical affairs in the kingdom. Protestantism was also advantageous to those at the top of the social pyramid. With the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid fifteen twenties, church land fell to the Crown, and Henry shrewdly sold much of it to the nobility and gentry, which not only increased their economic and political power, but also ensured that they had a vested interest in the survival of the new religion. Protestantism also appealed religiously to the elite. It was a religion which appealed to the intellect, and allowed the educated to put their intellectual skills into action. It also distanced them from the more irrational, pagan world of the lower classes. Rather than having to partake in rituals and ceremonies, Protestant Culture maintained that all that was required for salvation was to read and learn the Scriptures, and apply their teachings to everyday life. All else, such as the performance of good works, praying to the Saints, and Confession, were a distraction from true faith in God. But what about the common people ? What would they gain from this new religion? They certainly would not stand to gain economically or politically, and to what extent could they participate in a religious Culture which demanded not only literacy, but study and application? In many ways, the lower classes had little choice but to embrace Protestantism. With the exception of Mary's short reign, from the moment Henry the Eighth broke with the Church of Rome, Protestantism was the official state religion of England. Initially it was a very loose Protestantism as Henry's main objective was to establish his authority as Head of the Church in England, but with the accession of the boy King Edward the Sixth in 1547, the Church, under the influence of the Protector Somerset, and then Northumberland, was pushed in a far more radical Protestant direction. Those who held, or attended private masses, were to be punished by imprisonment. Under Elizabeth a similar line was taken, and although the emphasis was on outward conformity rather than inward conviction, there were strict recusancy laws imposed by the act of Uniformity of 1559, which fined recusants twelve shillings. With the increased threat from Catholics as Elizabeth's reign wore on, this fine was raised to a phenomenal amount of twenty pounds a month. Such a vast sum of money was beyond the means of the average family, who would not even earn half as much money in a year, and unless they were prepared to risk imprisonment, would have to attend their parish church. From the very beginning the Reformation touched the lives of the ordinary people, and they could not escape it. The visual and oral world in which contemporaries lived, became visually and aurally different. Monastic life disappeared, as did ornaments and statues in churches. Paintings were taken down and covered, and the altar was moved. There were also differences in the way services were conducted, as well as the message being preached, and certain religious celebrations were erased from the calendar and replaced with secular celebrations. All this, in a relatively short period of time, must have created an impact on contemporaries, and anyone who had the remotest contact with the outside world would have realized that something of great significance was occurring. Contemporaries were now told that all the rituals and customs they had faithfully observed were wrong, and rather than leading to salvation, would more likely lead to damnation.

There was a considerable attempt by the Government to ensure that Protestantism was not only conformed to, but that the doctrine was understood. In many respects, far more was done to ensure that the people were educated in Protestant beliefs than had ever been done for Catholicism. In Catholicism the people were largely spectators. Catholicism emphasised the superiority of the priest, he alone could intermediate between man and God, and often it was he alone who took the Eucharist. The laity were not encouraged to read the Bible, and considering it was in Latin, the uneducated would have found it impossible anyway. Therefore the people were totally dependent on the priest for their understanding of the scriptures and all matters relating to salvation. Protestantism, however, demanded more than passive observance, and attempts were made to ensure that the people understood what was expected of them. Church services were given in English, and the Bible was put on display in most churches where it could be relatively easily accessed. Also the clergy were forever busy writing and preparing works which tried to make Protestantism an active part of everyday lives. At least in theory Protestant Culture was available to everyone.

One way the reformers tried to help the masses understand the rudiments of Protestant faith was through the catechism. This technique had been used by Catholics but it became of paramount importance to the Protestant clergy. During Elizabeth's reign it became a formal duty of the clergy to ensure that the people of their parish were fully catechised, and clergy who were failing to serve their people in this respect, could find themselves in trouble. It seems that on the whole the clergy took the matter of catechising seriously. They were constantly trying to find ways of improving the effectiveness of teaching techniques and the contents of the catechisms, as well as creating easier ones. There is some indication that their works were widely used. John More's book of catechisms which was first published in 1572, had by 1634, ran into forty editions. Even if it so happened that the entire congregation was illiterate, the catechism was something they could still fully participate in, and from them, learn the rudiments of faith.

The culture of the masses was overwhelmingly oral, and it is likely that stories from the Bible were not as alien to the public as some contemporary sources suggest.In the early seventeenth century Nicholas Bownde stated;

"...they are utterlie ignorant in and never so much as have heard before of many textes that are alleged in the sermons." (2)

And Thomas Hooker declared;

"...it is incredible and inconceivable what ignorance is among them" (3)

However, such accounts need to be treated cautiously. Such evidence can be, and has been, used to suggest that Protestantism was not accessible to the masses, but if the ignorance was as bad as such individuals believed, then this raises the whole question of whether Christianity itself was accessible to the masses, let alone Protestantism. Despite important doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, the rudiments of both faiths are the same: a belief in the holy trinity; the eternity of the soul; the Virgin Mary; the Crucifixion; the Resurrection, and the need for prayer and repentance. If the people were ignorant of these basic beliefs, then it was not Protestantism they were ignorant of but Christianity in general. As Graves and Silcock suggest, it is likely that the ignorance of the lower classes was exaggerated by over zealous Puritans. It is reasonable to assume that even if the lower classes did not know the detailed ins and outs of theological issues such as predestination, redemption and salvation, they must have had a general knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ. They must at least have been aware that Christmas was the celebration of his birth and Easter his death, and nights around the fire must have told about the miracles and things that he did. Agnes Priest, living in the mid-sixteenth century, was illiterate, yet she had a great knowledge of the scriptures which she had learnt through catechisms, sermons and stories. I. Green states;

"One can also deduce from other sources that a large number of the laity were very familiar with parts of the Bible, especially the canticles and psalms, and probably with the most regularly repeated passages of the Book of Common Prayer and the homilies." (4)

And Margaret Spufford argues that the plebians were not only well steeped in knowledge of the scriptures, but that they, just like the educated and the wealthy, thought seriously on theological issues, often coming to their own conclusions. She states;

"...even the humblest members, the very poor, and the women, and those living in physical isolation thought deeply on religious matters and were profoundly influenced by them." (5)

Although officially Protestantism did not embrace activities such as drama, dance and ballad-singing, especially in the early years of the seventeenth century, these were useful means of disseminating Protestant beliefs and making them accessible to the illiterate and the poor. Arguably it was only the more extreme Protestants who objected to such practices, for such activities were by no means exclusive to the lower classes. The Court of Elizabeth, for example, is renown for it splendour and liveliness, and Elizabeth herself enjoyed music and drama, whether religious or secular. It was perhaps unfortunate that the avid Protestant reformers did not appreciate the value of ballads in educating the people, and increasingly tried to suppress them. Ballads were not only an entertaining way of passing the time, but they could have a significant moral message. They were also relatively cheap to buy, being under a penny in the sixteenth century, and were often accompanied with a picture which could tell an important story in itself. Indeed, MacCulloch argues that in spite of English iconophobia, pictures were employed and proved to be a powerful means of transmitting Protestant doctrine. He states;

"The English reformation was not as skilled at using pictures to convey its message as Martin Luther had been, but there were considerable efforts to produce devotional prints purged of popery which could be stuck on the walls of taverns or humble homes; in particular, the pictures of Foxe's "Acts and Monuments" provided a lasting success for English Protestantism." (6)

Admittedly these pictures were not always effective, and pictures accompanying ballads often bore little relation to the actual moral of the ballad, but some pictures could be informative, such as the picture accompanying the early seventeenth century ballad, "A New-yeeres- gift for the Pope". This ballad emphasises the importance of the Bible over "Bells, Beads and Crosses" (7)and the heading reads;

"Not all the Popes Trinkets, which heere are brought forth,
Can ballance the Bible for weight, and true worth:
Your Bells, Beads and Crosses, you see will not doo't
Or pull down your scale, with the divell to boot." (8)

It is aptly illustrated by a heavenly scale, which is weighted to the ground on one side with the Bible, and although the other scale is full to the top with trinkets, relics, and even a priest, it cannot out weigh the Bible. The anti-Christ association of Catholicism is also implied by placing the devil among them. Indeed, in the latter half of the sixteenth century a predominant feature of English Protestantism was a vehement anti-Catholicism. This was certainly an area that the masses could, and did, participate in. This sentiment began in Mary's reign with her burning of Protestants at the stake and marriage to the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, but in Elizabeth's reign, with the Spanish threat of invasion, and the attempts of a minority of radical Catholics to assassinate the Queen, anti-Catholicism reached fever pitch. Catholicism became not only a concern to the ruling classes who feared that a Catholic monarch would confiscate their lands, but it also became embedded in popular culture. At this social level, Catholics were portrayed as a group to be most feared and distrusted as agents of Lucifer. Even if the average person was not aware of the real doctrinal differences between the two branches of Christianity, such pronounced anti-Catholic propaganda was sure to disseminate the view that the use of crucifixes, trinkets and all other inanimate objects were wrong, and that to use them was almost satanic. This was perhaps partly educating the people in the Protestant belief that such things are not needed for salvation, but even if this was not the case, it would certainly push people in a more Protestant direction, making them disassociate themselves from Catholicism.




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