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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 12 — Deaths of Protector Somerset and Edward VI

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Cranmer's Moderation—Its Advantages—His Great Difficulties— Proposed General Protestant Convention—The Scheme Fails— Disturbing Events in the Reign of Edward VI—Plot against Protector Somerset—His Execution—Rise of the Disputes about Vestments— Bishop Hooper—Joan of Kent—Her Opinions—Her Burning— Question of Changing the Succession—Cranmer Opposes it—He Yields—Edward VI Dies—Reflections on the Reformation under Edward VI—England Comes Late into the Field—Her Appearance Decides the Issue of the Movement.

We have followed step by step the work of Cranmer. It would be easy to criticize, and to say where a deeper and broader foundation might have been laid, and would have been, doubtless, by an intellect of the order of Calvin. Cranmer, even in the opinion of Burner, was cautious and moderate to a fault; but perhaps that moderation fitted him for his place. He had to work during many years along with one of the most imperious monarchs that ever occupied a throne. Had Henry, when he quarreled with the Pope, quarreled also with Popery, the primate's task would have been easy; but Henry felt it all the more incumbent upon him to show his loyalty to the faith of the Church, that he had rebelled against her head. There were times in Cranmer's life when he was the one Reformer at a Roman Catholic court and in a Popish council,: and had he retired from his position, the work must have stopped, so far as man can judge. After Henry went to the grave, and the young and reforming Edward succeeded him on the throne, the Popish faction was still powerful, and Cranmer had to pilot the movement through a host of enemies, through numberless intrigues, and through all the hindrances arising from the ignorance and godlessness which the old system had left behind it, and the storms of new and strange opinions which its overthrow had evoked. That he effected so much is truly wonderful, nor can England ever be sufficiently thankful for the work he accomplished for her; but Cranmer himself did not regard his work as finished, and had Edward VI lived, it is probable that many things in the worship of the Church, borrowed from the ancient superstition, would have been removed, and that some things in her government would have undergone a remodeling in accordance with what Cranmer and the men associated with him in the work of reformation believed to be the primitive institution. "As far as can be judged from Cranmer's proceedings," says Burnet, he intended to put the government of the Church in another method, different from the common way of Convocation." [1] Foreign divines, and Calvin in particular, to whose judgment Cranmer much deferred, were exhorting him to prosecute the Reformation of the Church of England "by purging it of the relics of Popery," [2] and not to delay in doing so, lest "after so many autumns spent in procrastinating, there should come at last the cold of a perpetual winter." The same great duty did Calvin press upon the Duke of Somerset, the Protector, whose steadfast zeal and undoubted patriotism he thankfully acknowledges, and even upon the king, Edward VI, to whose sincere piety he pays a noble tribute.

Nay, a project was at that hour in agitation among the great Protestant theologians of all countries, to hold a general conference for a free exchange of their views on all subjects and the adoption of one system of doctrine, and one form of government, or as near an approximation to this as might be desirable and possible, for all the Reformed Churches, in order to the more protect consolidation of the Reformation, and the more entire union of Christendom. The project had the full approval of Edward VI, who offered his capital as the place in which to hold this congress. Cranmer hailed the assembling of so many men of influence and power on an errand like this. Not less warmly had Melancthon entered into the idea, and corresponded with Cranmer in prosecution of it. It had the high sanction of Calvin, than whom there was no one in all Christendom who more earnestly longed to see the breaches ill the Reformed ranks closed, or who was less disposed to view with an approving eye, or lend a helping hand to schemes merely visionary. His letters to Cranmer on the subject still remain, in which he pleads that, though he might well be excused a personal attendance on the ground of his "insignificance," he was nevertheless willing to undergo any amount of "toil and trouble," if thereby he might further the object. [3]

This Protestant convention never assembled. The difficulties in the way of its meeting were then immense; nor was the prospect of arriving at the desired concord so certain as to encourage men to great efforts to overcome them. Moreover the Council of Trent, which had met a little before, hearing with alarm that the Reformers were about to combine under one discipline, took immediate steps to keep them disunited. They sent forth emissaries, who, feigning themselves zealous Protestants, began to preach the more violent doctrines of the Anabaptists. England was threatened with an outbreak of the same anti-social and fanatical spirit which had brought so many calamities on Germany and Switzerland; apples, of discord were scattered among the friends of the Gospel, and the projected conference never assembled. [4]

The reign of Edward VI, and with it the era of Reformation under Cranmer, was drawing to a close. The sky, which had been so clear at its beginning, began now to be darkened. The troubles that distracted the Church and the State at this time arose from various causes, of which the principal were the execution of the Duke of Somerset, the disputes respecting vestments, the burning of Joan of Kent, and the question of the succession to the crown. These occurrences, which influenced the course of future events, it is unnecessary to detail at much length.

The Duke of Somerset, pious,

upright, and able, had faithfully served the crown and the Reformation; but his inflexible loyalty to the cause of the Reformed religion, and the hopelessness of a restoration of the old faith while he stood by the side of the throne, stirred up his enemies to plot his overthrow. The conspirators were able to persuade the king that his uncle, the Protector, had abused his office, and was an enemy to the crown. He was stripped of his office, and removed from court. He returned after awhile, but the intrigue was renewed, and this time with a deadlier intent. The articles of indictment drawn up against him, and which Strype affirms were in Gardiner's hand, who, although then in the Tower, added the plot which the Papists were carrying on, charge the duke with such things as "the great spoil of the churches and chapels, defacing ancient tombs and monuments, and pulling down the bells in parish churches, and ordering only one bell in a steeple as sufficient to call the people together." [5]

Warwick, Duke of Northumberland, an ambitious and hypocritical man, resolved on his death. He accused Somerset of a design to raise a rebellion and assassinate himself and the other privy councilors. He was tried and condemned; the king, now entirely in the power of Warwick, signed his uncle's death-warrant with tears in his eyes; and he was executed (January, 1552) amidst the lamentations of the people, by whom he was greatly beloved, and who rushed on the scaffold to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. Cranmer remained his friend to the last, but could not save him. The next cloud that rose over the Reformed Church of England was the dispute respecting vestments. This contention first arose amongst a Protestant congregation of English exiles at Frankfort, some of whom objected to the use of the surplice by the minister, the Litany, the audible responses, and kneeling at the communion, and on these grounds they separated from their brethren. The strife was imported into England, and broke out there with great fierceness in the reign of Elizabeth, but it had its beginning in the period of which we write, and dates from the reign of Edward VI Hooper, who returned in July, 1550, from Germany and Switzerland, where he had contracted a love for the simple forms followed in these churches, was nominated Bishop of Gloucester. He refused to be consecrated in the vestments usually worn on these occasions. This led to a warm dispute between him and Cranmer, Ridley, Bucer, and Peter Martyr. The first issue was that Hooper was committed to the Fleet by the Council; and the second was that he complied, and was consecrated after the usual form. [6] In this way began that strife which divided the friends of Reformation in England in after-days, and which continued to rage even amid the fires of persecution.

The next occurrence was one in itself yet more sad. It is remarkable that England should have had its Servetus case as well as Geneva, although the former has not attained the notoriety of the latter. But if there be any difference between them, it is in this, that the earlier, which is the English one, is the less defensible of the two executions. Joan Bocher, or, as she is commonly styled, Joan of Kent, held, in the words of Latimer, "that our Savior was not very man, nor had received flesh of his mother Mary."

Persisting in her error, she was judicially excommunicated by Cranmer, the sentence being read by him in St. Mary's Chapel, within the Cathedral Church of St. Paul's, in April, 1549; the king's commissioners, of the number of whom was Hugh Latimer, assisting. She was then delivered to the secular arm, and sentenced to be burned. After her condemnation she was kept a week in the house of the chancellor, and every day visited by the archbishop and Bishop Ridley, who reasoned with her in the hope of saving her from the fire. Refusing to change her opinion, she was burned. [7]

The relations of Cranmer to Joan of Kent are precisely those of Calvin to Servetus, with this exception, that Cranmer had more influence with the king and the Privy Council than Calvin had with the magistrates and Town Council of Geneva, and that whereas Calvin earnestly interceded that the sword might be substituted for the stake in the case of Servetus, we know of no interference on the part of Cranmer to have the punishment of Joan of Kent mitigated. Nor did the error of this poor woman tend in the same degree to destroy the foundations of civil order, as did the opinions so zealously propagated by Servetus. The doctrine of toleration had not made greater progress at London than at Geneva. It was the error of that age that it held the judicial law of the Jews, according to which heresy was punishable with death, to be still binding upon States. We find the Pilgrim Fathers acting upon the same belief, and led by it into the same deplorable acts, a century after the time when Calvin had publicly taught that opinions ought not to be punished by the sword unless promulgated to the disturbance of civil society.

The last matter in which we find the archbishop concerned under Edward VI was the change of the succession to the throne from the Princess Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, to Lady Jane, daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. This scheme took its rise with the domineering Northumberland, who, having married one of his sons to Lady Jane, hoped thus to bring the crown into his own family. The argument, however, that the duke urged on the king, was that Mary, being a bigoted adherent of the Romish faith, would overthrow the Reformation in England should she succeed to the throne. The king, therefore, in his will set aside his sister, and nominated Lady

Jane Grey in her room. The archbishop strongly withstood the proposed alteration, but, persuaded by the king, who ceased not to entreat him, he put his name, the last of all the privy councilors, to the king's will. [8] This was not forgotten by Mary, as we shall see, when she came to reign. The zeal of Edward for the Reformation continued unabated: his piety was not only unfeigned, but deep; but many of the noblemen of his court led lives shamefully immoral and vicious, and there was, alas, no Calvin to smite the evil-doers with the lightnings of his wrath. With the death of Edward VI, in his sixteenth year (July 6, 1553), the night again closes around the Reformation in England.

It is a mighty work, truly, which we have seen accomplished in England. Great in itself, that work appears yet more marvelous when we consider in how short a time it was effected. It was begun and ended in six brief years. When Henry VIII descended into the tomb in 1547, England was little better than a field of ruins: the colossal fragments of that ancient fabric, which the terrible blows of the king had shivered in pieces, lay all about, and before these obstructions could be removed time-honored maxims exploded, inveterate prejudices rooted up, the dense ignorance of all classes dispelled and the building of the new edifice begs, a generation, it would have been said, must pass away. The fathers have been brought out of the house of bondage, it is the sons who will enter into the land of evangelical liberty. England emancipates her throne, reforms her Church, restores the Lord's Supper to its primitive simplicity and significance, and enters into the heritage of a Scriptural faith, and a Protestant liberty, in the course of a single generation. Such sudden and manifest interposition in the life of nations, is one of the ways by which the great Ruler attests his existence. He puts forth his hand—mighty intellects arise, there is a happy conjunction of favoring circumstances, courage and foresight are even, and nations with a leap reach the goal. So was it in the sixteenth century with the nations that embraced Protestantism; so was it especially with England. This country was among the last to enroll itself in the reforming army, but having started in the race, it rushes to the goal: it crowns itself with the new liberties.

There was an advantage in England coming late into the battle. Not infrequently does a general, when great issues are at stake, and the contest is prolonged and arduous, keep a body of troops in reserve, to appear on the field at the decisive moment, and strike the crowning blow. It was the appearance of England on the great battlefield of the sixteenth century that effectually turned the tide, and gave victory to the movement of the Reformation. The Huguenots had been beaten down; Flanders had sunk under Spain; strength had departed from the once powerful Germany; prisons and scaffolds had thinned the ranks and wasted the strength of the Reformed host in other countries. Spain, under Philip II, had summoned up all her energies to crush, in one mighty blow, Protestantism for ever, when lo! England, which had remained off the field and out of action, as it were, till then, came forward in the fresh youth, and full, unimpaired strength, which the Reform of Cranmer had given her, and under Elizabeth she arrested the advancing tide of an armed Papacy, and kept her soil inviolate to be the headquarters of Protestantism, and of all those moral, political, and literary forces which are born of it alone, and a new point of departure in ages to come, whence the Reformation might go forth to carry its triumphs round the globe.

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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