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It is not uncommonly asserted that the religious changes in England, although for convenience sake, dated from the rejection of Papal supremacy, were in reality the outcome of long-continued and ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the then existing ecclesiastical system. The Pope's refusal to grant Henry his wished-for divorce from Katherine, we are told, was a mere incident, which at most, precipitated by a short while what had long been inevitable.1 Those who take this view are bound to believe that the Church in England in the early sixteenth century was honeycombed by disbelief in the traditional teachings, and that men were only too ready to welcome emancipation. What then is the evidence for this picture of the religious state of men's minds in England on the eve of the Reformation?
It is, indeed, not improbable that up and down the
1 For example, the Rev. W. H. Hutton states in the Guardian, January 25, 1899, as the result of his mature studies upon the Reformation period, that "the so-called divorce que-tion had very little indeed to do with the Reformation." Mr. James Gairdner, who speaks with all the authority of a full and complete knowledge of the State papers of this period, in a letter to a subsequent number of the Guardian, says, "When a gentleman of Mr. Button's attainments is able seriously to tell us this, I think it is really time to ask people to put two and two together, and say whether the sum can be anything but four. It may be disagreeable to trace the Reformation to such a very ignoble origin, but facts, as the Scottish poet says, are fellows you can't coerce . . . and won't bear to be disputed." What "we call the Reformation in England . . . was the result of country there were, at this period, some dissatisfied spirits; some who would eagerly seize any opportunity to free themselves from the restraints which no longer appealed to their consciences, and from teachings they had come to consider as mere ecclesiastical formalism. A Venetian traveller of intelligence and observation, who visited the country at the beginning of the century, whilst struck with the Catholic practices and with the general manifestations of English piety he witnessed, understood that there were "many who have various opinions concerning religion."1 But so far as there is evidence at all, it points to the fact, that of religious unrest, in any real sense, there could have been very little in the country generally. It is, of course, impossible to suppose that any measurable proportion of the people could have openly rejected the teaching of the Church or have been even crypto-Lollards, without there being satisfactory evidence of the fact forthcoming at the present day.
The similarity of the doctrines held by the English Reformers of the sixteenth century with many of those taught by the followers of Wycliffe has, indeed, led some writers to assume a direct connection between them which certainly did not exist in fact. So far as England at least is concerned, there is no justification for assuming for the
Henry VIII.'s quarrel with the Court of Rome oa the subject of his divorce, and the same results could not possibly have come about in any other way." When "Henry VIII. found himself disappointed in the expectation, which he had ardently cherished for a while, that he could manage, by hook or by cro >k, to obtain from the See of Rome something like an ecclesiastical licence for bigamy," he took matters into his own hands, "and self-willed as he was, never did self-will lead him into such a tremendous and dangerous undertaking as in throwing off the Pope. How much this was resented among the people, what secret communications there were between leading noblemen with the imperial ambassador, strongly urging the emperor to invade England, and deliver the people from a tyranny from which they were unable to free themselves, we know in these days as we did not know before." 1 Camden Society, p. 163.
Reformation a line of descent from any form of English Lollardism. It is impossible to study the century which preceded the overthrow of the old religious system in England without coming to the conclusion that as a body the Lollards had been long extinct, and that as individuals, scattered over the length and breadth of the land, without any practical principle of cohesion, the few who clung to the tenets of Wycliffe were powerless to effect any change of opinion in the overwhelming mass of the population at large. Lollardry, to the Englishman of the day, was "heresy," and any attempt to teach it was firmly repressed by the ecclesiastical authority, supported by the strong arm of the State; but it was also an offence against the common feeling of the people, and there can be no manner of doubt that its repression was popular. The genius of Milton enabled him to see the fact that "Wycliffe's preaching was soon damped and stifled by the Pope and prelates for six or seven kings' reigns," and Mr. James Gairdner, whose studies in this period of our national history enable him to speak with authority, comes to the same conclusion. "Notwithstanding the darkness that surrounds all subjects connected with the history of the fifteenth century," he writes, "we may venture pretty safely to affirm that Lollardry was not the beginning of modern Protestantism. Plausible as it seems to regard Wycliffe as 'the morning star of the Reformation,' the figure conveys an impression which is altogether erroneous. Wycliffe's real influence did not long survive his own day, and so far from Lollardry having taken any deep root among the English people, the traces of it had wholly disappeared long before the great revolution of which it is thought to be the forerunner. At all events, in the rich historical material for the beginning of Henry VIII.'s reign, supplied by the correspondence of the time, we look in vain for a single indication that any such thing as a Lollard sect existed. The movement had died a natural death; from the time of Oldcastle it sank into insignificance. Though still for a while considerable in point of numbers, it no longer counted among its adherents any men of note; and when another generation had passed away the serious action of civil war left no place for the crotchets of fanaticism."1
On the only evidence available, the student of the reign of Henry VII. and of that of Henry VIII. up to the breach with Rome, is bound to come to the same conclusion as to the state of the English Church. If we except manifestations of impatience with the Pope and Curia, which could be paralleled in any age and country, and which were rather on the secular side than on the religious, there is nothing that would make us think that England was not fully loyal in mind and heart to the established ecclesiastical system. In fact, as Mr. Brewer says, everything proves that "the general body of the people had not as yet learned to question the established doctrines of the Church. For the most part, they paid their Peter's pence and heard mass, and did as their fathers had done before them.""
It may be taken, therefore, for granted, that the seeds of religious discord were not the product of the country itself,
1 The same high authority, in a letter to the Guardian, March I, 1899, says, "People will tell you, of course, that the seeds of the Reformation were sown before Henry VIII.'s days, and particularly that it was Wycliffe who brought the great movement on. I should be sorry to depreciate WyclifFe, who did undoubtedly bring about a great movement in his day, though a careful estimate of that movement is still a desideratum. Even in theology the cardinal doctrine of the Reformation—justification by faith—is in Wycliffe, I should say, conspicuous by its absence. But, whatever may be the theological debt of England to Wycliffe at the present day, twenty Wycliffes, all highly popular, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries would not have brought about a Reformation like that under which we have lived during the last centuries. That was a thing which could only have been effected by royal power—as in England, or by a subversion of royal authority through the medium of successful rebellion—as in Scotland."
2 Henry VIII. i., p. 51.
nor, so far as we have evidence on the subject at all, does it appear that the soil of the country was in any way especially adapted for its fructification. The work, both of raising the seed and of scattering it over the soil of England, must be attributed, if the plain facts of history are to be believed, to Germans and the handful of English followers of the German Reformers. If we would rightly understand the religious situation in England at the commencement of the Reformation, it is of importance to inquire into the methods of attack adopted in the Lutheran invasion, and to note the chief doctrinal points which were first assailed.
Very shortly after the religious revolt had established itself in Germany, the first indications of a serious attempt to undermine the traditional faith of the English Church became manifest in England. Roger Edgworth, a preacher during the reigns of Henry and Queen Mary, says that his "long labours have been cast in most troublesome times and most encumbered with errors and heresies, change of minds and schisms that ever was in the realm. . . . Whilst I was a young student in divinity," he continues, " Luther's heresies rose and were scattered here in this realm, which, in less space than a man would think, had so sore affected the Christian folk, first the youth and then the elders, where the children could set their fathers to school, that the king's Majesty and all Christian clerks in the realm had much ado to extinguish them. This they could not so perfectly quench, but that ever since, when they might have any maintenance by man or woman of great power, they burst forth afresh, even like fire hid under chaff."1
Sir Thomas More, when Chancellor in 1532, attributed the rapid spread of what to him and most people of his day in England was heresy, to the flood of literature which was poured forth over the country by the help of printing.
1 Roger Edgworth, Sermons (London: Robert Calv, 1557), preface.