To what extent was England protestant by 1553?


1553 was the last year of the reign of the devoutly Protestant Edward VI. Though the Church of England had been separate to the Catholic Church in Rome since 1534, many of the practices in the early Church of England still very much resembled catholic practices. This essay attempts to discern to what extent England was protestant by 1553. Many Christian scholars simply define Protestantism as the belief that the word of God is found through study of the bible rather than the preachings of the pope. As the prevalence of this belief is nearly impossible to ascertain over a large population more than four and a half centuries ago, this is an insufficient definition for this essay. This essay will, therefore, define Protestantism by the absence of Catholic practices. The Protestant Reformation in England is a classic example of revolution from above where Protestantism was pushed onto the English public from court. By 1553, the legal and political framework for Protestantism was laid and was in practice by the court, but protestant teachings had not yet been totally adopted by the population at large and England therefore cannot be described as a protestant country by 1553.

By 1553, despite opposition from Mary I, the English religiopolitical framework experienced a massive shift from the “watered down Catholicism” reformism of Henrician Protestantism to something far more radical under Edward VI. In his youth, Henry VIII had been a devout Catholic. In 1521, Henry went so far as to write a book condemning the protestant reformer Martin Luther, The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments.[1] Though the break from Rome and the establishment of the Anglicana Ecclesia (Church of England) had been declared with the Act of Royal Supremacy in 1534,[2] many of the practices within the Church remained Catholic in appearance for a number of years. Some Catholic practices were abolished by the Act of Six Articles in 1539, but Henrician Protestantism retained many aspects of catholicism at this time.[3] Therefore, England cannot be said to be a Catholic country in the reign of Henry VIII. Many historians, such as G.R. Elton, believe that Thomas Cromwell (Lord Chamberlain) and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury) were the true drivers of the Henrician Reformation.[4] It is certainly true that after the fall of Cromwell in 1540, reforms slowed within the Church of England. This can also be attributed to public opinion, however. With the outrage that accompanied the Act of Six Articles in 1539, a commission was ordered with the purpose of ensuring, in Cromwell’s own words, “concord of religion”.[5] Unfortunately for Cromwell, the commission was filled with religious conservatives. By July 1540, Cromwell had been executed.[6] This demonstrates that even the political elite of England could not be considered uniformly protestant, as the champion of protestant reform under Henry VIII was condemned and executed by religiously conservative members of government. That Cromwell and Cranmer had been driving the Protestant Reformation became all the clearer, as reforms slowed considerably after Henry’s death.

Edward VI was only nine years old when he took the throne in 1547, and therefore highly susceptible to the influence of people such as Thomas Cranmer. Whereas Henry’s court sought mainly to reform Catholicism, Edward VI’s Court was determined to make England a protestant nation. On 31 July 1547 Edward imposed a set of royal injunctions, which attempted to root out all Catholic practices in England.[7] This was to involve the end of using holy water and the removal of images from churches throughout England.[8] This demonstrates the push from court to implement Protestantism throughout the country, thereby creating a protestant framework. It was an extremely controversial move, however. Edward Bonner, the Bishop of London, slipped a pamphlet into the front of Henry VIII’s Great Bible in 1540 which praised the Henrician reforms,[9] but was imprisoned for protesting Edwardine reforms by the royal injunction of 1547.[10] The differences between the “watered-down Catholicism” of the Henrician Reforms and the more radical Edwardine reforms are best described by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars. Duffy notes that while the royal injunctions of 1547 radicalise Henrician policies. For example, whereas Henry forbade the rosary to be said in a thoughtless, unreflective manner, the practice was outlawed by Edward entirely.[11] Edward’s reign pushed Protestantism greatly in England. Although it was not immediately adopted by the population at large, it went great lengths to implement a legal and political framework for Protestantism in England.

The opposition of Mary I to Edwardine reforms demonstrates that Protestantism did not have an especially strong grasp in England. Even prior to the death of her mother (Catherine of Aragon), Mary had been seen as a champion of those who opposed Henry’s reforms.[12] Mary believed that Edward was too young to fully understand the complex religious matters of England and resented that the boy-king was dictating the religion of the country.[13] Edward died in 1553 and by July Mary was on the throne. By October, Mary had repealed many of the religious statutes put in place by Edward.[14] Mary made it her goal to undo the protestant England that Edward’s court had worked so hard to produce and soon many catholic practices were reinstated.[15] The fact that protestant laws could be repealed so easily demonstrates that Protestantism was not held dear to the majority of people in England by 1553.

The framework for Protestantism established by Henry and Edward becomes apparent in the way the it manifests itself in people’s lives. The youth population may have been more attracted to Protestantism than their elders. As Thomas More wrote, “There is nothing in the world older than the proclivity of one generation to reject the beliefs and more so of the last and for the elder generation to despair of rebellious youth.”[16] Protestant ideas were often debated at Cambridge, where there were many young people attending the university, where it was not uncommon for young men (and at this time it was all men) to be converted.[17] Additionally, though Protestantism was a contentious issue, many people may not have been much exposed to Catholicism at a young age. There is some doubt as to whether children even attended church before communion, thus weakening their attachment to Catholic values.[18] This shows how in a divided England, many young people may have been more open to protestant ideas. Many other people were not taken with the reforms, however. In 1536, Cromwell declared that, as a measure to boost the economy,  all holy days (with one or two exceptions) between the beginning of July and the end of September were to be abolished.[19] Despite uprisings, England by and large conformed to the religious reforms in the country between 1547 and 1553.[20] Some historians believe this is because many of the people of England believed, as Henry did, that the Catholic Church was a corrupt and dysfunctional body, which many people felt no great love for.[21] In this sense, England was a protestant country because many people abandoned the practices of Catholicism and appeared happy to do so. This said, Protestantism was the law, and parishes which were not fast enough to adhere to these changes in the religious law were sometimes excommunicated.[22] Adherence to laws does not necessarily imply belief in their cause. An area that historians have often turned to for clues in the beliefs of the people is wills. Peter Clark has designated the wills of the Tudor period into three separate groups, traditionalist (Catholic) wills, reformist (Henrician) wills, and protestant (Edwardine) wills. A traditionalist will commenda the soul to god, the saints and to heaven, a reformist will omits the mention of saints and a protestant will emphasises that salvation is to be found through Christ.[23] Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars however argues that wills cannot be considered too highly in the debate around the belief of the people, as the wording of wills can be influenced by complex legal requirements, niches of religious belief and personal circumstances.[24] This being said, the bulk of the wills suggest that despite minor changes, the sentiments of the majority writing wills were ultimately still leaning towards Catholic tendencies by 1553.[25] This is further evidence that despite the framework being in place for Protestantism, the beliefs of the majority still lay in a Catholic direction.

There were two major uprisings from the reign of Henry VIII to the death of Edward VI which appear to be anti-protestant. Both can be said to have ulterior motives to just Protestantism. Indeed, some historians such as A.G. Dickens believe that the revolts were in no way religiously motivated.[26] The first of the two major uprisings was the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace. The latter was preceded by the smaller Lincolnshire Uprising. In the Lincolnshire Uprising and The Pilrimage of Grace, the gentry and the common folk were concerned with the economic impact of Henry’s religious reforms. In Tudor Rebellions, Fletcher and MacCulloch write, “[There were rumours that] the jewels and plate were to be confiscated from the parish Churches…taxes to be levied on all horned cattle, and on Christenings, marriages and burials…people would not be allowed to eat white bread, goose or capon without paying a tribute to the king.”[27] Though people appear to be opposed to Henrician reforms for economic reasons rather than a love of Catholicism, many people profited from Henrician Reforms. In the 1560s, when a yeoman from Yorkshire was asked by his son why he was happy to see the monasteries ruined, he answered, “might I not as well as others profit from the Spoil of the Abbey?”[28] While the Pilgrims of Grace can naturally not be said to be embracing Protestantism, it can be argued that many people were not defenders of Catholicism so much as they were defenders of their own wealth, thus indicating that the Papacy had a tenuous grasp on the spiritual well being of England. Religious causes for the Lincolnshire Uprising and Pilgrimage of Grace are further undermined by the Lincoln Articles. This document is a list of five complaints made to King Henry VIII about his Protestant Reforms. Of these five complaints, only the first article complains of religious encroachment, whereas three are regarding taxation.[29] This shows that the rebels in the Lincolnshire Uprising were less bothered by encroaching Protestantism as they were with protecting their financial assets.

The second major Tudor Uprising between the reign of Henry VIII and the end of Edward VI’s reign in 1553 was the Western Rebellion. The rebellion occurred largely in Cornwall shortly after Edward began enacting his more radical protestant reforms. Beginning with hostility towards government officials and minor uprisings in 1547,[30] the rebellion really took off in 1549 when it was announced that as of Whitsunday new liturgy in the Prayer Book were to be observed without exception.[31] Despite Fletcher and MacCulloch’s further attempts to push economics as a cause of the Western Rebellion, it is almost indisputable that the Western Rebellion contained a degree of objection to Edwardine religious reforms. The demands of the Western Rebels make little mention of taxes or finance but have many mentions of religion.[32] Interestingly, they demanded the reinstatement of the Six Acts which had been so contentious after their establishment by Henry VIII.[33] This being said a contemporary source, A Copy of a Letter suggests that the rebels had no cause to repine the law but were instead there to fill their coffers.[34] This shows that the rebels cannot be considered protestants, for they were in effect protesting Protestantism. Though the Pilgrims of Grace and Western Rebels had objections to rumours of taxation and wished to protect their financial assets, the religious objections of the Western Rebels (and the more minor religious objections of the Pilgrims) show that by 1553 the people of England were not ready to fully adopt Protestantism and therefore England cannot be considered fully protestant.

The English Protestant Reformation was organised by the Crown, dictated to the people. As is natural, some were ready to adopt Protestantism but this was not true for the majority. Though it is nearly impossible to determine the extent to which the average person actually believed in protestant values in 1553, Protestantism was certainly affecting the lives of everyone in England, from minor altered religious practices to its staunch opposition. Many of the objections to the reforms by the people of England were on social and economic grounds rather than religious, so it cannot be assertively stated that England was a catholic nation either at this time.






Brigden, S. (1982) Youth in the English Reformation. Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society. 95. (May). p. 37 ­ 67


  1. The Byble in Englyshe…. Cranmer, T. (trans.). In Herbert, A.S. (eds.) Historical Catalogue of the English Bible 1525-1961. London: The British and Foreign Bible Society.


Duffy, E. (2005) The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Duffy, E. (2003) The Voices of Morebath. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Elton, G.R. (1959) England under the Tudors. London and Southampton: The Camelot Press ltd.


Fletcher, A. and MacCulloch, D. (2008) Tudor Rebellions. London: Pearson Education.


Loades, D. (1994) Essays in the Reign of Edward VI. Dorchester: The Dorset Press.


Rex, R. (2012) The Tudors. Stroud: Amberley.


Hoyle. R.W. (2001) The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.


  1. 26 Henry VIII, c.I, (1534) The Acts of Supremacy (1534, 1559). In Englander, D. & Norman, D. & O’day, R. & Owens, W.R. (eds.) Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-­1600. Oxford: Basil Blackwell & The Open University


  1. The Lincoln Articles. In Fletcher, A. and MacCulloch, D. (2008) Tudor Rebellions. London: Pearson Education.


  1. St. 31 Hen. VIII, c. 14, (Stat. Realm, III, 739) (1539) An act abolishing diversity in opinions. In Douglas, D.C. (ed.) English Historical Documents V 1485­1558. Edinburgh: Eyre and Spottiswoode.


  1. A Copy of a Letter. In Fletcher, A. and MacCulloch, D. (2008) Tudor Rebellions. London: Pearson Education.


  1. The Demands of the Western Rebels. In Fletcher, A. and MacCulloch, D. (2008) Tudor Rebellions. London: Pearson Education.


  1. St. I Mary, St. 2, c. 2, 1553 In Englander, D. & Norman, D. & O’day, R. & Owens, W.R. (eds.) Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-­1600. Oxford: Basil Blackwell & The Open University



[1] Rex. The Tudors. p. 46

[2] 1534. 26 Henry VIII, c.I

[3] 1539. St. 31 Hen. VIII, c. 14

[4] Elton. England under the Tudors. p.157.

[5] Duffy. The Stripping of the Altars. p. 423

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 449-456

[8] Rex. p. 100

[9] 1540. The Byble in Englyshe…. Cranmer, T. Modernised, the text reads: Whosoever reads this book … prepares himself chiefly and principally with all devotion, humility and quietness, to be edified and made the better thereby.

[10] Rex. Ibid.

[11] Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. p. 450

[12] Loades. Essays in the Reign of Edward VI. p. 87

[13] Ibid. p. 92

[14] St. I Mary, St. 2, c. 2, 1553

[15] Rex. p. 121

[16] Bridgen. Youth in the English Reformation. p. 33

[17] Ibid. p. 41

[18] Ibid. p. 52-53

[19] Duffy. The Voices of Morebath. p. 91

[20] Duffy. The Stripping of the Altars. p. 478-9

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. p. 481

[23] Ibid. p. 509

[24] Ibid. p. 513

[25] Ibid. p. 523

[26] Hoyle. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s. p. 13

[27] Ibid. p. 28

[28] Duffy. The Voices of Morebath. p. 91

[29] 1536. The Lincoln Articles The fifth article concerns bishops, but appears to be complaints about a few specific bishops, as opposed to widespread institutional objection.

[30] Fletcher and MacCulloch. p. 54

[31] Ibid. p. 55-56

[32] 1549. The Demands of the Western Rebels.

[33] Ibid.

[34] 1549. A Copy of a Letter.


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