The Reformation In England During The Reign Of Edward VI.

The Reformation In England During The Reign Of Edward VI.


Edward VI. was only nine years old at his accession, and his death occurred before he had reached his majority as specified in the testament of the late King. The regency, left in the hands of sixteen men, soon centered in the Duke of Somerset, who was appointed Protector of the realm. His discretion did not prove adequate to the difficult position. Means of overthrow were found, and in the closing years of Edward VI. he was superseded by the Duke of Northumberland.


The brief reign which bears the name of Edward VI. marks a decisive era in the history of the English Church. The untenable scheme of Henry VIII., which could satisfy neither Papist nor Protestant, was at once modified; and before the six years of Edward's rule were concluded, England had exchanged an Anglo-Catholic system for one which, without abuse of terms, may be called Protestant. Laws, articles, and, to a large extent, formularies of worship were made to assume a Protestant cast. The statute under which heretics had been burned since the rise of the Lollards was abolished.

1 The abolition of the statute ought in all consistency to have put a stop to the barbarous practice which it sanctioned. But we have the fact that under this Protestant administration Joan Bocher was burned in 1549 for denying the proper humanity of Christ, and George van Paris met the same fate in 1551 on account of Arian views. In the absence of the statute, appeal was made to the common law in these executions. It was a most impolitic and discreditable severity; and the chief agents, especially Cranmer, soon reaped a bitter recompense. Says Burnet: "In all the books published in Queen Mary's days, justifying her severity against the Protestants, these instances were always made use of; and no part of Cranmer's life exposed him more than this did" (Reformation, ii. 177-179).
The images were ordered to be removed from the churches. Communion in both kinds was enjoined. Marriage was made lawful for the clergy. Readiness and desire for fellowship with the Protestant brotherhood on the Continent were expressed in invitations to distinguished foreign divines to favor England with their presence. Such representatives of the Reformed Church as Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer received much honor, the one being installed at Oxford and the other at Cambridge, in 1549.


Under the new conditions the need of a new service-book naturally received early and emphatic recognition. In the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII. some progress had been made toward revising the old forms of worship. This work was now carried forward with alacrity; and before the middle of the year 1549 the venerated product of English piety and scholarship, the Book of Common Prayer, was brought into use. It was largely the work of Cranmer, and reflects his inclination to a mediatorial position between the old and the new, his reverent love of the past and at the same time his consciousness of the need of change. It reflects also his felicitous mastery of the English language. "As the translation of the Bible," says Froude, "hears upon it the impress of Tyndale, so, while the Church of England remains, the image of Cranmer will be seen reflected on the calm surface of the Liturgy. The most beautiful portions of it are translations from the Breviary; yet the same prayers translated by others would not be those which chime like church-bells in the ears of the English child. The translations and the addresses, which are original, have the same silvery melody of language, and breathe the same simplicity of spirit." 1 History of England, v. 391,


The progress of opinion soon raised a demand that some of the traces of mediæval thought and custom, which had been retained in the Prayer Book, should be corrected. The influence of the foreign divines no doubt helped to strengthen this demand, but there were native theologians who were anxious to cast out the remaining vestiges of mediævalism. Among these was Hooper, to whom a special notoriety attaches as a forerunner of the Puritans in his opposition to the clerical vestments. The learned Ridley was also in favor of such emendations as should make the Prayer Book a more unequivocal exponent of Protestant sentiments. These recommendations succeeded the more easily as Cranmer himself shared in the advance of opinion. Quite early in the reign of Edward VI. his mind seems to have been disabused of the doctrine of the real presence, and he was carried along by the current into enlarging sympathy with the ordinary Reformed type. Accordingly a revision was made, and a somewhat more Protestant cast was given to the Prayer Book, much to the grief of Nonjurors and Ritualists in later times.

1 One of the principal changes effected by the revision of the Prayer Book was in the communion service. The invocation of the Holy Ghost upon the elements was omitted, the prayer of oblation was converted into a thanksgiving, and the words used in the delivery of the elements were so modified as to avoid any implication of a real bodily presence. We may also include among the more noticeable items the discontinuance of exorcism and other usages connected with baptism and the visitation of the sick (Hardwicke, Reformation, pp. 224-229).
The distinguishing characteristic, however, which it bore at its first compilation, was not eliminated. In preserving many elements of the ancestral worship, it continued to serve as a bond of connection with the past. The revived edition was authoritatively published in 1552.


The Articles of Religion, forty-two in number, prepared chiefly by Cranmer and Ridley, served as the basis of the Thirty-Nine Articles which have so long been in force in the Church of England. Being drawn up at the close of Edward's reign, they constitute, as might be expected, a thoroughly Protestant creed. Indeed the Articles, whether in their original or their final form, bear only in slight measure the character of a compromise document. In the Liturgy a mind reverent of the mediæval system can find that which may be interpreted in harmony with its preferences. But the Articles are no mean between Anglo-Catholicism and Protestantism. They constitute a robust Protestant creed, such as a Calvin or a Knox would have found little occasion to criticise.

1 Baur says of the Articles: "The dogmatic decisions contained in them were rather Melanchthonian than Lutheran or Calvinian" (Kirchengeschichte der Neueren Zeit, p. 385). Perhaps moderate Calvinism is as accurate a description of the creed as can be made in a single phrase.


While Protestantism was being enthroned in the minds of theologians and established by act of government, it was not equally successful in winning the firm and intelligent acceptance of the nation at large. Religious reconstruction in the hearts of the people did not keep pace with the formation of prayer books and creeds. While there were able preachers here and there, the demand for the indoctrination of the masses was far from being adequately met. Not a few had gone far enough to lose confidence in the old faith, but had not yet come close enough to the new to feel its virtue. They were thus left practically destitute of the restraints of religion. Many of the nobles were mere policy Christians, and in their view the best policy was that which would yield the largest spoil. The indeterminate form of the government entailed by the minority of the sovereign hindered a vigilant oversight of affairs and the repression of abuses. The consequence was that there was much plundering of ecclesiastical property, much exhibition of irreverence and irreligion. Such conditions were evidently favorable to a Romish reaction. A strong government, allied with a vigorous system of education and evangelism, might have barred out the reaction and secured the structure already reared. But the early death of Edward prevented the application of needed remedies. At the accession of Mary grave causes of dissatisfaction were ready to assist her in the design of a Roman Catholic restoration.