CHAPTER VI. HENRY VIII (ii), 1509-32 - BIRTH OF THE REFORMATION

[The Reformation in England]

Down to a comparatively recent date, the popularly accepted accounts of the Reformation in England treated it as a spontaneous outburst of the deep religious spirit pervading the mass of the people; a passionate repudiation of the errors of Rome, born of the secret study of the Bible in defiance of persecution, and of repulsion from the iniquities of the monastic system. Then there arose a picturesque historian, who recognised in Henry VIII. and Thomas Cromwell the men who created the Reformation; and having once imagined them as the captains of a great and righteous cause, succeeded in interpreting all their actions on the basis of postulating their single- eyed devotion to reform as their ever-dominant motive. A view so difficult to reconcile with some other stereotyped impressions has invited criticism; and it is not unusual now to be told that the changes effected by the Reformation were small, except in so far as the Church was robbed by the destruction of the monasteries.

[Its true character]

As a matter of fact the change which took place was very great and very far-reaching for the nation, though it is easy to exaggerate the deviations from Roman doctrine imposed by it on the clergy of the Anglican Communion. But the movement was one in which many factors were at work. Moralists, theologians, and politicians, all had their share in it; some who were prominent promoters of it in one phase were its no less active antagonists in another; and not infrequently were guided by purely personal ambitions and interests throughout. In its essence however the Reformation was a revolt against conventions which had lost the justification of the conditions that had brought them into being, and had become fetters upon intellectual and spiritual progress instead of aids to its advancement. Each group of reformers was ready enough to impose on the world a new set of conventions of its own manufacture, but no group succeeded in dominating the aggregate of groups; and thus in the long run toleration became the only working policy, though its practice was by no means what the Reformers had set before themselves. After long years, religious liberty was the outcome of their work; but few indeed were the martyrs whose blood was consciously shed in that great cause. The men who died rather than submit their own convictions to the dictation of others were for the most part ready, when opportunity offered, to sit in judgment on those who would not accept their own dictation.

[Religious decadence]

The prevailing conditions of the Church at the dawn of the Reformation were exceedingly corrupt, with the corruption of worn out institutions; but they appeared to be part of the necessary order of things. Hitherto, occasional heretics had arisen, but (superficially at least) they had been suppressed without serious difficulty. The State, in England and elsewhere, had entered upon conflicts with the priesthood; secular monarchs had even challenged the authority of the Pope; but such quarrels had ended in compromises formal or practical. Moral reforming movements like that of St. Francis had arisen within the Church herself; they had not been antagonistic to her, and they had thriven and decayed without producing revolutionary results. Clerical abuses had been for centuries the objects of satire, but the satirists rarely had any inclination for the role of revolutionaries or martyrs. The recent revival of learning had developed a scepticism which was however habitually accompanied by a decent profession of orthodoxy. That there was prevalent unrest had long been obvious; that there was risk of disturbing developments was not unrecognised; but that these things were the prelude to a vast revolution had been realised neither by Churchmen, Statesmen, nor literati.

[The Scholar-Reformers]

It did not appear, then, that the revolt of Wiclif in England and of Huss in Europe was about to be renewed: though they had in fact prepared the soil to receive the new seed. Lollardry had been driven beneath the surface. Still, so far at least as it represented anti-clericalism rather than a theological system, its secret disciples were accorded a considerable measure of popular sympathy; though it numbered few professors among the cultivated classes, it had semi-adherents even among the wealthier burgesses of London; it was active enough to cause some alarm to Convocation, and to excite reactionary bishops. But it was not in this quarter primarily that any notable movement seemed likely to arise. The demand for Reformation during the first quarter of the century was formulated by scholars who were not heretics - Dean Colet of St. Paul's; Thomas More; the cosmopolitan Erasmus, who was but a bird of passage in this country, yet one who was warmly and generously welcomed.