Heretics in Sixteenth-Century England

Welcome to Minorities Month on our blog! Today I’m going to discuss the term ‘heretics’ as a minority in Tudor England. After Henry VII’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the sixteenth century became dominated by a new and eventually infamous dynasty known as The Tudors. The severing of the Church with Rome in 1534 confused the definition of ‘heretic’ and left people in a state of ambiguity regarding which faith was ‘legal’ under Henry VIII and his heirs that would follow. This is not the story of ‘Catholics’ or ‘Protestants’ as such, since both of these groups would become heretics or traitors under Tudor rule at some point in the sixteenth century, but rather an insight into how suddenly a group or person could be declared a criminal when so previously praised for their ‘true’ faith. In this article, the status and treatment of ‘heretics’ under the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I will briefly be examined.

Martin Luther and his 95 Theses

Up until 1534, England was part of the unified Catholic Church under Papal authority in Rome. Anybody who did not accept Catholic doctrine or recognize the Pope as Head of the Catholic Church was immediately labelled a heretic and, if unrepentant, put to death by burning at the stake. The first heretical threat to England under Henry VIII was Protestantism, a new and radical movement that gained influence in the 1520s rooting from Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Thesis in Germany. Luther promoted personal faith and Bible-reading, attacked idolatry, the Pope, transubstantiation and many other aspects of Catholic doctrine. Thomas More, a deeply religious Catholic who took the post of Chancellor after Wolsey’s fall, began to crack down on heresy, viewing it as a spreading disease. He saw it as his duty to exterminate Protestants to protect the ‘true’ faith, and burnt a total of six people during his short rule of power, who were charged for accusations such as distributing banned books.

Yet in a drawn-out, England-altering battle with the Pope to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII decided to split with Rome in 1534 and create his own Church of England, allowing him as Supreme Head to do as he pleased within it. The Oath of Supremacy enforced his subjects to recognize him, and not the Pope, as Head of the English Church – and to deny it was treason, punishable by death. The tables had now turned for Thomas More, who would not sign the Oath and acknowledge Henry as Head of the Church instead of the Pope due to his ‘conscience’. Despite his long-term friendship with the King, Henry had him executed in July 1535 in the Tower.

As Henry became more radical and introduced pro-Protestant doctrine, influenced by Anne Boleyn as some would argue, the Catholics that had experienced one faith their entire lives were seen as a threat to Henry’s authority and for the first time in England it was them, and not the Protestants who had been previously persecuted, that were now seen as the heretics and traitors.

Yet the situation would change again. With unstable foreign policy and an ageing Henry yearning Spanish support whilst tackling France, he introduced The Act of Six Articles which consisted of mostly Catholic doctrine in the hopes of pleasing Catholic Spain (and perhaps the rebels following the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536). The Protestants that had gained influence from the split with Rome were now expected to revert to a more conservative and traditional faith, even to the point of accepting Transubstantiation. At this point the confusion and insecurity of the religious people in England can be understood. It was not as easy to unofficially change the state’s religion now, however. The Protestant movement had finally been given the chance to grow and build communities in England and it was not going to back down without a fight. Anne Askew is the only woman in English history to have been tortured at the Tower of London on the rack before being burnt at the stake. According to Henry, when informed of the woman’s interrogation (which was against the law),  he replied “from the word of God, we know that the Devil takes many forms.” Askew’s links within Protestantism were strong, though. Support for her and the movement she promoted can perhaps be seen by an anonymous person placing gunpowder around her neck before the flames were lit, resulting in a quicker and easier death.

Henry VIII’s death in 1547 paved the way for the Protestant factions surrounding his son and heir, Edward VI, to reinstate the Protestant doctrine and continue to dissolve the monasteries for financial gain. As Edward was a minor, however, no Catholics were tried or executed during this point except those involved the Western Rebellion of 1549.

The situation reversed in 1553 after Mary I (or ‘Bloody Mary’) took her rightful place on the throne from Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen. A staunch Catholic who resented the Reformation under her father, viewed as the cause of her and her mother’s suffering, Mary intended to restore the true faith to England in the counter-Reformation and finally put an end to heresy (or Protestantism). Infamously known for her burnings, Mary executed approximately 287 men and women during her short reign, a colossal figure even for the gory time period. Although she had achieved in reuniting England with Rome, she was resented by Protestants and even some Catholics for her brutality, exposing the majority of London the stench of burning flesh.

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes

Elizabeth I, following Mary’s sudden death, immediately reinstated the Act of Supremacy and became Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Her ‘Protestant’ regime aimed to please both Catholics and Protestants alike, and at the beginning, there were no persecutions of either faith since Elizabeth showed little interest for personal religion. This all changed, however, when Mary Queen of Scot’s sparked the Catholic threat in England, and the Northern Rebellion began in 1569. When excommunicated by the Pope, Elizabeth cracked down on Catholics (or rather ‘traitors’) to secure her political position. Most were beheaded or hanged rather than burnt, including Mary, Queen of Scot’s herself. This would be the only safe point to say, however, that Catholics were truly a minority in Tudor England. The Reformation that introduced Protestantism in Henry VIII’s reign had now planted a deep root in the English Church and as the older generation died out, few disgruntled Catholics remained. Elizabeth’s paranoia regarding a Catholic conspiracy leading up to the Spanish Armada, however, blew the threat of remaining Catholics out of realistic proportion.

If we had lived in the sixteenth century, we must have been very religiously versatile in order to survive. And because of the unbreakable integration of religion and politics, this was never really possible. With each monarch, or new political situation, came different laws on what was heretical and what was not. A heretic under Henry VIII in 1520 would be praised from 1534 (H VIII – Act of Supremacy), burnt from 1539 (H VIII – Act of Six Articles), secure from 1547 (Edward VI), one of Bloody Mary’s victims from 1553, and favoured from 1558 (Eliz. I). As explored, Catholics were not always safer than Protestants, either. It appears it was safest to remain loyal to the King/Queen before the Church in such a temperamental religious climate in sixteenth-century Tudor England.

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546, British Museum

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