The idea of Reformation in the English Church brought up two schools of thought: the Traditional historians and the Revisionist historians. The Traditionalists believed that the Pre-Reformation Church in England was corrupt and there was very little respect for the Church, it was in need of reform; there was great widespread of anti-clericalism . Some well-known traditionalists include Geoffrey R. Elton, he said that clergy ‘attracted more dislike than love’, ‘Church was full of weaknesses and abuses’ and that the ‘Parish clergy were often ill-educated and ignorant’. Arthur G. Dickens, Simon Fish were also some notable traditionalists.
On the other hand, the Revisionists believed the pre-Reformation Church was in good health and hadn’t gotten any worse than it had been 100-150 years prior. Eamon Duffy and Jack Scarisbrick were Revisionists, to name a few.
The Traditionalists interpreted the ideas of anticlericalism, which refer to hostility towards the Church and churchmen from laity. Usually this involved ideas that the Church had become corrupt and that clergy weren’t leading Christian lives.
In 1529 Simon Fish described clergy as ‘ravenous wolves going around in shepherds’ clothing devouring the flock’ in his ‘A Supplication of the Beggars’. He argued that they were starved wolves who abused their positions to help them further their own interests, which was to gain power and wealth.
Also complaining about clergy were a number of scholars who lived their lives without the need for religious beliefs, they were known as humanists. Many humanists had studied the Bible in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and were appalled at how clergy weren’t following Jesus Christ and how he wanted them to live. Some humanists believed that if clergy were more educated and less wealthy then there would have been a possible improvement. Erasmus of Rotterdam was the most famous humanist of his day and wrote books against the Church and clergy; the most famous was ‘In Praise of Folly’. Sir Thomas More, a friend of Erasmus and a humanist, agreed with his friend and he too wrote books against the Catholic Church; his most famous work was ‘Utopia’ which was a description of a fictional island, designed to show up the corruption and abuses in English society. They both wanted clergy to be more committed, believing this and education would lead to a vast improvement.
John Colet, another humanist scholar, friend of Erasmus and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached a sermon in Convocation, before the Canterbury and York clergies, attacking the major problems and abuses within the Church, which was mainly the clergy. He was the main source of evidence for Traditionalists, as he was a intellectual clergyman who criticised the Church, therefore the criticism was coming from inside the Church, from somebody who must have been experiencing it. His criticism was very harsh; he said the clergy were ‘unduly ambitious’, ‘greedy and covetous’ and ‘took too much interest in worldly affairs’ – he believed they were too ambitious and didn’t look after people’s spiritual needs, as they were supposed to. Clergy were often very uneducated and few understood Latin.
In, the Hunne case in 1514, Richard Hunne was put in gaol under suspicion of heresy, as some heretical books had been found at his home. In December, 1514 he was found dead in his cell and a clergyman and two gaolers were accused of his murder, however they were never brought to trial and this was seen as the Church protecting its own. Hunne’s body had been burnt as a heretic, even though he hadn’t been convicted. This case provoked anticlericalism in London.
In 1518, Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Wolsey, was made a papal legate and the office was given to him for life in 1524. There was no real evidence that having Wolsey as papal legate weakened the English Church, but Cardinal Wolsey was first and foremost the King’s man, and not the Pope’s. There wasn’t much opposition to Wolsey as legate. However, it was argued that Wolsey’s main interest in being legate was the financial rewards of it. Furthermore, Wolsey had an illegitimate child, Thomas Winter and he wanted to make him see of Durham; this is known as nepotism which is favouritism shown to relatives or friends. Moreover, Wolsey was guilty of absenteeism which was a continuous pattern of absence from duty. Wolsey was also Archbishop of York, however he didn’t visit York Minister until fourteen years after his appointment, also Richard Fox, the Bishop of Winchester, was absent many times on state business or on diplomatic missions abroad. One of the worst cases was at the diocese of Worcester, which was ‘not occupied’ by four Italians in succession between 1497 and 1534, they didn’t even visit England.
Another abuse, sometimes associated with absenteeism is pluralism, which was holding a number of offices at the same time, such as Wolsey. Thomas Magnus was Archdeacon of the East Riding of Yorkshire and acquired canonries at Lincoln and Windsor. He was also Master of St. Leonard’s Hospital in York, Master of the College at St. Sepulchre and of Sibthorpe College, vicar of Kendal and rector of Kirby, Bedale and Sessay.
Additionally, the idea of erastianism was around; this was the belief that the King should be in charge of the Church not the Pope. However, in England, the King position was much more stronger than the Pope’s, however he didn’t accept this idea. Henry VIII controlled most aspects of the English Church and its government, including the appointments of the higher positions. The church was an erastian one. The Church still had its own law courts with special privileges (‘benefit of clergy’); Henry attacked this. The privilege allowed men accused of crimes, who claimed to be in holy orders, to be tried in Church courts where the penalties were lighter.
Parliament was used to attack rights of sanctuary; criminals could claim rights of sanctuary while they resided inside a church, where they couldn’t be arrested. Disputes about the Church’s legal position led to the Standish case in 1515. This was were Friar Standish, backed by Parliament, attacked the benefit of the clergy which wasn’t very popular with bishops. The King was called in to settle the dispute which led to a debate about the powers of the Church and the State. The King reminded the audience that English Kings were subject to no earthly superior – ‘We are King of England and kings of England, in time past, have never had any superior but God alone’ – the implication of this was that the King was in charge of the Church of England, not the other way around. The pope issued a decree, in 1514, which said that no layman had authority over a church man, however this was a dead letter in England.
However there was some evidence to discount traditionalist views; abuses within the Church weren’t widespread; most clergy did they job well and only a minority didn’t. the Church made an effort to put itself in order. In 1530, the Bishop of London, John Stokesley, conducted a personal examination for the curates in his see. In 1499, Cardinal Morton made a visitation of Suffolk, he investigated 489 parishes and only eight had allegations of sexual laxity amongst the priest. Archbishop Warham made a visitation of 260 Kentish parishes between 1511-12; only four priests were found to be ignorant. Between 1514-1521 in the diocese of Lincoln, 1,000 parishes were investigated and few corruption was uncovered. The majority of clergy were fulfilling their vows. Most English clergymen were well respected and there were few scandals. Also there were few nepotism cases apart from Wolsey who tried to get his illegitimate son to be Bishop of Durham, however the King blocked it.
Absenteeism was mostly caused by bishops working for the King. Absent bishops appointed suffragen bishops do the job for them if they were absent. There were many bishops and clergymen in all dioceses that most people’s needs were looked after.
Moreover, laity seemed to have faith in their churches and paid money towards them such as the payment of ï¿½305 for the construction of a new steeple in the church of Louth, it took fifthteen years to complete, people were dedicated to the Church. Many of them left money to churches in their wills. Also many copies of religious books were sold in large numbers.
John Colet’s sermon was seen as traditional, generalised and exaggerated. Christianity set high standards so attacks of clergy were made at any time, Convocation expected to hear this anyway. The strength of his critique may have helped ensure that no serious reform took place. Colet was seen as a ‘lone voice’. most of the critics wanted reform and improvement not reformation.
The Revisionists believed that the pre-Reformation Church was in good health and had got no worse in the previous 100-150 years – ‘The Church hadn’t worsened. Same as it had been for previous 50-150 years’. However they did believe that sometimes the rules were broken but not too frequently. People were loyal and good to the Church. Eamon Duffy said ‘People were loyal as they liked it [Church]’. The Church was very much a focal point of the local community, the religious calendar dictated the people’s lives. The clergy were deemed as poor and uneducated rather than greedy and most seemed to obey the ruled and lived good lives; Henry seemed to have no problems with the standards of the clergy. Monks stuck to the rules and lived appropriate lives, the famous Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536 showed a vast demonstration of popular support for monasteries.
Under Wolsey, there Church was strong too, in contrast to the weak points. Wolsey appointed ‘well sound and well qualified’ Bishops like Tunstall, Veysey and Longland. In 1519, he called a meeting of the Bishops on how to improve the clergy. Also as legate, Wolsey made the Church more popular, as he could grant licenses as that would have had to be sent off to the Pope in Rome, therefore it was quicker and saved time. He also organised official visitations to the greater, more prestigious houses to set an example to the rest. Wolsey did more beneficial points too, such as setting up schools and transferring the Church wealth into educational needs for them. Cardinal Wolsey wanted to strengthen the Catholic Church and spoke on about heresy, which he opposed; he held public burnings of Martin Luther’s heretic books and urged King Henry VIII to write a book defending the Pope. Wolsey wanted to improve the Catholic Church, not change it, this ties in with other people that wanted reform on the Church, not reformation.
Henry VIII was not that religious at first, but became interested as he learnt that the Church needed reformation. Henry was a Catholic and there are many reasons to why Henry became very religious. Henry started making frequent visits to the Church along with his wife Catherine of Aragon to pray to God, so they can conceive a heir. He was also titled officially by the Pope – ‘Fidei Defensor’ – the defender of the faith, as he defended Catholicism in his book ‘The Defence of the Seven Sacraments’. However, Henry saw this for its benefits, as he wrote in favour of the Pope and Catholicism, in return they too would do biddings for the King. The high office readily consented to Cardinal Wolsey being rewarded higher up in the Church for Henry.
The Traditional views such as the one of Dickens, that state that the Church ‘stood poorly equipped to weather the storms of the new age’. They wanted reformation and believed the Church need to improve. Meanwhile, there is the other opposing view of the Revisionists such as Scarisbrick that state that the Church was ‘fine and did not need reformation’. They believed it was fine and nobody wanted it to change as laity were happy with it.
I believe the English Church wasn’t in need of reform on the eve of reformation for many reasons. This was mainly because English laity were happy with the Church and its clergy. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 was a demonstration against destruction of the monasteries, laity didn’t want them to go as they preferred them. If they thought the Church was in need of reform then they wouldn’t have minded them going. Also, laity were happy enough to pay money towards the Church, such as the payment of ï¿½305 towards building a new steeple for Church in Louth, which took fifthteen years to complete, people were dedicated to the Church and want to make them look good; they wanted to be proud of their Churches and show others how good they were. Many also left money in their wills towards the church. Also the parishes and churchmen seemed to be fulfilling their vows and didn’t seem to be corrupt. Only a few odd ones out were corrupt and that seemed to be a minority of priests. People followed religion and it was a part of their daily lives, with many escaping their own lives to be in Church. Nobody wanted reformation of the Church, even the Church critics, they just wanted reform and improvements.