Religious Policy under Protector Somerset


When Henry VIII died in 1547, he left behind seven years of factional struggle. His son, Edward VI, had not yet come of age and it had been clear for several years that Henry would die before this was the case. The stakes in this struggle had been high - no less than control of the government after Henry's death.

The Duke of Somerset (earlier the Earl of Hertford) was Protector for the first years of Edward VI's reign. Henry had created a Regency Council of 16 members, whom he had named. However, by making alterations to Henry's will without his knowledge, Somerset was able to secure power for himself and his followers.

Inherited problems for Edward's government

Although we talk about "Edward's government", we are in fact referring to the decisions made by his regent, Protector Somerset.

The minorities of Kings had in the past been a time of trouble - the minority of the last Edward, Edward V, did not inspire confidence. Somerset faced problems at home and abroad. War with France and Scotland seemed to be looming, and it could ill be afforded - indeed, war had led to another of the Protector's current problems - the coinage had been debased to pay for wars, and this further aggravated the price inflation that was taking place at the time. This led to quite serious social and economic hardships.

At this time, we were in the midst of the English Reformation, and while Protestantism seemed set to become the official doctrine, there was still a powerful conservative element in both laity and clergy which could yet cause trouble to the reformers. The blame for such uncertainty must be layed at the door of Henry - in the last years of his reign, he and his Council had dithered from one side to the other. Relations with Scotland and France were poor due to Henry's wars in the last decade of his reign. Boulogne, captured by Henry more as a token than for practical reasons, would fall back to the French during Somerset's protectorate.

The King's and Somerset's views on religion

Henry had raised his boy as a Protestant, and Edward VI was proving to be a pious one. Many of Somerset's advisors were also Protestants, and Somerset himself seemed to have the Protestant cause close to heart. However, secular interests had to be taken into account as well, and hence Somerset's government was initially cautious in their legislation. They did not want to incur the wrath of the Catholic Charles V of Spain, who could make matters difficult for England by intervening in Scotland.

First steps

The first step was the repealing of Henry's treason act, which was weighted heavily against the accused. Treason is defined as waging war against the King, plotting to kill him, or consorting with his enemies (the same crimes against the King's heir bore the same charge). Henry added to statute that to assault the Royal Supremacy (the 'Royal Supremacy' refers to the King being head of the English Church, rather than the Pope) in writing or in speech was also a treasonable offence - Somerset's government changed the act to make it fairer. Now, you had to assault the Supremacy three times in speech, and with two witnesses present, to be tried for treason. The law was still fairly repressive, as the accused was not allowed counsel, had little time to prepare his case, and was not allowed to question witnesses. Many see this act as a mere bid for popularity by Somerset.

In 1547, an act was passed which sentenced prison to anyone speaking irreverently of the Eucharist.

Religious change

Thomas Cromwell's Injunctions were re-introduced, and promoted iconoclasm (Protestants didn't like icons or images of their Lord) and a vernacular Bible (Catholics liked Church services given in Latin, Protestants in the common language of the country. This caused particular trouble in Cornwall, where they spoke Cornish, and opposed laws saying the Bible should be read in English!) Protestant Homilies by Cranmer were published (a homily is a ready-written sermon for priests who don't want to write their own).

As well as legislation encouraging Protestantism, Catholic legislation was repealed. The Act of Six Articles (which had been passed by Henry VIII to impress the threatening Catholic powers of Europe) was stricken from the statute books, and books and acts supporting it were repealed or removed from print. The uncertainty of Henry's last years now became a factor - Bishop Cranimer, one of a dwindling number of Catholics - pointed out that 'Injunctions' and Homilies were against the law according to legislation from Henry's last years. His case became somewhat moot as Catholic legislation was repealed, and his dissent cost him a spell in Fleet Street prison in 1547, a spell in the Tower in 1548, and the stripping of his bishopric in 1551.

The first big blow to the Catholic Church was the dissolving of the Chantries in an act of 1547. Chantry schools and hospitals were closed, their property seized and the priests pensioned off or sent to other work. The State earned about 20% of what it had done in the dissolution of the monastries. In 1549, an act was passed allowing priests to marry. About 20% of them did so, and this gave them a big vested interest in the reformation continuing. A new Prayer Book was published in 1549 and an act was passed to enforce its use.

The new Prayer Book was an example of Somerset's need to respect secular interests - it was very ambiguous, in that it could be taken to support either the Protestant or Catholic viewpoint. Gardiner (in the Tower) was pleased with it, although radical Protestants were not. Somerset managed to convince Charles V that the book was in fact conservative. There was, however, a fairly big inference in the book - it claimed that a sermon was not conducted solely between a priest and God, but that the laity were active particpants and not just thoughtful onlookers. This was engineered by Cranmer, as was the part of the book which took a very Protestant slant on the Eucharist.

A lot of this new change had been encouraged by refugees. Following the defeat of the Protestant Schmalkaldic League by Charles V, Strasbourg was no longer the center of Protestantism. For the only time in its history, England became a major theological center as Protestants swarmed to its Universities to teach their doctrine. The removal of Henry's legislation allowed a massive surge of questioning and teaching, and the rival theologians did not argue with one another about minor points of doctrine too much, rather presenting a united front.


Things certainly seemed to be moving forward well, and Somerset had proved to be a fairly prudent ruler. No martyrs were created on either side during his Protectorate. However, Somerset was not popular among the Regency Council due to his personality and autocratic methods. Ket's Rebellion also caused great harm to him, and gave his enemies reasons to criticize him. In September of 1549 he was removed from power by a plot, and replaced by the Earl of Warwick, later to be the Duke of Northumberland.

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