During the earlier years of the 16th century Lollardism still existed among the lower classes in towns, and was rife here and there in country districts. Persecution went on and martyrdoms are recorded. The old grievances concerning ecclesiastical exactions remained unabated and were further strengthened by an ill-founded rumour that Richard Hunne, a Londoner who had refused to pay a mortuary, was imprisoned for heresy in the Lollard's tower, and was found hanged in his cell in 1514, had been murdered.
Lutheranism affected England chiefly through the surreptitious importation of Tyndale's New Testament and heretical books. In 1521 Henry VIII wrote a book against Luther in which he maintained the papal authority, and was rewarded by Leo X with the title of Defender of the Faith. Henry, however, whose will was to himself as the oracles of God, finding that the pope opposed his intended divorce from Catherine of Aragon, determined to allow no supremacy in his realm save his own. He carried out his ecclesiastical policy by parliamentary help. Parliament was packed, and was skilfully managed; and he had on his side the popular impatience of ecclesiastical abuses, a new feeling of national pride which would brook no foreign interference, the old desire of the laity to lighten their own burdens by the wealth of the church, and a growing inclination to question or reject sacerdotal authority. He used these advantages to forward his policy, and when lie met with opposition, enforced his will as a despot.
The parliament of 1529 lasted until 1536; it broke the bonds of Rome, established royal supremacy over the English Church, and effected a redistribution of national wealth at the expense of the spirituality. It began by acts abolishing ecclesiastical exactions, such as excessive mortuaries and fees for probate, and by prohibiting pluralities except in stated cases, application to Rome for licence to evade the act being made penal. Henry having crushed his minister Cardinal Wolsey, archbishop of York, declared the whole body of the clergy involved in a praemunire by their submission to Wolsey's legatine authority, and ordered the convocation to purchase pardon by a large payment, and by acknowledging him as Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy. After much debate, the acknowledgment was made in 1531, with the qualification so far as the law of Christ allows. A supplication against clerical jurisdiction and legislation by convocation was obtained from the Commons in 1532, and Henry received from convocation the submission of the clergy, surrendering its legislative power except on royal licence, and consenting to a revision of the canon law by commissioners to be appointed by the king.
A bill for conditionally withholding the payment of annates, or first-fruits, to Rome was passed, and Henry took advantage of the fear of the Roman court lest it should lose these payments, to obtain without the usual fees bulls promoting Cranmer to the see of Canterbury in 1533, and thus was enabled to gain his divorce. Cranmer pronounced his marriage to Catherine null, and declared him lawfully married to Anne Boleyn. Clement VII retorted by excommunicating the king, but for that Henry cared not. Appeals to Rome were forbidden by statute, and the council ordained that the pope should thenceforth only be spoken of as bishop of Rome, as not having authority in England. In 1534 the restraint of annates was confirmed by law, all payments to Rome were forbidden, and it was enacted that, on receiving royal licence to elect, cathedral chapters must elect bishops nominated by the king. The papal power was extirpated by statute, parliament at the same time declaring that neither the king nor kingdom would vary from the Catholic faith of Christendom. The submission of the clergy was made law. Appeals from the archbishops courts were to be to the king in chancery, and were to be heard by commissioners, whence arose the Court of Delegates as the court of final appeal in ecclesiastical cases. The first-fruits and tenths of benefices were given to the king, and his title as Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England was declared by parliament without the qualification added by convocation.
Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, lately chancellor, the two most eminent Englishmen, were beheaded in 1535 on an accusation of attempting to deprive the king of this title, and some Carthusian monks suffered a more cruel martyrdom in the same cause. Meanwhile New Testaments were burnt, and heretics, or reformers, forced to abjure or, remaining steadfast, were sent to the stake, for though the heresy law of Henry IV was repealed, heresy was still punishable by death, and persecution was not abated. By breaking the bonds of Rome Henry did not give the church freedom; he substituted a single despotism for the dual authority which pope and king had previously exercised over it.
In 1535 Cromwell, the king's vicar-general, began a visitation of the monasteries. The reports (comperla) of his commissioners having been delivered to the king and communicated to parliament in 1536, parliament declared the smaller monasteries corrupt, and granted the king all of less value than £200 a year. A rebellion in Lincolnshire and another in the north, the formidable Pilgrimage of Grace, followed. The suppression of the greater houses was effected gradually, surrenders were obtained by pressure, and three abbots who were reluctant to give up the possessions of their convents for confiscation were hanged. Monastic shrines and treasuries were sacked and the spoil sent to the king, to whom parliament granted all the houses, their lands and possessions. Of the enormous wealth thus gained Henry spent a part on national defence, a little on the foundation of the bishoprics of Westminster, dissolved in 1550, Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough, and gave the lands to men either useful to or favoured by himself, or sold them to rich purchasers.
In 1536 he dictated the belief and ceremonial of the church by issuing Ten Articles which were subscribed by convocation. This first formulary of the English Church as separate from Rome did not contravene Catholic doctrine, though it showed the influence of Lutheran models. Another exposition of Anglican doctrine was made in the Institution of a Christian Man or Bishop's book, in some respects more likely to satisfy those attached to the tenets of Rome, in others, as in the distinct repudiation of purgatory and the declaration that salvation depended solely on the merits of Christ, showing an advance. It was published in 1537 with Henry's sanction but not by authority. In that year licence was granted for the sale of a translation of the Bible, and in 1538 another version called Matthew's Bible, was ordered to be kept in all churches. Pilgrimages were suppressed and images used for worship destroyed. Denial of the king's supremacy, denial of the corporal presence in the Eucharist, and insults to Catholic rites were alike punished by cruel death.
The publication abroad of the king's excommunication rendered an assertion of orthodoxy advisable for political reasons, and in 1539 came the Act of the Six Articles attaching extreme penalties to deviations from Catholic doctrines. The backward swing of the pendulum continued; Cromwell was beheaded and three reforming preachers were burnt in 1540. Prosecutions for heresy under the act were fitful: four gospellers were burnt in London in 1546, of whom the celebrated Anne Askew was one. Cranmer, however, did not lose the king's favour. A fresh attempt to define doctrine was made in the Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of a Christian Man, the King's Book, published by authority in 1543, which, while repudiating the pope, was a declaration of Catholic orthodoxy. A Primer, or private prayer-book, of which parts were in English, as the litany composed by Cranmer, and virtually the same as at present, was issued in 1546, and further liturgical change seemed probable when Henry died in 1547.
This text forms part of the History of the Church of England originally part of the entry ENGLAND, CHURCH OF from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the content of which lies within the public domain.