Church in England - Eve on Reformation

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Medieval Church

At the beginning of the 16th century the English people followed the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Papal Authority:

The Pope in Rome is the head of the church and has supreme authority over all spirtual matters.

Organised Hierarchy of Churchmen:

Secular Clergy - priests worked in the community seeing to the spirtual needs of the people.

Regular Clergy - Monks and Nuns shut themseleves off from the community to concentrate on prayer in the monastries.

Role of priests: the clergy held a powerful place within the community

Only priests could perform the Eucharist (and other sacraments) in church

Only priests had a bible which was written in latin and interpreted by them for the benefit of their parishoners (laity/oridnary people.)

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The 7 Sacraments

People had to submit submit to the authority of the church at important moments in their lives.

The 7 essential ceremonies, according to the Roman Catholic doctrines are;

1. Eucharist (mass) - When bread and wine are consumed as the blood and body of Christ.

2. Baptism - The spirtual act of cleansing in water that admits one as a full member of the Church (normally performed at birth).

3. Holy Orders - the ordination of individuals into the clergy (e.g. Bishops)

4. Confirmaton - a rite in which a baptised person affirms their Christian belief and is admitted into the church as a full member.

5. Marriage

6. Penance - the act of confessing to sins and through prayer, confession and good works repenting for them.

7. Extreme Unction - the performing of last rites for those dying. 

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The Route to Heaven

The afterlife was organised between heaven, hell and purgatory.

There was only one way for souls to be saved from the permanent tortures of hell:

- To attend church regulary 

- Particpate in the sacraments (eucharist,baptism,confirmation,marriage, penance, extreme unction and holy orders)

- Show faith (e.g. prayer, donating to the church)

This mattered to everyone, as the Fear of eternal damnation and desires to avoid such as fate dominated the everyday lives of people, rich and poor alike.

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Criticisms of the church by 1529 (1)

Anticlericalism - criticisms made about the behaviour and practices of the clergy.

Heresy - criticisms made about the religious doctrines of the church. A person found guilty of heresy was condemned to burn at the stake.

Anticlerical Abuse:

Pluralism - This was when the clergy held many different posts at one time. The priests would take the money from both parties and had the right to employ a partially educated cleric to take services.

Simony - This was the action of buying and selling off church positions to the highest bider.

Mortuary fees- When a person died, his or her family would have to pay a fee in money or goods to the priest in order for a burial.

Benefit of the Clergy- If a priest was suspected of commiting certain offences, he could claim 'benefit of clergy' and be tried in a church court as opposed to the King's court. Church courts could also be accessed by those who stepped in for absent priests and laymen if they could recite key latin verses or read latin (laymen).

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Criticisms of the church by 1529 (2)

Other anticlerical abuses commited by the church:

Tithes - This was when each adult living in a parish had to pay a 10th of all goods produced on their land to the clergy.

Behaviour of the clergy - Priests and monks were expected to live in chasity and be obedient to the laws of the church.

Indulgences- Priests sold 'pardons' to trusting people. It was believed that indulgences could lessen a person's time spent in purgatory.

The sale of 'Holy relics' - while relics could bring  good fortune and protection.

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Religious Reformers before 1529 (1)

Lollardy - John Wycliffe

A small scale underground heretical group in England during the time of Thomas Wolsey. The majortiy of the lollards were confined to the areas of the Midlands and the East of England. They refused the Catholic doctrines.

Humanism - Desiderius Erasmus (Anticlerics)

They beleived that Catholicism was no longer pure and wanted to return to the original scriptures and basic principles of the Catholic faith. They beleived in free-will, an original principle of Catholicism. Their aim was to re-establish a purer religion. 

Lutherans - Martin Luther (The main cause of European reformation - heretics)

A belief established in Germany. They took up the teachings of Martin Luther, who had challenged the key beliefs of the Catholic Church and said that it was more important for the individual to establish their relationship with God than through community action and the priest.

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Religious Reformers before 1529 (2)


Criticisms of the Pope and the Papal Court. Belief developed in Germany that the Pope was not the spirtual head of the Christian Church and that he should not interfere in other churches across Europe.


A belief which stated that the King not the Pope should be in charge of the church. The secular ruler should hold ultimate control over the church.

In 1521, Henry VIII was a bold defender of the Catholic Church and the Pope and against Protestant reformer like Luther. He wrote a book defending Catholic doctrine, Assertio Septum Sacramentorum (In defence of the seven sacraments.) In recognition of Henry's services to the Pope Leo X and the Church, he was awarded the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith. 

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Traditional vs. Revisionist Interpretation

How corrupt and unpopular was the English Church on the eve of the Reformation?

Traditional Interpretation: Geoffrey Elton, Geoffrey Dickens

The pre-Reformation English Church was increasingly corrupt and not serving the needs of the people. The reformation gained much of its momentum from the people on the ground. An 'English Reformation from below'.

'Popular anticlericalism thrived on tales of gluttonous monks, lecherous friars, ignorant and dishonest parish priests.' 'The state of the church was widely believed to be rotten.' - G. Elton

Revisionist Interpretation: Christopher Haigh, Eamon Duffy

The pre-Reformation church undoubtedly had some areas in need of improvement but as a whole was a strong and effective institution. The main focus for religious change came from Henry VIII with his own dynastic,economic and political reasons. 'Reformation from above'

'Relations between preists and parishoners were usually harmonious ... the corruption of the church and hostility of the laity, appear to have been historical illusions' - C. Haigh

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