Essay on the beginnings of the English Reformation: civil and religious from the middle of the fourteenth century to 1517
Stevenson, George S.C.
MetadataShow full item record
Our study has brought us within sight of the great cataclysm which was to break the power of the Romish Church and to inaugurate a new era in religious history. We have endeavoured, so far as England was concerned in it, to trace from a distant past, the concurrence of the forces which produced this momentous break with ecclesiastical tradition and an old-world religious system. In England the final act was strangely mingled with political and even personal intrigue. It remains one of the strangest ironies of history that the great movement for civil and religious liberty, which covered so wide a tract of time and enlisted so many strenuous and earnest men, should in the end achieve success, entangled and tainted by a divorce case. The relations of Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn form no essential part of the history of the Reformation: they merely constitute an unpleasant episode flung by the sport of chance upon the surface of the movement. Had there been no Henry and no Anne the Reformation would yet have come, either when it did, or at no great distance of time after. As Mr Gardiner says, 'causes beyond the control of any human being were propelling the nation forward'.From the slight sketch we have given of the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, and the nature and extent of its power, it is manifest that had it been allowed to attain and hold the it unchallenged dominion which it aspired to, there could scarcely have been any sturdy growth of nationalism throughout Europe. To England it was given to play a pre-eminent part in averting this danger. In its many different forms, the struggle engaged men of every class and order of the community, and throughout the cause both of civil and religious liberty was involved. Under the pressure of this long conflict, the English constitution slowly shaped itself; sometimes thwarted in its development by the hold of the Church, sometimes stimulated to growth by the reforming influences. On the general body of the English nation the effects of the long struggle for religious reform can scarcely be exaggerated. Many years, however, had to elapse before the fruits were gathered in the blessings of free and untrammelled political institutions. At a first glance it might seem that constitutionally, the most important result of the downfall of the Romish Church in England was the greatly extended and increased power of the King. And undoubtedly this was the immediate effect. But reviewing the development of the country in the light of succeeding centuries, we see that it is to the Reformation we owe the extension of the active principle of constitutional progress to the lower ranges of society. The change in the national life, which followed the slackening and removal of the "dead hand" of Romanism, proved to be not, as civic rulers had anticipated, one merely of altered ceremonial and transferred ecclesiastical supremacy. The sense of a personal right to adjust one's own religious belief was the natural sequence of the escape from the bondage of the Church of Rome; and the assertion of the right to determine so all important a question as religious belief could not be made without leading men to exercise their judgment over all matters, secular as well as ecclesiastical, affecting the daily life of the nation. So long as the minds of the people were dominated by the influence of the priesthood the "new learning" fell upon ears that dared not listen. For it must be remembered that, despite the heroic example of men who ventured to confront existing authority in the cause of religious and intellectual freedom, the bulk of the nation were too sunk in ignorance to fling off the yoke of the Church. The great prestige of the Papacy had to be broken down, and the inquisitorial and punitive powers of the priesthood removed, before the ordinary laity could be led to give heed to the light that was spreading in the land. The improved moral condition of the clergy, which followed the destruction of the monasteries, and the abolition of the Church Courts, reacted with salutary effect upon the people at large. With minds relieved from the burden of grievances that had dulled their energies, men turned with fresh vigour to develop the resources of their country and to claim a wider share in its government.