Catholic England on the Eve of Destruction by the English Reformation

COMMENTARY: King Henry VIII’s Cultural Revolution

Present-day image of Our Lady of Walsingham at the famous English shrine that was destroyed in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII.
Present-day image of Our Lady of Walsingham at the famous English shrine that was destroyed in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII. (photo: Catholic Bishops of England and Wales Twitter)

The typical tale told by Protestant apologists is that the Catholic Church in England at the end of the Middle Ages was all but dead. The people longed for a simple, Bible-based religion free of all the Catholic frippery, idolatry, indulgences, priestcraft, penance and purgatory.

As the story goes, the monks and nuns were fat, rich and lazy. The bishops got fat on imposed tithes, the sale of indulgences, privileges and preferment. Then along came good, old King Henry VIII and he cleaned things up. He reformed the English church and got things where they should be.

As an Anglican priest I believed a version of this history. People have asked how I could remain in a church founded by a venal king who wanted to divorce his wife for a pretty young thing and who got rich on the ill-gotten gains he looted from the Catholic Church.

My reply was that we looked past all that and we really did believe the myth that the Catholic Church in England at the end of the 15th century was corrupt and ready to roll over and breathe her last.

Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy corrected all these misunderstandings with his monumental study called The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. Duffy was part of a group of English historians who looked again at the received account of the English Reformation, did some original research and came up with the story of what really happened.

Oxford scholar Christopher Haigh in English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society Under the Tudors and professor Jack Scarisbrick in The Reformation and the English People both contributed to the strong revisionist version — a version enabled by new research techniques and the searching through authentic texts and civil records of this most tumultuous time in English history.

The first half of Duffy’s tome goes into great detail about the religious life of Catholic England before the troubles started in the 1520s. He refers to extant parish records to reconstruct the rich, varied and enthusiastic participation in the feasts and festivals of the Church year. With specific examples he explains how the ordinary people participated in Church life and how it was central to the life of the family, the village and the town.

We were led to believe that the Catholic laity were ignorant and forbidden to read the Bible — even after it was translated into their tongue. Duffy shows how, with the invention of moveable type, prayer books, missals, devotional aids, pamphlets and printed sermons proliferated.

Ordinary people learned to read very quickly once books were available and affordable. Duffy explains how there was a virtual explosion in new approaches to spirituality, bilingual missals, primers, breviaries and popular devotions. There was poor catechesis, superstition and ignorance to be sure, but there were also new ecclesial movements, intellectual reform movements and fresh life pouring into the late medieval Church.

Duffy also outlines the almost universal attendance at Mass, the people’s love and participation in pilgrimage and devotion to the saints as well as their appreciation for the possible pains of hell and purgatory. They supported the old monastic system not only because the monks were their landlords, but also because they believed in the monks’ mission of mercy. The monasteries might have been rich, but they funded the hospitals, schools, poorhouses and social welfare programs. In addition, the friars, with their work in the towns and cities, were bringing renewal to the Church.

One of Duffy’s key resources are the extant last wills and testaments. By collecting the data from wills he was able to trace the changes in English religion that Henry VIII and his officers enforced. Put simply, the wills made by Catholics before Henry VIII’s break with Rome expressed simple belief and enthusiasm for the Catholic faith.

In their wills the English provided for Masses to be said for the repose of their souls. They left funds for the maintenance of the Church and her services. They left money to build extensions to churches and monasteries and provide for bells, vestments, altar cloths and candles. They provided funding for the poor, left money in their wills for schools and hospitals, and left endowments for colleges and orphanages.

In short, the wills are evidence of the health and vigor of the Church in England just before Henry VIII enforced the destruction of English Catholicism.

Similarly, the wills after the break with Rome reflect the new understanding of the faith. The old clauses granting funds to the Church and all her good works began to disappear. Being taught that Masses for the repose of their souls were pointless, they stopped providing for them in their wills. Being taught that religious art, vestments, stained-glass windows and statues were vain or idolatrous, they stopped leaving money for such things. They no longer left money for the poor, but left it for their relatives.

England in the Middle Ages was referred to as “Mary’s Dowry.” The churches, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, colleges and shrines were wealthy. There was corruption, certainly. Wherever there is a concentration of money and power there is bound to be corruption. But Duffy shows that the state of the monasteries and of religious life in England was robust, dynamic and strong.

Henry VIII’s depredations were about more than wanting to marry his mistress and have a male heir. He and his commissioners had also spotted that the monasteries and churches provided rich pickings. The king himself grabbed vast amounts of land for the crown and he awarded his faithful subjects with rich prizes of religious houses and their lands and goods.

The English Reformation was a cultural revolution on the scale of Mao’s revolution in China. A 1,000-year-old culture was destroyed in a few short decades. The Catholic religion in England before Henry VIII’s reign was, for the most part, vital and strong. It was broken and bereft not out of a will to cleanse and reform, but out of royal greed, vanity and lust. His daughter Mary Tudor restored a renewed Catholicism, but her reign was to last just five years before her half-sister took the throne and completed the devastation their father had begun. It would be more than 300 years before the Catholic Church in England would begin its formal recovery.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

His website is