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Historical Background - What led to the development of Non-conformity?

The Reformation

The reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) saw great changes in the religious structure of England. Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon when he became King of England. In 1527 he wished to divorce Catherine and take a new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Catherine had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. The religion of England at this time was Catholic, which forbade divorce, and so the Pope in Rome refused Henry permission to divorce Catherine.

In order to remarry, Henry VIII decided to assume control of the religion of England. In 1530 twenty-two Abbots signed a petition to the Pope requesting Henry's divorce from Catherine. At the same time Henry commissioned a survey on the need for an English version of the Bible and it was agreed that there was a need for one. The English clergy recognised Henry as the new Supreme Head of the English Church. In 1533 he married Anne Boleyn and annulled his marriage to Catherine. He later formally asserted his control over the Church of England and severed all ties with Rome. In 1534 the Act of Treason threatened a death sentence on anyone who denied Henry's power over the Church.

Up until the Reformation very few English people had been able to read the Bible as it was written in Latin and English translations were banned. A man called William Tyndale printed translations of the New Testament and half of the Old Testament between 1520 and 1535, but he was forbidden to work in England. His pocket-sized bible translations were smuggled into England but he was condemned as a heretic and strangled and burned in Brussels in 1536, partly at the instigation of Henry VIII. His work was finished by Miles Coverdale. By 1538 all parish churches were forced to purchase a copy of the English Bible. The English translation was important for many people as it meant that there was no longer anybody between them and God, they could read his teachings directly from the Bible for the first time.

In 1535 Henry VIII sent out inspectors to the monasteries in England to write reports on their wealth and moral conduct. Many of the reports which favoured the monasteries were sent back and the inspectors ordered to be more critical. Here is a typically unfavourable extract from the inspectors' reports, about Crossed Friars monastery, London:

"Found the Prior at that time in bed with a woman, both naked, about 11 o'clock in the morning."

The Dissolution of the Monasteries

In 1536 Henry began the Dissolution of the Monasteries and all monastic property passed into his hands. The Reformation meant that Henry could not only divorce Catherine but also vastly increase his wealth and power by seizing the possessions of the monasteries and selling them off for his own profit. Before the Dissolution of the Monasteries Henry had been on the point of bankruptcy. He had fought some very expensive wars in Europe and was in desperate need of funds, while the monasteries at this time owned over one quarter of the land in the country.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a move that was favoured by a great number of people. For many years the Catholic clergy had been unpopular with the masses, who resented their huge wealth and privileges, saying that the clergy used this wealth to live in luxury instead of helping the poor.

Some people were opposed to Henry's actions against the monasteries and wished to return to rule by the Pope. In Yorkshire over 30,000 people took part in a "Pilgrimage of Grace". This was a peaceful demonstration but Henry executed over 200 of the leaders.

In 1547 Henry VIII died and his young son Edward VI became king. In 1549 Edward passed the Act of Uniformity, authorising the use of the Common Book of Prayer and demanding that everyone should worship from this book.

Restoration and re-Reformation

In 1553 Edward died of tuberculosis and for nine days Lady Jane Grey, a young relative of the royal family, sat on the throne before being deposed by Henry's daughter, Mary I. Mary, a staunch Catholic, negotiated the renewal of contact between the Church of England and the Pope, who once again became head of the English Church. Protestants were persecuted and some religious houses were reinstated. This period of change is known as the Restoration.

Mary I died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, suppressed the re-founded religious houses, and followed her father's example and declared herself the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She passed a second Act of Uniformity, ordering the use of the 1552 Prayer Book. Catholics were persecuted and priests forced into hiding.

During the changes from Reformation to Restoration and back to Reformation many people were becoming disillusioned by the religion on offer in England. These people are generally referred to as Puritans and Separatists.

Puritans were members of the Church of England who believed that it could be reformed from the inside. They wanted a church that put more emphasis on the preaching of God and less on the clergy. They also wanted fewer prescribed prayers and more time for personal prayer and reflection.

Separatists saw no option but to leave the Church of England and start again with their own format. These people are generally placed under the banner of"Non-conformists".

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]