Plunder of church lands: 1527-1550
The seizure of church and monastic lands plays its part in the Reformation in Germany, but the motive is not for the most part mercenary. Perhaps the pressure of neighbours within the predominantly Catholic empire causes the Protestant princes to behave responsibly. When Philip of Hesse closes down the monasteries in his principality in 1527, he uses the proceeds to educate Lutheran clergy and to found a university in Marburg. When Maurice of Saxony confiscates ecclesiastical lands in 1543, the beneficiaries are the university of Leipzig and three new schools to provide free education.
But the kings of northwest Europe, masters in their own realms, have no such scruples. The first into the monastic honeypot is Gustavus I of Sweden.
Gustavus has no religious convictions but a great need of funds. In 1527 he uses Lutheran arguments (plus a threat of abdication) to persuade a diet at Västerås to authorize his appropriation of church property – amounting perhaps to a quarter of all the land in the kingdom.
Gustavus professes the Lutheran faith but he establishes no national Lutheran church in Sweden (only late in his reign does the new religion spread far outside Stockholm). Gustavus stands out among rulers for the cynicism with which he plunders the Catholic church before putting another in its place. Even Henry VIII observes the niceties in this respect by a few days.
Within a week of making himself supreme head of the church, in January 1535, Henry commissions his principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to make a detailed survey of monasteries, convents and other ecclesiastical property in England and Wales. This is achieved by Cromwell with great efficiency in a massive document Valor Ecclesiasticus (‘Church Wealth’).
Before the end of 1535 Cromwell’s agents are sent out to list evidence of laxity and corruption in the monasteries – not hard to find at the time. In 1536 the process begins of appropriating properties listed in the first survey, on the grounds of abuses discovered in the second.
No religious conviction is involved in the early years of the English Reformation, which is a purely political strategy by Henry VIII. By contrast another northern king benefitting from monastic wealth in the same year, 1536, is a committed Lutheran. He is Christian III of Denmark.
From the age of fifteen Christian is taught by a tutor from Wittenberg university, and the young man makes no secret of his Protestant fervour. Indeed it delays his succession to the throne after the death of his father in 1533. An opposition party, with Catholic interests, launches a civil war.
Christian III becomes king of Denmark (and with it Norway and Iceland) in July 1536 after capturing Copenhagen. He immediately arrests the Catholic bishops, confiscates their property and dissolves the monasteries. Vast funds flow into the royal exchequer.
In October of that same year the Danish Lutheran Church is formally established. Next it is the turn of Norway, whose monasteries bring the crown further riches. The Norwegian Lutheran Church is in existence by 1539. Iceland resists a little longer, but it too is Lutheran by 1550. Brought to the new faith in a few short years, on the personal conviction of one powerful ruler, all three countries nevertheless remain firmly Lutheran.
Ruler’s or people’s religion: 1522 – 1560
The concept of cuius regio, eius religio is followed wherever a kingdom or principality becomes Protestant during the Reformation (with one exception, that of Scotland in 1560). German princes of a Lutheran persuasion have the authority, after the Peace of Augsburg, to force this faith on their people. The kings of Denmark and Sweden have the power to do the same, as does Henry VIII with his own special religion for England – Anglicanism.
But in towns with no direct allegiance to a ruler, a different principle prevails. The representatives of the people can choose the town’s religious complexion, forcing it upon their fellow citizens with equal thoroughness.
This applies in the Holy Roman empire, where imperial cities assert this right even before it is authorized at Augsburg in 1555. The city council of Hamburg, for example, decides in 1529 that all citizens are to be Lutheran.
At the same time in another imperial city, Strasbourg, a more informal process is taking place. From about 1522 the city is gradually infiltrated and influenced by reformed pastors following the example of Zwingli. Their belief, as in the system evolving in Zürich, is that citizens should select their own religious commitment and that of their town.
Strasbourg becomes for two or three decades a centre of this radical strand of reform. From here, during the 16th century, this exhilarating theme of self-determination spreads among urban groups down the Rhine towards the Netherlands – where it will play a significant part in a liberation movement at the end of the century.
The most powerful exponent of this theme is the French preacher John Calvin. He is in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541. But it is in Geneva that he demonstrates to Christian Europe, most vividly, the power of rigorous reform.
Calvin’s school of Christ: 1541-1564
John Calvin’s first visit to Geneva lasts only two years, to 1538, before he is exiled by a town council alarmed at the rigour of the Christian regime which he wishes to impose on the citizens. He shelters in Strasbourg, until recalled to Geneva in 1541. The town has lapsed in his absence into turmoil and religious discord.
Calvin now sets about creating in Geneva a civic theocracy – a community in which the pastors of the church vigorously supervise moral standards. There have been laws in the medieval church regulating behaviour, often strict but not often effective. Calvin’s innovation is to enforce morality in a singularly thorough and joyless manner.
The godly city is run according to the precepts of the Bible. Adultery is punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). On one occasion a young man is beheaded for striking his parents (Exodus 21:15). The pastors, or ministers, make annual visits to every home to check on morality. Taverns and dancing are banned.
On the credit side, there is a more democratic approach to church affairs. The presbyterian system, introduced by Calvin and seen as a return to early Christian principles, puts power jointly in the hands of pastors and lay elders. Neither group has any authority until elected by the congregation. But once elected, they are empowered to establish a wide-ranging structure of church government.
The example of this virtuous city brings enthusiasts and exiles to Geneva from all over Europe. One such exile is John Knox, in Geneva from 1556 to 1559 as minister to an English community escaping, like himself, from persecution under the Catholic queen Mary. He describes Calvin’s city as ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles’.
Geneva is indeed a school of Christ. Trained pastors are sent out from here to spread the faith through Europe – often at great personal risk.
Disciples of Calvin – variously known as Huguenots, Presbyterians, Puritans or Calvinists – agitate for their own kind of reform in the Roman Catholic kingdoms of France and Scotland, in Anglican England and in the Spanish Netherlands.
In doctrine they follow the Swiss reform of Zwingli, as opposed to that of Luther. But Calvin adds one harshly rigorous element – the concept of predestination, with roots in St Paul and St Augustine. This argues that since everything is in God’s hands, he must have selected in advance those who shall be saved. Thus any community includes some who are God’s elect, destined for heaven, and others whose certain fate is damnation.
One other distinct element in Calvinism is an insistence that church and state must be separate. The pastors control much of Genevan life, but they are not (and must never be) the civil magistrates. This distinction gives Calvinist sects a greater independence than either Lutherans or Anglicans, both of whom operate in a close relationship with lay rulers.
Scottish Calvinists establish a church in defiance of Scotland’s monarch, while the Pilgrim Fathers cross the Atlantic to found their own Calvinist community. The Genevan ideals of morality, thrift and hard work make such communities well adapted to prosper, even if tending to self-righteousness and intolerance.
Reformation in France: 1559-1572
France is affected by the Reformation in a manner and to an extent different from any other country. The reason is that the community is split from top to bottom on the issue; and the sides are so evenly balanced that a civil war based largely on religion lasts for four decades.
During the first half of the 16th century the reformed faith spreads among the ordinary people of France, encouraged by missionary priests trained in Geneva. The Protestants, who become known in France as Huguenots, are confident enough to organize in 1559 a national synod in Paris.
By this time there are powerful aristocrats in the Protestant camp, among them even members of the great Bourbon dynasty – a branch of the royal family, by distant descent from Louis IX. Their enemies are the Guise family, passionately committed to the Catholic cause. France’s wars of religion in the 16th century are also a struggle between these rival camps.
In 1559, the year of the Protestant synod in Paris, Henry II dies (he is killed jousting in a tournament). For the next three decades the throne of France is occupied in succession by three of his sons. But the first two are in their teens when they inherit. The real power lies with the Guise family and with Henry’s widow, Catherine de Médicis.
At first, in 1559, the Guises have the upper hand. The young king, Francis II, is married to Mary Queen of Scots – whose mother is a Guise. But Francis dies in 1560. With the accession of her second son, Charles IX, Catherine de Médicis becomes regent.
While sporadic warfare continues in France between Catholic and Protestant forces, Catherine’s main concern is to retain a balance of power which will keep her family on the throne. To this end she arranges a marriage between her daughter, Margaret, and Henry of Navarre – the leading member of the Bourbon family. The wedding takes place in 1572. It is followed within a week by the atrocities of St Bartholomew’s day.
The English Reformation: 1547-1662
Although Henry VIII severs the church of England from Rome in 1533, religious reform does not begin in earnest until after his death in 1547. Indeed in 1539 parliament passes, at the king’s behest, an Act of Six Articles outlawing Lutheran notions such as the marriage of clergy, or any interpretation of the Eucharist differing from that of Rome.
But in the six-year reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, two successive regents of the young king (the dukes of Somerset and Northumberland) press ahead with reform in the Calvinist tradition. This is the time when English cathedrals and churches first have their sculptures and stained-glass windows smashed, and their murals defaced.
On the positive side the period produces two versions of the Prayer Book (1549 and 1552) which are largely the work of Thomas Cranmer. Though modified in some respects in later reigns, Cranmer’s superb prose provides the basis of the Book of Common Prayer which becomes accepted from 1662 as the order of service of the church of England.
But the English Reformation has to pass through fire before it is tempered into its final form. In her five-year reign Edward’s sister, Mary I, forcibly reimposes Roman Catholicism on England. Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake bequeath to the Anglican church two abiding characteristics – a dislike of religious fervour and a hatred of Roman Catholicism.
During the reign of Mary’s sister Elizabeth, whose instinct is for reconciliation after the violent swings of the preceding years, the Calvinists in England become a minority widely referred to as Puritans (because they want to purify the church of all taints of Roman Catholicism).
Among various Puritan sects, the Presbyterians are predominant. In the English Civil War – which can be seen partly as an extension of the struggles of the Reformation – the Presbyterians are the party of parliament. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brings back the mainstream of the Anglican church; and from 1662 the mainstream insists upon conformity, even though to a broadly based central position.
The Act of Uniformity of 1662 obliges clergymen in the church of England to assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles. These central tenets of Anglican belief are based on a version drawn up by Cranmer in 1553 and modified ten years later, in Elizabeth’s reign, to try and accomodate Catholics who might be willing to give up Rome (and five of the seven Sacraments) and Puritans who might tolerate bishops.
Some 2000 clergy, appointed during the Commonwealth, lose their livings when they reject the Articles in the 1660s. They and their followers become the Nonconformists – a group, much discriminated against, which includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and later Methodists.
Reform in Scotland: 1546-1560
The first dramatic clash between reformers and the establishment in Scotland occurs in 1546. It is occasioned by the burning for heresy of George Wishart by the archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton. In retaliation Protestants murder the cardinal in May 1546 and seize the town and castle of St Andrews. Here they are besieged by the Scottish government while help from France is awaited.
In April 1547 the rebels in the castle are joined by John Knox, a close colleague of the martyred Wishart. His powerful preaching in St Andrews rapidly gives him the status of the leader of the reform movement. But in June retribution arrives in the form of French troops.
The castle is taken. Knox and the other Protestants are carried off to serve as galley slaves in the French fleet. Knox survives nineteen months of this before he is released.
Unable to return to Catholic Scotland, the preacher is welcomed in England. The kingdom is now experiencing its first real period of reform under Edward VI. Knox travels round the country spreading the faith. But the accession of Mary I in 1553 forces him to flee for safety to the continent, settling eventually in Calvin’s Geneva.
Meanwhile the movement for reform is gathering strength in Scotland. It is given added impetus during a period when Knox returns for a few months (in 1555-6), and it is strengthened by nationalism – since the persecuting government is that of a foreign Catholic regent, Mary of Guise, whose daughter Mary Queen of Scots is in France.
The turning point for the Scottish Reformation comes in 1559, when Mary of Guise resolves to take strong measures to suppress the reformers. Knox returns from Geneva to take part in the confrontation. Fired by his preaching, an army of reformers marches south from Perth – sacking monasteries and smashing church images on their way.
By the end of June 1559 the reformers are in Edinburgh and Knox is preaching in St Giles’ cathedral. They hold the city only briefly against Mary of Guise’s French forces. The next nine months are spent in spasmodic warfare, while Knox appeals desperately to Elizabeth and William Cecil for help. At last, in April 1560, the English send 10,000 troops. The result is a treaty between France and England in July. Both sides will withdraw, leaving the Scots to their own devices (the regent, Mary of Guise, has conveniently died in June).
Knox immediately writes a doctrine for the reformed church of Scotland. It is accepted in August by the Scottish parliament, which also abolishes the authority of the pope and bans idolatry and the ceremony of the mass.
Knox’s reforms of 1560 establish the general direction which will be taken by the church of Scotland, but it is not yet fully Presbyterian. It retains a role for bishops. This later becomes an issue of profound significance, when James VI and his son Charles I insist on imposing bishops upon a Scottish church now inclined to be non-episcopal. The Bishops’ Wars of 1637-40 provoke the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I.
Under the puritan parliament at Westminster a fully Presbyterian doctrine is promulgated and is accepted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647. In 1690 William III finally acknowledges that the church of Scotland is Presbyterian, in keeping with the terms of this Westminster Confession.
From a massacre to a mass: 1572-1594
Many of France’s Huguenot nobility are in Paris in August 1572 for the wedding of the princess Margaret and Henry of Navarre. Four days after the ceremony there is an assassination attempt on a leading Protestant, Admiral Coligny. It is probably planned by the regent, Catherine de Médicis, together with the Guise family. But the admiral is only wounded.
The bungled plot prompts Catherine to over-react. She orders a massacre of all the Huguenots in Paris. The killing begins before dawn on August 24, St Bartholomew’s day. Shops are pillaged, families butchered. By the evening of August 25 the government calls a halt, but the mob is now out of control.
Other towns follow suit. Estimates of the dead vary, with a likely total of between 10,000 and 15,000 Huguenots killed. The bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, is spared – but he has to declare himself a Catholic.
It is more than three years before Henry escapes from the French court, resumes his Protestant faith and leads the Huguenot cause against a Catholic league headed by the Guise family. By now the stakes have been considerably raised. Catherine’s second son, Charles IX, dies in 1574. Her third son succeeds him, as Henry III. He is childless, and in 1584 his only remaining brother dies. The Protestant Henry of Navarre is now heir presumptive to the French throne.
The last few years of the Valois dynasty are the stuff of melodrama. Henry III breaks his alliance with the Catholic faction in 1588 and has the two leading members of the Guise family assassinated. He then joins forces with Henry of Navarre. But the king is himself assassinated in 1589. On his deathbed he names his Protestant and very distant cousin as his successor – thus bringing the Bourbon dynasty to the throne of France.
It takes Henry of Navarre, now Henry IV, several years to conquer his kingdom. Paris, rigorously Catholic and strongly defended, is his main obstacle. It only yields to him, in 1594, after he has once again declared himself a Catholic – and this time for good.
It may well be that Henry IV never says the famous remark attributed to him on this topic (Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass), but the sentiment is true to history. France’s long religious wars are resolved by the simple expedient of making light of religion.
The compromise leaves Henry morally obliged to introduce religious toleration. His Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598, gives the Huguenots full civil rights, freedom of worship (within certain restrictions) and various agreed places which they can fortify for their protection. These concessions are violently resented by the Catholic majority. They will be steadily chipped away at, until the Edict of Nantes is finally revoked in 1685.