Edwardian Reform

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Edwardian Reform

The death of Henry VIII and the accession of his sickly nine-year-old son as Edward VI in 1547 led to a dramatic change in religious policy in England. The new king and his advisors were firmly Protestant and ensured that the break from Rome became closely linked to a commitment to the reformed religion. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, led the way with two new prayer books in 1549 and 1552, the latter containing a clearly Protestant communion service, and he was working on a new confession of faith, the Forty-Three Articles, in 1553 when religious reform was brought to a sudden halt by the death of Edward and the succession of his Roman Catholic half-sister Mary in 1553.

The rapid progress of the Edwardian Reformation was a reflection not just of the power of the centralized English state, but also of the commitment of Cranmer and many others to the new religious ideas. But the speed of change aroused opposition among conservative clergy and much of the population. In Ireland, where Protestants were much fewer and the power of the government far weaker than in England, religious resistance was more formidable. Such limited success as had been achieved in the reign of Henry VIII was focused upon securing compliance with the jurisdictional change from the pope to the new "supreme head," the monarch. But Edwardian Protestantism led to important changes in personnel, theology, and liturgy, and marked a dramatic new departure in Irish religious policy.

Lord Deputy Bellingham, with the reluctant cooperation of Archbishop Brown of Dublin, issued injunctions against Catholic practices and imposed the new Protestant communion service. In 1551 the first English Book of Common Prayer was introduced to Ireland and used in many churches there. Bishop Staples of Meath set out to preach Protestant doctrine, scandalizing his more conservative clergy and laity by attacking prayer to the saints and the sacrifice of the mass. The archbishop of Armagh, George Dowdall, resolutely refused to countenance such innovations, and in 1551 he fled Ireland rather than conform to the new faith. In his place the new lord deputy, Sir James Croft, in 1552 secured the service of two English Protestants: John Bale, who was appointed bishop of Ossory, and Hugh Goodacre, who succeeded Dowdall at Armagh but died soon after. This marked an important shift in English religious policy away from slow reform relying upon local clergy toward a much more rapid process necessarily relying upon clergy imported from England.

Bishop Bale's uncompromisingly Protestant religious principles came as something of a shock for the Church of Ireland. At his consecration in Dublin on 2 February 1553 he refused to let Archbishop Browne use the old ordinal, insisting on the new English one. As bishop in Ossory, he preached on Protestant doctrine regularly to the congregation in Kilkenny Cathedral, attacked Catholic idolatry, and used the new 1552 prayer book. Bale, however, was unusual in the vigor of his commitment to the new religion. More typical was Archbishop Browne, who went along with the reforms, but without much commitment. Not surprisingly, after the death of Edward in July 1553, Ireland swiftly returned to the papal fold.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Marian Restoration; Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century; Religion: 1500 to 1690


Bradshaw, B. I. "The Edwardian Reformation in Ireland." Archivium Hibernicum 34 (1977): 83–99.

Hayes-McCoy, G. A. "Conciliation, Coercion, and the Protestant Reformation, 1547–71." In A New History of Ireland, Vol. 3, Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976.

Alan Ford

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