Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century

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Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century

The failure of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland was not inevitable. There was a considerable degree of (at least nominal) conformity to the initial stages of the Tudors' reformation, especially among the Old English. It was not until Elizabeth I's reign that a passive antipathy to religious change was galvanized into a general adherence to the Counter-Reformation.

Eve of Reformation

The fortunes of the Irish Church revived from the midfifteenth century, particularly in the English lordship. There was considerable investment in parish churches, and many chantries were founded. Contemporary wills reflect a strong piety. In the case of Armagh diocese it has been shown that the church provided pastoral care through a dense network of churches and chapels staffed with resident priests. Diocesan synods (meetings of clergy) were used to raise standards. Episcopal visitations were conducted regularly and the church courts processed suits to some effect. In the most anglicized parts of Ireland the diocesan church was in relatively good order, and the laity engaged in forms of piety that would have been familiar to Christians elsewhere in Europe.

The foundation of no fewer than ninety new friaries after 1400 is further evidence of the religious revival. Many of the new communities were "observant," committed to a stricter observance of ascetic rules, and observantism won over most of the existing communities in Ireland. In the diocesan church across much of the country the greatest problem was not the prevalence of clerical concubinage or the tendency of clergymen's sons to seek preferment in the church, but rather the poverty of the institution. The practice of subsistence agriculture among the Irish, and the frequency of petty wars and general lawlessness, depressed clerical incomes. Consequently, church buildings were often in a poor state. Few Irish clergymen could afford a university education, which could only be obtained abroad. Yet there were generally resident clergy in place to meet the pastoral needs of the laity, except in districts wasted by war.

The Advent of Reformation

Henry VIII sent a new lord deputy, Sir William Skeffington, to Ireland in June 1534 with instructions to terminate the pope's jurisdiction. That contributed to the outbreak of rebellion. The rebel leader, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, eldest son of the ninth earl of Kildare, was not motivated primarily by religious concerns, but he exploited popular opposition to Henry VIII's assault on the church to maximize his support within Ireland and to attract help from the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Clergy throughout Ireland roused support for his avowed crusade and its initial success owed something to the popular distaste for religious change. The rebellion failed for want of support from Catholic Europe, yet it demonstrated the widespread hostility toward Henry VIII's innovations. In the immediate aftermath of the suppression of the rebellion there was a large garrison of English troops quartered in Ireland, a guarantee that the English Crown's wishes could not be ignored.

The Irish Reformation Parliament was convened on 1 May 1536, and within a month the lords and Commons had endorsed bills altering the church. The justification offered for the king's supremacy over the Irish Church (replacing that of the pope) was political rather than religious. There was significant lay opposition to the bill for the suppression of monasteries, but the parliamentarians bowed to Henry VIII's determination to dissolve these religious communities.

There was little Protestant preaching in Ireland, apart from the efforts of George Browne, archbishop of Dublin (1536–1554). Browne found that his words fell on deaf ears. He could not persuade his senior clergy to endorse the Henrician reformation, and, indeed, they worked against it behind the scenes. He also encountered considerable hostility from "observant" friars. Nonetheless, Browne conducted a visitation and subsequently issued a set of injunctions early in 1538 that promoted the royal supremacy; otherwise he was fairly conservative. Vicegerent Thomas Cromwell's second set of injunctions were published in October 1538, not only in Dublin but also in much of southeastern Ireland. His injunction against notable images or relics was widely implemented in the Pale, but often evaded elsewhere.

Archbishop Browne's efforts to promote religious change were hampered by Lord Deputy Grey, who treated the unpopular archbishop with open contempt. Grey calculated that the political costs of rigorously enforcing the king's reformation in Ireland were impracticably high. His successor, Anthony Saint Leger, lord deputy from July 1540, took advantage of the temporary retreat from Protestant doctrine in the English parliament's Six Articles of 1539 to promote a royal supremacy in Ireland shorn of doctrinal or liturgical innovation. It was a strategy that worked well and won wide acceptance for a schismatic but still very conservative religious settlement.

Impact of the Reformation

All of the Reformation statutes sanctioned by the Irish parliament were enforced with varying degrees of success. Over much of Ireland the English Crown displaced the papacy in terms of taxation and faculties and as the final court of appeal in ecclesiastical causes. The religious houses were dissolved with the cooperation of local juries. This was the most dramatic feature of the Henrician reformation. In terms of pastoral care the suppression of the mendicant orders impoverished the spiritual lives of the people in a direct fashion. Yet the loss was not complete. Some mendicant communities continued to maintain their ministry in the Pale, while others took refuge beyond the Pale, to return in Mary Tudor's reign.

Henry VIII did nothing to reform the diocesan church. The poverty of the benefices and the dismal stipends available to unbeneficed curates made it extremely difficult to promote graduate priests who might have favored the Reformation. The failure to establish a university in Ireland (until 1592), or a training college for the ministers of the Henrician church added to the staffing problems of the reformed church. Throughout the early Tudor reformation most of the Irish clergy were trained in the late medieval manner, inclining them toward the practice of traditional religion.

The Edwardian reformation got off to a very slow start in Ireland while Saint Leger remained as lord deputy. However, after the deputy's recall in May 1548, Archbishop Browne promoted a "book of Reformation" in the ecclesiastical province of Dublin and introduced the first Book of Common Prayer in the following year. Bishop Edward Staples distinguished himself by preaching Protestantism in the diocese of Meath—much to the chagrin of his congregations. The fiery Protestant Bishop John Bale was very active in Kilkenny. The Protestant Book of Common Prayer was widely used in churches in Old English areas of Ireland. However, with the connivance of Saint Leger (he returned as deputy in August 1550) Primate George Dowdall of Armagh resisted the Edwardian reformation until the summer of 1551, when Saint Leger's final recall left him exposed to the likelihood of arrest and imprisonment. Dowdall fled and took refuge in the monastery at Centre in the Netherlands. His Protestant successor never reached Armagh, and the diocese may have escaped the imposition of the Edwardian reformation altogether before King Edward VI died in July 1553.

Henry VIII largely succeeded in displacing the papacy's jurisdiction over the church in the Pale and beyond. The first Jesuits in Ireland in 1542 formed a very bleak impression of the prospects for the Catholic Church there. With hindsight it is clear that they were unduly pessimistic: the church in Ireland proved to be open to reinvigoration by the Counter-Reformation. Nonetheless, as long as the senior clergy and secular elites were prepared to acquiesce in the Tudors' royal supremacy over the church, and generally conform to the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer, there was a distinct possibility that a Protestant Reformation might eventually succeed, at least in the most English part of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Edwardian Reform; Marian Restoration; Monarchy; Religion: 1500 to 1690


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Henry A. Jefferies

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Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century

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