Monday, October 26, 2015

Question from Candace - Religions of the powerful families at Henry VIII's court

So I have seen various portrayals of these three families and their religions, in both fiction and nonfiction accounts. The Howards were Catholic, but apparently supported Anne Boleyn while she was in the ascendancy. Were their differing faiths part of the reason that her uncle Norfolk turned on her at the end? Also, were Thomas Boleyn and his family active reformers or did they simply subscribe to the new religion because it was advantageous to do so politically?

In addition, the Seymours were reputed to be Catholics and secret supporters of Katherine and Mary, which was part of the reason they toppled Anne Boleyn, but Jane's brothers Edward and Thomas were zealous reformers in raising their nephew. Did they convert at some point, or were they reformers who simply sympathized with Katherine and Mary?

1 comment:

PhD Historian said...

This question offers a really useful example of a common innocent misunderstanding regarding the reformation in England during the first half of the 1500s. The question seems to assume that there was more than one faith being practiced in England prior to about 1550. That is not, however, the case.

Prior to the Act of Supremacy of 1534, England was a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and every English Christian was required by law to adhere to the doctrines and rituals of the Roman church. There was no organized alternative church or system of worship. There was, however, debate within the official church regarding various doctrines and practices. But questioning the teachings of the church, if done with care, did not make one a member of a “differing faith.” Anyone who went beyond certain limits when advocating for reform risked being excommunicated and burned as a heretic. Thus reform-minded people such as Anne Boleyn and the Seymours continued to practice in the traditional form while simultaneously working *within the existing system* for certain changes.

Even following passage of the Act of Supremacy, the doctrines and rituals of the English church remained essentially unchanged. Many historians have described it as “Catholicism without the Pope.” Anne Boleyn and her Howard cousins remained Catholic in practice. Real differences in beliefs *did* emerge in the 1530s, but Henry VIII moved swiftly to limit those differences. Despite desire by some for reform of a more radical nature, traditionalists were able to re-affirm most of the existing doctrines of the Henrician church, including belief in transubstantiation, communion in one kind, priestly celibacy, and auricular confession. Other traditional beliefs such as seven sacraments, intercession of saints, use of relics, idols and icons, existence of purgatory, and prayers for the dead all remained unchanged.

Anne Boleyn practiced traditional Catholicism. There was as yet no such thing as “Protestantism” or a Protestant church. The term would not be applied to any organized doctrinal system until several decades later. Similarly, the Seymours did not “convert” since there was nothing to which they could in fact “convert.”

The news media has reported this past week on the just-ended convocation of bishops at the Vatican, called to address certain longstanding doctrines of the modern Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s position on divorced persons was a key point in the debate, as was its position on same-sex relationships. The debate was reportedly quite intense. But no one would label as “of a differing faith” those bishops who advocated for change. They are still Roman Catholic bishops and continue in the Roman Catholic faith.

A secular parallel can be drawn using modern political parties. One can be a card-carrying, dues-paying registered member of the British Labor Party or the American Republican Party and still advocate for change within that party. Some Laborites are fierce opponents of the UK’s participation in the EU, but their view does note make them “of a differing political party.” Similarly, many Republican women are decidedly pro-choice, but that does not make them non-Republicans.

In short, there was only one legal Christian faith in England during the first half of the 1500s, and that faith was based entirely on traditional Roman Catholic belief and practice. All law-abiding English Christian persons were followers of that one faith. There was no organized or legal alternative. But within that traditional doctrinal system, debate did occur and was sometimes vigorous and heated. Some did seek radical changes, but they often ended up like Thomas Cromwell and were executed for carrying the debate beyond the bounds of what was at that time considered acceptable. There was a fine line between advocating for reform and heresy, but most reform-minded persons, including Anne Boleyn and the Seymours, were very careful to remain well within the bounds of acceptability. They worked from within the existing system, not from some differing system.