Saturday, 6 September 2014

Two Steps Back? - The Six Articles, 1539

Another post from me about the Reformation, seeing as I’m still reading about it!

Although the practical effectiveness of the Six Articles, passed through parliament in 1539, can be debated, the Articles remain significant as a dramatic shift away from growing evangelicalism in the English Church. Perhaps even more significantly, the Articles were the first major example of Henry VIII taking an aggressively active role in the religion of his country. Henry had always sought a middle way, which is evident in the balanced appointment of clerics to doctrinal discussions and committees: it was generally an equal number of conservatives and evangelicals. The Six Articles follow this trend in that they were meant to eliminate controversy, but Henry’s involvement in the theological debates, rather than merely signing the finished document, was unprecedented.

Before 1539, the reformers had gained victories under the patronage of Anne Boleyn, and later with the 10 Articles and Bishops’ Book, which, although full of compromises, were a step in the right direction. Cromwell also pushed forward with his and Cranmer’s shared goal and made sure there was an English Bible in every parish church. The extremely conservative Six Articles therefore represented a U-turn in religious policy, reaffirming the key doctrines of the Catholic Church, including transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and the necessity of auricular confession. These orthodox affirmations resulted in Bishops Latimer and Shaxton – who had spoken out viciously against the Articles in the House of Lords – resigning their sees; yet another loss for the evangelical cause.

The Articles stated that:
  1. Transubstantiation was the definitive Eucharistic doctrine of the Church (though this was only implied – transubstantiation was not explicitly mentioned).
  2. Lay people should not receive both parts of the Eucharist (i.e. they could take the bread but not wine).
  3. Priests could not marry.
  4. Vows of chastity had to be strictly observed.
  5. Private masses for both the living and the dead had to be continued.
  6. Auricular confession was a necessity.

The Articles took three days to pass through parliament, much to the dismay of Cromwell, who had effectively been shoved to one side by Henry’s sudden assertiveness. The parliamentary session seems to have been only a formality, as the outcome had been clear from the start, and Cromwell and Cranmer could only look on helplessly as Henry’s conservative beliefs made their mark.

For Cranmer in particular, the third article was devastating. The Archbishop had secretly married the niece of a Lutheran theologian in 1532, and the accompanying penalty was death. It was perhaps through concern for his friend that Cromwell amended the article at the last minute to include only known clerical marriages. Nevertheless, the passing of the Articles through Parliament forced Cranmer to send his wife and daughter back to Germany. Henry VIII himself doesn’t seem to have quizzed Cranmer on his marital state until 1543, but he was aware that his chaplain’s conscience was troubled by the acts: he gave Cranmer permission to miss the last day of the vote (which Cranmer refused to do) and later held a feast in the archbishop’s honour at Lambeth.

The Articles can also be seen as a clear shift in diplomatic strategy. With the support of Henry and the continental reformer, Martin Bucer, theologians had received a German Lutheran delegation at Lambeth, partly in an attempt to strengthen ties with the League of Schmalkalden. The key reason for this was the Imperial-French truce, presenting the possibility of French-Imperial-papal alliance against Henry. When the delegation refused to make enough concessions, Henry changed tactics, and seems to have favoured appeasing the Catholics instead. Although not technically foreign policy, as it was governed by England, Calais also proved to be a key stimulant: dissent was growing within the upper secular classes against Archbishop Cranmer’s more outspoken preachers there, which seems to have unnerved Henry about the speed and possible radicalism of reform. Threats from home, therefore, were more important than a possible attack from abroad, especially with the memory of the Pilgrimage of Grace weighing heavily in people’s minds.

The Articles, however, were not a complete loss for the evangelical cause. Even the point about transubstantiation was vague. The reformers at this stage, who had not yet lost their belief in the true presence in the Eucharist, could claim that the Articles still followed their own doctrine, even if the language was aggressively conservative. Cromwell also managed to delay the appointment of commissions and some of the articles either took a long time to enforce, or the initiatives were dropped. In Henry’s more happily evangelical mood following Cromwell’s fall a year later, he lifted the death penalty for married priests (no doubt with sighs of relief from Cranmer) and dropped charges on the 200 or so evangelical Londoners who had been rounded up by Bishop Bonner’s men. The changes the Articles made, therefore, were significant in what they said, rather than what they did to the English Church in practice.

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