Evangelicals, Politics and Obedience in Tudor England

Vintage engraving of Bishop Latimer presenting the Bible to King Henry VIII

“..of all things the most difficult is to settle religious differences, especially at this advanced age of the world when everyone thinks he had found truth.” – John Frederick, Duke of Saxony

Politics and the reformation of the church were intertwined in Tudor England. Rulers considered religious discontent as civil disobedience at best and treason in the worst case. Evangelicals and other reformers debated whether magistrates (kings, counts, dukes, etc.) should be obeyed or resisted and tyrants overthrown. During the majority of the years 1527-1553, most evangelicals adhered to the doctrine of non-resistance and obedience to magistrates, although this would be moderated during the reign of Queen Mary I.

Many Evangelicals studied biblical teachings on obedience, and subscribed to the interpretation of Psalm 82 by Swiss Reformed theologians and continental Protestants. This Psalm described kings as ‘gods’ on earth. The shift from viewing Psalm 82 as a spiritual verse to a political verse happened because of a revolution in the study of Hebrew and the reliance on word roots and their usage in scripture. Therefore, we hear about court elites, such as Jane Grey, studying the Hebrew language.

Ulrich Zwingli argued the Bible commands people to be obedient to magistrates because subjects may not overthrow the ‘gods’. This reading of Psalm 82 was popular with Protestant ideas circulating on the continent, especially among Reformed Swiss theologians like Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and others. In the end, the Zurich reformers developed a political application for Psalm 82.

Inspired by the Swiss interpretations of the Old Testament, William Tyndale, an Englishman, biblical scholar and linguist, would incorporate their ideas into his political theology. Tyndale had a vocation to print the New Testament in English. The most momentous change in England, beginning in 1526, was the ability of ordinary men, women and children to read and hear the New Testament in the vernacular and this was entirely because of the work of Tyndale.  

These ideas were well established before King Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and initially, Henry himself showed little concern with evangelical political ideas. Upon the passage of the Supremacy legislation in Parliament, evangelicals used the doctrine of obedience to ingratiate themselves with government leaders, hoping to convince Henry to pursue even further reform of the church.

William Tyndale, Biblical Scholar and Linguist

Outside of the translations of the Bible, Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man was his most influential book. Upon publication in 1528, Tyndale wrote for the first time regarding the fundamental principles of the English reformers: the supreme authority of scripture in the church and the supreme authority of the king in the state. That same year, Anne Boleyn read Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man in which he argued kings had authority over the church.

Richard Sampson, the Dean of the Chapel Royal, took the book away from Anne when it was declared a banned book. Boleyn claimed it was “the dearest book that ever dean or cardinal took away”. She eventually got it back and passed it on to Henry VIII with “certain passages marked by her fingernail for his attention”. Impressed with the book, Henry commented that “by the help of the virtuous lady… his eyes were opened the see the truth” and pronounced it a book “for me and all kings to read”.

By 1535, Thomas Cromwell’s cadre adopted evangelical ideas. Several evangelicals were received into the inner circle of Henry’s government, and others got limited freedom to publish their works. Cromwell used evangelical teachings to carry out his propaganda campaign and, in part, to establish the Tudor cult of authority.

Tyndale also worked on a new translation of the Bible into English and advised the king that true obedience begins with the word of God. He argued only an evangelical reformation in England could guarantee Henry’s quest for authority over his subjects. Miles Coverdale, in his Great Bible, published in 1540, places Psalm 82 at the heart of his opening argument to the king, combining it with the Supremacy, declaring divine law had placed kings over the church.

Opening page of the Coverdale Bible – Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (Source: https://www.wga.hu/html_m/h/holbein/hans_y/2drawing/woodcuts/2titlepb.html)

We can see this biblical defense of obedience as the initial link between English evangelicalism and the Henrician reformation and this connection led to the publishing and distribution of many Bibles in the vernacular. Following the legislation of the Royal Supremacy, they published propaganda texts with obedience to the king combined with true faith.

These ideas would lead to a break in the relationship between Henry VIII and his Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. The notion of ‘consensus’ or the ‘common faith’ of Christendom endured as More’s most important ideological concept. Christendom historically refers to the “Christian world”: Christian states, Christian-majority countries, and the countries in which Christianity dominates, prevails, or is culturally intertwined. More believed Europe was greater than the sum of its princely parts, having a sense of membership in a common historic and spiritual experience.

More declared he could not ‘perceive how any member thereof may, without the common assent of the body, depart from the common head’. This concept was so crucial to him, he concluded he must refuse to accept the Act of Supremacy, believing in the consensus of General Councils of the Catholic Church and of the faithful and in defending ‘the very good old and long-approved laws, both of this realm (England) and of the whole corps of Christendom’. It was impossible for him to imagine Scripture stood in opposition to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church, something the reformers constructed as the root of the Reformation divide.

During the last seven years of Henry’s reign, the political state of evangelicals became dire. Cromwell had protected them, but with his execution in 1540, conservatives returned to power. These leaders, with the backing of King Henry, worked to reinforce the traditional elements of Catholic worship which had come under pressure in the 1530s. Evangelicals called it a ‘return to Babylon’ and the ‘persecution of God’s people’.

While in power, the conservatives rolled back many of the advances of evangelical theology, most notably restrictions on the lay reading of the Bible, as they feared it would incite sedition. Evangelicals believed eliminating papal authority would, of necessity, eliminate papal worship. They always conceded the possibility of civil government rejecting their faith, even as they remained confident God chose the king to reform England. Henry did not see it this way and with Cromwell gone, evangelicals realized Henry rejected their vision of an English reformed church and theologians began writing treatises, hoping to salvage the evangelical cause in England.

Conservatives moved to root out pockets of heresy in England, including targeting the king’s wife, Katherine Parr, a devoted evangelical. They argued that the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s doctrines, would prove dangerous and create uproars and commotions such as those which arose in Germany. They used these same arguments against the Queen, contending her humanistic mysticism brought her to the edge of heresy and into the company of sacramentarians (those who denied the presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist). 

They failed to displace the Queen, but in London, they arrested and questioned nearly two hundred evangelicals. All but two of these were cleared of any charges, but it was enough to scare many others. The conservatives also focused heavily on evangelical leaders, and gospel preachers found themselves accused of sedition and treason. This triggered a backlash of evangelical writings against conservative theology and practices by those who were increasingly anxious over England’s opposition to evangelicalism.

In such an atmosphere, it was hard for anyone to imagine Protestants would take over the Privy Council, but that is exactly what happened once Henry VIII died and Edward VI ascended the throne. Evangelicalism became an exalted or glorified ideal and over the next six years, evangelicals and other reformed elites were in control of England. The King’s council pursued a policy of reformation corresponding with Protestant movements in Europe. During King Edward’s reign, the Swiss theologians were looking for allies as John Calvin’s influence expanded beyond Geneva. Heinrich Bullinger, successor to Ulrich Zwingli and chief pastor of the Zurich Church, sought English friends. The growing relationship between evangelicals and Reformed leaders led to a Zurich connection in England.

Henry Grey, Lord Dorset, later Duke of Suffolk, actively promoted and encouraged evangelicalism. John of Ulm, a German religious exile in England and on the payroll of Lord Dorset, was in contact with Bullinger in Switzerland. Ulm described the role of Dorset in driving forward religious change and explaining how his daughter Lady Jane Grey was being educated in evangelical principles. Dorset encouraged Bullinger to guide Jane’s spiritual development. Evangelical theologians spoke about Jane, before and after her death.

Heinrich Bullinger, Swiss Theologian

Ulm urged Bullinger to cultivate Jane’s friendship. He also urged Jane to correspond with Bullinger, and they did for two years. There is no evidence of any other teenage girls corresponding with Bullinger or any other continental evangelical. She asked for advice on how to advance her studies in Hebrew and sent his wife gifts, including a ring and some gloves. Jane also corresponded with Martin Bucer before his death. Bucer was a close friend of Jane’s step-grandmother, Catherine Willoughby, and of Archbishop Cranmer. These exiles were the principal source of radical ideas in England and Dorset and William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton and brother of Queen Katherine Parr, were their leading patrons on the Privy Council.  

The role of the Royal Supremacy was strong during Edward’s reign, as the council needed to justify its actions. They emphasized rhetoric of obedience to magisterial authority more than ever, leading to an inevitably strong opposition from the conservatives who considered it dubious a minor could alter the Henrician established church, an argument the king’s heir, his Catholic sister Mary, would vociferously refer to often. Protector Somerset committed the country to the teachings of evangelicals, leading to an increase in the number of attacks on conservative religion, particularly the mass and the real presence of Christ in the elements of communion.

The council continued to enact legislation against Catholic worship. Evangelicals had reason to hope for the complete reform of the English church, which goes a long way in explaining the enormous pressure Edward and his council put on his sister Mary to abandon hearing mass. Mary stood firm, but Edward attempted to work around her by preparing his ‘device’ for putting his cousin Jane Grey on the throne.

Bullinger wrote that rebellion and opposition to magistrates were an offense against God and admits it is good to see a tyrant removed. But he asks two questions. First, whether they must remove a tyrant from his realm or not, and second, how should he be removed and by whom? He argues magistrates may be removed only if they had risen to power by the assent of all the people or chosen by the election of a few princes. In this way, the same process in which they were elected removes the tyrant.

He qualifies this by denying anyone may overthrow a hereditary monarch, directly addressing the English. With the death of Edward and the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary I, she set out to restore the English church to Roman obedience and to eradicate evangelical influence once and for all. Evangelicals fled England and settled in the Swiss cantons or in the imperial free cities along the Rhine. Reformed theology highly influenced these geographic areas and their writings continued to focus on non-resistance and obedience to magistrates while refusing to commit idolatry, i.e., practicing mass.

During Mary’s reign, John Ponet, a graduate of Queen’s College, Cambridge, wrote a treatise stating kings are but ministers of the laws, and not the laws self. His basic argument asserted that royal decrees must pass the judgement of the political body as a whole, such as through Parliament. He argued the Jane Grey conspiracy was an illegal use of royal power because altering the succession was based solely on Edward VI’s will, wrongfully disinheriting his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Upon Elizabeth’s accession, evangelicals returned from exile and the argument for obedience to magistrates survived, although some questioned Elizabeth’s commitment to reform. The Queen herself was hostile to the teachings of Calvin but was more open to the teachings of the reformers in Zurich. An argument over the wearing of vestments by clericals over the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign caused a rift among evangelicals. This died down after 1568 and a series of events between 1567 and 1570, most notably the Catholic uprising of 1569, took the focus off vestments and church conformity, refocusing evangelical energies on the Catholic threat of sedition.

Further reading: “English Evangelicals and Tudor Obedience, c. 1527-1570” by Ryan M. Reeves, “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty” by Lacey Baldwin Smith, “Thomas More” by John Guy, “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey – A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle, “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on William Tyndale written by David Daniell