In what ways was the credo “cuius regio, eius religio” (‘whose realm, his religion’) challenged in the sixteenth century?

The Latin adage ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, which translates as ‘whose realm, his religion’, suggests that it was the religion of the ruler that determined the faith of the inhabitants of a kingdom. However, it is commonly known that periods in English history, such as the sixteenth century, offered turbulent times in politics and religion, with the country frequently changing hands, and as a result, its faith. The sixteenth century in England, dominated by the infamous Tudor dynasty, was notoriously a period filled with religious unsettlement following Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Other monarchs of the sixteenth century, notably his children, force the realm into religious turmoil as they fluctuate between staunch Catholicism, aggressive Protestantism and the contrastingly liberal and refreshing strategy taken by Elizabeth I, which will be discussed further. With faith supposedly a characteristic which a person maintains from birth to death, it is improbable that those generations which survived multiple monarchs would have consistently observed every religious change. This study will analyse the extent to which the credo, ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, was adhered to, and in what ways it may have been challenged. The essay will take a chronological approach, as opposed to thematic, in order to allow for a full and cohesive exploration of each monarch’s impact on the religion of the realm.

The first 16th Century monarch that this study will look at is Henry VIII, who was revolutionary in terms of securing significant religious change in his 38 years on the throne. Henry VIII’s characteristic impatience meant that in late 1530, following four frustrating years of desiring Anne Boleyn and having been refused a divorce since early 1527, he began to seek alternative methods of gaining sacred blessing for his separation from Catherine of Aragon.[1] Inspired by the principles of Thomas Cranmer and Edward Foxe in the Collectanea Satis Copiosa, Henry defended the concept of royal supremacy which would put him, as the King of England, outside of the jurisdiction of the Pope.[2] Henry, also, legally and financially separated his realm from Rome in the Act for the Submission of the Clergy and Restraint of Appeals, 1534, which denied people the right to an authority outside of their country, and the Act Restraining the Payment of Annates and Concerning the Election of Bishops, 1534, which stopped payments to Rome.[3] Furthermore, he removed papal powers in England and Wales via the Act of Supremacy, 1534, demonstrating that he had the power to change the religion of the realm at will.[4]

Whilst Henry did sway the religion of the whole country, it is arguable that this is not due to his position as leader of the realm granting him dictatorial power over the faith of his subjects, but because of the resources that his station offered to him, enabling him a unique position from which he could influence popular beliefs through other means. As King, Henry sought to assert his own royal supremacy, however in order to achieve this most effectively, he had to denounce the authority of his greatest opponent, the Pope. G. W. Bernard states that it is clear that as early as 1527 Henry begins to challenge the legitimacy of papal authority; he used his position to gain support from ‘university theologians and canon lawyers…in a sense to qualify the plenitude of papal power’.[5] Similarly, Henry had to embark upon a campaign which besmirched the reputation of the monks and nuns of the monasteries before he built a strong enough case for their dissolution. Commissioners sent to visit the institutions and report back found evidence of gambling, promiscuity and homosexuality, which resulted in many monasteries being destroyed and their wealth reaped by the King.[6] To clarify, Henry’s rule did not dictate which religion was followed by those in his realm, but, allowed him the resources with which to influence religious belief.

Henry evidently also had to battle to claim royal supremacy, suggesting that religion was in some ways viewed as more superior, and it was he who was dictated to by religion and not vice versa. In addition, the level of resistance and opposition Henry met in the form of violent rebellion from his subjects suggests that he had not influenced their faith, but had simply disturbed their ability to practice it. Individuals such as ‘Bishop John Fisher, Thomas More and several monks and friars’ had refused to accept Henry’s ultimate authority, though, it was not until late 1536 that Henry was met with an organised opposition, The Pilgrimage of Grace.[7] Henry was, however, able to easily quash conflict due to his position as king and support from patriotic supporters.[8]  During the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, it immediately appears that his realm had to follow whichever religion Henry chose to follow, since he held legal authority over such business. However, it is clear that ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ was indeed challenged. There existed little blind following of Henry’s move away from Roman Catholicism, instead the King had to work hard to persuade and motivate religious change across the country, using the intelligence and power available to him. He was also challenged, if only somewhat, in terms of popular risings. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Lancashire Risings both demonstrated to Henry that he did not hold supremacy in the eyes of all of his subjects.

Edward VI experienced similar challenges to his authority during his short reign between 1547 and 1553. For the first time in English history, under Edward VI’s reign, Protestantism was almost completely established; this marks a huge turning point in religious history, perhaps even more so than the changes implemented by his father before him, due to Henry’s sudden about turn in the waning years of his life. Edward introduced a Puritan-influenced Prayer Book in 1549 which was published in English, allowing his subjects to worship in their own language.[9] Under his rule, there was also an act established to remove age old traditions regarding the marriage of priests, which was likely influenced by the Reformation in Germany and the growth of Lutheranism.[10] Unlike Henry VIII, Edward experienced exacerbated challenges to his supremacy due to his age. Raised and educated as a Protestant, Edward was closely advised by Archbishop Cranmer and Lord Protector Somerset. With a powerful few at his side and at such an impressionable and vulnerable age, the question arises as to whether Edward had any influence over the drastic reforms to the religion of the realm which were made in his name; Jennifer Loach states that ‘the history of his reign must therefore be the history of those who ruled in his name’.[11] Very shortly after Henry VIII died, Edward Seymour established himself as Lord Protector of his nephew Edward VI; T. A. Morris describes his seizure of and time in power as ‘autocratic’.[12] Moreover, Seymour’s successor, John Dudley, ‘amplified’ the ‘Protestant elements in his religious policy’. [13] Not insignificantly, this included support for Archbishop Cranmer’s ‘Forty-Two Articles’ which G. L. Bray considers the ‘most advanced systemization of Protestant theology then in existence anywhere in the world’.[14] This would suggest that between 1547 and 1553, the Latin adage ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ was entirely challenged, since it was in fact the religion of Edward’s advisors that dictated that of the country.

Edward’s religious authority was also diminished by the rebellions of 1549. These rebellions, such as the Western rebellion, made clear religious demands, which A. Wood states focus on ‘the reinstitution of the Henrician settlement rather than the wholesale return to Catholicism.’[15] This demand may be viewed as a popular rejection of the authority of the King and his council. Since, the rebels are not seeking a return to Catholicism, they are simply seeking a reversal of laws passed under the boy king. Alternatively, and more probably, the demands could be perceived as a rejection of the religion of the King in a defiant act of heresy due to the extreme and alien measures that were passed during Edward’s reign, including permitting the marriage of clergy. In this case, the decisions made by the King regarding religion do not dictate popular faith in practice. However, the subsequent execution of Robert Kett once again proves that the King has the resources at his disposal to form a legal basis for his chosen religion, whether or not this affects that which his subjects truly believe.

Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, the Tudor dynasty was put to the test as both of the remaining heirs to the throne were female; at this point there existed little threat from any potential Scottish heir since Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was both female and merely ten years of age. Mary Tudor, the next English monarch, faced many challenges to her authority as ruler, due to her gender. At this point, her realm was unfamiliar with female rule and unsure of their expectations for her; historian David Loades states that these difficulties arise from the expectation of her position as a ‘surrogate male’ conflicting with ‘the traditional limitations of her sex’.[16] Most notably, with papal authority eradicated in England and the monarch instated as head of the Church, was it possible that Mary’s subjects could appreciate a woman as Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Loades notes that whilst not the most popular belief ‘John Knox was not alone believing that the rule of women over men was unnatural’.[17] Mary’s image as the ‘helpless virgin’ was the making of her success as Queen, however, dampened her ability to exercise power though not necessarily to influence religion.[18] From the moment of her accession, Mary began dismantling the religious reforms put into place by her father and brother. In a set of legislation known as the Marian Injunctions of 1554, Mary successfully eradicated all laws which affected England’s relationship with Rome, including Royal Supremacy and anti-Papal legislation.[19] This again demonstrates the legal authority of the monarchs of the period, and their ability to influence religious practices in this way.

If Mary had begun reversing all Protestant legislation as early as her proclamation as Queen in July 1553, so did the Marian exiles begin to flee in the August of the same year and the ‘great movement’ to Germany began a mere four months later.[20] The most common understanding of these exiles states that they were ‘protestants, forced solely for the sake of their religion to take refuge abroad from the persecution of a bigoted and cruel queen’.[21] Christina Hollowell Garrett, who hails herself as the first historian of the Marian exiles since 1574, states that from John Foxe to Heylyn, Burnet and other ‘irresponsible’ contemporary Englishmen, the number of Marian exiles varies between 300 to over 1000.[22] When considering even a conservative 300 exiles, it is still evident that Protestantism was not at all eradicated in England despite any number of injunctions that Mary put into place. Instead, it is clear that people would prefer to maintain their faith and abandon their country. Furthermore, in some cases it is demonstrated that Mary’s subjects would prefer to lose their life than allow the monarch to dictate their religion. Mary’s policy of terror led to the deaths of more than 300 ‘humble and gentle’ Protestants, either in prison or savagely burned at the stake.[23] David Loades suggests that her ‘biggest mistake had been to make a martyr out of Thomas Cranmer’, because this contradicted her otherwise docile, pious and virginal image that had earned the support of her subjects.[24] Therefore, it is fair to propose that any influence Mary Tudor had over the religious beliefs of the inhabitants of her realm were based primarily on fear of death and absolutely not her respected authority.

The last Tudor monarch was Elizabeth I, remembered as the Virgin Queen who led her realm through its Golden Era. Specifically, Elizabeth is praised for offering a sense of stability in terms of her religious policy, contrary to those immediately before her; she was revolutionary in offering a breakthrough in religious tolerance which ultimately defined her reign. Elizabeth certainly handled religious policy much more carefully than her sister, offering a combination of both Catholic and Protestant doctrine as a solution to the debate. G. L. Bray suggests that she was forced to ‘tread warily’ in the early days of her reign since the bishops were largely Catholics appointed in the reign of Mary.[25] Elizabeth set out to placate and appease clergy and laymen alike, beginning by instating herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England in the Act of Supremacy, 1559; note that the subtle change in language from Henry VIII’s ‘Supreme Head’ allowed those who did not support female rule to still perceive the Pope as the ultimate religious authority.[26] Furthermore, subtle revocations of Mary’s anti-Protestant legislation, such as reforms to the Prayer Book and use of Latin, reflected Elizabeth’s personal religious preferences.[27] This brings to question whether the latter half of the sixteenth century in England truly abided by the credo ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, or whether the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was simply so intrinsically ambiguous that religious practices across the realm in reality were insignificant.

Controversially, perhaps, historian Patrick Collinson describes Elizabeth and her advisers as the ‘front and rear legs of a pantomime horse’ as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement came into being; he states that the two parties are inseparable in terms of determining who shaped it.[28] It is possible that the religion of the realm at this point was shaped largely by government policy, and not merely the Queen. Regardless of who formed religious policy, however, parts of the Elizabethan realm remained unsettled. A Catholic Queen in Scotland, Mary Stuart, had won the hearts of some Englishmen and the Northern Rebellion of 1569 can in part be attributed to her providing a figurehead.[29] Led by the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland, Mass was restored in Durham Cathedral alongside systematic destructions of Bibles and Prayer Books.[30] From 1569 onwards, Elizabeth was forced to put more pressure on heretics, imposing greater fines on recusants and declaring it treason for Catholic priests to enter England, where before she had showed tolerance.[31] This again illustrates how the credo ‘whose realm, his religion’ was challenged in the sixteenth century since monarchs were primarily forced to use legal action in order to achieve religious compliance.

To conclude, it is evident that whilst the religion of the ruler did to some extent determine to faith of the inhabitants of his realm, it certainly impacted greatly upon the religious practices that could be performed openly. From the introduction of English Prayer Books in 1549 to the compulsory attendance of Protestant services under the Elizabethan Injunctions of 1559, legally England experienced turbulence in terms of religious policy under the law in the sixteenth century. As a result, there were many challenges to the Latin credo ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ ranging from Thomas Cranmer sacrificing his own life to the mass migration of Protestants to Germany and France in 1553, alongside popular revolts and rebellions against the rulings of the crown evident within the reign of every Tudor monarch.

[1] C. Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.105.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Act for the Submission of the Clergy and Restraint of Appeals’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.84-87.

‘Act Restraining the Payment of Annates and Concerning the Election of Bishops’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.88-93.

[4] ‘Act of Supremacy’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.113-114.

[5] G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p.26.

[6] C. Haigh, The Last Days of the Lancashire Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1969), pp.21-24.

[7] Bernard, The King’s Reformation, p.293.

[8] R. W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.11.

[9] ‘The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer’, 1549, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.272-276.

[10] ‘Act to take away all Positive Laws against the Marriage of Priests’, 1549, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.279-280.

[11] J. Loach, Edward VI, (Suffolk: St Edmundsbury Press, 2002) p, 39.

[12] T. A. Morris, Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century, (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.233-234.

[13] Ibid.

[14] ‘The Forty-Two Articles’, 1553, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.284-312.

[15] A. Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 45.

[16] D. M. Loades, Tudor Queens of England, (London: Continuum Books, 2009), p.3.

[17] Ibid., p.8.

[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘The Marian Injunctions’, 1554, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994),  pp.315-317.

[20] C. H. Garrett, The Marian Exiles: A Study in the Origins of Elizabethan Puritanism, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp.2-3.

[21] Ibid., p.1.

[22] Ibid., pp.30-31.

[23] Loades, Tudor Queens, p.206.

[24] Ibid.

[25] G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), p.318.

[26] ‘Act of Supremacy’, 1559, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.318-328.

[27] S. Doran, Elizabeth I and Religion 1558-1603, (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp.15-16.

[28] P. Collinson, Elizabethans, (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), p.39.

[29] S. Arman, et al., Reformation and Rebellion 1485-1750, (Oxford : Heinemann, 2002), p.89.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.


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