Frank Kermode
The Age of Shakespeare

Between the reign of Henry and that of his younger daughter came those of Edward and Mary. Edward's counsellors were hardline opponents of Rome, and through them he condemned all 'papistical superstitions' such as rosaries, holy water, prayers to the saints, ceremonial candles, fasting, indulgences, relics, and the existence of Purgatory. Edward was probably predisposed to the Protestant cause by the influence of his father's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, a devout adherent of Reform, and as he grew towards maturity he became as fiercely Protestant as his advisers. So the confiscation of the treasures and the estates of religious foundations was continued so energetically that it is described by the historian John Guy as 'the largest confiscation and redistribution of wealth since the Norman Conquest.'

The transfer of ecclesiastical wealth into secular hands brought great changes in everybody's way of living. Not surprisingly, it was sometimes called plunder. An early protest was the 1536 rebellion called the Pilgrimage of Grace, a serious but rather innocent affair that Henry easily suppressed. In 1549 there were widespread riots, often motivated by need, for despite its access to new riches, the Crown overspent on defence, and the poor were growing poorer. Such protest movements tended to originate in the north of England, where Catholic nobility, gentry, and commons, still bound together in the old faith, wanted to halt the defacement of their churches and to contest the heresies of those in London who were responsible for such practices.

According to Eamon Duffy, the Catholic religion still flourished with all its old vigour into the I540S. But the depredations continued, the wall paintings covered in whitewash and roods and altars smashed with axes. The new Prayer Book (1549 and 1552) mentioned above is now valued as beautifully written and inseparable from the central Anglican tradition, but at first it was much resented, partly because it abolished many traditional feast and fast days, and there must have been many older people who longed to go to Mass. It is noteworthy that the great musicians of the Elizabethan church, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and John Bull, all remained Catholic, having perhaps a special dispensation to do so. Byrd even wrote music for secret and illicit celebrations of the Mass.

Protestantism, at any rate in most of its manifestations, was a religion of the word, and it was an old complaint that the gorgeous polyphony of much Catholic music obscured that word; these aural delights were now as suspect as the colour and ceremony of the old liturgy. After many vicissitudes they would be partially restored in an Anglican version, but were again opposed and eliminated in the revolution that ended the life and reign of Charles I, and the life also of his 'High Church' archbishop, Laud. The Puritan forces that ended absolutism in 1649 were gathering force at least a century earlier.

Edward died at sixteen in 1553 and was succeeded, against Protestant opposition, by his Catholic sister Mary, whom he had tried but failed to convert. Her determination to restore England to the Catholic faith is usually regarded as the cause of a reign of religious terror, though Duffy claims that 'men breathed easier for the accession of a Catholic queen' (503). Mary imposed a somewhat modernized version of the old faith, for example exploiting the power of the printing press, as Protestants had done, and making available printed Catholic prayer books. But she is remembered for the persecution of her opponents rather than for her attempts at 'creative reconstruction.'

Given the religious upheavals produced by Edward and Mary, it would be strange if people were not still somewhat muddled in 1558, when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. There were strong inducements to accept the rules of religious observance as promulgated from London. To opt for recusancy was to take a possibly dangerous and sometimes costly stand, at a time when one risked a fine even for failure to go to church. Some kept the faith despite the penalties; some presumably did so without advertising the fact; and others, perhaps the majority, lived more or less contentedly, betwixt and between.

There was an obvious connection between the religious and ecclesiastical events sketched above and the matter of the Tudor succession, with its grave bearing on foreign relations and on public order. Henry VIII's need of a male heir was partly responsible for his divorcing his first wife, officially on the ground that she had previously been married to his brother. Consequently Mary, the child of this technically incestuous and illicit marriage, was a bastard in the eyes of Reformers. Elizabeth, the product of what they regarded as the king's illicit union with Anne Boleyn, was in Catholic eyes both a bastard and a usurper. Scholars laboured to demonstrate that she was nothing of the sort, and that the church of which she was now the head was the true, primitive Catholic church. Her European enemies could not be expected to agree, and it may be that there were others, to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh's biography of Edmund Campion, who did not 'find it probable that the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed to a group of important Englishmen.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.