The Reformation: What, When and Where?

Blog by volunteer Maria Uhlmann

I have been volunteering at the Charterhouse Museum since the summer of 2017 and almost immediately developed a curiosity about the history of the site and the City of London – particularly in relation to the time of the Reformation.

Let me confess immediately that history has not been something of much interest to me until I came to the Charterhouse.  Prior to this my knowledge of the Reformation did not extend any further than being aware that it involved a period of great change for Christianity and individual religious belief.

It was against this background that I first assisted on guided tours at the Charterhouse and later delved into books purchased at the Museum shop.   It now became clear why Henry VIII’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn and the Pope’s refusal to sanction this proposal feature so prominently in the annals of history.  At first the king sought only acceptance of his divorce & re-marriage.  However, a year or so later he decided that he should also be supreme ruler of the church in this country, cutting out the Pope entirely.  Anybody who disagreed with him did not last long as evidenced by the dissolution of the monasteries that followed.  In the process many across the length and breadth of England faced persecution, and in May 1535 the head prior, 2 other priors, a monk and a brother from the Charterhouse were all executed, whilst the Charterhouse monastery was dissolved.

To my surprise I realised that this period (1533 onwards) was generally referred to as the start of the Reformation in England.  I also learnt that by the end of the century England was regarded as the cornerstone of Protestant Europe – the result of this Reformation.

At this point I began to wonder whether I had missed some essential information or else lacked basic understanding of the meaning of the word “Reformation.”   To my mind “reform” and “reformation” involved elements of review, consideration, debate with others and proposals for change before decision making regarding the nature of any reform.   Meanwhile the “Reformation” in England seems to have been started by nothing more than the whims of a monarch who fancied a woman called Anne Boleyn – and was prepared to go to any length to have her.

Fortunately, a dim recollection of such names as Martin Luther and John Calvin returned to me at this point and I was relieved to note that I had not slept through all my history lessons at school.  Even more fortunately a programme about the history of Christianity appeared on BBC4 around this time.  Episode 4, dealing with the Reformation across Europe, aired at the beginning of December 2018 and you may be pleased to hear that I have regained some faith in my own (even if limited) knowledge of history and understanding of the concept of “Reformation” since then. Following on from Diarmaid Macculloch’s programme on the history of Christianity and some further reading – particularly by Professor Andrew Pettegree – here is a summary of the “what, where and when” of the Reformation across the rest of Europe as I now understand it.

Lutheran

Martin Luther in Germany developed doubts about certain principles of Catholicism such as the notion of spending time in purgatory until the dead person in question has done enough penance to deserve transfer to heaven.  Over time this had led to wealthier Christians paying money to others in return for payers for an early salvation.  By the 16th century the Roman Catholic church was selling indulgences for the absolution of sins and spiritual privileges, and the Pope himself was issuing indulgences in order to raise money for the repair of St. Peter’s church in Rome.  Martin Luther felt compelled to query these and other corrupt practices and developed some 95 propositions or “thesis” for an alternative religion.  In 1517 he nailed an invitation for a University debate to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus starting the Reformation in continental Europe.  As most people could not read or write in those days, he also wrote hymns that could be sung in order to spread the message.

Zurich reformation

In and around 1522 the Swiss Reformer Haldrych Zwingli became troubled by Catholic practices for which he could find no reference in the bible.  This included examples such as the prohibition on eating meat during Lent and the presentation of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ.   His suggestions for reform included proposals that the clergy should be allowed to marry, meat eating should be acceptable any time of year and there was no place for religious icons / statutes of saints, etc.

Calvinism

Meanwhile John (or Jean) Calvin came to the Catholic church’s attention in the 1530s when he expressed a view that believers experience a union with Christ and were accountable to God alone.  He was exiled from France and fled to the edge of Switzerland where he commenced publication of a guidebook on the Institutes of the Christian Religion culminating in the Geneva bible in 1536.

The Reformation overall

Whilst we do see evidence of review, consideration, proposals, debate and persuasion in continental Europe, the change in England appears to have gathered pace as soon as the king decided he was no longer happy with the Pope in Rome.  Initially I was surprised by this difference but perhaps it is not so surprising after all.  Imagine a stranger coming along claiming to be Luther or Calvin or Zwingli or Menno Simons (Anabaptism) asking you to change your beliefs and your religion.  The natural response would surely be “why, what and how” – wouldn’t it?  If on the other hand a king by the name of Henry VIII makes that request, you are probably better off to agree promptly – unless you have a strong desire to be burned at the stake or having a noose tied round your neck.

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