The Shrine of St. Frideswide at
Christ Church, Oxford
Canterbury Cathedral with its tomb of Becket was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe, surpassed in popularity only by the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Rome and the shrine of Saint James at Compostela in Galicia, (today’s north-western Spain). Of course, Henry was no devotee of Thomas Becket, the embodiment of the Church’s independence from the Crown. This may have been the riskiest part of Henry’s entire re-organization of the Church of England. Becket was an immensely popular saint among the English and his cult was of immense economic significance to many not only in Canterbury itself but along the pilgrimage roads that led there. Yet such a symbol of Church resistance to royal authority could not be allowed to remain in the English consciousness. In September 1538 the shrine containing Becket’s body was destroyed and the votive offerings—jewels, gold, silver, candelabra, and other ornaments were confiscated. It took 21 carts to carry the treasure up to London from Canterbury.
Becket’s shrine was not the only one dismantled by Henry’s commissioners. During the negotiations for a marriage between Henry and the German princess, Anne of Cleves, there was some ambiguous signs of Church reform in the direction of Lutheran theology. (Anne was Lutheran.) Some historians put too much emphasis on this and one has to be careful in analyzing what exactly was happening. Henry was never a fan of Lutheranism. He had written his book Defense of the Seven Sacraments in 1521 defending traditional Catholic theology against Luther and Henry was not one to backtrack and admit that he might have been wrong. He would stay quite theologically orthodox (by Catholic standards) for the remainder of his life though he neither made plans to keep the Church faithful to its Catholic roots after his death nor did he seem to exercise much vigilance over his theological advisors even in his lifetime, allowing sympathizers with the “new ideas” to occupy key positions in his government and, in the case of Cranmer, in the Church. What I mean to say is that by the early 1530’s Henry had pretty much delegated oversight of religious matters to Thomas Cromwell who did have Lutheran leanings and used his position to further the careers of other crypto-protestants. Moreover, Cromwell worked closely with Archbishop Cranmer, who also had strong Protestant sympathies, though both Cromwell and Cranmer were wise enough not to push publicly against the King’s conservative policies. Nevertheless, by 1538 and with the negotiations proceeding over the Cleves marriage, there was the opportunity for some minor reforms. These were mainly the suppression of shrines, images, and roods.
In July 1538 the image of Our Lady was taken from the shrine dedicated to her at Walsingham in Norfolk along with the votives that the faithful had left there. This was a particularly popular shrine and had been for several centuries. The shrine of Saint Frideswide in the Oxford priory named after her (and now Christ Church Cathedral in the College of that same name) was destroyed about the same time. The shrines of Saint Swithin at Winchester, St Hugh at Lincoln, St. Cuthbert at Durham, and St Ethelredea at Ely we all destroyed between 1538 and 1539 with their treasure confiscated by the royal treasury.
The same time that the destruction of the shrines and various spurious relics was carried out, some took advantage of the situation and used the opportunity to destroy various statues and images. This was not done on a wide scale, but neither was the destruction confined to one or two isolated incidents. Much valuable religious art was lost in this period as windows were smashed, statues burned or smashed, gold and silver melted down; but it would be nothing akin to the destruction that would happen after Henry’s death when there was a systematic attack on images by the more extreme policies enacted under Henry’s son and successor, Edward VI.
The reaction to the destruction of the shrines and images resulted in the Act of the Six Articles which reaffirmed belief in
1. the doctrine of transubstantiation
2. communion in one kind
3. clerical celibacy
4. observance of religious vows of chastity
5. private masses
6. auricular confession
This was a step back from Protestantism and the remainder of Henry’s reign would see the preservation of Catholic practices such as the Traditional Liturgy/Latin Mass, Eucharistic Worship, cult of Mary and the saints, the practice of seven sacraments, maintenance of traditional church vestments and ornaments, the use of crucifixes and images. Meanwhile, however Cranmer and other secret Protestants devoted themselves to research and study to prepare for the day when the Church of England could be openly Protestant. Thomas Cromwell, meanwhile, was attainted for treason and beheaded at the Tower of London on July 28th 1540. Remarkably, he who had used his offices to destroy the monasteries and to further the Protestant cause, professed to die “in the traditional faith.”