|restored rood screen in Rochester Cathedral|
Henry VIII resisted any doctrinal changes and, other than the dissolution of the monasteries and the dismantling of many shrine-tombs of various saints—and especially that of Thomas Becket—kept the Church of England pretty much intact with its centuries of received tradition. And the dismantling of the shrines was primarily for the treasure attached to them. The liturgy remained unchanged, the clergy were forbidden to marry, and Protestant doctrine was hunted down and punished with all the vigor it suffered in Spain under the Inquisition. What is surprising, given Henry’s reluctance to allow religious change, is that Henry was quite careless about what would happen after his death. He certainly did not plan for Protestantism to be introduced into England. He left a considerable amount of monies for Masses to be offered for his soul which indicates that he thought that the Church of England would remain Catholic if not papal. What he neglected to do was to make sure that his heirs were Catholic. While his daughter Mary was a rabid Catholic—and papalist—his son and heir, Edward, had been raised Protestant. And his daughter Elizabeth—who would prove to be his most significant heir—likewise was raised Protestant. His sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, was a convinced Protestant as well and she had huge influence over the children, especially Elizabeth. Edward also spent time in her household, but for the most part was in the care of his uncle, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who was a convinced Protestant.
Edward was only nine when his father died and he came to the throne. Henry had appointed a Council of Regency to govern the country until Edward’s majority. The Council included members of both Catholic and Protestant theologies, but the stronger men on the Council, especially Seymour and Archbishop Cranmer, were staunchly Protestant. With the new king’s Protestant bias and the strong arming of Seymour, Cranmer, and Dudley (who was to be made Duke of Northumberland), the Catholic party did not stand a chance and Reform began almost at once. Legislation was passed ordering the destruction of images in the churches. Rood screens (wooden or stone screens, topped by a crucifix and images of Mary and John that separated the choir and sanctuary from the nave) were demolished. In many places the stained glass windows were smashed and replaced by clear glass or by the same colored pieces but reinserted in random order. By the following year, Cranmer had devised a English language communion rite inserted into the Mass and mandated that the faithful were to be given communion in both kinds (the bread and the cup.) Later that same year, the Privy Council abolished the use of candles on Candlemas (February 2nd, the Purification), Ashes on Ash Wednesday, Palms on Palm Sunday, and the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. This was preparatory for more drastic changes in 1549 when an entire new liturgy—all in English—replaced the traditional Latin forms of the Mass. This 1549 marks the first time the liturgy was standardized throughout the realm. (Remember that England did not follow the Roman Rite but had several unique rites of its own—Sarum, York, Bangor, and Hertford.) In general impression and matters external, the revised Liturgy did not differ much from the traditional Mass. Altars and vestments were retained, though there was a provision for the celebrant to wear a cope rather than a chasuble should he wish. There was no prohibition of incense or holy water. The Liturgy retained the familiar order: introit, Kyrie, Gloria, epistle, gospel, creed, Sanctus, Consecration, Lord’s Prayer, Agnus Dei, Communion, and Blessing. The priest remained at the altar facing away from the congregation, the people came to the sacrament and received kneeling. It was a somewhat simpler service. On closer examination one could see that Cranmer had removed every reference to the Eucharist as a sacrifice from the prayers. People were encouraged to communicate weekly which was a departure from the medieval practice where many—if not most—only received the Sacrament once a year.
A very dramatic change—and perhaps, other than the change from Latin to English, the most dramatic change—was that the communicants not only received from the chalice but were instructed to receive the host (the Eucharistic wafer) in their hands. This undoubtedly caused many to refrain from Communion entirely and presented a challenge to Cranmer’s goal of increasing communions.
The 1549 Liturgy was seen as a first step towards a more radically reformed liturgy. Cranmer never intended it to be the final form of worship in the Church of England. In fact, it would only serve for three years and it would, in the meantime, cause a severe reaction in parts of the country that were more conservative. On the other hand in the cities and towns, as well as in Kent, people were more open to Protestant ideas and the new liturgy was well received there.