May 19, 2015

Wolf Hall and the Protestant Reformation

by Caleb Kolstad

Wolf HallMy wife and I have enjoyed watching a new series on PBS Masterpiece called “Wolf Hall“. In this intriguing show history is retold through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, “the enigmatic advisor to King Henry VIII, as he maneuvers the corridors of power in the Tudor court. This six-part series follows the back-room dealings of this accomplished power broker, from humble beginnings, who must survive deadly political intrigue.”

One of the things that I like to do while watching a show like this is to utilize my smartphone to ‘fact check’ the details. For example, did Queen Anne Boleyn truly commit incest or was it a false charge trumped up against her because she failed to produce a male offspring? What were the actual circumstances surrounding her death?  As a Christian, I especially want to know what role genuine believers played during the English Reformation?

For those of you interested in learning more about the heroes of the faith in this era I recommend the following books: Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen (one of the many wives of Henry) by Brandon Withrow. I also would commend chapter four in Christopher Catherwood’s, Five Leading Reformers: Lives at a Watershed in History.  Finally, I would encourage you to consider reading J. C. Ryle’s classic book, Five English Reformers.

Here is a snippet of some of the helpful details Catherwood provides in his short, but helpful book, on Five Leading Reformers. “The Reformation, when it finally came to England, came not with a Wycliffe or a Tyndale, but through the gentle scholar of quiet determination, Thomas Cranmer.”

What then is the key factor in determining the English Reformation? The answer is surely the top down nature of the English Reformation, a change made initially not on spiritual grounds but on political ones. This is how Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) could be promoted by one King (Henry), lauded by the King’s son (Edward) and martyred by the same King’s elder daughter (Mary).” “We need now to come on to the events which propelled Cranmer to fame- the issues at the heart of the English Reformation.”

Henry VIII and his many wives. In some ways, “Henry did not want to divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon – the issue is actually, and inevitably, far more complicated. England in the fifteenth century had been racked by civil war, known after the event as the War of the Roses…For dynastic-political reasons, Catherine had had then be betrothed to Henry in place of his deceased brother (Arthur).” “In the days when it was thought that the woman determined the sex of the child, Henry was eager to rid himself of Catherine (kings had to be succeeded by sons). Only one of their children survived- a girl, Mary.” More on (bloody) Mary a bit later.

“Henry was a devout Catholic- with the help of Sir Thomas More he had earlier written a treatise attacking Martin Luther’s theology, for which the Pope gave Henry the title, ‘Defender of the Faith’. While it is easy to be cynical about Henry’s spiritual motives- he was in love with Anne Boleyn, and her sister Mary had been his mistress…Memories of the civil war of the previous century were reasonably fresh. Henry needed a male heir, and quickly.” Around 1529 “Cranmer suggested to Henry that he had the right to divorce Catherine and the right to consult local theologians over the matter.” The King ordered Cranmer to write a treatise to justify his intentions to divorce the Queen (against the will of the Catholic Pope and Cardinal Wolsey). In 1530, Cranmer and Anne Boleyn’s father were sent as English emissaries to Rome itself, to plead the King’s case before the Papal authorities.  “Within one year Cranmer had been transformed from an obscure scholar into a major player.” “When Henry realized that diplomacy was getting nowhere, he began to turn to more drastic financial pressure.”

For seven years the Pope refused to annul their marriage, as he was afraid of angering Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.  In 1533 Thomas Cranmer was formally consecrated as the Archbishop of Canterbury (the leading spiritual post in the English church).  Cranmer quickly annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine. “Cranmer had provided the King with spiritual justification; Cromwell provided the political rationale for the break” (with Rome). For this reason- one can describe the English Reformation as a political revolution with spiritual results.”

“While Cranmer was settling in to office, Cromwell busied himself with the legal technicalities of the new Church. The key was the royal ecclesiastical supremacy, and an Act of Supremacy, recognizing Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, was duly passed in 1534.” The Church of England replaced the Catholic Pope with a human King. Of course the true Church has but one true Head and that is King Jesus (see Colossians 1:16-18). On this note, one of John MacArthur’s best addresses highlights the importance of this truth and is well worth your time. “The new Ten Articles of 1536 set out the beliefs of the Church of England. Influenced strongly by Melanchthon, they put forward a Lutheran (biblical) view of justification by faith…” “Perhaps most important of all in the long term, clergy were required to preach from the Bible. Here there was a major and drastic change: no longer was the Bible in England forbidden.”  America today could certainly benefit from a rule mandating all pastors to preach the Scriptures (note for example this infamous Andy Stanley quote)

Cranmer enjoyed a close relationship with the Queen’s family (the Boleyns) but like Catherine, Anne failed to produce a male heir and Henry now had his eyes set on another woman (Jane Seymour).  In order to pursue his new prize false charges of incest and adultery were leveled against Anne and she was eventually beheaded (see episode six in Wolf Hall). Anne was murdered, but Cranmer survived (in part because he did not defend the Boleyn family). “Henry’s next wife, Jane Seymour, produce the longed-for male heir, Edward, but tragically died in childbirth, leaving Henry a widower.” Cromwell was eager to form alliances with Lutheran powers in Germany. Eventually he worked out a marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves (a Protestant princess). “Henry disliked her on sight, likening Anne to a horse from Flanders! Cromwell’s fall was swift and in 1540 he was executed on spurious charges of treason.” What goes around comes around.

Five Leading Reformers“The Act of Six Articles and the death of Cromwell in 1540 left Cranmer rather exposed. Cranmer’s enemies tried to bring him down but Henry trusted this man and so Thomas’ life was spared. Catherine Howard was Henry’s fifth wife between 1540–1541, sometimes known as “the rose without a thorn”. Henry was informed of her alleged adultery with Thomas Culpeper and before too long another Queen lost her head.   Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, was Queen of England from 1543 to 1547.  In God’s good providence Katherine came to know the Lord as Savior.  Parr was instrumental in bringing up Henry’s children (future Kings and Queens) with a decidedly Protestant education.  In 1547 Henry VIII died and his sickly young son Edward came to the throne as Edward VI. Edward was a convictional Protestant (not simply a political Protestant). “Consequently, in 1547, Cranmer was able to bring in a new Book of Homilies, designed to encouraging preaching as an integral part of Christian worship, and also to strengthen the Reformation doctrine of ‘salvations as God’s free gift of grace and faith.” In 1553 Cranmer produced his 42 Articles of official doctrinal belief for the Church of England. “Just as Reformed thinking reached its English apogee, tragedy struck. Edward VI, now increasingly frail, died in 1553.”

Lady Jane Grey (a descendant of Henry VII) attempted a coup d’état in effort to preserve the Protestant faith in England.  If you have never read anything about this young hero of the faith my wife highly recommends, The Nine Day Queen of England: Lady Jane Grey. Read this fine biography and you will no doubt be inspired by Grey’s courage and integrity.  Eventually Mary (the daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine) overthrows Jane Grey to become Queen.  Mary Tudor was a staunch Catholic.  As such, “Mary immediately began repealing many of Henry VIII’s religious edicts and replacing them with her own, which included a strict heresy law. The enforcement of this law resulted in the burning of over 300 Protestants as heretics. Mary’s religious persecutions made her extremely unpopular and earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ (per Mary Tudor source).” “Thomas Cranmer was thus in dire peril, as the author of the highly overt Protestant reforms under Edward. Many leading Protestants fled to the continent, but Cranmer was brave enough to stay put. In short order Mary had Cranmer arrested and charged him with treason (for supporting Lady Jane Grey). Cranmer was given an opportunity to recant his Biblical convictions or be burned alive. Initially Cranmer recanted his Protestant beliefs. This weak moment of faith reminds us of Simon Peter in the Gospels and Martin Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms. Martin Luther, you may recall, initially asked for more time when he was given the choice to recant his faith or else (if you have not scene the movie Luther you really need to). Catherwood’s commentary on Cranmer here is spot on, “It is easy for those of us who live in the comfort of the West to condemn what looks like cowardice; but, face with a gruesome, painful death, how brave would we really be? Furthermore, in October 1555, he had been forced to watch the gruesome burning at the stake” of the Oxford martyrs (Latimer and Ridley).” The recent events involving ISIS is nothing new for God’s people.Jane Grey

“Just before he was about to die, Cranmer’s heroism returned. To the consternation of his accusers, he denounced his recantation and faced death as an unrepentant Protestant. He was martyred in Oxford on 21 March 1556, thrusting the hand with which he had signed the recantation in the flames.”

“After Mary’s death in 1558, England became a Protestant country again, with the accession of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, while Protestant, was innately more cautious, and the Church of England was not as overtly Reformed in emphasis as was in its Edwardian heyday. Eventually the Puritans were to split away, and in 1662 many were formally expelled.”

“Cranmer’s political legacy was therefore mixed. Today the Church of England has a mix of thoroughly Reformed and Evangelical, alongside Anglo-Catholics and theological liberals. His liturgical legacy, however, remains, its magnificent literary style still with us.”

Caleb Kolstad


Caleb is the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Freeport, IL.
  • Robert Sakovich

    Thanks for this. I am saddened by how little modern Christians know about the Reformation and the horrific persecution that Christians faced back then. Of course, this has been the case throughout most of the history of the Church, but ecumenism is making such a strong push that nobody wants to think about these things any more (or maybe vice versa).

    • calebkolstad

      Robert. So true. Church history is such a helpful guide and is sadly so neglected in some many churches.

  • fundamentals

    A good look into the origins of the confusion that has always been the “Church of England”.

  • Ken Abbott

    Good suggestions. And if anyone is interested in learning more about the not-so-famous early English Protestants, I recommend two works by Marcus Loane, “Pioneers of the English Reformation” and “Masters of the English Reformation,” and one by that estimable Anglican churchman J. C. Ryle called “Light from Old Times.” These books will tell you about the often-forgotten Christians such as Bilney, Rogers, and Hooper who contributed so much to the recovery and propagation of the biblical gospel in England in the sixteenth century.

    • calebkolstad

      Thank you for making these recommendations. I do not own anything by Marcus Loane but it sounds like I need to change that ASAP. Grace to you.

      • Ken Abbott

        You are most welcome. I seize any opportunity I get to propagate my passion for the history of the Reformation in England and Scotland! Another title that comes to mind is the two-volume Banner of Truth Trust edition of Merle d’Aubigne’s history of the English Reformation, the only complaint about which is that it ends with the death of Henry VIII, but at least it covers very competently the early years before Henry got interested in any divorces and demonstrates beyond any doubt that Protestantism in that country did not get its start simply because Henry had dynastic concerns.

  • Eric Davis

    Thanks for this, Caleb. Good reminder of how messy history is, yet sovereign God also is.

    • calebkolstad

      Indeed. God bless brother.

  • tovlogos

    Excellent review, Caleb; and useful additional insights.

    “Here there was a major and drastic change: no longer was the Bible in England forbidden.” That was more than just an upgrade.

    “…the English Reformation as a political revolution with spiritual results.” Right, providentially speaking.

    I am compelled to take you up on some of your literary suggestions. Thanks.


    • calebkolstad

      Thanks Mark and AMEN.

  • WillVarner

    I recently read John Schofield’s “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell.” It is a sympathetic treatment of the man and answers many of the Machiavellian accusations against him. He also shows clearly that more than any man, even Cranmer, Cromwell was responsible for the Reformation in England. He disposes of the idea that Cromwell was executed for his failure to get Henry to like Anne of Cleves and argues that he really died for his Protestant faith, due to the machinations of his Catholic rivals in the nobility.

    • calebkolstad

      Dr. Varner. Now that narrative is quite a bit different than what season one of Wolf Hall presents isn’t it? Cromwell was portrayed as a pretty vicious man towards the end of Anne’s reign as Queen. Did Schofield say whether Cromwell really had an affair? Thanks for the insights.

      • WillVarner

        There is absolutely no evidence that he had sexual liaisons after his wife’s death. I do not pretend to comprehend the ethics of his actions done on behalf of Henry. Schofield suggests, however, that Anne may have been sexually involved and not a totally innocent victim. That may not justify her beheading but it was a brutal age, as Cromwell could testify.

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  • Still Waters

    Historians, like everyone else, have their own preconceived notions and biases. Thus, it is entirely possible to, not exaggerate, but magnify the importance of one historical figure or another. The truth is, that historical peoples operated the same way we do now. A thousand small incidents go into one large one, and a multitude of people form a movement. Pick a modern movement, good or bad, and then try to identify who the key players, the linchpins on which the success or failure of the movements depends. It isn’t easy is it? Take gay marriage, you could point out the President or perhaps the Supreme Court Justices – but they aren’t really the movers behind the movement. They are just figureheads.

    So it probably was in the days of Henry VIII. In many ways, the obscure William Tyndale was much more influential than Cromwell, Cranmer, or Henry himself; but not even Tyndale acted alone. The printers who printed his materials, the merchants who smuggled it into England, and most importantly, the people who read it had a greater influence on the English Reformation than Henry VIII could ever have wielded with just Cromwell and Cranmer’s assistance.