500th anniversary of the Reformation

The Reformation is of great significance in British and European history and is a topic that students will likely come across multiple times during their study of History. This year marks 500 years since the start of the Reformation with the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ in 1517.

Martin Luther’s attack on the Church in Germany from 1517 gave rise to Protestantism, with followers rejecting papal authority and believing in faith alone. German Protestants came to London and eastern England in the 1520s, and a group based in Cambridge included Thomas Cranmer – the man who helped Henry VIII break with Rome to create an independent Church of England. However, although their ideas attracted some Christian humanists, there was little committed attempt to spread Lutheran Protestantism before the ‘King’s Great Matter’ brought religious issues into the political discourse in England.

The religious upheaval of the 1530s had huge social consequences in England:

  • In the short term, resentment at the dissolution of the monasteries and attacks on traditional Catholic practices was exacerbated by fears of an attack on parish churches. This led to a major rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace, in 1536.
  • A huge amount of land was transferred from the Church to the Crown. This temporarily increased the Crown’s wealth. However by 1547 nearly two thirds of the confiscated Church and monastic property had been sold off, often cheaply, to fund Henry VIII’s expensive foreign policy. This greatly increased both the size and the wealth of the landholding gentry.
  • Education suffered, with the loss of monastery schools.
  • Many monks and nuns became unemployed.
  • Many monasteries had played a key role in their communities (e.g. offering jobs, welfare services, education and hospitals); this was all lost.

The split in the Church initiated by the Reformation caused huge tensions: subsequent monarchs embraced different religious views, but England’s Protestant identity was eventually secured via the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The significance of the Reformation can be felt to this day. The Pope and the Church had previously had almost absolute authority over all areas of life in England. The events of the Reformation marked a move away from this, and the advent of modern-day Church of England.

For more information, see Oxford AQA A Level History: The Tudors: England 1485-1603 Revision Guide and Oxford AQA GCSE History: British Depth Studies c1066–1685.

GCSE links

AQA: Elizabethan England c1568-1603

Britain: Power and the people: c1170 to the present day

OCR A: The English Reformation c.1520–c.1550

Edexcel: Henry VIII and his ministers, 1509–40

A Level links

AQA: The Tudors: England, 1485–1547

Religious conflict and the Church in England, c1529–c1570

OCR: The Catholic Reformation 1492–1610

Edexcel: Rebellion and disorder under the Tudors, 1485–1603