The rise of Protestantism among English monarchs from Henry VIII is well documented. However, after a bit of light research, I have been unable to find many resources on how the general population felt about the change, or how it came to be a popular majority position in a relatively short space of time.

Although Henry VIII broke with the Pope, the early Church of England remained essentially Catholic in its practices. During Edward's regency, Protestantism was effectively forced upon the country. But there seems to have been no great outbreak of upset or unrest at this even though when Mary gained the throne, they settled easily back into Catholic practice.

Yet during Elizabeth's reign of 45 years, the country gained a Protestant majority, again with little seeming fuss or protest from the general populace. By the time of Charles, a mere 22 years later, it was established enough and with sufficient devotion to be a major cause in the outbreak of civil war.

I could accept that most of the population simply didn't care enough one way or the other. They just went to church and worshipped as the minister lead them. But if this is the case it would seem to stand in stark contrast with the considerable fervour which Londoners and the urban population in general greeted Charles' vague defences of Catholicism.

How were the general public persuaded to change their religion so smoothly, and so totally, in the space of 70 years?

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    note that the Charles situation is intrinsically bound up in the doctrine of 'divine right of kings' so the fervour may be in fact more political than religious
    – user31561
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 11:13
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    The answer to this is complicated, and could easily take an entire book to answer. Two books that might help you are Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy and The Reformation and the English People by J.J Scarisbrick Commented May 22, 2018 at 11:35
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    They had a "do or die" approach to it. Quite literally: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. And of course, most regimes prefer to quietly ignore the tainted parts of their history and are more comfortable talking only about the nice ones; the mere fact that people are allowed to discuss the tainted parts is an often understated achievement.
    – SJuan76
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 15:40
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    Can I advocate for this being changed to "England", "English monarchs", and the tags being changed accordingly too? The stories of Protestantism in England and Scotland aren't unrelated, but they're definitely different.
    – owjburnham
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 16:55
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    @Beanluc Henry VIII was strongly anti-Protestant. The Church of England as he set it up was "English Catholics" under the British Monarch, as opposed to the "Roman Catholics" under the Pope or "Eastern-Orthodox Catholic Church" under the Ecumenical Patriarch. It was Edward VI who converted it to Protestantism (or, rather, his "advisors" - he was only 9 when he was crowned, and 15 when he died. Which pretty much makes it a classic case of teenage rebellion) Commented May 23, 2018 at 12:22

5 Answers 5


Well, it wasn't smooth.

First of all, there was already a minority of "reform" viewpoint in England before Henry VIII. It was centered in the intelligentsia and gentry.

So when Henry VIII decided to divorce the Church to marry Anne Boleyn, a significant and influential minority not only was in favor, but wanted to go further, faster.

And, as always, a big group of people just wanted to get on with their lives and hoped it would all go away.

Henry VIII's extravagance had bankrupted him and the country (there was not much distinction between the two at that time) so his other motive (besides Anne) was the wealth of the monasteries. By plundering them, he restored his checkbook's balance. Key point: He didn't keep the church lands, but sold it for ready cash to the gentry. Now, the gentry -- whose lifestyle revolved around the land -- had an incentive to support the new regime, since a return to the old would probably mean the disgorgement of all that lovely land. "Return to the True Church? Of course I'm in favor! Always have been. But those monasteries were pretty bad -- do you know what I saw on Facebook the other day? They were doing terrible things! -- Maybe we should restore the Church, but leave the lands alone. So that the Church can focus on saving souls, of course."

Once Queen Elizabeth took over from her activist siblings, she ruled as a kinder, gentler Protestant and -- mostly -- didn't punish people for what they believed, but for what they did. "Be Catholic if you like. Just be discreet about it, don't support the Spanish or the French, or Mary Queen of Scots, and don't expect royal favor." It wasn't a happy time for Catholics, but it was -- mostly -- tolerable as long as they avoided religious politics.

By the time that the Stewarts came in and made things a bit more difficult, this state of affairs had been in place for most people's whole lifetimes. It could be lived with. And it was.

But Catholicism never died and was a significant minority religion throughout.

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    Thanks for this, but it doesn't explain how a significant proportion of the common folk went from a position of wanting to "get on with their lives" to actively supporting Protestantism and reviling Catholics instead of finding they "could be lived with". That's the crux of my question.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 12:39
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    Time. Once the gentry and the local priests went Anglican, the populace mainly followed. The many pious were still pious, but in new ways. The people for whom religion was mostly social had no problem making the transition. And some resisted and were shunned or worse. And some saw in the new religion an opportuinity to gain status over their neighbors and seized it. The usual messy, complicated, inelegant way most things happen.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 12:47
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    England had some shiny colonies that minority religious folk could run away to after a time. England largely avoiding the entanglements of the Thirty Years War is another huge factor.
    – Michael W.
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 16:41
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    Some of my ancestors left "merry old England" for the Puritan haven of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, after having to answer questions put forward by the elders of the local church establishment. Similar conditions resulted in Quakers moving to Pennsylvania, and Catholics to Maryland later in the same century. This escape valve perhaps makes the situation back home seem smoother than it really was. Commented May 22, 2018 at 18:45
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    @MattThrower: consider what the life expectancy was among the "common folk". Really you're asking, "why did a significant proportion of the children or grandchildren of people who believed X, believe Y". I mean, it's possible that a significant proportion of people changed their belief/prejudices rather than just doing as they thought they were told at each point in time, I don't know. But it makes it sound less astonishing when you contrast X with Y, if you consider that it's different people who grew up in different political climates. Commented May 24, 2018 at 16:25

Not only was it not totally smooth, but it also wasn't much of a change. At least not on personal human timeframes.

You have to realize that the break in England didn't happen because anybody had any kind of doctrinal issue with Rome. King Henry VIII was not a protestant, did not like Protestantism, and did not want protestants in his Church. The only part of Catholicism he ever had any trouble with was the part where he wasn't allowed to do what he wanted.

At first you would have to have been part of the upper Church hierarchy to even notice a difference. The head of the Church of England no longer reported to the Pope, but rather served at the pleasure of the Monarch. The rites themselves didn't change all that much. The split between the two was always much more about politics than about religion.

It wasn't until the excommunication of Elisabeth I, 40 years later, that there was any truly significant doctrinal break between the two. Prior to that there were still CoE Bishops openly talking about reconciliation, or even alternatively joining with the Eastern Orthodox rite, as viable future options. People who held more typical European "Protestant" beliefs were not accomodated in the Church and were forced to become religious dissenters (eg: Puritans).

That papal bull was significant, because it was designed to empower an active rebellion against the Monarch. Effectively, it turned the political dispute between Rome and London into an active threat to the State. What followed was a couple of hundred years where the Catholic hierarchy was trying various ways to depose the leadership in England, and thus being a supporter of theirs was tantamount to treason.

So the main bone of contention was never really religious, and the practice didn't change all that much. The most obvious thing, performing mass in English, Catholic churches in English-speaking countries have changed to doing anyway. So even today, a lot of the more "high church" Anglican services would feel very familiar to a modern Catholic.

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    Henry VIII had biblically relevant reasons for doing what he did. At his father's bidding, the Pope conveniently ignored a biblical passage that forbade a man to marry his brother's widow and Henry felt that he was being punished by God for it, as the Bible warned. The Pope then refused to annul the marriage (that would be admitting that the first papal exception was a mistake). Breaking from Rome wasn't solely an excuse to do whatever he wanted.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 2:22
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    @CJDennis, are you sure that Henry wasn't (deliberately or not) misinterpreting a passage which forbids marrying your brother's divorced ex-wife rather than his widow? Marrying your brother's widow was mandated in the Mosaic law. Commented May 23, 2018 at 8:03
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    Amazing coincidence how the one Bible verse he was willing to defend the theological sanctity of against even the Pope in Rome happened to be one that said he could do what he wanted to do...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 13:46
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    @CJDennis Henry VIII was the one who asked for the papal exception in the first place. He ignored the passage when it was convenient, and then used it as a pretext when he changed his mind. Commented May 24, 2018 at 15:53
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    @Acccumulation Henry VII (the father) asked for the first dispensation, Henry VIII (the son) asked for it to be revoked.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 20:15

Have you heard of the Pilgrimage of Grace? This was a major rebellion against Henry's move to break with Rome. The execution of over 200 of the participants was probably a very effective incentive for others to accept the change.

As others have said, for many the 'conversion' was a matter of convenience and survival. When Mary I came to the throne a substantial portion of the population reverted very happily to the old practices.

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    And those that didn't revert happily to old practices merrily burned at the stake instead. The average person never had a lot of choice in the matter.
    – Separatrix
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 9:57

I'm not sure I'd really describe it as either "smooth" or "peaceful", given that Catholic-Protestant rivalry can still divide families and is still capable of producing street riots in Britain today. Usually around the "Old Firm" football matches, but occasionally elsewhere.

There are really two factors to the Reformation, and church practice is only one of them. Loyalty is the other. At the start of the process, the church was unpopular enough (see Luther's 95 theses) that people were glad of change - and the opportunity to participate in looting and vandalism. I think people forget the huge ISIS-style erasure and destruction of religious art that happened in this period. Not to mention the martyrs of both sides being publicly burnt at the stake.

But each incoming monarch cared primarily about loyalty and the maintenance of absolute rule. The question was not so much one of religious belief as whether a given person would support the monarch by adopting their religion. Failure to do so was effectively treason. Changing religion easily was a matter of simple survival.

There's a song about this, The Vicar of Bray.

(This discussion leaves out Ireland and Northern Ireland. Ireland remained Catholic, and Northern Ireland had a sectarian civil war in the 20th century!)

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Protestant_martyrs_of_the_English_Reformation vs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_martyrs_of_the_English_Reformation

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    I'm not convinced the Scottish Catholic-Protestant rivalry to which you refer has much to do with Henry VIII, who was King of England. Instead, they relate to Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Ireland which - as you note - has its own history and complications. Commented May 22, 2018 at 13:50
  • Sure, "ISIS-style", but remember this has a long tradition going back way before Al Qaeda destroying Buddhist temples, or Buddhists destroying their antecedents' monuments, probably also happening even before Tutankhamen's erasure: Tyrants gonna tyr.
    – Rich
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 19:19

It wasn't smooth and there were strong undercurrents both ways.

I just finished reading Ken Follett's book A Column of Fire', which although historical fiction, it covered many of the historical facts and highlighted a major difference between Mary and Elizabeth.

Mary had many executed by the inquisitors because they refused to believe as Rome did, ie the protested and paid with their lives.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, held the view that no-one should be executed for their religious belief, and regarded it as a matter of private conscience.

Many of those executed under her reign were found guilty of treason, mostly because they wanted to unseat Elizabeth in favour of a Catholic monarch.

Other contributors above have said there was little doctrinal difference until after Elizabeth's ascension. I suggest that the fundamental difference of 'justified by faith in the risen Lord' vs 'justified by obedience to Rome' has been around for many centuries, and persists until today, albeit in more subtle forms. Under Elizabeth, people were free to choose; under Mary, they were not.

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