Mummers at a feast about the middle of the 16th century
Mummers at a feast about the middle of the 16th century

During the following year [1548], although there was no actual introduction of new doctrines, the party of the advanced reformers was exceedingly active. On the plea of preventing unseemly controversy, preaching was forbidden except to licensed preachers; but as only those were licensed who held, and gave vent to, extremely advanced views, the general effect was extremely inflammatory, and again Gardiner's opposition caused him to be sent to the Tower.

At the same time a number of foreign Protestants, especially of the Swiss school, were flocking into the country, owing to their dissatisfaction with the religious compromise which Charles had de­creed by what was known as the Interim of Augsburg. The emperor had crushed the Protestant League, it must be remarked, at the battle of Muhlberg, but was at odds with the pope, and was at the same time endeavouring to concentrate in his own hands an effective political power over the empire, which was arousing the keen hostility of the princes.

Act of Uniformity
When parliament met again at the end of the year, its main business was the passing of the first Act of Uniformity, requiring the clergy to adopt a new Book of Common Prayer. This prayer-book of 1549 had been prepared by a commission in which Archbishop Cranmer undoubtedly had the strongest influence; but it was composed upon such broad lines that the most advanced and the most reactionary of the bishops alike found themselves able to use it without violation of conscience. The Act of Uniformity was opposed, as it seems, not because the new prayer-book itself was objected to, but because it was imposed upon the Church by parliament.

At this time trouble came upon the Protector through his brother William, the Lord Admiral. The admiral resented his own exclusion from a position of practical equality with the Protector. That he was an ambitious and unprincipled intriguer is beyond question. He was at last charged with treason, and there is no room to doubt that if he had had a fair trial he would have been condemned with perfect justice. But the Protector was persuaded to proceed by Act of Attainder instead of by trial, and the execution of his brother gave his enemies a handle against him.

Enemies he had in plenty, owing them to the combination of virtues and weaknesses in himself. His arrogance and autocratic bearing gave offence on one side and his popular sympathies on another. Half the Lords of the Council and half the members of parliament belonged to that numerous class who had profited by the distribution of monastic lands, and sought to make further profit by the extension of enclosures, which they were now carrying on with a lordly disregard of law — safely enough, since its administration rested in the hands of men of their own class.

The whole of that class was roused against the Protector when he appointed a commission of enquiry, and based on its reports bills for remedying what was a manifest and flagrant evil. Parliament would have nothing to say to the bills, yet Somerset was apparently quite unconscious that danger was brewing.

Ket's Rebellion
Now with the summer came two popular insurrections, one in the west country, the other in the eastern counties. The latter was agrarian without qualification; the former was complicated by religious motives. In the eastern counties the monasteries had not been popular landlords; even in the old days of Wat Tyler, popular indignation had been very largely directed against them. For this and for other reasons Protestantism found its stronghold among them, as did Puritanism in the following century. Religion had nothing to do with this insurrection, which was headed by a tanner, Robert Ket, and was directed entirely against illegal enclosures. It was avowedly a movement not to protest against the existing law, but to procure its enforcement.

In the west, on the other hand, the agrarian grievance was probably at the bottom of the matter, but the existence of that grievance was attributed by the rural population to the suppression of the monasteries and the substitution for them of the new greedy lay land­lords. The popular sympathies were therefore wholly antagonistic to the reformers and the Reformation.

hus with them the introduction of the new prayer-book was the spark which kindled the conflagration. To the Cornishmen the old Latin services were familiar if unintelligible; but their native tongue was still, as it seems, a Welsh dialect, and a new English service was unfamiliar as well as unintelligible.

On the agrarian question the personal sympathies of the Protector were no religious persecution in his time; not one person was sent to the stake. Gardiner was placed in confinement, not on account of his religious opinions, but because he set himself in open opposition to the government. The Act of Uniformity was an order to the clergy, and did not touch the laity.

The final acts of spoliation were at the worst the logical conclusion of the proceedings of the previous reign by which no layman had refused to profit; nor did any layman, however orthodox, surrender one scrap or the booty which he had gained thereby. Unfortunately for his own reputation, Somerset was personally greedy, and set a particularly bad example in the appro­priation of what had been Church property to his own enjoyment; but that is the worst that can be said of his ecclesiastical proceedings from what may be called the Anglican point of view.

It was not till the time of his successors that the attempt was made to transform the English Church into a Calvinistic body and to impose Calvinistic doctrines and practices upon the community — an attempt which was partially stemmed mainly by the persistency with which Cranmer acted as a drag on the extremists.

Warwick's rise
The man who supplanted Somerset was anything but a visionary. He was clever, with that kind of cleverness which is happily apt to overreach itself, a politician with no aims except self-aggrandisement. There is no reason to suppose that he had any religious convictions; at the moment when he stepped into Somerset's place, it seemed perfectly possible that he would lead a reaction. But he saw no advantage for himself in that course. Among the men who had identified, themselves with the new ideas he saw no rivals to fear now that Somerset had fallen.

Cramner was assuredly not the man to challenge his leadership; whereas reaction would mean the reappearance in public life and activity of the ablest ecclesiastical politician living, Bishop Gardiner; and not only of Gardiner, but also of the old Duke of Norfolk. Warwick had no intention of relegating himself to a secondary place. His policy was clear. If the Reformation was to go forward, the party of the future was the party which drew its inspiration from Geneva. It was Warwick's business to identify himself with that party as its champion.

Bishop Bonner had already for the second time been imprisoned, and besides his imprisonment had been deprived of his see, which was given to Nicholas Ridley, who was at that time the man on whom Archbishop Cranmer most leaned. By degrees excuse was found for treating other prelates of the old school in similar fashion, their sees being conferred in every case upon reformers of the most advanced school.

It is interesting to observe that the grim champion of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, came very near being appointed to an English bishopric. He had been taken prisoner by the Scottish government when the castle of St. Andrews was captured, and on being released from his captivity in Prance, where he had been sent to the galleys, betook himself to England; since it would have been merely courting destruction to return to Scotland, where the French and clerical party were now entirely predominant.

The Book of Common Prayer
The strength of the Swiss school made itself felt in a revision of the Prayer Book which took effect in 1552. The first Prayer Book had been so carefully vague that it was possible alike for those to make use of it who held the Romish doctrine of Transubstantiation or the Zwinglian doctrine that the Communion, service is purely commemorative.

In the new volume which was sanctioned by parliament the forms and expressions laid down could no longer be reconciled with adherence to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, although a mystical character in the Sacrament was still implied if not positively affirmed, while the precise nature of the mystery was undefined. Further than this Cranmer and Ridley would not go. The manifest intention was still to allow the largest possible latitude of interpretation short of the Roman doctrine that the substance of bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ by the Act of Consecration.

The extreme reformers had to be content with the explicit rejection of the sacrificial doctrine of the Roman Mass, accompanied by the retention of ceremonial observances which many of them were inclined to stigmatise as idolatrous or tending to idolatry. The authorisation of the new Prayer Book was accompanied by a second Act of Uniformity, imposing penalties for non-compliance not only upon the clergy but upon laymen also.

Forty-two Articles of Belief, which vary very slightly from the thirty-nine Articles afterwards embodied in the Book of Common Prayer, were issued separately in 1553, by the royal authority, without express sanction of either parliament or convocation.

In matters of religion, then, the new government did not reverse the policy of Somerset, but applied it with increased violence and more in accordance with the views of the extremists. In other respects Warwick's aims were directly antagonistic to those of the Protector. Somerset, in spite of his treatment of his brother, had been opposed to the employment of those weapons of arbitrary power which had been forged by Cromwell.

Warwick's first parliament made a new Treasons and Felonies Act which included as treason, or as felony punishable by death, the gathering of assemblies disturbing to the public peace or aiming at the alteration of the law; and brought sundry offences against members of the Council under the same category as similar offences against the king's person.

The new Act was presently utilised against Somerset, who after his release had been readmitted to the Council. Since he exerted himself in opposition to the more rigorous members of the body, fears arose lest he should gather to his standard a moderate party which would restore him to power. He was arrested on the charge of compassing the death of Warwick and others.

Since he had brought himself within the toils of the law concerning felonious assemblies, Warwick, who had now taken the title of Duke of Northumberland, made a show of magnanimity by withdrawing the charge of compassing his own death — which would have been exceedingly difficult to prove and was quite unnecessary to securing Somerset's destruc­tion.

Somerset's Death
The former Protector was condemned on the charge of felony, and was executed at the beginning of 1552, amid remarkable manifestations cf sympathy from the populace whose welfare he had sincerely at heart, however ineffective had been his attempts to promote it.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age