The Reformation

England and Wales

The Reformation had a dramatic affect on the English Church. In 1531 Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. From this time (with intermissions in the reign of Mary and the Commonwealth) the royal coat of arms was hung in churches to symbolise the union of Crown and Church. Acts of Parliament (1532 and 1534) legitimised this overthrow of papal authority. They granted to the Crown the annates or first fruits of each benefice: 1st year's income and 1/10 of income of all succeeding years. (In 1704 this was assigned to Queen Anne's Bounty, a fund to supplement the incomes of poorer clergy.)

Anxious to know the value of the Church thus come under his control, the king commissioned a survey. This revealed the wealth of the monasteries - a huge temptation to plunder. The Dissolution of the Monasteries began in 1536. It destroyed many ex-monastic churches, but some were converted to new uses. In some cases the parish took over the church (e.g. Malmesbury). In others cases it became a new cathedral (e.g. St Augustine's, Bristol). The old monastic cathedrals remained (except for Bath and Coventry), but transferred to the control of a dean and chapter. By 1540 all the monastic houses of England and Wales were closed.

Medieval mural at St.Thomas's, SalisburyThen under Edward VI (1547-53) the Church of England became clearly Protestant. On 25 December 1547 the chantries and religious guilds were dissolved. The chantry certificates of 1546 and 1548 give a picture of the chantries at the end of their existence. Liturgical and ideological changes were reflected in treatment of the fabric. In May 1548, the Council ordered the destruction of images, so wall-paintings were whitewashed over, statues and rood-screens removed. Lady chapels might be removed or put to other uses. The simple liturgy enforced by the Act of Uniformity in 1549 made many church valuables unnecessary, providing an excuse for a Crown confiscation of church goods in 1552, which generated inventories of plate for every church: National Archives E117, listed in List and Index Society vol.76.


Henry VIII's break with Rome had a more gradual impact on Ireland. His supremacy over the Church was accepted in 1536 by the Irish Parliament, which passed a bill the following year for the suppression of the monasteries. Those in the east and southeast part of Ireland - the English Pale - were indeed dissolved, but in much of Gaelic Ireland they continued to flourish until closed under Elizabeth I. Some in the northwest remained until the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland.

The new religion did not win wide support either among English or Gaelic inhabitants of Ireland. Catholic sympathies remained strong and found voice in the Catholic Rebellion of 1641.


North of the border the fiery preaching of John Knox spread a fervent Protestantism. Under its pressure the Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority and the mass in 1560. The Scottish monasteries were already in decline. Many had been headed by laymen for decades. Urban religious houses were sacked by reformers. The rest simply withered way. Then in 1587 James VI claimed the estates of the bishops and monasteries under the Act of Annexation. Some monastic churches were taken over by the parish (e.g. Culross), but many remained in Crown hands and were left to fall into ruin.

Thus far the pattern was similar to that in England, but Calvinism pushed the Scottish Church down a different path. In 1592 the 'Golden Act' authorised the Presbyterian system of Church government, which meant the abolition of bishops. Bishops returned in 1610, only to be abolished again in 1638. A period of war and turmoil followed, with episcopacy finally abandoned in 1690. See Church of Scotland.