KS3 > The Reformation

The Reformation was a period of major religious change and conflict across Europe in the 1500s. In this topic, we explore how the Reformation happened in England and Wales under the Tudors. The articles explain the role of the monarch and Parliament, how both Protestant and Catholic MPs coped with and influenced these changes, and how different constituencies (local communities) responded to the upheaval. Below, we give a brief introduction to the Reformation. For a shorter version of this introduction, see 'The Reformation: Short Overview'

1. Introduction
2. The medieval Catholic church
3. Protestant challenge
4. Protestants and Catholics
5. Reformation in England
6. Henry VIII and his divorce
7. Henry’s children

1. Introduction

At the beginning of the 16th Century, England was an entirely Christian country. The church governed how people lived their lives and how they understood the world. All major life occasions – birth, marriage and death – happened in the church. It governed people’s social lives, punished moral wrongdoings, and even marked the passing year with a calendar of festivals. Changes in the church had a political, economic and social impact – as well as a religious one.

2. The medieval Catholic church

Before the Reformation, all Christians living in Western Europe were part of the Roman Catholic Church. This was led by the Pope, based in Rome. The Church was extremely rich and powerful.

15th Century Manuscript, Additional 25588 f. 109v
© The British Library (Illuminated manuscripts)

In church, services were held in Latin. Most ordinary people could not read, so Bible stories were told in beautiful images and stained glass windows, or in ‘mystery plays’ on special holidays, like those held in Coventry. People travelled for miles to places of pilgrimage, to pray to saints for help in their lives. Many of these places had relics, which were preserved parts of saints’ bodies. People believed visiting these relics and praying to saints would lead to miracles or heal them from illness.

For many years historians believed that lots of people in England and Wales were unhappy with the Catholic church before the Reformation. However, now they believe that although there were some problems, the church was very popular. The church was extremely wealthy. For centuries people had donated land and money to it. With this money it built religious houses (for example, monasteries and convents). They were not just homes for monks and nuns, but also schools and hospitals. They gave charity to the poor. Some were important centres of learning with large libraries.

3. Protestant challenge

There had always been people who had complained about the Catholic Church. But in the early 16th century, the criticism became stronger. There were reports that priests, monks and nuns did not behave as well as they should. Some felt that the Catholic Church was more interested in money and power than in saving souls. For example, the church sold ‘indulgences’ for those who had committed sins. For a fine, paid to the church, your sin would be forgiven and when you died, the Church said that you would go to heaven. Even sins like murder could be forgiven, and the church made plenty of money through this.

In 1517, the German priest Martin Luther attacked this practice as corrupt – nothing in the Bible said that you could buy forgiveness and it was wrong to let rich people buy their way into heaven. Protestantism was born. Around the same time, the development of the printing press meant that books and pamphlets could be produced quickly and cheaply. Luther’s ideas spread across Europe.

4. Protestants and Catholics

There were many differences between Protestants and Catholics. These are three major ones:

i) Protestants believed that you could not buy your way to heaven and opposed the sale of indulgences. They felt that the church was corrupt. They also attacked the ‘cult of saints’ – they argued that relics were fakes which could not cure illness or perform miracles. They believed that the Catholic Church simply used them to make money.

ii) The Catholic Church believed that stories and images could be used to help people understand their religion. They were supporters of mystery plays and entertainment, for religious celebration. The Protestants especially the later Puritans were opposed to all forms of religious entertainment and religious celebration.

Thomas Becket Window, Chartres Cathedral, France
 © Art History Images

iii) In the Catholic Church, services were in Latin. This meant that only a few people could read the Bible or understand fully what happened in church. Protestants believed that everyone should have the chance to read the Bible, and everyone should understand religious services. They called for Bibles to be printed in the languages of ordinary people, like English or Welsh, and for services in these languages.

5. Reformation in England

Protestant ideas arrived in England during Henry VIII’s reign through links with Europe, through trade or politics. The first English Bibles began to appear. However, Henry condemned Protestant beliefs and, where he could, destroyed copies of the English Bible. For his defence of Catholic ideas, the Pope named him the ‘Defender of the Faith’. Everything changed in the late 1520s when Henry wanted a divorce.

6. Henry VIII and his divorce

Henry VIII (after Holbein)
© Victoria Art Gallery, Bath (via VADS)

For many years Henry VIII had been married to the Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon. They had many children but only one child survived. That was their daughter, Mary. Henry was desperate to have a son to inherit his throne, and unfortunately Catherine could no longer have children. Henry was also in love with an English courtier, Anne Boleyn. He was determined to divorce Catherine, marry Anne, and have a son with her.

Henry had to ask the Pope to give him a divorce, and sent his chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to arrange it. Unfortunately, Catherine had no intention of being divorced. She had some powerful relatives, including the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who put pressure on the Pope as well as Henry and Wolsey. The Pope dithered and refused to make a decision.

Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. Using laws passed in the Reformation Parliament, he declared himself Supreme Head of the church in England, and granted his own divorce. He also needed money. With his new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, he decided that the church was corrupt and decided to dissolve (close down) the religious houses (monasteries, convents etc). Their riches were given to Henry. The Pope condemned Henry’s actions, but could not stop him. The church lost most of its wealth in England and all of its independence.

Some Protestant ideas arrived – Henry approved the first official English Bible. However, he did not agree with many Protestant beliefs (other than the ones which made him rich and Supreme Head of the church!) Very little changed in how religion was practiced in most churches. But under his children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, the Church changed constantly.

7. Henry’s children

Edward VI, Mary I and Eliz I by Richard Burchett © Palace of Westminster WOA 1017 and 1014


Henry’s three children held very different beliefs.

- Edward VI, a young boy when he inherited the throne, governed with the help of a Lord Protector. His mother was Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who had died as a result of Edward’s birth.  He was a committed Protestant, and changed many practices in the English church – for example, all services were held in English, and images were removed from churches.

- Mary I was a committed Catholic, and returned the English church to Catholicism. Many historians now believe this was popular in many parts of England and Wales. However, she could not return all the church’s lands. She is remembered for burning hundreds of Protestant martyrs at the stake for their beliefs.

- Elizabeth I was a Protestant, but overwhelmingly wanted compromise. Her religious settlement created a church which had services in English, but kept some Catholic practices like church music. Elizabeth was the Supreme Governor, and the Pope had no say. It was during her long reign (over forty years) that most people in England and Wales became Protestants. However, Elizabeth faced pressure from people who thought her church was too Protestant, but also from those who thought it was not Protestant enough!

In the Parliament section, you will find information about the religious laws passed by these monarchs. In the MPs section, there are biographies of MPs with different religious beliefs to see the Reformation from different viewpoints. In the Constituencies section, you can learn how these new laws, ideas and beliefs changed ordinary communities.

The Reformation was a complicated and long process, but it changed England and Wales forever. Elizabeth’s church is still the basis of today’s Church of England.




The History of Parliament runs annual competitions in the spring and summer for 11-14 and 16-18 year olds. For information this year’s competition, and how you can enter,
please click here.

What did wealthy Catholics often have in their houses in Elizabeth's reign?

a) Tables that turned into Altars

b) Relics for people to pray to

c) 'Priest holes' - secret chambers to hide priests