Cranmer's Godly Order
by Michael Davies
"Godly Order" or "Christmas Game"?
THE REACTION to the new liturgy has already been touched upon in Chapter VIII. It was shown that most of the clergy tended to make use of the ambiguities in the new communion service in an attempt to interpret it in an orthodox manner. This reaction will be examined in detail in the next two chapters. The ordinary faithful did not possess the theological skill to put an orthodox interpretation upon a radical break with the traditions of their forefathers. If the Reformers had no intention of altering the traditional doctrine of the Mass then why had they changed the traditional liturgy? As is so often the case, the intuition of the simple faithful proved to be the most accurate and the most honest. Scholars like Gardiner who tried to show that the new service was compatible with the Catholic doctrine on the Mass could certainly have had no illusions about the beliefs and intentions of Cranmer and his associates. As the Anglican historian J. T. Tomlinson expresses it: " . . . the First Prayer Book was regarded at that time as merely provisional until the English Reformers could give full effect to their own predilections." l
The changes in religious policy made during the reign of Henry VIII had passed over the heads of the mass of the English people. The suppression of chantries in 1547 and the removal of images had brought the nature of Protestantism home to every parish. The imposition of the new communion service proved to be the last straw in some cases, and it provoked a number of armed risings.
Like all reformers, those who had devised and imposed the new liturgy were confident that they knew what was best for the people . . . The services must be understood by the people and made congregational, the people must be turned from spectators intent upon their private devotions into active participants." 2 The new service became mandatory on 9th June, 1549, Whit-Sunday. However the congregational activity which it evoked was not exactly of the kind which Cranmer had intended. The parishioners of Sampford Courtenay-----a beautiful granite church on the edge of Dartmoor-----"heard it read and did not like it, and on the following day they compelled their parish priest to return to the old ritual. They likened the new service to 'a Christmas game' and would have no changes until the king was of full age." 3 A contemporary Protestant historian complained that the parish priest "yielded to their wills and forthwith raversheth himself in his old popish attire and sayeth mass and all such services as in times past accustomed." 4
Local justices of the peace came to remonstrate with the peasants-----but it was of no avail. One was so tactless that a farmer named Letherbridge struck him with his billhook and others "fell upon him and slew him . . ." 5 The west country men were in no mood for argument, in fact they were not really competent to argue. They were making a stand for something which deep within them they knew was right; it involved their roots and their eternal destiny. Scholars could, and would, belittle them. Cranmer could, and would, sneer at them-----but it is not always those who are able to put the best reasons for their cause who are in the right.
The news spread "as a cloud carried with a violent wind and as a thunder clap sounding through the whole country and the common people so well allowed and liked thereof that they clapped their hands for joy." 6
The Mass was restored in neighbouring parishes. A force was gathered and gaining strength as it marched, went to Crediton where it joined a Cornish force which
had risen independently a few days earlier. The rebels were soon in effective control of the west country and could have reached London with competent leadership. But they were not organized revolutionaries with an objective and a strategy-----they were humble men who had risen spontaneously to defend the Faith of their fathers.
The Protestant historian, Professor W. G. Hoskins, is unable to conceal his admiration when describing their march on Exeter. "With the sacred banner of the Five Wounds of Christ floating before them, and the pyx borne under a rich canopy, with crosses, banners, candlesticks, swinging censers, and holy bread and water 'to defend them from devils and the adverse power,' the procession of Devon and Cornish farmers and labourers, led by a few of the gentry, ignorantly pitting themselves against the whole power of the State, marched on to Exeter behind their robed priests, singing as they advanced; a pathetic, futile, and gallant rebellion." 7 Futile? In worldly terms perhaps-----but sub specie aeternitatis . . . ?
"We do not know how many conservative and stubborn West countrymen marched in that hopeless rebellion: a few thousands probably. They spoke and fought for tens of thousands, no doubt, who disliked and detested the changes. But in most parishes the parson and his people accepted the orders from above and conformed outwardly." 8
Even in Exeter the majority, including the mayor and chief citizens, disliked the reforms, but as was the case with Catholics throughout all the persecutions and penal times, they faced an agonizing choice between the dictates of religion and an obligation, which in itself they regarded to be religious, of obedience to the crown. The Protestant historian Hooker concedes that the party "of the old stamp and of the Romish religion" was larger than the Protestant group in Exeter but that "the magistrates and chieftains of the city albeit they were not fully resolved and satisfied in religion yet they not respecting that but chiefly their dutifulness to the king and commonwealth, nothing liked the rebellion . . ." 9
So widespread was popular feeling in support of the rebels that even those who lacked the courage to join them were not willing to fight against them. Lord Russell, the Lord Privy Seal and an experienced soldier, had been sent to crush the rebellion. He found it almost impossible to raise local levies to combat the men of Devon and Cornwall, not simply in those counties but in Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset. The strong Catholic sympathies of the people of Somerset are made clear by a letter from the King's Council to Lord Russell suggesting a method of overcoming their reluctance: " . . . Where ye declare that thoccasyon of being able to levie so few in Somersetshire is the evil inclynation of the people, and that there are amongs them that do not styck openly to speak such traterous words agaynst the kyng and in favour of the traytrous rebells. Ye shall hang two or three of them, and cause them to be executed lyke traytors. And that wilbe the only and best staye of all those
Even Protestant historians concede that the Western Rebellion was genuinely religious. 11 The rebels were attacked by a propaganda campaign as well as with military forces. The government propagandists warned the West country men that they were deceived by their priests "whelps of the Romish litter". 12 It had, in fact, been the laity who had forced or shamed their priests into making a stand for the Faith. Nicholas Udall, a Protestant scholar who had gained the favour of Edward VI through the patronage of Catherine Parr, derided the rebels for their pronouncements against heresy which, he claimed, they did not understand. The changes were, he insisted, based on the "most godly council . . . with long study and travail of the best learned bishops and doctors of the realm." 13 Had the rebels had the learning or debating skill of St. Thomas More they could have pointed out that the traditional religion had the support of a numberless host of the best learned bishops and doctors, stretching back in time to the Apostles themselves.
The religious nature of the rebellion is made clear by the demands of the rebels. "Fyrst we wyll have the general counsall and the holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed and who so ever shal agayne saye them, we hold them as Heretikes . . . we will have the masse in Latten, as before . . . we will have the Sacrament hange over the hyeyhe aulter, and there to be worshypped as it was wount to be, and they whiche will not thereto consent, we wyl have them dye lyke heretykes against the Holy Catholyque fayth . . . we wyl have palmes and asshes at the tymes accustomed, Images to be set up again in every church, and all other auncient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy church . . . we wil not receyve the newe servye because it is like a Christmas game, but we wyll have foure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten not in English, as it was before." 14 [How many of us more learned Catholics of just a generation ago had enough true faith and courage to insist on this? Especially when we feared no actual slaughter as befell the English laity? To ask the question is to answer it.-------The Web Master.]
Like Nicholas Udall, Cranmer took great delight in ridiculing the rebels for their ignorance . "When I first read your request, O ignorant men of Devonshire and Cornwall, straightways came to my mind a request, which James and John made unto Christ; to whom Christ answered: 'You ask you wot not what.' Even so thought I of you, as soon as ever I heard your articles, that you were deceived by some crafty priest, which devised those articles for you, to make you ask you wist not what." 15
In his very lengthy reply to the fifteen demands of the rebels he shows himself to be as outraged by the manner in which the demands are phrased as by the demands themselves. "Is this the fashion of subject to speak unto their prince, 'We will have'? Was this manner of speech at any time used of subjects to their prince since the beginning of the world? Have not all true subjects ever used to their sovereign lord this form of speaking, 'Most humbly beseecheth your faithful and obedient subject?' Although the papists have abused your ignorance in propounding such articles, which you understand not, yet you should not have suffered yourselves to be led by the nose and bridled by them, that you should clearly forget your duty of allegiance unto your sovereign lord, saying unto him, 'This we will have', and that saying with armour upon your backs and swords in your hands."
Cranmer considered the plea for the return of Latin particularly ridiculous. "For the whole that is done should be the act of the people and pertain to the people, as well as to the priest. 16 And standeth it with reason, that the priest should speak for you, and in your name, and you answer him again in your own person; yet you understand never a word, neither what he saith, nor what you say yourselves? . . . Had you rather be like pies or parrots, that be taught to speak, and yet understand not one word what they say, than be true Christian men, that pray unto God in heart and in faith?"
Cardinal Gasquet points out how mistaken is the notion that the Latin service is a closed book to the uneducated in Catholic countries. "The Latin words become not infrequently so familiar that they suggest themselves to the uneducated even in the occurrences of ordinary daily life. Therefore in considering the sudden substitution of English for Latin in all the public services of the Church it must be borne in mind that to a very great number this measure, so far from affording any gratification to their religious feelings, was one to which they had to be reconciled." 17 The Cardinal also quotes the opinion of an unprejudiced Anglican scholar whose travels in Catholic countries had convinced him that the ordinary faithful could follow the audible parts of the Mass "quite as well as the English generally follow the prayer book." 18
The Western rebels had demanded that those who refused their demands should "dye lyke heretykes against the holy Catholyque fayth." In the event, of course, it was the rebels who died when the rebellion was eventually crushed with the help of foreign mercenaries commanded by Lord Russell and Lord Grey de Wilton who had joined him after putting down another religious rising in Oxfordshire. The only reliable troops were the mercenaries, Italians, Spaniards, and Germans. When they eventually discovered the religious nature of the campaign in which they had fought, many of them sought absolution. 19 "There was a fierce battle at Clyst St. Mary and another at Clyst Heath, where the rebels died by hundreds; and after the battle a massacre of the prisoners. And then in the night of August 4th and 5th the rebels withdrew from Exeter." 20 Lord Grey had never fought against Englishmen before and marvelled at "such stoutness . . . never in all the wars did he know the like". 21
The rebellion was far from over, however, and the final battle took place at Sampford Courtenay where the rebellion had begun. Groups of rebels still kept up the fight, retreating into Somerset and at least 4,000 west country men died at the hands of the royal army. Thomas Cranmer's Prayer Book had had its baptism of blood. "By the end of August it was all over," writes Professor Bindoff, " . . . some thousands of peasant households mourned their menfolk slaughtered on the battlefield, some hundreds those who expiated their treasons on the gallows of a dozen counties." 22
Cardinal Gasquet writes: " . . .the imposition of the book of the new service was only effected through the slaughter of many thousands of Englishmen by the English government helped by their foreign mercenaries. The old dread days of the Pilgrimage of Grace were renewed, the same deceitful methods were employed to win success, the same ruthless bloodshed was allowed in the punishment of the vanquished. Terror was everywhere struck into the minds of the people by the sight of the executions, fixed for the market days, of priests dangling from the steeples of their parish churches, and of the heads of laymen set up in the high places of the towns." 23 The parish priest of the church of St. Thomas (Exeter) was hanged on a gallows erected on his church tower in his Mass vestments, with "a holy water bucket, a sprinkler, a sacring bell, a pair of beads and such other like popish trash hanged about him." 24 "The last act in the western tragedy was the execution of the leaders at Tyburn on 7th January, 1550. The very objective Venetian envoy reported that: "had the Country people only a leader, although they had been grievously chastised they would rise again." 25 Thus were the peasants of the West induced to accept "the very godly order set forth by order of Parliament for common prayer in the mother tongue."
1. The Prayer Book, Articles, and Homilies (London, 1897), p. 19.
2. TR, p. 118.
3. DEV, p. 233.
4. TUD, p. 50.
5. Op. cit., Note 3.
6. RIE, vol. II, p. 165.
7. Op. cit. Note 3.
8. Ibid., p. 234.
9. TUD, p. 53.
10. Ibid., p. 141.
11. Ibid., p. 57. "The Edwardian Council always regarded the Western Rebellion as primarily religious in purpose. On 11th June, Somerset spoke of an attempt, instigated by 'seditious priests, to seke restitucion of the olde bluddy lawes'. The chroniclers unanimous emphasis on the religious motivation of the rebels is confirmed by their articles, "a manifesto for a return to catholicism."
13. Ibid., p. 58.
14. Ibid., p. 135.
15. CW, vol. II, pp. 163-187.
16. It is interesting to note that in 1947 Pope Pius XII found it necessary to condemn the proposition that the whole of the eucharistic liturgy is, as Cranmer phrased it, "the act of the people". The essence of the Catholic Mass is that: "The unbloody immolation by which, after the words of consecration have been pronounced, Christ is rendered present on the altar in the state of a victim, is performed by the priest alone, and by the priest in so far as he acts in the name of Christ, not in so far as he represents the faithful." Mediator Dei, C.T.S. edition, para. 96. As was made clear in Chapter XIII, there is all the difference in the world between a priest who possesses powers different not only in degree but in essence from those of the laity, and who offers sacrifice in the person of Christ, and of a minister simply acting as the representative of the faithful by whom he is appointed to preside over their assembly.
17. EBCP, p. 238.
19. RIE, vol. II, p. 169.
22. TE, p. 157.
23. EBCP, p. 254.
24. TUD, p. 55.
25. EBCP, p. 246.