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The Protestant Reformation in England was very much tied up with politics. It was for political reasons that Henry the Eighth felt the need to break with the Church of Rome, and it was largely because of politics that Queen Elizabeth was compelled to reaffirm the Protestant stance of England whether she really desired to or not. Protestantism however was not unwelcome. It gave the monarch independence from Rome, and a greater control over ecclesiastical affairs in the kingdom.
Protestantism was also advantageous to those at the top of the social pyramid. With the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid fifteen twenties, church land fell to the Crown, and Henry shrewdly sold much of it to the nobility and gentry, which not only increased their economic and political power, but also ensured that they had a vested interest in the survival of the new religion. Protestantism also appealed religiously to the elite. It was a religion which appealed to the intellect, and allowed the educated to put their intellectual skills into action. It also distanced them from the more irrational, pagan world of the lower classes. Rather than having to partake in rituals and ceremonies, Protestant Culture maintained that all that was required for salvation was to read and learn the Scriptures, and apply their teachings to everyday life. All else, such as the performance of good works, praying to the Saints, and Confession, were a distraction from true faith in God.
But what about the common people? What would they gain from this new religion? They certainly would not stand to gain economically or politically, and to what extent could they participate in a religious Culture which demanded not only literacy, but study and application? In many ways, the lower classes had little choice but to embrace Protestantism. With the exception of Mary’s short reign, from the moment Henry the Eighth broke with the Church of Rome, Protestantism was the official state religion of England. Initially it was a very loose Protestantism as Henry’s main objective was to establish his authority as Head of the Church in England, but with the accession of the boy King Edward the Sixth in 1547, the Church, under the influence of the Protector Somerset, and then Northumberland, was pushed in a far more radical Protestant direction. Those who held, or attended private masses, were to be punished by imprisonment. Under Elizabeth a similar line was taken, and although the emphasis was on outward conformity rather than inward conviction, there were strict recusancy laws imposed by the act of Uniformity of 1559, which fined recusants twelve shillings.
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