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By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2016








Chapter Nine:





Sources of Lutheran Impact

upon England


            Two different sources provided an on-going infusion of the evolving Continent theologies of protest--Lutheran, Calvinist, and fringe radical.  First there were the businessmen whose trade brought them to England.  The sincere embracer of any theology or ideology can not lay those convictions aside at a national boundary.  Hence the belief systems were carried them with them as they dealt with Englishmen of all types and stripes. 

            A more regulatable source were overt refugees from Catholic regimes in mainland Europe.  France, Germany, and the Low Countries provided the bulk of these, but even bastions of orthodoxy like Italy and Spain had their dissenters as well and a few of them made their way as far as England.[1] 

            The impact of both groups were primarily in urban areas.  In London in the days of Elizabeth, the foreign proportion of the population may have been near ten percent.[2]       



Luther:  Agreement and Disagreement

with the Broad Reform Consensus



            Lutheranism frightened Henry VIII because it had been accompanied by massive doctrinal change.  Furthermore it spuned off both religious radicalism (Anabaptism and millennial movements) as well as social radicalism (peasant unrest and rebellion) that threatened the survival of centralized authority, even as defined in that relatively uncentralized era.

            This was certainly not Luther’s original intent.  When that German dissident nailed his 95 theses (propositions for discussion and debate) on the church house door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, he did not intend to launch the religious upheaval that shook Europe to its core during the following century.[3]  His intent was internal reform, not religious revolution.[4]    

            His 95 Theses were written in Latin and he did nothing to distribute them--yet they were quickly translated into German and other languages and spread far and wide.  As Luther himself wrote to Pope Leo X six months after the Theses had been posted, “It is a mystery to me how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors were spread to so many places.  They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here. . .  they were written in such a language that the common people could hardly understand them.  They . . . use academic categories. . . .”[5] 

            The quickness of distribution certainly argues, however, that Luther had--however inadvertently--touched a raw nerve.  It also argues that a few key individuals recognized how relevant his Theses were to widespread concerns and fears among the German people and quickly saw to their distribution in a language a wider audience could understand.  Nor in Germany alone.  Although Luther’s 95 Theses were not posted till late 1517, before February 1519 translated copies had penetrated not just throughout mainland Europe but into England as well.[6] 

            This mass distribution was not totally without mercenary motives of course.  The printers who reproduced the translation of the Theses and other Lutheran tracts obviously expected to make a profit.  As did those who sold them.  Including the lowly peddler who traveled from community to community, selling the pamphlets until their supply was exhausted.[7]  Yet the material would not have been printed (at least in such bulk) unless a major market was anticipated.  The reverse is also true:  unless there had been a major market, the tracts would not have continued to be printed.  The presses would soon have ground to a halt.    

            When a repressive church structure demanded he recanting of what he was convinced was clear scriptural truth, his sense of personal integrity permitted him no retreat.  Initially it was a choice between being a scripture following Catholic and a papal following one and he had no doubt as to which was the proper course. 

Only as the conflict intensified and it became obvious that there would be no reconciliation with the papacy did he come to speak in terms of a rejection of Catholicism itself.  To his critics, this course was logically inherent from the beginning.  To his friends, the conflict exposed an incompatibility between the scriptures and the essence of Catholicism that Luther (and they as well) might otherwise have avoided for the remainder of his life.     

            The excesses perceived in the contemporary sale of indulgences began Luther’s role as public protester.  The questions he raised in this regard and concerning related matters were regarded as heretical, but the questioning had a long tradition within the ranks of the devout:  Challenging the value of indulgences--specifically for the dead--had been an on-going dispute among religious intellectuals of the Middle Ages.[8]  The most vigorous opponents had been the Franciscans during the fourteenth century.[9] 

            If Luther’s indignation at indulgences challenged the income of the church, Luther’s questioning of the propriety of venerating (“worshipping”) images was a direct provocation of the popular religiosity of the age.  This attack on the veneration of images was rooted in two arguments by Luther and other Protestant apologists.  

First, the practice contradicted the central doctrine of salvation by faith:  the worship of images was viewed as salvation by rote repetition since the act was perceived as guaranteeing spiritual reward rather than the faith that might or might not underlay the act.  This was the main emphasis of the Lutherans.  Calvin and Zwingli readily utilized such rhetoric as well, but they placed great emphasis on the pagan roots of the practices as well.  Because of this origin, they were by nature, ungodly and a woeful inheritance of a pre-Christian age.[10]

            Lutheranism was different from Catholicism in its repudiation of centralized papal authority and in its denial of the right of the church to create religious rites and practices that would carry the Divine imprimatur even though they seemed to contradict the direct teaching of the scriptures.  In regard to individual salvation, it grew not out of one's uninvolved baptism as an infant into the church but out of the personal commitment fueled by faith.  For the infant, this was initially the faith of his parents who had him baptized but when he was grown to adulthood it had to be supplemented by his own personal faith as well.  (Ideally, of course, this was the situation for Catholic infants as well.)

            Luther’s pivotal theological break with Rome came over his elevation of the pivotal role of faith in the individual’s salvation.  This was in contradiction to the contemporary church’s insistence that salvation was via the works (religious and charitable activities) that the church certified as gaining the approval of God.  Much discussion has occurred over whether Luther was at war against a long-standing church position or against one that had gained dominance over an earlier view much closer to that of Luther’s.[11]  At the time it served both sides interests to emphasize the break with past thought, just as it serves the very different theological interests of the late twentieth century to perhaps unduly stress the similarities.

            From the standpoint of both theory and practicality, it was important for Luther and the Calvinists to come to an accommodation.  Unquestionably they came to see each other as in broad agreement, but this did not always come easily and differences of emphasis and preference remained.

            Predestination offers a good example of where there was initially a great disagreement:  Martin Luther had difficulty accepting the concept.[12]  Eventually he candidly embraced it, even though not to a degree that we connect the doctrine with his name rather than that of John Calvin.  In his 1525 publication De servo arbitro Luther candidly wrote,[13]


The human will is like a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it wishes and goes as God wills; if Satan mounts it, it wishes and goes as Satan wills.  Nor can it choose its rider. . . .  The riders contend for its possession. . . .  God foresees, ordains, and accomplishes all things by an unchanging, eternal and efficacious will.  By this thunderbolt free will sinks shattered in the dust.    


            On the other hand the doctrine came to have a profound difference with it Calvinistic form.  The Lutheran stressed the positive side of the doctrine (predestination to life); the Calvinist insisted upon just as vigorously emphasizing the predestination to hell as well.  Although Calvinists taught faith, predestination overshadowed the doctrine.  The reverse was true of the Lutherans; though they spoke of predestination the pivotal role of faith overshadowed it.    

            All the reformers--from Luther to Calvin to Zwingli--believed that both testaments of the Bible were essentially identical.  There were, of course, differences in ritual and form but the true inner substance and ethical core of both were the same.[14]   Hence there was a tendency to blur the major distinctions in religious practice found in the two parts.  If it was acceptable under the Torah it was easily assumed it was acceptable for the Christian as well.  On the other hand, the repeated emphasis of such reform leaders on the crucial difference between “Law” and “gospel” tended to encourage a more drastic distinction than the underlying theory called for.[15] 

            All the reformers likewise believed in the sole authority of scripture in determining religious behavior, but what that meant in actual practice varied considerably.  Did a practice have to be explicitly condemned by scripture before it was wrong?  Lutherans found that a convincing proposition.  They spoke in terms that whatever was not explicitly condemned by the scriptures was appropriate and proper for Christian worship.  In contrast, Calvinists sought for positive, explicit authorization.[16]  As a result of this difference in approach, the Lutherans found it quite appropriate to retain a degree of ceremonialism that Calvinists rejected. 

            Now let us approach the issue from the Calvinist side of the street:  Did there have to be explicit approval (in some clear-cut form) before a doctrine or practice was acceptable?  So they claimed.  In actual practice carrying out that theory was not so easily done.  Clear cut affirmation of preferred practices was sometimes very hard to come by.  Of course they could have decided to scrap such practices, but that was a course only acceptable to the most radical--and rarely exercised consistently even by them. 

Hence there was a tendency to “find” scriptural proof in texts that were far from clear and definitive or to go to texts that presented broad, positive injunctions but which had no direct relevance to the particular issue at hand.  This was far less a temptation for the Lutherans, since they did not require a positive affirmation or commandment in the first place, only the lack of an explicit condemnation. 

            The tension between the Lutheran and Calvinist approaches was reflected in the Anglican Church.  The Protestant doctrinal formulations of the Reformation century tend to express a Calvinist demand for explicit endorsement (in some form) of whatever is done in the name of religion, while in actual practice a degree of traditional ceremonialism was actually utilized that was more congenial to Lutheranism and Catholicism than to Calvinism.[17]  The unwillingness to bring practice in line with rhetoric ultimately fueled the push toward a Presbyterianism independent of the established church.[18]   

            Related to the broader issue of authority was the matter of the church’s authority as an organized institution.  Although this question was present in any organizational system that was adopted, it was especially true in regard to the Anglicans, who retained the episcopate while asserting the definitive authority of scripture. 

How this could be dealt with in that context is well illustrated by Archbishop Cranmer.  He saw the church’s authority as involved only in matters we today might call “expediency.”  If the scriptures had spoken that was the definitive judgment.  On the other hand, there was a wide range of practices--neither right nor wrong in themselves--that the church had proper control over. 

These he described when he wrote, “Variable traditions, observations, ceremonies, and outward rites and bodily exercises, which must certainly be kept, but which the church has the power to alter, replace, or suppress.”[19]  These were things indifferent to the true essence of Christianity and therefore variable over specific locations and the passage of time.[20]  



Henry as Defender of Catholicism

against Luther's Criticisms


            Luther's reformation had begun in 1517 in Germany and in those orthodox Catholic days of his, Henry VIII was thoroughly annoyed at the content and possible consequences of the doctrine.  Hence in early 1518 Henry composed an initial draft criticizing Luther in regard to indulgences and papal authority.  The King set this aside under Luther published in 1520 his De Captivitate Babylonica, which reignited Henry's anger.[21]  In the winter of  the same year Henry began writing his Assertion of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum) and completed it by the following spring.   Henry told others that he wrote the book at the suggestion of Cardinal Wolsey.[22] 

            The power of the book lay not in its contents--though it was a competent enough work by a non-theologian--but due to its regal origin.[23]  Others helped by doing the research and quite probably much of the drafting, but the essence--the heart of the work and its contents--were shaped and molded to match the king's own convictions.[24]  It was reprinted twenty times and translated into several European languages, igniting repeated rhetorical counterattacks by those who disagreed with it.[25]

            Although Henry’s work caught the public eye because of the regal status of its author, Bishop John Fisher’s Assertionis Lutheranae Confutario (Antwerp, 1523) made a far greater contribution to the substance of the controversy.  Throughout the remainder of the century, it was one of the standard source books that anti-Lutheran authors routinely consulted in preparing their own refutations.[26] 

            As early as 1512, Henry had attempted to gain a dynastic term of honor from the pope--such as those already bestowed upon the kings of Spain and France.  The issue was raised again in 1515 and the following year as well.  No positive results occurred.  In 1521 the question was raised yet again and this time it received a more positive reaction.  The Assertio seems to have provided the critical “tilt” necessary to push the papacy into action even though it had not yet received the actual text.

            After Pope Leo X received a special copy of the work he praised it highly.  Choosing from a short list of acceptable titles, Henry requested that of Defender of the Faith, the same title he had vainly sought in 1515.  This time the Pope responded and in October 1521, the king received the papal recognition he desired and both Pope and monarch enjoyed the clear slap in the face the Assertio had given Luther’s spiritual revolution.

            In truth Henry did not get all of what he was anticipating:  a dynastic title of honor.  The actual wording of the award made it a purely personal one.  Henry overcame this by having his Parliament pass legislation in 1543 turning it into the dynastic designation he desired.  The Catholic Mary had Parliament repeal this.  Elizabeth had the legislature reverse this and it became part of the permanent nomenclature attached to English royalty.[27]       

            The Assertio was a triumph for Catholicism due to its royal source, but not necessarily for the papacy.  Important  issues are finessed or ignored, issues that lay at the root of Henry's ultimate desertion of Rome.  He affirmed the papal power over Purgatory through the use of indulgences, but that was a matter concerning the next world and not the current one. 

On this world-affairs, restraint was the order of the day.  True, he explicitly stated that he would accept the doctrines the Pope taught.  On the other hand, he never affirmed nor denied the right of councils to overrule the Pope.  Nor did he make any explicit declarations concerning the temporal power of Popes over kingdoms and kings. 

            Hence Henry left himself a door available in case of future conflicts with the Roman see.  It might be embarrassing to use, but there would be no absolute contradiction with what he had written.  Or, rather, what had been written for him and gained his approval.  In spite of his intellectual talents Henry never exhibited enthusiasm for more than short bouts of personal writing.  His style was to have others prepare longer works--already knowing the regal attitudes and approach before undertaking it--with Henry himself providing careful recommendations for change and explicit revisions. 

            Although others probably did the bulk of the drafting of the Assertio, it is quite possible that in the revision stage Thomas Moore saved the king from making the papal authority more absolute, an irony in light of the fact that More ultimately paid with his own life for loyalty to church over king.  In 1534 More wrote Thomas Cromwell that the king had been in favor of a much more emphatic assertion of papal authority and that he had talked him out of it.  After all, disagreements could always develop and the king should provide himself further maneuvering room.  The King's embracing of the More recommended restraint did just that. 

            Not that kings are above flagrantly contradicting themselves.  It just makes it far easier to gain and retain support when there is no blatantly embarrassing contradictions that can be thrown back.[28] 

            Indeed, the English government had previously gotten away with prosecuting clerics in spite of claims of priestly immunity.  And even papal shipping had been known to be seized by the English state.  Even church canons not explicitly resting on scriptural assertion had been held to be enforceable only with the king's approval.  This came out of the "Hunne Affair" in 1515, when a British court ruled this to be the case.  Henry publicly endorsed it at the time, "By order and sufferance of God we are king of England and kings of England in time past have never had any superior but God only. . . .  Consent to your desire more than our progenitors have done in time past we will not."[29]  Hardly indications of unmitigated enthusiasm for papal authority!

            Yet the precedents were overlooked in the zeal for (and denunciations of) the king's literary defense of traditional Catholicism.  When the king issued his book defending the church, Luther fired back his own indignant denunciation and a firm breach was established.  In 1521 Henry also ordered the burning of all Lutheran books that he could obtain.  Although there had been pressure to add bodies to the flames, Wolsey had obstructed all such efforts.[30] 



Rejection of Luther as an

Irresponsible Social Radical



            Although the religious doctrines of Luther made him anathema to English religious and political leaders throughout the early period of Henry's reign, the supposed social and ethical disintegration his theories produced also caused the entire movement to be dismissed with passionate demagoguery.  To their traditionalist foes, Luther and Lutherans were the incarnation of evil.  Bishop John Longland, for example, indicted the German reform in these terms,[31]


You, Luther, already turn everything upside down and confound everything preaching (as you do) neglect of everything in place of charity, for cleanliness filth, for celibacy and chastity the company of women, for obedience contempt and sedition, for a Christian life the lax and uncontrolled life of the sons of Belial.  Thus you despise the church, you despise its authority, the honour of the Eucharist, all sacrifice, the priesthood, vows, religion, virginity, and chastity.  You revile the holy sacraments, from which we derive every remedy and help against all the diseases of the soul.  You want everything to be in common, you want the human race to be a wanderer on the earth as it was in the beginning, without a leader, without a ruler . . . without authority . . . without virtue, without grace.               


            There was nothing too evil or depraved that he or his followers would be unwilling to do.  In criticizing the Lutherans, Sir Thomas More was not above blatant misrepresentation to support his assault on the allegedly immoral nature inherent in the German system.  For example, he blamed particularly grotesque atrocities committed by Lutheran forces as an inevitable outgrowth of the doctrine that faith alone is adequate. 

The reality was that such mercenary forces rarely exercised much restraint regardless of their superficial religious beliefs and that these forces in particular were serving a Catholic monarch in sacking Rome.  So outlandish were the atrocities that the story was intentionally spread that they were committed by Spaniards who were secretly Moslems and by Lutheran elements--for which there was no evidence nor probability.  But it did serve to move some of the moral taint from a Catholic monarch to a target easier and safer to denounce. 

            More repeated the story with no effort to verify it and, when challenged, replied that in this case the Lutherans may not have been responsible, but one could be perfectly certainly that they ultimately would act in such a barbaric fashion.[32]  The fact that an intellectual illuminary like More could make such an argument--and feel no need to repudiate it when challenged--argues not only the intensity of his passion against Lutheranism but that many individuals would consider such an argument inherently plausible.  

            Sir Thomas More was himself a critic of indulgences and other contemporary church extremes.  Hence when Erasmus provided him a copy of Luther’s “95 Theses,” his reaction had been positive and supportive.  But when the Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published, however, it became clear that Luther was now a fundamental critic not merely of the excesses of the church, but of the essence of the Catholic faith as it had traditionally been understood.  From then until his own execution, More was a vehement opponent of Lutheranism and supported the most vigorous action to suppress those who advocated such ideas.[33]

            If Lutherans were really as bad as pictured by More in his vehement indignation, then all the normal restrictions on conduct were removed.  Hence Sir Thomas was not above playing political hardball in suppressing the movement.  When Robert Barnes was granted a regal safe conduct to come to England in spite of his questionable orthodoxy, More did his best to get it revoked.  As he reasoned, Barnes “hath so demeaned himself since his coming hither that he hath clearly broken and forfeited his safe conduct and might lawfully be burned for his heresies if we laid both his heresies and his demeanour together.”  Opposition to this proposal kept it from being implemented and More ultimately dismissed the missed opportunity with the remark, “But let him go this once, for God shall find his time full well.”[34] 

            Many other Catholics than More also found themselves unable to travel any further than a few steps in Luther’s direction.  Although Erasmus had first been receptive to Luther’s challenges to orthodoxy, it took only a few years for a serious breach to occur.  In 1525 serious disagreements between the two over free will shattered any opportunity for there to be a joint front against unreformed papalism.  It did not do Erasmus any good, however; he had challenged “unreformed” religion too many times--and would continue to do so--for him to escape the taint of heresy in the minds of the more conservative clergy of Europe.[35]  



Luther Seeks an Accommodation




            Luther was a religious ideologue, but even he knew there were times when one had to bend.  The radicalism that swept southern Germany during the Peasants' Revolt of 1525 was chronologically linked with the growing popularity of his teaching.  In spite of his vehement denunciation of the rebels, there was the very real danger that his theology would be branded as its cause and his movement would suffer a fatal faltering of support among the German cities and princes.  

            A reconciliation with his vehement critic Henry would bolster his own credentials as well as providing Henry with European mainland allies.  It took much pressure and several rewrites before Luther finally finished his letter offering reconcilement.  Although it left Germany in September 1525 it was not until the spring of 1526 that it finally reached England.

            He dismissed Henry's printed criticism of the reformer as the work of others and took the sovereign's more recent convictions as indicative of his true feelings.  Although accompanied with great praise of the king, the letter essentially offered reconciliation upon the basis of the acceptance of Luther's theology.  No one with the giant ego of a Henry was going to find such terms acceptable--even when implicit rather than explicit. 

            Henry's official response may well have been written by Sir Thomas More.[36]  The letter literally listed Luther's alleged errors.  It vigorously denounced him for his marriage and describes it as nothing short of "incest."  The possibility of a mutual understanding was off--at least for the time being.

            Even so, there was a dangerous "Lutheran" assumption in the very grounds that Henry sought an annulment, an assumption that might provide the basis for an ultimate reconciliation.  Luther was pressing the supremacy of scripture over the church.  Henry was asserting that the explicit statement of scripture banned his original marriage and, therefore, no one in the church could properly have authorized it to occur.  At this point Henry was willing to apply the supremacy of scripture to the one topic that most concerned him, but it could easily become precedent for a wider application of the same principle as well. 

            Whether it ultimately did or not, it presented an immediate embarrassment for the Pope.  How would he justify admitting that the immediately preceding pontiff had erred in his interpretation of scripture, when the heated controversy of the hour was Luther's accusation that the pope chronically misunderstood even fundamental Biblical texts?[37]         



Henry Repeatedly Seeks a

Religious Accommodation

with Lutheranism



            Henry was not above extending a limited mercy to Lutherans, especially when it would demonstrate his supremacy over the Independent Catholicism he was establishing.  For example, in early 1531 a Lutheran minister was arrested on grounds of heresy.  He appealed his condemnation to Henry and this resulted in a presentation of the case against him before the king.  The Lutheran was unrepentant and argued with the bishops present over the impropriety of his arrest and punishment. 

            As this was going on, Henry requested the particulars of the accusation.  Unfortunately for the bishops, at the top of the list of heresies was a denial that the pope was supreme over the church.  Nothing could have been more guaranteed to raise the royal ire.  As soon as he saw it he insisted to those around him, "This proposition cannot be counted as heretical, for it is both true and certain."  He ordered the man released.[38]  Not only did was this consistent with Henry’s own efforts to obtain an annulment that the Pope refused to embrace, it also exhibited to the clergy his willingness to assert royal power in an area that was central to its spiritual concerns--the definition and punishment of heresy.  

            This may also have been an effort at bridge-building to the more militant reformers and a warning of regal independence to traditionalist Catholics as well.  If we identify the accused as John Frith, who had worked with Tyndale on his New Testament translation, his being freed would have served both purposes admirably well.[39]

            Furthermore, the mercy may have been a deliberate token of courtesy to Luther, with whom Henry was making tentative efforts at reconciliation.  Henry dispatched Robert Barnes to see whether he could obtain support for the divorce. 

Both Luther and the great Lutheran theologian Melanchthon replied that they could not accept the validity of the king's argument based upon Leviticus.[40]  Indeed, the Old Testament had no direct relevance in Luther's view:  what really counted was that the marriage was contrary to accepted human law.  On the other hand, since the marriage had been entered freely there could only be sin if it were dissolved.  Hence, Luther wrote, Catherine was indeed “the true and legitimate queen of England, made so by God Himself.”[41] 

            What then could be done?  Based upon Old Testament precedent, Luther suggested plural marriage might well be acceptable.  Oddly enough, Pope Clement VII himself had broached a similar suggestion to Henry's representatives just a short time previously![42] 

            Consulting other Lutheran leaders did no good.  Only one agreed with Henry's stance and his views could be dismissed as shaped by the marriage of his wife's niece to Thomas Cranmer.[43]  John Calvin reacted more sympathetically to Henry's right to divorce, as did Zwingli.[44]  Although this certainly encouraged Henry, it did not compensate for the overwhelmingly bleak picture from the Lutheran theologians.

The negative reports were brought to Henry by Christmas of 1531.[45]  If the man Henry had spared earlier in that year had indeed been Frith, the tolerance did not endure his next visit to England.  And the negative Lutheran responses had provided little diplomatic reason for Henry to be forgiving a second time.  

            In July 1532 Frith had returned to encourage his coreligionists in England.  In October he was imprisoned in the Tower from which he wrote the pamphlet A Christian Sentence.  This rebuked both transubstantiation and the cosubstantiation theory of Luther.  To him there was only a symbolic presence of Jesus in the communion--significant in itself, of course, but not rising to the “concrete reality” of a Divine presence asserted in Lutheran and Catholic thought.  

            Through intermediaries this work eventually landed on the desk of More.  The response took the form of an unusually mild "letter" to one not involved in the controversy, in which he depicts Frith as mislead by youthful over-trust in his own intellect.  Friendly interpreters of More attribute the lack of the vehemence against heretics that More had so vividly demonstrated in the past, to the deep impression the young man had made upon him.  The more cynical would suggest that More remembered Henry's earlier freeing of Frith (above) or that More saw it as still feasible that Frith would adopt the pro-annulment position the government supported.[46] 

            More was not the only one who held out the possibility that Frith might be redeemed for government service.  Tyndale wrote Frith urging him to avoid the temptation of repudiating his convictions because of the belief that it would work an ultimate greater good for the gospel cause.  Both Bishop Stephen Gardiner of Winchester and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer worked to get Frith to soften his beliefs on the matter of transubstantiation, to make them acceptable to the stubborn Henry.[47]       

            By the new year, Frith's convictions on the matter became known to Henry and the King washed his hands of him.  On July 4, 1533, he perished at the stake at Smithfield.                

            In spite of his continuing distaste for Luther's theology, the principalities following Luther's teaching still represented one logical source of support for Henry against his continental foes.  Someone has said that nations never have permanent friends, only permanent interests.  Hence the need for national protection required even Henry to consider modifying his stands.  Therefore discussions, if not always quite rising to official negotiations, sporadically continued between English representatives and Lutheran leaders on the continent. 

            Although Henry’s well known criticism of Luther erected a huge psychological barrier to rapprochement with the German reformer, Henry was extremely impressed with the scholarship and theological insight of the Lutheran intellectual Melanchthon.[48]  Hence Melanchthon represented a potential “side door” through which Henry could embrace key aspects of Lutheranism without the public embarrassment of embracing Luther himself.

            The political-military need for Continental allies resulted in negotiations in 1535 with the League of Schmalkald.  An English negotiating team entered into discussions with the Duke of Saxony concerning the establishment of a full alliance between England and the Germanic Protestant powers.  The Landgrave of Hesse responded with its “Christmas Articles” in December and proposed that Henry be accepted as the leader of the reform cause throughout Europe in exchange for embracing the Augsburg Confession. 

            Henry was receptive but the fatal stumbling block was approval of Henry’s divorce.  To Henry this was a prerequisite (after all, it had precipitated the open break with Rome).  To the Lutherans, however much they preferred to have him as an ally, the whole divorce affair still seemed wrong and improper.  What modest hope existed for an agreement, diminished dramatically after the execution of Anne Boleyn:  to the Lutherans, this was nothing short of legalized murder.[49]  

            Even so hope was not immediately abandoned.  The English negotiators (Richard Barnes, Edward Fox, and Nicholas Heath) indicated that Henry would be willingly to accept the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, if it were worded in more general terms.  On the German side, Philip Melanchthon was the main negotiator of religious issues, though Luther himself also participated at various points.[50]  Before the final breakup in negotiations, the Germans had composed the “Wittenberg Articles” as the suggested creedal basis for the English acceptance of a modified Lutheranism.  Not as explicitly Lutheran as the Augsburg Confession, it remained the theoretical undergirding of the entire document.[51]   

            This preliminary draft statement of faith was one acceptable to negotiators on both sides.  And the text clearly appealed to Henry as well since he adopted certain mutually acceptable ideas into the “Ten Articles” and issued them to the kingdom (1537).  The Ten Articles were sufficiently close to the Lutheran convictions expressed in the Wittenberg Confession to encourage the belief that further progress might yet be made.[52]  For example, they agreed that there were a maximum of three sacraments rather than the traditional seven.[53]  On the other hand, it did not take an overly alert reader to note that the document conspicuously omitted the preferred Lutheran definition of how salvation is obtained (i.e., “by faith alone”).[54] 

            In retrospect, Luther eventually wrote, “We found in the end that Harry of England had sent his embassy, not because he wanted to become evangelical, but in order that we at Wittenberg would agree to his divorce.”[55]  Throughout this period, this widely shared conclusion clearly undermined the Lutheran passion for an alliance.  In spite of the strong hints from the English that a mutual understanding could be reached, the hoped for Lutheran delegation that would negotiate a final agreement was never sent to England. 

Henry requested it repeatedly but the Lutherans took no action.  English-Lutheran exchanges virtually ceased to occur as both sides, annoyed at each other, waited for a change in attitude or a reversal of course—by the other side.

            But one could wait only so long.  The hostile situation in Europe encouraged Henry to seek further accommodation with the Protestant powers in Germany by some other approach, whatever his own theological reservations.  (More thorough-going English reformers, of course, were already thinking along very similar lines and felt fewer religiously based reservations than their king.)  In 1538 Christopher Mont's mission to Saxony reignited the discussions. 

            This time within a matter of a few months a Lutheran delegation arrived in England.  Its three members consisted of an important politician (the vice-chancellor of Saxony, Francis Burckhardt), a respected theologian (Frederick Myconius), and a lawyer (George Boyneburg).

            The four English negotiators were Cranmer (very much in favor of an accommodation) and three Bishops hostile to such a course (Sampson, Stokesley, and Tunstall).   Against a summer background of plague ravaging London, discussions broke down as the two sides emphasized different sets of issues.  The Germans wanted to emphasize what might be called the practicalities, those matters that were an on-going subject of grievance on their part.  These included such matters as the requiring of celibacy among priests, restricting the communion bread to the priests, and the continuance of private masses. 

            The three English traditionalists insisted that what was more important to discuss were the four sacraments that had not been mentioned in the Ten Articles.  Cranmer was well aware that the tactics of his fellow bishops were intended to destroy any possibility of an accommodation.  He wrote Cromwell that summer, “They know certainly that the Germans will not agree with us [in regard to there being additional sacraments], except it be in matrimony only; so that I perceive that the bishops seek only an occasion to break [down the negotiations].”[56] 

            Cranmer tried to find a way to exclude Bishop Stokesley from the discussions, calculating him to be the most serious obstacle to an agreement.  When nothing seemed to resolve the differences, he convinced the Germans to remain an extra month hoping that something could yet be done to redeem the situation.  On October 1 the Germans finally left, impressed with Cromwell but disgusted with Henry. 

Frederick Myconius was convinced that Cromwell had overstated Henry’s reformation inclinations but blamed the failure of the negotiations on the king’s own self-centeredness, “Harry only wants to sit as Antichrist in the temple of God, and that Harry should be Pope.  The rich treasures, the rich incomes of the Church--these are the Gospel According to Harry.”[57]  The Catholic traditionalists would have fully agreed with these Protestant foes, of course.

            We must not blame the failure exclusively upon obstructionist Anglican clergymen.  The German denunciation of Henry was not sour grapes; it represented the reality that the ultimate stumbling block that aborted the negotiations was the monarch himself. 

The King had personally followed the discussions in great detail.  Upon occasion, the Lutherans were startled to receive a personally written response from him.  Although this guaranteed that the King was fully knowledgeable as to the contents of the negotiations and would be fully committed to any agreement that was reached, it also meant that he was not merely relying upon the advice of his councilors.  He had to be personally convinced on these matters. 

            And he proved unwilling to be personally convinced--or to compromise enough.  He refused to endorse the congregation partaking of both the bread and the wine in the Mass.  Priests would not be permitted to marry.  Months of negotiation had ended unsuccessfully.[58]

            1538 also saw the regal endorsement of a new creedal statement, the “Thirteen Articles.”  Those favorable to an accommodation with Lutheranism could point to shared elements patterned after the contents of the Augsburg Confession.[59]  Those opposed, of course, could refer to the omissions and differences.[60] 

            Henry’s refusal to make a deal with the Lutheran negotiators argues that the differences should be considered as more important than the similarities.  Otherwise a deal would have been struck, producing a more explicit Anglo-Catholic/Lutheran relationship. 

            In April of 1539 a two member delegation (Francis Burckhardt and Ludwig von Baumbach) returned.  Little progress was made.  The political motivation of an alliance with the German Protestant states was removed when they signed an agreement with the Emperor not to expand the number of members of their League.  The obstruction of the traditionalist bishops and Henry’s own mixed feelings about the Lutherans were the final nails in the coffin of the negotiations.  Unsuccessful negotiations dragged on, however . . . until the middle of 1540, when the Lutherans finally returned home having accomplished nothing.

            In July 1540, the King jettisoned the widely unpopular Cromwell.  It was alleged that he was "secretly and indirectly advancing the one of the extremes, and leaving the mean indifferent true and virtuous way, which His Majesty sought and so entirely desired."[61] 

            He was also accused of protecting Lutherans from the regal wrath.  In light of that accusation, two of them were sentenced to die with him.  One was Robert Barnes (who Cromwell had protected); the second was Thomas Garrett.  Joining them in death was the vicar of the parish where Cromwell resided. These three were burned to death at Smithfield.  In a show of equal opportunity execution, three Catholics (including two clerics) were then committed to the flames.  At Tyburn, Cromwell himself was granted a more merciful beheading.  

            The opportunity for a major recasting of Anglicanism along Lutheran lines was permanently lost.  The dominant reform ideology impacting upon the national faith would be Calvinism.  Yet this did not necessarily have to occur.  If mainstream Anglicanism could embrace theological Calvinism without embracing its organizational form, there was no inherent objection to it embracing a more Lutheran theology in its place without embracing all of it.  Indeed, it was easier to defend the more ritualistic system within the confines of Lutheranism’s concept of scripturality being established by the lack of explicit condemnation than within that of Calvinism, which demanded the more exacting standard of explicit and direct scriptural authorization. 





[1] Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Elizabethan England (Westport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press, 1995), 10.


[2] Ibid.


[3] For an internet accessible text of these theses in English see Martin Luther, “Martin Luther:  95 Theses, 1517,” (, AOL  Netfind, August 23, 1997.  For the original Latin in which he wrote, consult Martin Luther, “Martin Luther:  95  Theses, 1517--in Latin,” ( source/95theses-latin.txt), AOL Netfind, August 23, 1997. 


[4] For a collection of documents related to the theses see Kurt Aland, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses:  With the Pertinent Documents from the History of the Reformation (Saint Louis [Missouri]:  Concordia Publishing House, 1967).  For a discussion of the political context in which the 95 theses and Luther’s condemnation of indulgences were first presented to the public see Steven Ozment, “Luther and the Late Middle Ages:  The Formation of Reformation Thought,” in Transition and Revolution:  Problems and Issues of European Renaissance and Reformation History, edited by Robert M. Kingdon (Minneapolis, Minnesota:  Burgess Publishing Company, 1974), 112.


[5] As quoted by “The Advent of Printing and the Protestant Revolt,” 238.


[6] Pettegree, “The Early Reformation in Europe,” 1.


[7] For a discussion of the distribution of Luther’s tracts via the “lowly” peddler making his rounds see Einstein, “The Advent of Printing and the Protestant Revolt,” 240.


[8] Robert W. Shaffern, “Learned Discussions of Indulgences for the Dead in the Middle Ages,” 375.


[9] Ibid., 379,


[10] For the types of criticisms of images see Richard Kyle, “John Knox and the Purification of Religion:  The Intellectual Aspects of His Crusade against Idolatry,”  Archiv fur  Reformationsgeschichte/Archive for Reformation History 77 (1986):  265. 


[11] For a discussion see Rudi Heinze, “Martin Luther--A Pathfinder?”  Churchman 100 (1986):  147-159.


[12] See the candid admission of Luther on this matter in Ashley, Elizabethan Popular Culture, 207.


[13] As quoted by Ibid.


[14] George J. Gatgounis II, “The Legal Theory of John Calvin,” 57-58.

[15] Cf. discussion in Ibid., 56-57.


[16] On the difference in defining the nature of authority, see Lupton, The Quarrel, 54-55.   On the Lutheran concept and the Anglican favoring of it in actual practice, see Haugaard, “The Bible in the Anglican Reformation,” 26.


[17] On this point see Lupton, The Quarrel, 55, and Haugaard, “The Bible in the Anglican Reformation,” 73.


[18] Lupton, The Quarrel, 55.


[19] As quoted by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Tradition and Traditions in Thomas Cranmer.”  Anglican and Episcopal History 59 (December 1990):  473.


[20] The concept could, of course, be taken in far different directions (and to different degrees) by different interpreters.  For John Calvin’s use of the concept to potentially justify women expanding their role in church and society see Jane D. Douglass.  “Christian Freedom:  What Calvinism Learned at the School of Women,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35 (June 1984):  155-173.


[21] Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 110.


[22] Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn:  Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1989), 51.


[23] Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 112.


[24] Ibid., 112-113.


[25] Ibid., 113.


[26] Brian Gogan, “Fisher’s View of the Church,” in Humanism, Reform and the Reformation:  The Career of Bishop John Fisher (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1989), 150.


[27] On the unexpected limitation on the title and how it was handled by Henry and his successors see Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 117.


[28] On the restraint of  the Assertio and More's role in its writing see Marius, Thomas More, 276-280.  More only asserted that he had been a polisher of the work, which had been written by others (279).


[29] As quoted by Ives, Anne Boleyn, 155.


[30] Bindoff, 100.


[31] As quoted by Margaret Bowker, Henrician Reformation, 58.


[32] Ridley, Statesman and Saint, 243-244.  Ridley is an excellent source for the interpretation that More's moral character (at least so far as it took political and religio-political expression) has been vastly overrated.  Although not dealing with this canard in particular, Louis L. Martz, Thomas More:  The Search for the Inner Man (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1990), defends More's vindictiveness in writing on heresy on grounds that extreme statement is inevitable in writing apologetic "propaganda" of any kind (21).  He contends that the overstatement "stands out" primarily because of the greatness of the More's intellect, which resulted in a more effective use of the approach than lesser lights could have obtained (23).


[33] John W. Matthews, “Selected Aspects of the Life of Thomas More and His Friendship with Erasmus,” National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar, Summer 1996, (, Yahoo, September 2, 1997.


[34] Both quotes from Lupton, Tyndale:  The Martyr, 41.


[35] Loades, Revolution in Religion, 48.


[36] For the case for him as author see Marius, 326.


[37] On the difficulty Henry’s argument placed the Pope in, see Marius, 392.


[38] As quoted by Marius,  380.


[39] For the argument that Frith is the most likely individual to have been involved, see Marius, 390-391.


[40] For a discussion of Luther’s interpretation of the Leviticus prohibition of marrying close kin (approached as a distinct issue in its own right rather than as part of the controversy over Henry’s annulment), see Mar Jonsson, “Incest and the Word of God:  Early Sixteenth Century Protestant Disputes,” Archiv fur Reformationsgeschichte/ Archive for Reformation History 85 (1994):  96-118.  For internet links to the complete text of various of Melanchthon’s works, see Philip Melanchthon, “Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560),” ( html), AOL Netfind, September 8, 1997.


[41] As quoted by Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 400-401.


[42] Ibid., 400.


[43] Ibid., 401.


[44] Ibid.


[45] Ibid.


[46] For interpretations of More's conduct see Marius, 428-430.


[47] On the possibility that Frith could be converted to Henry's transubstantiation beliefs see Marius, 430.


[48] Hall, “Cranmer’s Relations with Erasmianism and Lutheranism,” 27.


[49] Gerald Bray, Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis [Minnesota]:  Fortress Press, 1994), 118.


[50] Ibid.


[51] Ibid., 118-119.  For the text of the Articles (uncovered in their entirely only in the twentieth century!) see 119-161. 


[52] Williams, Cardinal and the Secretary, 228-229.


[53] For the text of the Ten Articles see Bray, 162-174.


[54] J. Robert Wright, “Martin Luther:  An Anglican Ecumenical Appreciation,” Anglican and Episcopal History 56 (September 1987):  321.


[55] As quoted by Ibid.


[56] As quoted by Williams, Cardinal and the Secretary, 229.


[57] As quoted by Ibid., 230. 


[58] On the negotiations see Erickson, Great Harry, 291.         


[59] Hall, “Cranmer’s Relations with Erasmianism and Lutheranism,” 27.


[60] For the text of the Thirteen Articles of 1538 see Bray, 184-222.


[61] As quoted by John Guy, "Wolsey, Cromwell and the Reform of Government," in  The Reign of Henry VIII:  Politics, Policy and Piety, edited by Diarmaid MacCulloch (London:   Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1995), 43.