The Church was seen as the focus of the community with village rituals and pre-Christian paganism, for example the blessing of the plough and the harvest festival. There was a philosophy that “the church was there for the people from the cradle to the grave. ” This notion came as reassurance to the people – comfort and support in an uncertain world. There was a sense of unquestioning obedience, i. e. if you go against one, you go against the other, and people felt the need to support each other. There was a lack of scientific explanation, and the church provided an elucidation of anything worth questioning.
People enjoyed colour and ceremony the Church offered and there was no reason to be affected if Church services were held. There were social benefits offered by guilds and people felt they ensured their salvation by good works, as well as charity, alms and the monasteries giving to charity also. The church was seen as a big career opportunity for some. Early schools were established, showing the commitment of the church to education. It became apparent that there was a general fear of eternal damnation in Hell – if one was to question the church; many believed that ideas of Reform were dangerous and destructive.
Heresy was regarded with contempt and there was no real tradition of heresy with the exception of the Lollards. Notably, there was a great sense of trepidation of the consequences of Heresy, for example, the burning of the 1520s. An important note is that the monarch believed in the pre-Reformation church, therefore, the people felt that whatever beliefs the king held, they should follow his example. Conversely, many saw Heresy as a massive threat to religion and society. There was a lot of criticism aimed at the church, stemming from numerous ideas of anticlericalism, antipapalism, erastianism and heresy.
Today, some historians consider anticlericalism as one of the most pertinent reasons in pushing the reformation. The Catholic Church was attacked, as well as its leadership and priests claiming moral corruption of many of its clergy. The church was criticised for the lavish lifestyles of the clergy and the clergy not being fully commited to Christian ideals. It was thought that there was a lot of anticlericalism in England during the 1510s and 1520s. In 1511, John Colet preached a sermon which attacked the problems and abuses within the church and was particularly aimed at the clergy.
He proclaimed that the clergy of the church were overly motivated for all of the wrong reasons, e. g. the desire to move up the ecclesiastical hierarchy; they were considered to be greedy and gluttonous. Although his sermons did not receive a great deal of support, it nevertheless showed that the church contained notions of reform. Many historians have also cited negligence and immorality among the clergy, but also that they were rare – as apposed to the view that the clergy were the cause of great discomfort and distrust within the church institution.
Colet targetted the problem of pluralism in his sermon; the benefice system was abused as priests occasionally held more than one benefice (pluralism). This pluralism quite often resulted in absenteeism, where the priest would not take care of his benefice. There were also other financial issues such as simony, in which the clergy were buying and selling church positions and titles, as well as church offices and benefices, which was illegal under canon law. There were many complaints, reinforcing the fact that certain sects of people were not happy with the state of the church.
However, it may well be that abuses like pluralism or lack of chastity were the exception rather than the rule, and that is why they created such a stir among the small minority. In addition to this, there were disputes as to who had utmost authority over the church. Antipapalism took the view that the Pope was not the head of the church; he was a remote and powerless figure in England. It has been argued that opposition to Wolsey meant opposition to the Pope resulting in more antipapalism. However, a counter argument could say that Wolsey’s legateship assisted in prompting a greater sense of unity among the bishops.
However, conflicting ideas of Erastianism expressed the fact that the King should be in charge, not the Pope – but historians argue that in effect it was already an Erastian Church. There were many complaints concerning the privileges of the courts, which allowed convicted men who claimed to be in holy orders, to be tried in a Church court where penalties were lighter. Heresy was a fundamental factor that indicated that people were not so satisfied with the condition of the church; it saw men and women challenge the doctrines of the Church.
The Lollards were an underground sect that despite not having masses of support, they brought to light the problems of the vernacular Bible. John Wycliffe challenged the idea of transubstantiation as well. This was almost the spring step in introducing Lutheranism (Germany heresy). Cambridge scholars and churchmen were interested in these ideas and formed the White Horse Group. There was a lot of support for the church as well, indicating that it was not entirely corrupted and ostracised. There was a great enthusiasm for the beautification of churches.
People were very keen on investing money into church buildings, vestments and ornaments. This illustrates the devotion of the majority of people. The routines of church remained seemingly unchallenged. In addition to this, Catholic literature grew and it was great support for the church. There were popular items of literature, including William Bond’s ‘The Pilgrimage of Perfection’ (1526) and ‘The Directory of Conscience’ (1527). Also, ‘The Primer’ was a compilation of Latin and English devotional works for the home and the church and sold countless copies during the 1510s and 1520s.
This suggests that people were satisfied with the church because if they were not it they the Catholic literature would not have been so successful. However, it could be argued that even though corrupting ideas were spreading slowly, people knew no different because it was their tradition. The church provided a sense of unity for society in a dangerous world during this period. Everyone had a place, whether that person was a pope, monarch, lord or peasant. Many thought that by breaking this harmony and unanimity would result in unnecessary chaos.
However, by 1500, cracks were appearing in the Church; rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature led to many questioning some of the Church’s claims. There was a rapid growth in education and the printing press allowed many texts to be distributed and studied by more and more people. To many people, the holy and simple life led by Christ and his Apostles contrasted sharply with the riches and power of the Church that they saw around them. Monasteries grew rich on money donated by pilgrims and by grants of land – often bequeathed by wealthy people on their deathbeds. Cardinals and bishops often lived lives of great luxury as well.
The popes were also no better and they acted little different from monarchs – even to the extent of waging war on their neighbours. The lower ranks of clergy were also affected by examples of their leaders. The clergy kept mistresses, even though they were supposed to be celibate; they took bribes and neglected their work. However, the abuses of the church were by no means the only cause of the coming split. Corruption had always existed. But the Church’s failures and refusal to reform it made it very insecure in the changing world of the sixteenth century. People were beginning to ask questions.
By the 1520s, protests against the prevailing method of worship could be heard throughout the country. Whilst England’s king remained a Catholic Prince, the Protestant doctrines being conversed about in Europe were only a remote threat to the church. The Elton-Dickens view suggests that the church was corrupt. Conversely, The Haigh-Scarisbrick view implies that the people were satisfied with the condition of the Church. Further evidence supports the idea that England had a thriving Catholic community: the church enjoyed Chantries, fraternities and religious guilds – signifying that many families invested in the church.
Scarisbrick found that over 95% of the pre-Reformation wills contained some form of religious inquest. In conclusion, it is fair to say that many historians concentrated on the opposition to the Catholic Church and the troubles that it had – some even exaggerated the scale of the problems. With this they ignored the positive qualities of the Church. Through studying the positives and negatives, it is reasonable to say that the Church of England was generally unchallenged before the break from Rome, and people were generally satisfied with it’s condition in 1529.