Protestant Reformation

In 1517 a monk named Martin Luther from Wittenburg in Germany began to criticise the power and corruption of the Pope and the Catholic church. He attacked the Pope for pardoning people's sins in exchange for money. Luther thought that it was immoral for the Pope's agents (pardoners) to travel all over Europe selling these letters of indulgence.

Luther also criticised the Pope for not allowing the Bible to be translated into other languages. Luther argued that as the vast majority of people could not read Latin they had to rely on what the priest told them was in the Bible.

Luther was very angry that Pope Leo X was raising money in this way. He believed that it was wrong for people to be able to buy forgiveness for sins they had committed. Luther decided to write down his views on the subject. He then nailed the paper to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

Luther's views on the Church were not new. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers had said similar things in England. However, with the help of the English monarchy, the Lollard movement had been crushed by the Pope and the Catholic church.

Pope Leo X now ordered Luther to stop stirring up trouble. This attempt to keep Luther quiet had the opposite effect. Luther now started issuing statements about other issues. For example, at that time people believed that the Pope was infallible (incapable of error). However, Luther was convinced that Leo X was wrong to sell indulgences. Therefore, Luther argued, the Pope could not possibly be infallible.

If the Pope could be wrong about indulgences, Luther argued he could be wrong about other things. For hundreds of years popes had only allowed bibles to be printed in Latin or Greek. Luther pointed out that only a minority of people in Germany could read these languages. Therefore to find out what was in the Bible they had to rely on priests who could read and speak Latin or Greek. Luther, on the other hand, wanted people to read the Bible for themselves.

In 1521 orders were given for Luther to be arrested. However, Luther had many supporters in Germany and some of these people helped to save his life by hiding him in a castle. While Luther was there he translated the Bible into German. It was not long before copies of Luther's Bible were being read by people all over Germany.

Martin Luther was more successful than John Wycliffe in gaining support for reforming the Church. His supporters, because they were protesting against the way the Church was governed, became known as Protestants. Luther's ideas also spread to other countries. Gradually large numbers of people living in England, the Netherlands (today called Holland and Belgium), Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries began to call themselves Lutherans or Protestants. Protestants were no longer willing to accept the authority of the Pope. They argued that people needed to read the Bible if they wanted to find out how God wanted them to behave.

Henry VIII initially disagreed with Luther's views. Henry feared that criticism of the Church might encourage people to criticise the monarchy. At the time, it was believed that Wycliffe's attacks on the Pope had been partly responsible for the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. In 1521 Henry wrote a book attacking Luther's views on the Church. The Pope was so pleased with Henry's loyalty that he gave him the title 'Defender of the Faith'.

Henry's opinions about the power of the Pope changed after he was denied permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon. In 1534, Henry made himself head of the Church in England in place of the Pope. Although Henry continued to persecute English Protestants, he was now also hostile to those who remained loyal to the Pope.

Henry VIII was particularly worried that he did not have the full support of the monks and nuns in England. In 1535 Henry began arresting monks for high treason. As a warning to others, five monks were publicly tortured before being beheaded. Later that year others were executed, together with several nuns.

In 1536 Henry gave permission for an English translation of the Bible to be published in England. He also ordered that a copy of this Bible should be placed in every church in his kingdom. Henry still considered himself to be a Catholic, but by taking this action, he began to move the Church in the direction of Protestantism.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Law passed by Parliament (1535)

If any person... by writing, printing, preaching, or teaching.... maintain or defend the power of the Bishop of Rome, by some called the Pope... he shall be punished.

(2) R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1587)

On the nineteenth June, 1535...three monks were hanged, drawn and quartered... for denying the King to be Head of the Church.

(3) Thomas Muntzer was a German supporter of Martin Luther. In 1525 he led a Peasants' Revolt in Saxony. Before he was executed, Muntzer explained his religious views.

The worst of all the ills on Earth is that no-one wants to concern themselves with the poor. The rich do as they wish... Our lords and princes encourage theft and robbery. The fish in the water, the birds in the sky, and the vegetation on the land all have to be theirs... They... preach to the poor: "God has commanded that thou shalt not steal". Thus, when the poor man takes even the slightest thing he has to hang.