Wales and the Reformation

1. The Tudor Reformation debate

  • In almost every aspect of Tudor government and policy-making, there is a contrast between the easy compliance and conformity of London and the south-east, and the resistance to Tudor centralisation in the borderlands and outlying regions, notably the far north and Ireland. But the Reformation is an exception. Whereas the Protestant Reformation failed in Ireland, and made very slow progress in the northern counties, it was relatively successful in Wales. Not as successful as in London and the south-eastern counties, but more successful than (say) in Lancashire or even Devon and Cornwall. Why? And how?

2. The lines of the debate

  • Was Protestantism forced unwillingly on a devout Catholic people (Scarisbrick, Duffy), or was it welcomed with open arms by an anticlerical laity (Dickens)?
  • Is the whole notion of a ‘Tudor Reformation’ a conceptual sham (Haigh)?
  • Was Tudor church policy so piecemeal, politically expedient, and theologically half-baked that it ought not to be called a Reformation at all (Haigh)? Need to assess whether the Reformation was inspired from above or below? How fast or slow was it, especially in different regions?
  • On Wales specifically, see Glanmor Williams, Wales and the Reformation, Recovery, Reorientation and Reformation: Wales c.1415-1642.

3. Background to the Reformation

  • More anticlericalism in Wales than many parts of England. Many of the lower clergy undereducated and ignorant. The parishes were poor, and salaries low: 24% of beneficed clergy had incomes of less than £5 a year, and 46% received £5-10 a year. Only 6% received the £20 that was considered adequate. Non-residence and pluralism were high, especially in the wealthier parishes.
  • Many of the upland parishes of Wales were over 20,000 acres and covered difficult terrain.
  • The bishops and higher clergy were often English placemen and servants or favourites of the King, absent from their dioceses, and graduates in law rather than theology. Few were Welsh, and those who were left much to be desired: Robert ap Rhys (diocese of St Asaph) acquired a large number of benefices, was a notorious social climber, was married and had 16 children.
  • Whereas the clergy were supposed to be celibate (and in England the higher clergy mostly were), the custom in Wales as in Ireland was for clergy to take wives or concubines. Many benefices even ran in families.
  • The regular (monastic) clergy also unreformed and ideas of monastic reform had made little impact in Wales. When founded, a single monastery might have 100 monks, but by 1500 the Cistercian monasteries in Wales had an average of 6 monks, the Augustinian canons about 5, and the Benedictines only 3. The great abbey at Tintern had only 13 monks by 1536.
  • Hardly any grammar schools in Wales, and no seminaries. Training for the clergy was negligible. Sir John Price, the Welsh humanist, produced the first printed book in the Welsh language (1546). His purpose was to disseminate the Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments in Welsh, to compensate for the shortcomings of the clergy.

4. The early Reformation and royal supremacy: Henry VIII’s divorce is the trigger

  • Events in London set the pace: Pardon of the Clergy, 1531 (‘supremum caput’); Act of Appeals (1533); Act of Supremacy (1534); Act of Treasons (1534); trials of More and Fisher (1535); Act Extinguishing the Authority of the Bishop of Rome (1536). Since Wales was not represented in Parliament before the first Act of Union of 1536, Henry’s divorce and break with Rome may have seemed remote from Welsh affairs. But the royal supremacy was enforced in Wales, and opponents were crushed.
  • When Observant Friars arrived in Cardiff, they were packed off to London as prisoners.
  • The Welsh clergy forced to take the oath of supremacy, which most did without demur. The monks forced to take a more comprehensive oath rejecting papal jurisdiction, which they did.

5. Dissolution of the monasteries

  • After becoming vicegerent, Cromwell investigated the condition of the monasteries and dissolved them. Responsible for ensuring that all the ex-religious assets came to the king and were accounted for. (NB 3 stages: 1536 [smaller], 1537-40 [larger], 1540 [Ireland].
  • Cromwell’s visitors were in Wales from August 1535 to April 1536.
  • Little opposition to the Dissolution in Wales. Only 250 monks, nuns and friars to be resettled. Many Welsh monks became parochial incumbents, and some English monks became bishops in Wales. Pensions given: many Welsh monks still drawing pensions in Mary’s reign, and one enjoyed his pension until 1589.
  • The Welsh gentry were the overwhelming beneficiaries of grants of ex-monastic property, houses, or land sales by the Crown. Very little property came back to the Church or to educational foundations in Wales. NB Welsh tithes and advowsons formerly owned by the monasteries largely went to the gentry, and therefore the gentry thereafter controlled the finances and many of the appointments of the parochial clergy.

6. The reign of Edward VI and the progress of Protestantism

  • Extent of Protestantism by 1547: 30%-40% maximum London, 15% south-east and towns other than London; less than 5% elsewhere. Henry VIII’s policies had provoked virtually no overt opposition in Wales, because the landowning gentry who controlled the country co-operated with the Crown. The gentry did what the law required of them and what their economic interests dictated provided there was no doctrinal change. Whereas in Ireland, the north and Cornwall the Tudors faced dangerous revolts with religious overtones in 1534, 1536 and 1549, in Wales there was no rebellion. Local authority was social authority: the laity had already established themselves in key positions.
  • Yet ‘top-down’ Protestant reform in Edward VI’s reign meant sudden change. In 1549 and 1552, the old Latin services were replaced by new English Prayer Books. In Wales, where English was not the language of choice except among a minority, this was a problem. In Calais and the Channel islands, a French version of the Prayer Book was prepared for vernacular use, but although a Worcester printer was given the right to print prayer books for Wales, this almost certainly meant producing copies of the English edition. In both Wales and Ireland, the Crown regarded the use of English law and the English language as integral to its policies of centralisation and control.
  • In 1549, priests were allowed to marry, but this was less controversial in Wales than in England, since many had been ‘married’ previously. Robert Ferrar, bishop of St David’s, defended clerical marriage in sermons and attracted unwelcome attention in England as well as Wales.
  • In 1550, it was ordered that altars should be replaced by communion tables. This led to riots at Carmarthen, where a group of ardent reformers were confronted by traditionalists. The Welsh reformer William Salesbury attacked altars as bastions of popery. In 1551 he published an unofficial Welsh translation of the new epistles and gospels of the Prayer Book and lengthy Scripture extracts for reading in churches. The bishops refused to authorize this book, but it was used unofficially until official Welsh translations of the Prayer Book and Bible were authorized in Elizabeth’s reign. This help to assimilate Wales to the ‘English’ Reformation (cf Ireland and Cornwall).
  • On the other side of the ledger, there was opposition in Wales to the dissolution of the chantries (1548) and confiscation of the treasures of parish churches (1553), but the gentry misappropriated much of the proceeds and therefore the risk of rebellion was minimal.

7. Mary and the Tudor ‘Counter-Reformation’

  • Catholic worship was restored and married priests attacked and deprived. In Wales, clergy attacked by the regime were proceeded against for marriage rather than heresy. In the diocese of St David’s, one in six priests were deprived for marriage, and in the diocese of Bangor one in eight. Priests who agreed to ‘put away’ their wives were shuffled around to other benefices: at least ten in Bangor.
  • There were relatively few Marian exiles from Wales, but around a dozen Protestants, like Thomas Young and Richard Davies, both later Elizabethan bishops, went into exile.
  • There were 287 Marian martyrs, but only 3 in Wales: Robert Ferrar and Rawlins White in 1555, and William Nichol in 1558. The first two were among the earliest Marian martyrs and their deaths were meant to be exemplary.
  • The Reformation had been linked to fiscal exactions since 1530s. Hence it was fairly easy to achieve Catholic ‘reunion’ under Mary apart from issue of ex-religious lands and confiscation of lands of Protestant exiles, which seriously affected the gentry. In this sense Catholicism is tenacious, but popular Catholicism may not be the same thing as ‘papalism’ and ‘Counter-Reformation’ Catholicism.
  • Pole and Mary sought education and enlightened reform, but committed Protestants were not persuaded, and the regime lacked the funds for a missionary process of reconversion. As a result, Pole turned to persecution.
  • Did Mary fail? Yes and no!

8. The Long Elizabethan Reformation

  • The people of Wales (and England outside London) were more Catholic than Protestant in doctrine in 1558. But post-Council of Trent (1545-63) the idea of ‘Catholicism without the pope’ is an oxymoron – no longer possible. European Counter-Reformation Catholicism had moved on and left ‘English Catholicism’ behind.
  • Elizabethan Settlement: ex-religious property issue paramount, hence the need to restore the royal supremacy at the very least in order to replace the Catholic bishops is an important key, not spontaneous Protestantism. This especially important in Wales, where the gentry were de facto owners of Church property and ‘shareholders’ in the Reformation.
  • So the Elizabethan Reformation, apart from 1559 Settlement (= Reformation ‘from above’) = Protestant evangelism ‘from below’. There were no funds for a campaign of Protestant conversion, hence unofficial ‘missionaries’ came into their own: itinerant preachers, civic sermons, prophesyings, ‘combination lectures’, exercises and puritan ‘fasts’ etc, see Collinson, Elizabethan Puritan Movement. The evangelical campaign partly unofficial and even extra-legal. Not until 1580s that sufficient Protestant graduates turned out by universities (Jesus College, Oxford), and Marian clergy in post until 1590s.
  • Catholicism is tenacious but so is inertia: Elizabeth’s own emphasis is on conformity to the Settlement of 1559, not to evangelical idealism or even ‘Anglicanism’.
  • The ‘official’ theology of the Settlement was Protestant: only one bishop, Anthony Kitchen of Llandaff, was prepared to take the oath of supremacy, and all the other English and Welsh bishops were replaced by Protestants. Around 12 of the remaining Welsh clergy would not conform, and were deprived. Several became leading Catholic exiles. A handful of Welsh gentry, for example Sir Edward Carne, Mary’s ambassador to Rome, refused to conform and remained in exile.
  • The overwhelming majority accepted the Settlement despite any theological misgivings.
  • The language change from Latin to English obfuscated the more serious issue of theological change;
  • Of the 16 bishops appointed to Welsh sees in Elizabeth’s reign, 13 were Welshman, whereas in Ireland they were almost all Englishmen. Most were graduates, resident in their dioceses, and men of good character, and genuine reformers.
  • In 1563, an Act for a Welsh translation of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer was a milestone (Act privately sponsored by Welsh MPs). William Salesbury collaborated with Richard Davies (former Marian exile), the new bishop of St Asaph, and others, on translation of the Prayer Book. Edmund Grindal approved the project, and the New Testament and Prayer Book were printed at the costs of Humphrey Toy (1567).
  • Davies and Salesbury next meant to translate the whole Bible, but this was not completed until William Morgan published his complete Welsh Bible of 1588 with support from Whitgift and a dedication to the Queen. The Privy Council instructed the Welsh bishops to ensure that copies were used by their clergy.
  • Morgan’s Bible was the catalyst for other publications in the Welsh language. John Jewel’s Apologia translated by Maurice Kyffin (1595). Huw Lewys published a Welsh version of Coverdale’s A Spiritual and Most Blessed Pearl (1595). Welsh versions of the Catechism were issued (essential to the evangelical campaign). Lastly, a revised Welsh version of the Prayer Book based on Morgan’s Bible was issued in 1599, a work almost certainly by Morgan himself.

9. Some Comparisons

  • Tudor policy towards Wales was not especially benevolent. When the Act for the Welsh translation of the Bible and Prayer Book was obtained in 1563, a proviso ordered that the English version be placed in churches alongside the Welsh so that people comparing the two would learn English. In general, the indigenous communities of Wales and Ireland were granted the rights of freeborn Englishmen only if they adopted English customs, language, and law. Neither Celtic nor Gaelic culture was tolerated at the level of the central bureaucracy.
  • In contrast to Wales, the Reformation in Ireland put down only the shallowest of roots. It was difficult to attract preachers to Ireland, the official requirement to provide an English Bible had to be waived owing to problems of supply and the prevalence of Gaelic, and a Gaelic translation of the Bible was deemed too risky before 1603.
  • Whereas in Wales, the Crown gradually subverted Catholic religious culture with the gentry’s connivance, enforcement of the Reformation in Ireland was beyond the regime’s resources and probably counterproductive, since Catholic clergy remained in post, half the Irish religious houses outside the Pale had never been dissolved, and diocesan administration was weak. Some proselytizing efforts were made by Protestants, but the poverty of Irish bishoprics and parochial livings was an even more insuperable constraint than elsewhere. In Gaelic Ireland Tudor religious policy quickly became identified with conquest and colonization; even in the Pale, the area around Dublin, the Catholic conservatism of the Old English community paved the way for a degree of Anglo-Irish nationalism.
  • Above all, the Anglo-Irish gentry kept the Catholic mass alive by appointing their own private chaplains. This did not happen in Wales, where the gentry were happy to cultivate English habits. In consequence, there was no nationalist backlash against England.

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