Religious Beliefs & Heresy in Tudor Times

Henry VIII's quest for an heir led to a transformation of the Church of England.
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Heresy laws in the time of the Tudor Dynasty were an item in flux, both in their enforcement and on whom they were inflicted. The sovereign religion depended on which Tudor held the throne. Subsequently, heresy laws required frequent revision. The five monarchs of House Tudor — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I — ruled for just over a century, starting in 1485, in a reign of power that saw the Church of England break ties with the Roman Catholic Church, mend them and break them again for good.

1 Heresy punishment

Since the fourth century, the Church of England had favored burning heretics alive. In 1401, Henry IV codified the burning of heretics at the stake in the De heretico comburendo, a law whose name translates to “Regarding the burning of heretics," which sought to "strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, no such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions" would continue.

2 Henry VIII

When Henry VIII came to power, followers of Martin Luther and other reformists were the targets of heresy prosecution. Change was on the horizon, however. Henry's ascension ushered in a new religious quagmire. Henry's desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon led to England's break with Rome and the English Parliament's installation of Henry as the head of the Church of England. Leading reformists argued that in this time of change, it was also time to deny clergy the right to charge people with heresy who did not espouse the merits of religious practices not in the Bible, a direct attack on Catholicism. The Reformation Parliament in 1534 revised heresy statutes to provide some common law protection to accused heretics, including the mandate that all heresy trials occur in public and executions be royally authorized.

3 Edward VI

Henry's son Edward assumed the throne at the age of 9 but with the Protestant zeal of someone far older. If some thought the reformed heresy statutes under Henry were lax, they would find fault in Edward, too. In 1549, Edward's regime abolished all heresy acts, thus preventing any further executions of heretics.

4 Mary I

Edward's reprieve was not to last after his half-sister Mary, an ardent Catholic, assumed power after his death. Heresy prosecution is one of the chief legacies of the reign of Mary I, as seen in nickname bestowed on her; Bloody Mary. Mary restored the supremacy of Roman Catholicism and, in doing so, revived religious heresy laws. Under the law, heresy was an offense tantamount to treason. As a result, roughly 300 Protestants were burned in three years. Far from eliminating the Protestant faith from Britain, the active prosecution of heretics served to make Mary deeply unpopular among her subjects.

5 Elizabeth I

Once again proving the fluidity of the crown's policy, the succession of Mary's half-sister Elizabeth I brought with it another religious switch -- a return to moderate Protestantism -- and a reversal of the heresy policy. The new queen's first Parliament repealed De heretico and other heresy statutes with the Act of Supremacy of 1559, once again cutting papal ties. Under Elizabeth's reign, the Church of England reached a relative level of stability and compromise between Protestants and Catholics.

Nicole Hill is a copy editor for the New York Times Company. She has worked as a writer and editor at various publications and organizations, including the "Austin American-Statesman," Student Press Law Center and "Oklahoma Gazette." Hill has a bachelor's degree from the University of Oklahoma.