At first, Henry VIII was a good Catholic king: in 1521 he wrote a book defending the Pope’s authority against Martin Luther. The Pope rewarded Henry with the title ‘Defender of the Faith’.
But after sixteen years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry had no son to inherit his throne.
The Royal Divorce
Henry asked the Pope to annul his marriage and let him wed a younger wife.
The Pope refused, and Henry’s need for a male heir to secure his Tudor dynasty sparked the English Reformation.
Henry’s religious reforms had a huge impact on Cambridge.
Many Cambridge academics, such as John Fisher, the lifetime Chancellor of the University, criticised Henry’s defiance of the Pope.
Henry responded by beheading Fisher in 1535. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s trusted minister, replaced Fisher as Cambridge University Chancellor.
However, while John Fisher resisted Reformation to the death, other Cambridge scholars spearheaded religious reforms. Cambridge was the most important centre of Reformation thought in England.
Despite the burning of Martin Luther’s books in Cambridge in 1520, a group of Cambridge scholars met secretly at the White Horse Tavern to discuss Luther’s reforming ideas.
These men included Tyndale and Coverdale, famous for translating the Bible into English; Latimer and Ridley, who were martyred together at Oxford during the reign of Mary I; and Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop architect of the English Reformation.
Henry VIII recruited Thomas Cranmer to develop the intellectual justification for the royal divorce.
Cranmer was swiftly made Archbishop of Canterbury, and presided over the controversial wedding of Henry and his pregnant lover, Anne Boleyn.
Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry and his advisors for defying papal authority.
The English Church had broken with Rome. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy made Henry the supreme head of the Church of England.
Monasteries and Colleges under attack
As head of the Anglican Church, Henry VIII could close religious houses and seize their land. Wealthy monasteries were a tempting prize for a pragmatic king.
In Cambridge, the town centre changed dramatically when religious houses and hostels for student monks and friars were abolished.
The thriving University canon law faculty was closed, the friaries of the Dominicans and Franciscans were left derelict for many years, and wealthy Barnwell Priory became a ruin.
Cambridge colleges came under threat in 1545 when Henry claimed the right to close University colleges and seize their wealth.
The academics prevented disaster by reporting that the colleges were poor, and persuaded Henry to found a new college instead.
As the King neared death, he wanted to leave a lasting legacy. Henry dissolved two colleges, Michaelhouse and King’s Hall, and seven hostels to found Trinity College in 1546.
Trinity was the wealthiest college that Cambridge had ever seen, endowed with lands and wealth confiscated from the dissolved monasteries.
Henry hoped that his new college would produce skilled churchmen to run the Church of England.
As well as taking over the buildings of King’s Hall and Michaelhouse, Trinity College inherited church revenues and the responsibility for repairing the chancel of Great St Mary’s. Our chancel is still maintained by Trinity College today.
The Church Transformed
England’s official religion shifted from Protestantism to Catholicism and back again as the three children of Henry VIII took the throne in turn.
Reformers saw religious images as idols so they were attacked, restored or destroyed, according to the religious mood of the time.
These shifts transformed churches like Great St Mary’s and revolutionised the way that ordinary people worshipped.
Before the Reformation in England church services were said in Latin, so most people could not understand them. Instead, religious images brought stories from the Bible to life.
Catholics believe that the Eucharistic bread and wine literally become Christ’s body and blood. Costly altar cloths and precious plates and chalices honoured the holy sacrament. Above the rood screen, a carved crucifixion scene depicted Christ’s sacrifice.
People believed that saints could work miracles, and Great St Mary’s was filled with side chapels dedicated to saints including the Virgin Mary, St Andrew, and St George.
This church owned a ‘litill box of Silver with a bone of Seint Lawrence’ and the ‘oyle of Seint Nicholas’, a liquid which oozed from the saint’s tomb and was believed to heal the sick.
Religious statues were painted, gilded and dressed in beautiful clothing so that they almost seemed alive.
The statue of Mary with baby Jesus in Great St Mary’s wore a nine-linked gold chain, silver shoes, a pearl-encrusted silver crown and coral beads.
Mary and Jesus had many costumes, including a robe ‘of Tawney Damaske’ and a red satin and black velvet coat ‘with spangills of golde’. These are all listed in the accounts of the Great St Mary’s churchwardens.
Edward and Idolatry
Although Henry VIII had rejected the Pope’s authority, he retained many Catholic practices.
During Henry’s reign, Great St Mary’s churchwardens removed a stained glass image of the Pope, and sold Mary’s gold necklace and the reliquary of St Nicholas at Stourbridge Fair, but the rich decoration of the church remained largely unchanged.
When Henry died, Thomas Cranmer promoted major Protestant reforms. His speech at Edward VI’s coronation urged the boy King to see ‘idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished, and images removed’ from English churches.
Edward became a wholehearted Protestant reformer and condemned traditional religious art as idolatry. Churches were suddenly ordered to get rid of treasures which parishioners had paid for and cherished.Edward’s commissioners visited churches, taking inventories of valuables and confiscating anything seen as ‘papystrye and superstytyon’.
In 1548, before the King’s men arrived at Great St Mary’s, the churchwardens rushed to sell a silver cross, painted cloths and statues.
Worship changed, as parishioners could no longer pray before statues of favourite saints or offer dirges for the dead in Purgatory. The five altars in Great St Mary (the high altar, and smaller altars dedicated to Mary, the Trinity, St Andrew, St Laurence and Doomsday) were all removed, with a movable table replacing the high altar.
Cranmer’s most significant legacy was writing the Book of Common Prayer. This was the first full liturgy in English and still forms the basis of Anglican worship today.
Great St Mary’s bought the new prayer book and ‘halff the byble’ in English. Whitewash masked religious paintings and 1551 saw the ‘wryghting of the chyrch walles with scryptures’ -the word of God in English had replaced the Latin Mass and religious images.
Edward VI died in 1553, aged fifteen. His half-sister Mary retained the fierce Catholic devotion of her mother, Catherine of Aragon. She vowed to return England to Catholicism.
During her five-year reign, Mary had 283 Protestants burned at the stake. These included many Cambridge men such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of Edward’s Protestant reforms, and the Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.
Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary never forgave Thomas Cranmer for annulling her mother’s marriage, leaving Mary illegitimate.
As Queen, Mary had Cranmer arrested for treason and heresy.
Cranmer was imprisoned for over two years and forced to watch his friends from Cambridge, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, burned at the stake in October 1555.
Latimer and Ridley had been great promoters of the Reformation in England, both had long and successful careers at the University of Cambridge, and both preached in Great St Mary’s.
As a student, Latimer became a Protestant following meetings at the White Horse Inn.
He began to attack the corruption of the Catholic Church through powerful preaching: one day at Great St Mary’s, the Bishop of Ely walked in and Latimer improvised a whole sermon on the duty of bishops to follow Christ’s humble example.
In 1530, Henry VIII realised that Latimer’s fiery sermons would be a useful weapon in his battle with the Pope over the royal divorce. Along with Nicholas Ridley, Latimer helped Cranmer to justify Henry’s divorce, and then worked to build a new Anglican Church under Edward VI.
Ridley also chaired debates between Catholics and Protestants at Great St Mary’s in 1549 on the nature of the Eucharist, with the aim of establishing Protestant teaching in Cambridge.
As high-profile, lifelong reformers, Latimer and Ridley could not be allowed to live under Mary’s Catholic regime.
Before they were burned, Latimer reassured his younger colleague with these words:
‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out’.
Under severe pressure and having seen his friends executed, Thomas Cranmer recanted his Protestant views and reconciled with the Catholic Church, accepting the Pope’s authority.
But on the day of Cranmer’s execution he stood in the pulpit of the University Church in Oxford and defiantly reasserted his reforming faith, so that he could die a Protestant martyr.
When he was burned at the stake on 21 March 1556, Cranmer held his right hand out into the fire: he said that it must be burned first for signing false retractions of his true beliefs.
Pendulum Swings at Great St Mary’s
England’s abrupt reversion to Catholicism under Mary also brought sudden changes in church ritual and decoration.
In 1555, Great St Mary’s began to buy back some of the goods that were sold during Edward’s reign. The former churchwardens had bought many items themselves for safekeeping. The priest received new vestments and a silken canopy to carry over the sacrament.
The churchwardens paid to rebuild the Great St Mary’s altar in stone, so that Mass could be celebrated in the Catholic way again, facing east.
They also had the magnificent rood screen repaired and used whitewash for ‘wassheng owt the scriptures’ which had recently been painted onto the church walls. However, the return to Catholic ritual did not last long, as Mary died in 1558.
Elizabeth I replaced her half-sister as Queen, aged twenty-five. More moderate than Edward or Mary, the Protestant Elizabeth did not want to ‘make windows into men’s souls.’ Her subjects could satisfy their new Queen with obedience and an outward show of conformity.
Elizabeth helped create a Protestant Church of England that retained some Catholic traditions.
However, Great St Mary’s still faced upheavals under Elizabeth’s moderate Protestant regime. The most significant was the removal of the rood screen.
On Easter Sunday 1523, the parishioners of Great St Mary’s had admired their expensive new rood screen as the brightly painted image of the crucifixion was blessed. Forty years later, just before Elizabeth’s royal visit to Cambridge in 1564, four carpenters hacked the screen apart and sold it for timber.
The royal visit to Cambridge in 1564 was an opportunity to enforce religious discipline. Some Cambridge academics held radical Protestant views which went beyond Elizabeth’s moderate stance.
Great St Mary’s seems to have met with the Queen’s approval: the altar had been replaced by a communion table for a second time and the rood loft dismantled, clearing the way for Elizabeth to hear scholarly debates and make a long Latin speech in this church.
The Strange Afterlife of Martin Bucer
The lives and deaths of Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius exemplify the turbulent shifts in the Tudor Church. These German reformers went from being celebrated theologians under the Protestant King Edward VI to reviled heretics under the Catholic Queen Mary I.
However, unlike famous Protestant martyrs such as Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, their bodies were only burned after they had died.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer invited Martin Bucer to Cambridge in 1549, where he became Regius Professor of Divinity.
Bucer influenced Cranmer’s revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which had a huge impact on English worship.
Paul Fagius was a Hebrew lecturer in Cambridge, teaching students to critically examine the Bible.
Unfortunately, Paul Fagius soon died of the plague and the damp fen climate killed Bucer in less than two years.
Fagius was buried at St Michael’s, and 3,000 people attended Bucer’s lavish funeral at Great St Mary’s in 1551.
When Mary became Queen in 1553 and began fighting to reverse the religious changes of her father and brother, she was not only concerned with burning living heretics.
Mary placed an interdict in 1557 on Great St Mary’s and St Michael’s; the ‘heretical’ bodies of Bucer and another reformer, Paul Fagius, meant that parishioners were no longer allowed to receive the sacraments or bury their own dead.
Bucer and Fagius were posthumously condemned for heresy and their bodies dug up and burned in the market square.
The country people visiting Cambridge market apparently mocked the authorities for carrying weapons and binding the corpses of the ‘rotten carcases’ with chains, saying that ‘they might be burnt loose without peril, for it was not to be feared that they would run away.’
The burning was followed by a religious procession and money was spent by the churchwardens for ‘the new halloweing and reconcyleng of our chyrch for being interdicted.’ They had to cover over Bucer’s grave and reconsecrate the church with ‘frankinsens and swate perfumes for the sacrament and herbes etc.’
Under Queen Elizabeth I, with Protestantism reinstated, some ashes from beneath the stake were reburied in Great St Mary’s near to Bucer’s original grave.
The Anglican Church found an uneasy balance between tradition and reform under Elizabeth I and James I, but the conflict was not over.
Charles I tried to enforce absolute rule and reintroduce elements of Catholic worship. This sparked the English Civil War in 1642, which brought intense battles over religious spaces.
Civil War Battleground
Most townspeople in Cambridge supported Oliver Cromwell, the local MP, while most University scholars supported King Charles I.
Great St Mary’s was both a parish church and the University Church, so the two factions clashed here.
Puritan Parliamentarians saw the hierarchy of bishops and traditional Anglican ceremony as papist institutions which restricted political and religious liberty. Royalists usually favoured a more elaborate style of worship which was closer to Catholic tradition, championed by Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.
Puritan parishioners resented an elaborate choir screen built by the University vice-chancellor in 1639, and Cromwell’s ‘multitudes of enraged soldiers’ later vandalised it. In 1641, a Trinity academic flew into a ‘greate rage’ when the churchwardens started to follow Parliament’s orders to remove the altar steps.
Royalist academics even complained that Cromwell watched as his soldiers ripped up the Book of Common Prayer in this church.
Puritans violently destroyed religious images. The stained glass in King’s College Chapel survived, but Great St Mary’s glass did not.
During the Civil War, the Puritan William Dowsing was appointed ‘Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’ and sent to remove the ‘popish trumperies’ in Cambridge college chapels and parish churches.
Dowsing usually recorded the destruction in a diary, but at Great St Mary’s he does not mention removing any of the windows himself. Instead, he simply notes the names of the churchwardens. This suggests that Dowsing may have trusted the churchwardens here to destroy the glass themselves, because they were fellow Puritans.
For the next 200 years, the Puritan faction dominated at Great St Mary’s. Galleries turned the church into a hall for preaching, centred on a huge triple-decker pulpit. It was only from the 1860s onwards that stained glass and a raised altar returned, bringing some colour and ritual back into Anglican worship here.