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A. D. 1489-1556.
THE ENGLISH REFORMATION.
As the great interest of the Middle Ages, in an historical point of view, centres around the throne of the popes, so the most prominent subject of historical interest in our modern times is the revolt from their almost unlimited domination. The Protestant Reformation, in its various relations, was a movement of transcendent importance. The history of Christendom, in a moral, a political, a religious, a literary, and a social point of view, for the last three hundred years, cannot be studied or comprehended without primary reference to that memorable revolution.
We have seen how that great insurrection of human intelligence was headed in Germany by Luther, and we shall shortly consider it in Switzerland and France under Calvin. We have now to contemplate the movement in England.
The most striking figure in it was doubtless Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, although he does not represent the English Reformation in all its phases. He was neither so prominent nor so great a man as Luther or Calvin, or even Knox. But, taking him all in all, he was the most illustrious of the English reformers; and he, more than any other man, gave direction to the spirit of reform, which had been quietly working ever since the time of Wyclif, especially among the humbler classes.
The English Reformation—the way to which had been long preparing—began in the reign of Henry VIII.; and this unscrupulous and tyrannical monarch, without being a religious man, gave the first great impulse to an outbreak the remote consequences of which he did not anticipate, and with which he had no sympathy. He rebelled against the authority of the Pope, without abjuring the Roman Catholic religion, either as to dogmas or forms. In fact, the first great step towards reform was made, not by Cranmer, but by Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, as the prime minister of Henry VIII.,—a man of whom we really know the least of all the very great statesmen of English history. It was he who demolished the monasteries, and made war on the whole monastic system, and undermined the papal power in England, and swept away many of the most glaring of those abuses which disgraced the Papal Empire. Armed with the powers which Wolsey had wielded, he directed them into a totally different channel, so far as the religious welfare of the nation is considered, although in his principles of government he was as absolute as Richelieu. Like the great French statesman, he exalted the throne; but, unlike him, he promoted the personal reign of the sovereign he served with remarkable ability and devotion.