But Cromwell found it easier to deal with Irish inaction than with the feverish activity which his reforms stirred in England itself. It was impossible to strike blow after blow at the Church without rousing wild hopes in the party who sympathized with the work which Luther was doing oversea.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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The results of it indeed at first seemed small enough. The supremacy, a question which had convulsed England, passed over into Ireland to meet its only obstacle in a general indifference. Everybody was ready to accept it without a thought of the consequences. The bishops and clergy within the pale bent to the King’s will as easily as their fellows in England, and their example was followed by at least four prelates of dioceses without the pale.
The native chieftains made no more scruple than the lords of the council in renouncing obedience to the Bishop of Rome, and in acknowledging Henry as the “supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland under Christ.” There was none of the resistance to the dissolution of the abbeys which had been witnessed on the other side of the channel, and the greedy chieftains showed themselves perfectly willing to share the plunder of the Church.
But the results of the measure were fatal to the little culture and religion which even the past centuries of disorder had spared. Such as they were, the religious houses were the only schools that Ireland contained. The system of vicars, so general in England, was rare in Ireland; churches in the patronage of the abbeys were for the most part served by the religious themselves, and the dissolution of their houses suspended public worship over large districts of the country. The friars, hitherto the only preachers, and who continued to labor and teach in spite of the efforts of the government, were thrown necessarily into a position of antagonism to the English rule.
Had the ecclesiastical changes which were forced on the country ended here, however, in the end little harm would have been done. But in England the breach with Rome, the destruction of the monastic orders, and the establishment of the supremacy had aroused in a portion of the people itself a desire for theological change which Henry shared and was cautiously satisfying. In Ireland the spirit of the Reformation never existed among the people at all. They accepted the legislative measures passed in the English Parliament without any dream of theological consequences, or of any change in the doctrine or ceremonies of the Church. Not a single voice demanded the abolition of pilgrimages or the destruction of images or the reform of public worship.
The mission of Archbishop Browne in 1535 “for the plucking down of idols and extinguishing of idolatry” was a first step in the long effort of the English government to force a new faith on a people who to a man clung passionately to their old religion. Browne’s attempts at “tuning the pulpits” were met by a sullen and significant opposition. “Neither by gentle exhortation,” the Archbishop wrote to Cromwell, “nor by evangelical instruction, neither by oath of them solemnly taken nor yet by threats of sharp correction, may I persuade or induce any, whether religious or secular, since my coming over once to preach the Word of God, nor the just title of our illustrious Prince.”
Even the acceptance of the supremacy, which had been so quietly effected, was brought into question when its results became clear. The bishops abstained from compliance with the order to erase the Pope’s name out of their mass-books. The pulpits remained steadily silent. When Browne ordered the destruction of the images and relics in his own cathedral, he had to report that the prior and canons “find them so sweet for their gain that they heed not my words.”
Cromwell, however, was resolute for a religious uniformity between the two islands, and the primate borrowed some of his patron’s vigor. Recalcitrant priests were thrown into prison, images were plucked down from the rood-loft, and the most venerable of Irish relics, the staff of St. Patrick, was burned in the market-place. But he found no support in his vigor save from across the channel. The Irish council looked coldly on; even the Lord Deputy still knelt to say prayers before an image at Trim. A sullen, dogged opposition baffled Cromwell’s efforts, and their only result was to unite all Ireland against the Crown.
But Cromwell found it easier to deal with Irish inaction than with the feverish activity which his reforms stirred in England itself. It was impossible to strike blow after blow at the Church without rousing wild hopes in the party who sympathized with the work which Luther was doing oversea. Few as these “Lutherans” or “Protestants” still were in numbers, their new hopes made them a formidable force; and in the school of persecution they had learned a violence which delighted in outrages on the faith which had so long trampled them under foot. At the very outset of Cromwell’s changes, four Suffolk youths broke into a church at Dovercourt, tore down a wonder-working crucifix, and burned it in the fields.
The suppression of the lesser monasteries was the signal for a new outburst of ribald insult to the old religion. The roughness, insolence, and extortion of the commissioners sent to effect it drove the whole monastic body to despair. Their servants rode along the road with copes for doublets or tunicles for saddle-cloths, and scattered panic among the larger houses which were left. Some sold their jewels and relics to provide for the evil day they saw approaching. Some begged of their own will for dissolution. It was worse when fresh ordinances of the vicar-general ordered the removal of objects of superstitious veneration. Their removal, bitter enough to those whose religion twined itself around the image or the relic which was taken away, was embittered yet more by the insults with which it was accompanied.