The Change in Religion

Eleanor Hull
The Change in Religion

Of all the causes of unrest by far the most important was the rise of the movement known as the Reformation, and the gradual spread of its doctrines through North-western Europe. Henry VIII himself was no reformer. When Luther hurled defiance at the authority of the Roman see and disputed the truth of its doctrines, the young Tudor prince entered the lists against him with a tract on the Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, for which the Pope, Leo X, rewarded him with the title of ‘Defender of the Faith.’ But with the growth of his ambition came the design of making himself supreme not only in the State, but in the Church, the chief check hitherto existing upon the absolutism of the Crown.

The gifted young monarch, who in his early life corresponded with Erasmus and debated with More, was in his later years to inaugurate the Tudor despotism which laid its heavy burden upon Church and State alike. The Act of Supremacy vested all ecclesiastical authority in the Crown, and the clergy learned, by one injunction after another, that they were only allowed to retain their offices on condition of becoming the mouthpieces of the King, who dictated alike the form of their faith and the manner in which it was to be preached.

Pushed on from one act of absolutism to another by the ruthless ambition of his minister, Thomas Cromwell, arbitrary acts of taxation, of legislation, and of imprisonment followed each other with startling rapidity.

“He is a prince,” said the dying Wolsey, as he lay under arrest at the Abbey of Leicester, “of most royal courage; sooner than miss any part of his will, he will endanger one half of his kingdom.”

The passionless and calculating rigour which startles and appals us in reading the State Papers of the Tudor period had its effect in England in revolts all over the country, suppressed with ruthless severity, and in the fall of the noblest heads in England. Leaders of great houses like the aged Countess of Salisbury, and men of the highest virtue and learning like More, fell swiftly one after another upon the block.

It was in such an age and with such a spirit that the question of religious change was approached in Ireland. That country had been little touched by the expansion of intellectual enquiry which was elsewhere stirring in Europe, and which we vaguely designate as the Renaissance.

Both on the intellectual and on the religious side the Irish people were quite unprepared for any change in their religious beliefs, with which they were fully satisfied and which were commended to them by many faithful and devoted lives among the native priests and more especially among the friars. There was, in Ireland, little or no complaint of those monastic irregularities which formed a ready excuse for their despoiling in England when their accumulated wealth was wanted for State purposes or for the reward of needy courtiers and impecunious kings.

What was best in the ‘New Religion’ never had any chance of appeal in Ireland, and the greedy time-servers on whom alone Henry could rely to carry out his designs were not the type of men to recommend to a people any changes in the form or spirit of their religion.

The crowd of priests, rectors, and vicars whom Sir Thomas More saw crowding into the courtyard at Lambeth, hurrying to take the Oath of Supremacy for the refusal of which he himself sat awaiting the summons of death, were not likely to attract to their ‘faith’ any of the unconvinced. The men sent over to Ireland to preach the new tenets and enforce the King’s claims were of the type of these subservient clerics.

The chief agent of Henry’s will was a man named George Browne, Provincial of the Augustinian order in England, who had thrown himself zealously into the plans of the King’s minister Cromwell for the “advance of the King’s affairs,” and who in March 1535 was consecrated Archbishop of Dublin to succeed Dr Alen, who had been so brutally murdered by the followers of Silken Thomas during his rebellion in the preceding year.

Browne was an ignorant and overbearing friar, whom even the King rebuked for his arrogance and inefficiency, and whom Lord Deputy Grey called “a polshorn friar.” Indecent in life and blustering in manner, Browne neither won the adhesion of the English of the Pale nor that of the clergy and laity in the provinces. His first duty was to proclaim the Act of Supremacy and force it through the Irish Parliament. Then followed the removal of all religious images out of the cathedrals and churches of his diocese. The suppression of the monasteries came next.[1] From this time the Priory of the Blessed Trinity was changed into a deanery and chapters, and it henceforth bore the name of Christ Church Cathedral.

To Browne’s initiative can be traced the first proposals for converting St Patrick’s Cathedral into a university for the education of clergy, a plan which figures largely in the correspondence of the time. Among the most revered relics lost in the general destruction was the famous ‘Staff of Jesus,’ believed by old tradition to have been given to St Patrick by Jesus Christ. It had been removed from Armagh to Dublin in 1180.

The destruction of the sacred places and images, which was carried out with a total disregard of the feelings of the populace, awakened an hostility more vigorous than was the later protest when in 1551 the English liturgy was ordered to be read in the churches.

Browne was strenuously opposed by Cromer, Archbishop of Armagh, and by his successor Dowdall, although the latter had been appointed by Henry and might have been expected to support his policy.

A commission from the Pope prohibiting the acknowledgment of the King’s Supremacy arrived in 1538 to support the efforts of the resisting party. Browne’s report to Cromwell, on whose commission he acted, could hardly have been pleasing to that minister. “The countryfolk here much hate your lordship,” he writes frankly, “and despitefully call you, in their Irish tongue, the blacksmith’s son.” His forewarning that the new measures were beginning to have the effect of making both the Irish and English races lay aside their old quarrels, “and will, if anything will, cause a foreigner to invade this nation,” was destined to be speedily fulfilled.

Even at that moment Conn O’Neill, as Browne had the wit to see, was trying to form with Desmond a Catholic League of the North and South. The violence and rapacity of the Reforming prelates and clergy did more to weld together such leagues than any sense of national or internal union could do; the defence of the old faith provided a link that it was felt drew together all classes of the people, in every part of the country, English and Irish alike.

It began for the first time what we may recognize as a widespread movement directed against English policy, which in the later years of the Tudor tyranny was to become consolidated into a national resistance to English rule. Up to the time of the Reformation any resistance to the claims of England over Ireland had been local, the result of temporary irritation, but no general desire seems to have been felt to rid the country of a supremacy which was taken, after a term of three and a half centuries, almost for granted.

In the still independent districts only was the English suzerainty contested or ignored. There was a general submission to the English Crown, and such outbreaks as there were resulted from special acts of injustice or cruelty, such as the beheading of Desmond or the sacrifice of the five uncles of Silken Thomas on the suppression of his rebellion. But the efforts of Browne and his party did what no political difficulties had ever done. Such a command as that contained in Browne’s official exhortation, called “The Form of the Beads,” bidding them “obediently to recognize the King’s Highness to be supreme head in earth of the Church of England and Ireland … and to show and teach how the Bishop of Rome hath heretofore usurped not only upon God, but also upon our princes,” exhorting all to deface him from their primers and other books,[2] was a trumpet-blast which united the nation against the King and gave to the hitherto disunited bodies a common ground of action.

Browne reported that neither by gentle exhortation, evangelical instruction, or sharp correction had he once succeeded, even in the Pale, in getting any to preach the word of God or the just title of the prince.[3]

Even in St Patrick’s the parish priest had hardly begun the Beads when the choir began to sing and put a stop to them. To St Leger Browne’s energies were hateful. “Go to, go to,” he exclaimed, as he saw his work of appeasement being undone by these zealots, “your matters of religion will mar all.”[4]

It was during the introduction of the English Book of Common Prayer in Edward VI’s reign, which it was sought to make compulsory in Ireland, that opposition first became general. St Leger, to whom it fell to call a convention in 1551 for the purpose of introducing the new Liturgy, was no persecutor, and his affection for the old religion was made the chief ground of complaint against him on his downfall.[5] But in virtue of his office he was obliged to summon an Assembly to enforce the use of the Liturgy in its revised and English form.

A stormy scene ensued. George Dowdall, Archbishop of Armagh, exclaimed, “Then shall every illiterate fellow read Mass.”[6] “Your Grace is mistaken,” replied Sir Anthony mildly, “for we have too many illiterate priests amongst us already, who can neither pronounce the Latin, nor know what it means, no more than the common people that hear them; but when the people hear the Liturgy in English, they and the priest will understand what they pray for.”

It seems clear that the intention was to apply the use of the Prayer Book only in English-speaking districts, but the crude and ridiculous attempt was afterward made to force it also on native congregations.

Dowdall was deprived of his position for his resistance, and Browne was rewarded for his pliancy by being intruded into the Primacy in his place. A few years later we find him bitterly repenting his choice, and praying to be sent to a less conspicuous diocese in place of the poor and difficult post he had been so anxious to obtain in the wild country of Shane O’Neill.

Dowdall was eventually obliged to fly to the Continent, but he was recalled under Mary, and though he had originally been appointed by the Crown his recall was approved by the Pope, and he was reinstated in March 1553.

It is little wonder that the new doctrine made small progress in Ireland. It was neither recommended by the preaching nor by the lives of its first promoters. The monasteries fell into ruins, and the churches languished for lack of clergy. The clergy who remained, “though,” in Browne’s words, “they could and would preach after the old sort and fashion till right Christians were weary of them, would not once open their lips to proclaim the King’s supremacy” or to use the new service book. The Observants were “worse than all the others; for I can make them neither swear nor preach among us.” The choirs began to sing their loudest when the new forms of prayer were read.

In 1562, Lord Deputy Sussex reported that the people were without discipline, utterly void of religion, and that they came to divine service as to a May game. A futile effort was made to attract them to church by ordering the new Liturgy to be read in Latin, but when this was discovered it only led to fresh disorders. Even Elizabeth was on one occasion heard to say that she feared the same reproach might fall on her which had been made to Tiberius:

“It is you, you, that are to blame for these evils; you have committed your flocks, not to shepherds, but to wolves.”