Tuesday 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses disputing the power of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz, Germany. This sparked a movement that would alter the world for ever and end the control the Catholic Church held over Europe: the Protestant Reformation. To commemorate the dawn of the reordering of the Christian religion, many establishments throughout the country (National Portrait Gallery, British Museum) are holding exhibitions, events, and workshops to bring to light the significant impact the movement had in England and the way it shaped the lives we lead today. The Senate House Library is one of these many institutions hosting an informative exhibition.
Founded in 1836, the Senate House Library is the central library of the University of London and one of the largest academic research communities in the country. Usually holding two free exhibitions per year, Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings is the second public display of 2017 and will run until the middle of December. Making the most of their two million book collection, the Senate House Library has pulled written material and medieval manuscripts from their vast collections, as well as borrowing or purchasing from the archives of other libraries, to put together a display to illustrate the crucial changes in England during the 16th century.
Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.
– Richard Hooker (1554-1600), Church of England Priest
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk and professor of moral theology at the University of Halle-Wittenburg. Through his own preaching, Luther challenged the Catholic sentiment that freedom from God’s punishment for sins could be purchased – occasionally with monetary donations – with the idea that salvation and eternal life are given as a gift from God for the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ. His academic debate criticising the ecclesiastical corruption was written up in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and sent to Albert of Brandenburg (1490-1545), the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517. Allegedly, Luther may have also have posted the Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg as well as other churches in the area.
Martin Luther refused to abandon his strong views and was eventually excommunicated by Pope Leo X and condemned as an outlaw by Emperor Charles V. However, with the recent mechanisation of printing technology, the Ninety-Five Theses was already spreading rapidly throughout Europe.
At this time, England was under the rule of the second Tudor monarch, the notorious Henry VIII (1491-1547). Initially, Henry debunked Martin Luther’s ideas by writing, or at least commissioning, Assertio Septem Sacramentum (In Defence of the Seven Sacraments) (1521). This earned Henry the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) from the pope, however, he was soon to fall from the pope’s good graces.
For centuries, England had been a Catholic country with most aspects of life revolving around the Church. Although Henry was king, the Pope held higher power, therefore when Henry wished to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), in order to marry Anne Boleyn (1501-36), permission was denied. Enraged, Henry took matters into his own hands, utilizing Luther’s theory to overthrow authority and establishing himself as the Head of the Church of England in 1534.
Martin Luther, however, remained persona non grata after calling Henry a pig and a drunkard in retaliation to the king’s opinion that Luther was a malicious, evil and impudent monster. Although Protestantism entered England for selfish reasons, it soon spread quickly as the population’s literacy increased allowing people to read texts and form their own opinions. Soon, art and literature were adopting secular themes, theatres became popular, and religion took a back seat.
The manuscripts flew about like butterflies.
– John Aubrey (1626-1697), English antiquary
The exhibition at the Senate House Library is divided into four “galleries” (“display cases” would be a better term): Culture, Society, Communications and New World Order. The exhibition in general focuses on the English Reformation rather than the Protestant Reformation as a whole, therefore, each glass cabinet is filled with books and pamphlets relevant to the events and changes in London and the rest of England.
It is fortunate that enough medieval and historical texts remain in order to put together a sufficient display. Not only are they extremely old, many books were destroyed in an attempt to abolish Catholic ideas. Placing Catholic texts alongside Protestant publications emphasises the dramatic impact reform wrought from both a religious point of view and a cultural one.
Previously, English culture had been determined by the church. Expressions of religious ideas were communicated through literature, paintings, and music, the latter often being liturgy accompanied by music. Church services were conducted and the Bible was written in Latin regardless of the congregation’s comprehension. Martin Luther, and thus Protestants, believed that services should be in a language that all can understand, therefore, in England, preachers were ordered to present their sermons in English. Likewise, the Bible and other religious texts were converted to English and made available to the general public. Many translations of the Bible were produced, culminating in 1611 with the King James Version, which, to this day, remains the best selling Bible throughout the world.
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, helped to spread the scriptures in English with the development of The Book of Common Prayer (1549).
Thomas Stenhold and John Hopkins revolutionised religious music by rewriting the Book of Psalms in paraphrased English and fitting the vernacular to short metrical stanzas. This allowed for communal singing where lyrics could easily be heard and understood, unlike the Latin versions intoned by a priest.
With printing presses on the rise providing cheaper and faster ways of producing books and pamphlets, it was impossible to prevent the widespread of these new forms of religious texts. However, it was not only the new Protestant Church that made use of this new development.
New authors and playwrights came to light as their novels and literature rapidly spewed out of printing houses. With religion losing its strong grip on society, writers were quick to explore new themes and secular ideas. This period of time brought forth names who have now been immortalised, such as Edmund Spenser (1552-99), The Faerie Queen, 1590), Nicholas Udall (1504-56), John Bale (1495-1563), and, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Art was also to be impacted heavily by the English Reformation. European painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (1479-1543), arrived in England bringing with them new ideas, which lead to the English Renaissance. This opened up a range of new directions for young artists to explore including the ancient classics, history painting, genre painting, still life, and portraiture. No longer needing to paint for religious purposes, artists could now produce “art for art’s sake”.
To destroy all without consideration, is and will be unto England forever, a most horrible infamy among the grave seniors of other nations.
– John Bale (1495-1563), Bishop of Ossory
Despite society entertaining secular ideas, London was a very dangerous place to be open about personal beliefs, and opinions. Not everyone was happy to accept Protestantism and many Catholics attacked and ridiculed the new form of worship. However, with Henry VIII being head of the Church of England, he tried to dictate everyone’s beliefs, imprisoning and beheading many who refused to comply. People had to make a difficult decision: follow God or follow the King? Antagonism between the two Christian denominations lasted for many years – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a botched attempt by Catholics to overthrow the Protestant king.
Whilst it may have been easy in the past for Rome to control the Catholic faith with the use of incomprehensible Latin and strict rules about what was right and wrong, the introduction of an alternative threw everything into disarray. As more people became educated and religious texts distributed in English, individuals were able to form their own opinions and question everything they had previously been taught.
Determined to abolish Catholicism, Henry VIII ordered the closure of monasteries and destruction of libraries in an attempt to eradicate any Catholic text. It is for this reason that the items at the Senate House Library are particularly rare because very few survived. Visitors are lucky to be able to view a copy of the Book of Hours, an early 15th-century devotional for Roman Catholic use.
Whilst monasteries were shut down, most of the buildings remained standing and were quickly converted into Anglican churches or became theatres and places of entertainment. Westminster Abbey became a cathedral under Henry’s instructions, later becoming a Collegiate Church during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Although this exhibition is focused on the English Reformation, it is important to understand that other European countries were having their own difficulties as a result of Martin Luther’s Theses. In 1562, France descended into the War of Religion, a civil conflict that was primarily fought between the Roman Catholics and the Reformed Protestants or Huguenots. Lasting 36 years, this war is the second deadliest religious conflict recorded in history with over 3,000,000 fatalities.
England, with its newly established Protestant Church, became a safe haven for many Huguenot émigres who escaped over the channel. It is estimated that over the years 50,000 Huguenots found refuge in England – a significant number that resulted in even more changes to English society. As London’s population increased due to the addition of refugees, European trades and skills were introduced to the English people. The French brought new talents such as silk weaving, watchmaking, and silversmith, making it far easier for England to obtain objects that previously had to be shipped from abroad.
Preachers may be silenced or banished when books may be at hand.
– Richard Baxter (1615-1691), English Puritan church leader
It is generally believed that the introduction of the printing press in 1476 led to the increase in literacy and development of the written English language, however, they never became popular until the Reformation. It was not until people wanted to spread God’s word in a language everyone could understand that the printing press became a vital invention. Thousands of pamphlets, as well as books, were printed and distributed, including those from anonymous sources who wished to get their opinion across. The curator at the Senate House Library likens this to today’s impact of social media.
An example of an anonymous pamphlet displayed in the exhibition is A Nunnes Prophesie, a form of propaganda. It claims that the pope had become the ruler of the world through evil means, but his enemies, having become as strong as unicorns, would destroy him with God’s help.
Look to your conscience and remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England.
– Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)
The guide book produced to accompany the exhibition in the library jokingly says that taking England out of Catholic Europe was the country’s first “Brexit”. Many enemies were formed with countries that had previously been friendly, in particular, Spain. At the beginning of the Tudor reign, Spain and England had a close relationship, but by the time Elizabeth I became queen, things were quite the opposite. In 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail with the intention of making England Catholic again, however, poor planning on the Spanish behalf proved the attempt futile.
On the other hand, countries further abroad developed positive ties with Protestant England. By the end of the 17th-century, the East India Trading Company had been set up and new products were constantly being brought in from Asia. This introduction of foreign trade, similarly to the Huguenots, completely changed English society and culture. Without this development, life would be very different today.
The Senate House Library has done what it can with its limited resources to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Although it is understandable that any tangible evidence of the Reformation is hard to come by, or even nonexistent, the mini display does come across as a little sad and disappointing. In order to learn about the Reformation, it is more beneficial to purchase (or download for free) the exhibition guide book, which provides visuals as well as information of every item on display.
Nonetheless, thanks to the Senate House Library, people of today’s world have the opportunity to learn about the civil conflicts of the past which have greatly impacted the way we currently live. Primarily about religion, the English Reformation altered the way people think, encouraged education, and introduced many new art forms and ideas. Although a worrying and dangerous time for the people who lived through it, they deserve recognition and gratitude.
Reformation runs from 26 June to 15 December 2017. Free entry to all, but please register before hand.