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Henry VIII And The Reformation

King of Ely Palace

It’s impossible to tell the story of Ely without talking about one of the most controversial kings, Henry VIII. In 1531, he and his wife Catherine of Aragon were guests at Ely Palace. They were attending a lavish feast given by the then Bishop of Ely, Nicholas West, which is said to have lasted for five days. But the sumptuous feast was filled with foreboding. Henry VIII and Queen Catherine dined in separate rooms, one of the first public indications that Henry was thinking of taking a new wife.

Henry wanted a son and it seemed Catherine couldn’t give him one and so he was looking for an annulment to the marriage. But the Pope was reluctant to give this, because of Catherine’s nephew Philip of Spain. After a long and drawn out legal process, Henry was denied his annulment. But he had already burnt his bridges by marrying Anne Boleyn with the connivance of Thomas Cranmer. Henry did this by breaking off relations with Rome, making himself head of the church in England and appointing Cranmer, a man willing and eager to do his bidding, as Archbishop of Canterbury, with Cranmer in turn giving Henry his divorce. Bishop, now St John, Fisher acted as Queen Catherine’s counsel, together with Bishop West of Ely, and argued against the divorce. These men, who had thwarted Henry, were both marked out for death. But Bishop West died before Henry’s vengeance could fall upon him. Henry lived with an uneasy conscience. He knew that men like Sir Thomas More secretly disapproved of what he had done. Henry craved approval and he passed new laws to force his subjects to agree with him. His Act of Supremacy declared the King to be the only Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. An oath was then devised for all his subjects. Refusal to take it was treason.

John Houghton was the Carthusian Prior of the London Charterhouse, whose monastery bordering the Ely lands is little changed to this day. He learnt that his Carthusian monks had been selected to take the oath. Henry was selecting the most devout religious in the land – if they could be forced to take the oath, the others would soon follow. John Houghton was joined by two other Carthusian priests, Robert Lawrence of Beau Vale and Augustine Webster of Axholme. The three Carthusians, realizing that they might soon have to choose between denying their beliefs and death, celebrated the mass of the Holy Spirit. Then they went to Westminster Hall to see the King’s Chief Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to seek exemption from the oath. Cromwell cut short Prior Houghton’s pleas and had all three priors arrested. From Westminster Hall they were taken to the Tower and there the royal commissioners went to visit them, to enquire of them why they wouldn’t accede to the King’s request. But, in the words of Webster, as you can read in the Public Records Office: and that was the view of all three and so all three were to die for treason.

The King our Sovereign Lord is not Supreme Head of the Church of England

On the fourth day of May 1535, the monks were led out from their cells in the Tower of London for execution by means of the Tyburn Tree. As they were passing the Bell Tower, they were seen by Thomas More, who was imprisoned there with his daughter Margaret, as he was to be for fifteen months prior to his execution. From his narrow window, Sir Thomas More looked down on the monks. The cell today, the lower cell of the Bell Tower, is almost exactly as it was four hundred years ago. Thomas More is said to have turned to his daughter and said:

Look, do you see Meg, that these Blessed Fathers are now going to their deaths as cheerfully as bridegrooms to their marriage

The monks were bound to wicker hurdles and dragged from the Tower of London to Tyburn Gallows for execution, still wearing their religious habits, something previously unheard of in England. The monks had been sentenced to a traitor’s death. They were made to stand in a cart, which, when driven away, left them hanging until half dead, and then cut down whilst still alive – their hearts and intestines were torn out and burned in front of them; then their bodies were beheaded and quartered. John Houghton was the first to die. He was offered a free pardon whilst standing in the cart, if he would acknowledge the King as head of the church. To the vast crowd that had assembled, he said:

I beseech all here present to attest for me on the dreadful day of judgement that being about to die I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the Supreme Majesty of God

Priors Webster and Lawrence followed him to their deaths along with two other priests. All five now stand together in St Etheldreda’s great West window, which depicts their execution. This window is reputedly the largest in London, and is dedicated to the English Martyrs. The dismembered parts of the monks’ bodies were displayed at various sites across the city. The arm of John Houghton was hacked off and brought to his Charterhouse and nailed to its front door to impress upon the other monks the seriousness of Henry’s intentions. The first Bishop of the newly authorized religion was Thomas Goodrich, a zealous reformer, who destroyed the Great Shrine of St Etheldreda in Ely Cathedral. He built a tavern called the Mitre adjoining St Etheldreda’s for the benefit of his retainers.

Henry VIII died in 1547.

His nine year old son became King Edward VI. The men who controlled the boy King, like most powerful English families, had benefited greatly from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. They feared that if there was reunion in Rome they might have to give back their newly acquired wealth. Henry maintained to the end of his life that he was still a Catholic, though a Catholic who disagreed with the Pope. But the new men behind the throne set about destroying Catholic belief and practices. The mass, which had been celebrated in England since the coming of Christianity and said and sung by all 21 Bishops of Ely in the Church of St Etheldreda’s since it was first built, was ordered to be abolished. It was replaced by the Book of Common Prayer. Then the great destruction began of shrines; and even the magnificent medieval stained glass windows.

At the age of sixteen, Edward lay dying of consumption. The Duke of Northumberland, aided by Cranmer, obtained his signature to a document transmitting the Crown to Lady Jane Grey and not the rightful heir, Henry’s eldest daughter Mary, the only surviving child of Queen Catherine. But the country rallied to Mary who became Queen. Mary tried to take England back into the Catholic fold. The mass at St Etheldreda’s was restored. She considered reformers such as Cranmer to be heretics, who had plotted against the one true church.

Cranmer, guilty of treason for his part in the Lady Jane Grey plot, should have been hanged, drawn and quartered. But, as the punishment for unrepentant heresy had always been burning, Mary burned him at Oxford. Many more died in the fires of Smithfield. For this, Mary was to gain the name of Bloody Mary. After a five year reign, she died childless. She had sent out the royal commissioners to test out her half sister’s beliefs and Elizabeth swore that she was a Catholic, so Mary accepted her word and declared Elizabeth heir to the throne. She was crowned Elizabeth I and made herself Governor of the Church in England, but for Elizabeth to uphold Catholic teaching was to admit that she was illegitimate, so, despite her promises, she and her Chief Minister William Cecil began the systematic destruction of the church and its teachings.

The mass was again abolished.

Past the Church of St Etheldreda’s were brought the crucifixes to be burnt at Smithfield. To hear mass became a hanging offence and all priests who upheld Catholic belief were hunted men.

Cover Image: 'Henry VIII' ©Historic UK
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