What was the Reformation?

Henry VIII depicted in 16th century stained glass at The Vyne.

The Reformation was a European-wide conflict over the hearts and minds of Christendom which gave rise to the distinction between Catholic and Protestant. The struggle over the true practices and beliefs of the Church played out in every aspect of sixteenth-century life: from high-politics to the parish church. At its heart lay the question of how a Christian was to be saved: via a believer’s own good works or through faith in God alone?

The universal Church challenged

Throughout its history, the Church had been periodically called to a renewal of faith. However from 1517 the German monk and professor, Martin Luther, would issue a series of increasingly radical attacks on the authority of the Pope and the nature of faith itself.

His message was twofold: salvation was by faith alone, and only scripture held merit in theological dispute. The suggestion that a person’s works earned them nothing towards salvation proved galvanising to figures across Europe, who took up Luther’s mantle in their own lands.

When Luther died in 1546, his was only one of a number of reformed doctrines known collectively as Protestantism.

Reformation in England

The 1520s saw the first reformers in England persecuted for propagating their faith. Largely confined to urban areas of the south, their fate changed in the 1530s when King Henry VIII broke from Rome in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

Though Henry’s successors would maintain the Protestant faith (with a brief reversal under Mary I), it is unlikely that the majority of English people were identifiably Protestant until the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign.

But Protestantism was never uniform. Well beyond Elizabeth’s death in 1603, debate raged about the true nature of the English Church. Catholicism, though outlawed, also lingered on, even if its full practice was increasingly confined to gentry households.


Conflict characterised much of the Reformation experience. This was most obvious in Ireland where the repercussions of violent Reformation remain visible today.

Elsewhere parishioners were asked to unravel the collective work of centuries: smashing idolatrous images and whitewashing church walls. Catholics fell foul of government legislation, whether defying it openly or hidden in a priest-hole. 

But the Reformation did not only take away. Works such as the King James Bible remain testimonies to the period’s transformation of the English language. The period also provided the nation with some of its foundational myths.

As Catholic Spain’s Armada floundered in the Channel, English nationality was injected with a sense of separateness, one that would develop both at home and in the New World.

Our places and collections with Reformation histories


Children playing outside at Speke Hall, Garden and Estate, Merseyside

Tudor connections at our places 

The places we look after have many links to the Tudor period. They’ve received royal visitors, hidden Catholic priests and witnessed pivotal events.