The Six Articles, 1539

Religious reaction – the ‘Statute of Six Articles’, 1539

Thomas_AudleyWhat happened? 

At parliament in April 1539, Chancellor Audley announced that the king was determined to put an end to the diversity of opinion and disunity, and appointed a group of clerics to produce a statement to end debate. In May, the Duke of Norfolk announced to parliament that the clerics had failed to agree and therefore that six questions would be put to parliament, debated and voted on. The questions were phrased so as to make disagreement difficult, and re-asserted a traditional position. The statements by Audley and Norfolk cannot have been made without the king’s permission and approval. They were duly passed in only slightly revised form.

What motivated Henry?  

Multiple worries were in Henry’s mind in 1539. The disunity and religious debate had been a continual worry for him, and conflicted with his vision of how a Prince should order the lives of his subjects – something had to be done to quieten debate. It is also probable that he was personally uncomfortable with the pace of change; on 4th April 1539, Easter Sunday, he very visibly carried out the most demonstrative of traditional ceremonies, the creeping to the cross, and very publicly received holy bread and water – all these were the targets of the evangelicals. Not least, though, was the diplomatic jam England was in. The two European super powers France under the Valois and Empire under Hapsburg had, exceptionally, come to an agreement. England was isolated diplomatically, and Henry genuinely feared invasion. It was time to convince Charles V the Emperor in particular that there was no religious reason for an invasion – that England was orthodox, despite the royal supremacy.

What was the reaction? 

Evangelicals were shocked; the act was called ‘the whip with six strings’ Evangelical bishops Latimer and Shaxton resigned their sees. Cranmer debated furiously with himself – but did not Thomas Cranmerresign as Archbishop of Canterbury. He attributed to himself the worst possible motives, which was Cranmer’s style:

Happy man that you are…you can escape! Would that I were at liberty to do the same; truly my see would not hold me back. You must make haste to escape before the Island may be cut off, unless you are willing to sign the decree as I have done, compelled by fear – for I repent of what I have done, and had I known that my only punishment would have been deposition from the Archbishopric…of a truth I would not have subscribed

But Cranmer was also motivated by duty and loyalty – to his king whom he revered, and to his cause of evangelical reform, which would not have been helped by his removal. In fact, the act shocked evangelicals because they had become used to a series of small advanced to their views and a string of little victories; the six articles represented the end of the trend, rather than a backwards step.

Stephen Gardiner and the conservative bishops meanwhile rounded up evangelicals under the act – as many as 500, 200 of whom were ion London under the new Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner. Despite the undoubted atmosphere of suspicion, uncertainty and fear for which he was at least partly responsible, Henry was keen to minimise further upset; and issued a general pardon. Only 6 were to die under the (notably severe) penalties of the act.

The wording of the Act

Here it is in all it’s glory!

An Act abolishing diversity in Opinions

Where the King’s most excellent Majesty is by God’s Law Supreme Head immediately under him of this whole Church and Congregation of England, intending the conservation of the same Church and Congregation in a true, sincere, and uniform doctrine of Christ’s Religion, calling also to his blessed and most gracious remembrance as well the great and quiet assurance, prosperous increase, and other innumerable commodities which have ever ensued, come, and followed of concord, agreement, and unity in opinions, as also the manifold perils, dangers, and inconveniences which have heretofore in many places and regions grown, sprung, and arisen of the diversities of minds and opinions, especially of matters of Christian Religion.

And therefore desiring that such an unity might and should be charitably established in all things touching and concerning the same, as the same, so being established might chiefly be to the honour of Almighty God, the very author and fountain of all true unity and sincere concord, and consequently redound to the common wealth of this his Highness’s most noble realm and of all his loving subjects and other resiants and inhabitants of or in the same: Hath therefore caused and commanded this his most high Court of Parliament, for sundry and many urgent causes and considerations, to be at this time summoned, and also a Synod and Convocation of all the archbishops, bishops, and other learned men of the clergy of this his realm to be in like manner assembled.

And forasmuch as in the said Parliament, Synod, and Convocation there were certain articles, matters, and questions proponed and set forth touching Christian Religion The King’s most royal Majesty, most prudently pondering and considering that by occasion of variable and sundry opinions and judgments of the said articles, great discord and variance hath arisen as well amongst the clergy of this his realm as amongst a great number of vulgar people his loving subjects of the same, and being in a full hope and trust that a full and perfect resolution of the said articles should make a perfect concord and unity generally amongst all his loving and obedient subjects; Of his most excellent goodness not only commanded that the said articles should deliberately and advisedly by his said archbishops, bishops, and other learned men of his clergy be debated, argued, and reasoned, and their opinions therein to be understood, declared, and known, but also most graciously vouchsafed in his own princely person to descend and come into his said high Court of Parliament and Council, and there like a prince of most high prudence and no less learning opened and declared many things of high learning and great knowledge touching the said articles, matters, and questions, for an unity to be had in the same.

Whereupon, after a great and long deliberate and advised disputation and consultation had and made concerning the said articles, as well by the consent of the King’s Highness as by the assent of the Lords spiritual and temporal and other learned men of his clergy in their Convocation and by the consent of the Commons in this present Parliament assembled -it was and is finally resolved, accorded, and agreed in manner and form following, that is to say;

  • First, that in the most blessed Sacrament of the Altar, by the strength and efficacy of Christ’s mighty word, it being spoken by the priest, is present really, under the form of bread and wine, the natural body and blood of Our Saviour Jesu Christ, conceived of the Virgin Mary, and that after the consecration there remaineth no substance of bread and wine, nor any other substance but the substance of Christ, God and man;
  • Secondly, that communion in both kinds is not necessary ad salutem, by the law of God, to all persons; and that it is to be believed, and not doubted of, but that in the flesh, under the form of the bread, is the very blood; and with the blood, under the form of the wine, is the very flesh; as well apart, as though they were both together.
  • Thirdly, that priests after the order of priesthood received, as afore, may not marry, by the law of God.
  • Fourthly, that vows of chastity or widowhood, by man or woman made to God advisedly, ought to be observed by the law of God; and that it exempts them from other liberties of Christian people, which without that they might enjoy.
  • Fifthly, that it is meet and necessary that private masses be continued and admitted in this the King’s English Church and Congregation, as whereby good Christian people, ordering themselves accordingly, do receive both godly and goodly consolations and benefits; and it is agreeable also to God’s law.
  • Sixthly, that auricular confession is expedient and necessary to be retained and continued, used and frequented in the Church of God

And be it further enacted… that if any person or persons… contemn or contemptuously refuse, deny, or abstain to be confessed at the time commonly accustomed within this realm and Church of England, or contemn or contemptuously refuse, deny, or abstain to receive the holy and blessed sacrament above said at the time commonly used and accustomed for the same, that then every such offender.. shall suffer such, imprisonment and make such fine and ransom to the King our Sovereign Lord and his heirs as by his Highness or by his or their Council shall be ordered and adjudged in that behalf; And if any such offender … do eftsoons… refuse… to be confessed or to be communicate… that then every such offence shall be deemed and adjudged felony, and the offender… shall suffer pains of death and lose and forfeit all his… goods, lands, and tenements, as in cases of felony.

10 thoughts on “The Six Articles, 1539

  1. I looked this up as I read about The Six Articles in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The Act appears to be the work of the Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner. In the book, Thomas Cromwell is absent through illness and unable to influence what must have been, as you say, a regressive step from the point of view of the evangelicals.

  2. Thomas Cromwell may have been conveniently ill at the time. He certainly did not object to the Articles.Cromwell believed only in his own position of power.

    1. I agree with David Crowther; Cromwell tried to stop the exodus of priests, but he was ignored; Cromwell was ill, but he was also on his way out, so few took any notice of him, he tried to turn back the tide back to reform, so he pushed through the six articles, but he had lost much of his influence and power, it was Norfolk who pushed through the strictures about clerical marriage and celibacy. Cromwell even accused Norfolk of disloyalty, Norfolk had called him a liar, Norfolk was constantly provoking him.

  3. I’m very grateful for this information. I knew a little about the Six Articles, having been interested in the Tudor period for years, but also from reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s detailed biography of Thomas Cromwell.

    Now I understand the relevance of the articles tfor those of reformed faith, in particular Evangelicals. I think the legislation is particularly shocking in modern eyes because it’s primary purpose seems to have been to control the way people thought.

    As for Cromwell, some people will be surprised to learn he genuinely did have an attack of malaria in April 1539. He clearly chose the wrong moment to be ill because it was a chance for traditionalists like Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk, long time enemies of Cromwell, to gain the upper hand.

    1. I found it very interesting when I learned about the ‘act of six whips’ as I think the Reformers called it; it’s really hard to get into the 16th century head, and I found MacCulloch’s biography of Cranmer helped me do that; though I have to say the biography of Cromwell is a better read. Anyway, I’m glad it made sense! And yes, poor Cromwell; I’ve just finished Elizabeth, and how much better to work for her rather than her Dad!

    2. “… to control the way people thought. ”
      Do you not understand that that is what ALL religions do ?

      1. And exactly how conversant are you with the principles of ALL religions? Your feeling may be your own experience, but it has certainly not been mine – rather the reverse. My Christian faith has encouraged me to use my God-given intellect to think for myself. St. Paul (in Philippians 2:12–13) encourages Christians to ‘work out your own salvation’. If there has been any attempt to control people’s thoughts, it is men, seeking power for themselves, who have sometimes subverted religion to give them power over those deliberately kept in ignorance – not the faith itself. Martin Luther started the Reformation precisely for the purpose of freeing people from being told what to think by such power-hungry men.

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