St.Paul’s Cathedral during the Reformation

The preparations for the execution of Protestant Martyrs John Bradford, a prebendary of St.Paul’s, and the nineteen year old apprentice John Leafe. They were burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 1st July 1555 during the reign of ‘Bloody’ Mary. The illustration originally appeared in John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, the first edition of which was published in 1563.

During the years of religious turmoil that led to the Reformation in England, Paul’s Cross in the churchyard of St.Paul’s Cathedral became a focus of religious debate. Sermons were given by both those who sought reform and their conservative opponents. Like all other religious institutions in the country, the cathedral went through a great period of change.

The mid-16th century was a period of great upheaval and disruption to the Church in England, In the early part of his reign Henry VIII was a dedicated supporter of the Catholic doctrine. However, the Pope’s refusal to accept the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon led in 1534 to Henry declaring himself head of the Church in England, separate from Rome. Clerics who disagreed were replaced by reformists, which in turn led to a period of transformation that eventually created the Protestant Anglican Church.

In 1521 the influential John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, gave a two-hour sermon at Paul’s Cross before Cardinal Wolsey, arguing against the teachings of Martin Luther. The proponents of orthodoxy were eventually silenced by Thomas Cromwell, the King’s vicegerent, who ensured that only those who supported Henry were appointed to preach at Paul’s Cross.

By the time of the Reformation, St.Paul’s Cathedral had lacked a strong, leadership for a generation. In the 1530s the post of dean was held by Richard Sampson but he combined it with the bishopric of Chichester. There was little resistance to change and, unlike at some other ecclesiastic institutions, the canons and priests of St.Paul’s accepted the religious reforms, acknowledging Henry as head of the Church in England. In October 1535 Cromwell granted the cathedral a licence to continue spiritual jurisdiction. The veneration of saints was brought to an end and sometime around 1540 the shrine and relics of St.Erkenwald, patron saint of London, located in St.Paul’s since the 7th century, disappeared.

The transition from Catholic worship to what became the Anglican doctrine gradually evolved over a number of years and after great debate, causing much confusion and uncertainty during the latter years of King Henry. Upon his death in 1547, however, the evangelical custodians of the nine-year-old Edward VI gained the upper hand and clarification was given by a set of Royal Injunctions that were soon issued. That September images were removed from St.Paul’s and the Epistle and Gospel began to be read in English during mass. In November the revered rood (or crucifix) at the north door was taken down, the work undertaken during the night to prevent riots. Two workmen were killed and others injured during the process, which was a sign from God of His displeasure according to papists. During 1548, under Dean William May, various new forms of Protestant worship were introduced.

At the same time, various changes were made to the organisation of the cathedral and its community. Most colleges, chantries and fraternities were dissolved. The charnel house and its chapel were leased out to booksellers and the bones of those buried there transferred by cart and dispersed outside the city wall at Moorfields and Finsbury. In 1549 Protector Somerset, the young King’s guardian, ordered the demolition of the Pardon churchyard cloister, where the parents of St.Thomas had been buried, as had many of London’s leading citizens. He used the stonework, including tombs, in the building of his Somerset Palace, the predecessor of the current Somerset House on the Strand.

St.Paul’s Cathedral was one of the first to begin using the Book of Common Prayer when it was introduced by Archbishop Cranmer in 1549. Revolts against the religious changes broke out in various parts of the country and in July Cranmer gave a sermon at St.Paul’s to denounce them. The reforms carried out at the cathedral by Dean May were too much for Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, but following his protests he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea gaol in October 1549 where he stayed until the accession of Queen Mary in 1553.

Bonner was succeeded by Nicholas Ridley – uniquely as Bishop of London and Westminster – and the pace of change increased. The cathedral’s high altar was demolished overnight in June 1550, the use of the organ was discontinued in 1552 and subsidiary altars demolished. Ridley himself officiated at the introduction of the revised Book of Common Prayer in November of that year. In May 1553 all religious items no longer used in the new doctrine were removed from the building.

King Edward died in July 1553. Several days later the mayor proclaimed Edward’s sister, the Catholic Mary, the rightful queen. He then led a procession into St.Paul’s, where the choir sang a solemn Te Deum and the organ was played once again. Mary arrived in London on 3rd August and Bonner was released from Marshalsea, going directly to the cathedral to pray. Catholic practice was once again reintroduced during the following weeks and Dean May was replaced. In December a public ceremony in commemoration of papal supremacy was held at St.Paul’s, attended by the King of Spain (newly wedded to Mary), Cardinal Pole, Bishop Bonner, the Bishop of Winchester and the mayor and aldermen of London. A crowd of fifteen thousand gathered outside at Paul’s Cross for a sermon.

In May 1554 Bishop Ridley was arrested, sent for trial in Oxford as a heretic and burnt at the stake there in October, along with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester. The cases against many others tried as heretics were held in the consistory court at St.Paul’s, often before Bishop Bonner. The first of almost three hundred ‘Protestant Martyrs’ to be executed during the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ was John Rogers, a clergyman and lecturer of St.Paul’s, who was burnt at the stake at Smithfield in February 1555. Several months later the same fate befell another of the cathedral’s clergymen, John Bradford. Those executed in November 1558 were particularly unfortunate because Mary died that month during an influenza epidemic, on the same day as Archbishop Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sources include: Various – St.Paul’s – The Cathedral Church of London; Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’.

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