Allegory of the four Evangelists stoning the Pope, painted for Henry VIII by Girolamo da Treviso c. 1542. The overturned candle under the cauldron in the foreground stands for the extinguishing of false doctrine.
          In 1534 Henry VIII established the Act of Supremacy and declared himself the "Supreme Head of the Church of England," officially inciting the English Reformation and unleashing a wave of religious intolerance and destruction that would not be stemmed until well into the next century. The single most determining event of the Henrician Reformation was the establishment of royal supremacy over the Church of England, causing an irrevocable break with the Roman papacy. The Reformation reversed those Medieval victories of the church over the monarchy by using the word of God as a basis for obedience to king and not pope. For the first time in history a king had declared himself independent of the papacy. Previously, papal authority had acted first by excommunicating a secular ruler but in this instance Henry VIII had thrown off the pope, even going so far as to erase his name from service books. Henry's ideal was non-papal Catholicism, but "to all men alike the state was their real religion and the King their great High Priest."
          The Reformation attempted to reshape English society on the basis of the word of God in order to promote a uniform and literate religious culture in place of the oral and visual culture of the past. The centerpiece of this effort was the dispersion of an officially sanctioned English translation of the Bible which, along with his royal supremacy was Henry's most enduring contribution to English religious history. In 1538 it was mandated that every church must contain a bible that be read in English to its parishioners. The protracted influence of the vernacular Bible lay in its ability to be read and comprehended by any literate individual and offered the layperson an interpretive immediacy that its Latin counterpart never could.The wide circulation that the scriptures now enjoyed contributed to the weakening of the priesthood and further dispelled the need for narrative images as a means of educating an illiterate public. The unity of the church was slowly eroded as the explication of the laws of God were no longer within the sole realm of the clergy. Each individual now had the ability to discover personal truths hidden within the scriptures.
Detail from the title page of Cranmer's Great Bible, showing Henry VIII distributing the Book to the clergy.
               With Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Cromwell as Henry VIII's Vicar-general, a new religious culture, strongly tainted with Protestantism and its rejection of imagery was instituted. The Dissolution of the Catholic Monasteries began with little opposition in 1536 and continued throughout 1539, while the year 1538 instituted the beginning of the destruction of relics and shrines. Cromwell had ambitious plans for the new Church of England and they included a thorough revision of canonical laws because papal domination was considered incompatible with royal supremacy. Cromwell's second injunction of 1538 intensified the message of iconoclasm and launched the official campaign against imagery. He wrote:
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
          "Item, that such images as ye know in any of your cures to be so abused with pilgrimages or offerings of anything made thereunto, ye shall for avoiding of that most detestable offence of idolatry, forthwith take down and deley (destroy); and shall suffer from henceforth no candles, tapers, or images of wax to be set afore any image or picture, but only the light that commonly goeth across the church by the rood loft, the light before the sacrament of the altar, and the light about the sepulchre; which for the adorning of the church and the divine service, ye shall suffer to remain still, admonishing your parishioners that images serve for no other purpose but as to be books of unlearned men that can no letters, whereby they might be otherwise admonished of the lives and conversation of them that the said images do represent; which images if they abuse for any other intent than for such remembrances, they commit idolatry in the same, to the great danger of their souls. And therefore the King's Highness, graciously tendering the weal of his subjects' souls hath in part already, and more will hereafter, travail for the abolishing of such images as might be occasion of so great an offence to God, and so great danger to the souls of his loving subjects."
Thomas Cromwell,
Vicar-general to Henry VIII
          Cromwell's injunctions of 1538 was the first charge in what was to be a prolonged campaign by the Church of England against the use of religious imagery as well as their mere existence. This campaign of iconoclasm intensified under Edward VI, was reversed under Mary, but reinstated under Elizabeth and reached its final denouement during the Civil War of the 17th century, when Parliamentary armies sought to destroy "images, altars or tables turned altarwise, crucifixes, superstitious pictures, ornaments and relics of idolatry" from all churches in order "to throw to the moals and the bats every rag that hath not Gods stamp and name upon it to complete that left incomplete in the first Reformation." Not until the restoration of Charles II did the effects of the Henrician Reformation finally come to subside. By this time, an entire way of life had come to an end. The Medieval foundations of the church had all but been destroyed, while its institutional role had been severely curtailed. The public could no longer looked to the clergy or the worship of saints and holy relics as intercessors for their salvation or hope that highly ritualistic ceremonies would grant their wishes. While the use of images ceased to play a significant part, the importance of the word took on a whole new meaning as a visual culture, entrenched in the traditions of the Middle Ages gave way to a society that was better able to comprehend the word of God. While Henry VIII vernacular Bible became a formidable weapon in the enforcement of the English Reformation, it promulgated literacy and left a literary legacy that changed the face of the English church.
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