England’s Reformation: Edward VI’s Protestant Reforms

Find out all about the Protestant reforms enacted under King Edward VI of England.

Jul 9, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

edward vi reforms protestant


When Protestantism is discussed in the context of English history, it is often Edward VI’s father, Henry VIII, who comes to mind first. Yet despite this, Edward was, by far, the most serious Protestant out of all of the Tudor monarchs. There were a multitude of reasons why Edward ensured Protestantism in his kingdom would thrive.


Protestantism in England

Portrait of Edward VI, by William Scrots, c. 1550, Source: Sotheby’s


Protestantism was well established in Europe by the time Edward VI was crowned in 1547 thanks to the works of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Edward’s father had also adopted a form of Protestantism when he formed the Church of England after seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.


Henry VIII is seen as a Protestant king — he established the Church of England and called himself “Supreme Head of the Church,” as well as ordering revisions to Catholic religious practices, however, he was never really a true Protestant. In fact, some historians argue that he passed away a Catholic on his death bed. Nevertheless, the wheels were in motion by the time Edward came to be crowned, and thanks to his upbringing and those in charge of his education, Edward was a serious Protestant, despite only being nine years old.


Edward VI’s Upbringing

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537, Source: Liverpool Museums


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

An important part of Henry VIII’s establishment of Protestantism in his kingdom was making sure that Edward had a Protestant education. Edward excelled in subjects such as history, geography, geometry, and languages, and he was by all accounts a very intelligent young boy. Education was hugely important according to Henry, and it undoubtedly shaped the way Edward’s reign would pan out.


By the time Prince Edward was six years old, he began his formal education. It was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who chose his educators and the path his education would take. Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the most significant reformers in the country. Richard Cox and John Cheke were both chosen to be Edward’s educators, as they themselves were also reformers.


Edward VI’s Early Reign

Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536-7, Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


When Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, Edward was proclaimed King of England. However, because he was still a child, he was in what was known as his “minority” — he had older men looking after his government while he was still a child.


This had happened to many other English monarchs in the past, including Henry III, Richard II, and Henry VI, to name just a few. One of Edward VI’s most senior governors was his uncle, Edward Seymour (brother of his late mother, Jane Seymour).


Edward Seymour was a serious Protestant and a key reason why Edward VI’s reign was so associated with the rise of Protestantism. In fact, it was such a Protestant-heavy reign, that the period of Edward’s reign is known by itself as the Edwardian Reformation.


One of the first Protestant reforms under Edward VI was the Sacrament Act, passed in December 1547. This act was a deliberate attempt to move away from Catholic theological practices. It established that everyone was allowed to take Communion in the form of bread and wine, representing Christ’s body and blood — prior to this, only Catholic priests were allowed to drink the Communion wine. By offering it to all members of the Church it was initially deemed a step forward for Protestantism.


The Dissolution of the Chantries (1547-48)

Gisborough Priory, Source: English Heritage


During his father’s reign, the tragic Dissolution of the Monasteries had taken place. This was the forced removal and destruction of monasteries across England as part of Henry VIII’s Protestant reforms. It happened between 1536 and 1541, and the legacy of these reforms can still be felt across England today, where the ruins of hundreds of these former monasteries and abbeys still stand, such as Guisborough Priory in North Yorkshire, pictured above.


However, Edward VI focussed on dissolving the Chantries. Chantries were religious institutions that helped with the education of the populace in poor rural and urban areas. Unfortunately for the chantries in Edward VI’s reign, this education was deemed too Catholic.


The reasoning that Edward also gave for their dissolution was that it was an attack for the greater good (Protestantism); the chantries promoted the belief in Purgatory—a Catholic belief—and prayers for the dead. The idea of Purgatory was not followed in Protestantism, therefore, there was no need for the chantries anymore.


Another reason for their dissolution was similar to his father’s reason for dissolving the monasteries in the 1530s — money. Chantries often came with lots of land, goods, and money. Bringing this revenue back to the Crown could fund further expeditions, wars against France and Scotland — and further Protestant reforms.


The legacy of the dissolution of the chantries was immediately felt. Once the priests had been removed, education simply stopped. Additionally, many former chantries were sold to private buyers.


The Act of Uniformity (1549)

Thomas Cranmer, by Gerlach Flicke, 1545, Source: The National Portrait Gallery, London


Thomas Cranmer made an appearance once again with another Protestant reform under Edward VI: The Act of Uniformity, signed in January 1549. The Act promoted the new Book of Common Prayer, which was now mandatory to be used in all churches throughout the kingdom.


The Book of Common Prayer contained the wording of prayers and the order of service to be used instead of the traditional Catholic services. Naturally, it did not go down well with many people. It sparked a rebellion in Devon and Cornwall (known as the Prayer Book Rebellion) in Summer 1549. Ultimately, the rebels were defeated by forces led by John Russell, who had been sent by Seymour to crush the rebellion. Nonetheless, it still showed great resistance to Edward VI’s Protestant reforms.


It was also around the turn of 1550 that Edward VI abolished the old Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy, and he announced that priests would be allowed to marry.


Church Décor Reforms (1550-53) and the New Act of Uniformity (1552)

Edward VI when Duke of Cornwall, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1545, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Another element of Edward VI’s Protestant reforms was that churches needed to move away from idolatry — the worship of idols. Many Catholic churches were adorned with statues of the Virgin Mary, for example, and objects such as extravagant candelabras. Edward VI ordered the removal of all of these, and even the removal of stone altars in churches. His Protestantism was bordering on Puritanism at the time, which would be adopted by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century.


Even as late as 1552-53, new commissioners had again been instructed to inspect churches to see if they were adhering to Edward’s reforms. There were some churches that were literally stripped to the bare essentials for worship during this period — even altar cloths were taken, as well as candlesticks and chalices, too.


In April 1552, Parliament issued the New Act of Informity, which stated that all clergy had to use the new prayer book for services, making it even more difficult for priests of any sort to have any control over their services. They were essentially state-mandated services and are a good example of the authoritarian nature of Edward VI’s Protestant reforms.


The Forty-Two Articles (1552)

Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1575, Source: The National Portrait Gallery, London


The penultimate piece of Protestant legislation in Edward VI’s reign was the Forty-Two Articles, compiled by Thomas Cranmer. The purpose of these articles was to outline the doctrines and practices of the Church of England, with the aim of reforming it in line with mainland European Protestant churches.


However, Edward died before the articles could be approved by Parliament — and it was not until Elizabeth I’s reign that they were approved. In 1571, they were issued as the Thirty-Nine Articles, after she had removed some of the more Catholic-leaning articles. To this day, the Thirty-Nine Articles form the basis of the doctrine of the Anglican Church of England.


The Succession Plan (1553)

Death of Edward VI, Source: Meisterdrucke.uk


It was clear by early 1553 that Edward VI was gravely ill. He had generally been quite a sickly child, but by 1553 it was clear that a succession plan was needed to prevent his Catholic half-sister Mary from taking the throne and undoing all of his Protestant reforms.


He bypassed both Mary and Elizabeth (despite the fact that Elizabeth was a Protestant), and instead opted to give the succession to his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey. While Jane was a Protestant and did have a claim to the throne, it is likely that she was chosen as the successor because she had married Lord Guilford Dudley in May 1553. Guilford Dudley’s father happened to be a younger son of the Duke of Northumberland, who was Edward VI’s chief advisor at the time.


Edward VI’s Death and Legacy

Lady Jane Grey, c. 1590s, Source: The National Portrait Gallery, London


Edward VI died aged 15 on July 6, 1553. Lady Jane Grey reigned for nine days as queen, before Mary overthrew her, and was crowned Queen Mary I of England.


Being a daughter of Catherine of Aragon (and thus a granddaughter of the famous Spanish Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand), and after having watched her father divorce her mother and move away from Catholicism, Mary was a staunch Catholic.


As a result, once Mary had been proclaimed queen, one of the first acts of the Privy Council was to formally end the Edwardian Reformation, and usher in the new age: The Marian (Catholic) Reformation. However, the legacy of Edward VI’s Protestant reforms can still be felt today across England — such as the eating of bread and drinking of wine (rather than the traditional Catholic wafer) in Protestant Churches. In addition, Mary spent her entire (albeit short, five year reign) trying to undo all of the Protestant reforms, only for Elizabeth I to establish England as a Protestant country once again. Edward’s reign was characterized by his heavy focus on Protestant reforms, and he has generally gone down in history as a Protestant king, rather than simply a King of England.

Author Image

By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.