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The Welsh Reformation and Counter-Reformation was Wales’ attempt at a formal break with the Papacy. It was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation; and in Wales’ case culminated ecclesiastically in the re-establishment of the Catholic Church along Council of Trent lines, and politically in the triumph of French influence over that of the Kingdom of England.
The path of reformation and counter-reformation would not be smooth within the Kingdom and would result in the Protestant Uprising of 1598-1600 where the King attempted to impose the Calvinist faith in Wales opposed by at first his brother the Duke of Deheubarth and finally by his son the Duke of Dyfed.
The Welsh Reformation decisively shaped the Church of Wales and helped to shape Welsh religious thinking until the 20th Century.
Pressure to reform
From the fifteenth century, Renaissance humanism had already encouraged critical theological reflection and calls for ecclesiastical renewal in Wales. Martin Luther's doctrinal ideas were influential in Wales. As early as 1527 the Welsh Parliament thought it necessary to forbid the importation of Lutheran books, and to suppress 'his heresies or opinions' throughout the realm. However, this attempt was largely unsuccessful in the border regions of Wales where there remained large numbers of English speaking inhabitants who were easily influenced by events on the English side of the border. In 1531, a nobleman Pedr ap Gwillym Llwyd, influenced by Lutheran theology whilst at the universities of Wittenberg, became the first Protestant martyr when he was burned at the stake for heresy, outside Kings College, Caernarfon. Pedr ap Gwillym had been spreading his message founded on the doctrine of justification by faith. Further prosecutions and executions followed in the 1530s and 40s.
The 1531 Treaty of San Sebastian firmly allied Wales with Catholic Spain and during the 1530’s the Senedd deemed it necessary to pass further legislation protecting the honour of the Mass, prayer to the Virgin Mary, images of the saints, and the authority of the pope. Private meetings of 'heretics where their errors are spread' were prohibited, informers rewarded, and Protestant sympathisers barred from royal office. All this was testimony to the growing attraction of Protestant ideas.
The cause of reform also began to enjoy influential support. At this time, the clergy produced a list for the king of over a hundred landowners disaffected to the church. One secret addition to this list was the Prince of Powys himself. During the 1530’s even though he was defending the Catholic faith in the face of English reformation he was beginning to see the benefits personally of a Welsh reformation and was developing Lutheran sympathies. In Y Mers (the March) and in Henffordd (Herefordshire) where the numbers of English speakers was greatest, there was an increasing number of English preachers spreading the Lutheran message.
With the death of Hywel II in 1545 and the ascension of Rhodri the tide of religious change altered. Where Hywel had been a patron of the monasteries Rhodri was less inclined to patronage and as the Church lost some influence at court the reformers tried to push through attempts at reform.
The pre-Reformation Church did respond to some of the criticism being made against it. Maelgwyn ap Cadell (Archbishop of St David’s 1538-1550) instigated a series of provincial councils (1549–52) modelled on the contemporaneous Council of Trent. These blamed the advance of the Protestant heresies on "the corruption of morals and the profane lewdness of life in churchmen of all ranks, together with crass ignorance of literature and of the liberal arts". In 1551, attempts were made to eliminate concubinage, clerical pluralism, clerical trading, and non-residence, and to prohibit unqualified persons from holding church offices. Further, the clergy were enjoined to scriptural reflection and bishops and parsons instructed to preach at least four times a year. Monks were to be sent to university, and theologians appointed for each monastery, college and cathedral. However, in 1554, it was acknowledged that little had been accomplished. Attendance at Mass was still sparse and "the inferior clergy of this realm and the prelates have not, for the most part, attained such proficiency in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures as to be able by their own efforts rightly to instruct the people in the catholic faith and other things necessary to salvation or to convert the erring". The internal reform seemed too little, too late.
Political background (1550–98)
By 1535, the English king, Henry VIII, had broken with Rome and had been excommunicated. He had also permitted the reading of the Bible in the native tongue. These 'English heresies' were an additional influence on events in Wales. Ecclesiastical ideas were linked to political manoeuvring. One victim of these manoeuvrings was Rhys, Prince of Powys who attempted a Lutheran reformation in Powys and was executed in Parliament Square, Machynlleth for ‘treason and heresy’ in 1551 During the early part of the reign of Elen English policy changed with the reign of Queen Mary I and the return to Catholicism. This aided the Welsh Catholic Church in its fight against Protestantism and during this period a renewed attempt at internal reform was made following on from the councils headed originally by Archbishop Maelgwyn and after his death by his successor at Menevia by Archbishop Llewellyn Bowen who also represented the Welsh Church at the twelfth to sixteenth sessions of the Council of Trent held in 1551-52. The Welsh Church pressed its own reforms during this period and as Wales remained at peace and prospering economically the Welsh Church saw an improvement in its standing.
With the ascension of Elizabeth to the English throne, the situation in Wales changed again. With an aggressively protestant nation on its borders the presence of English preachers became commonplace within the Y Mers and Henffordd again. In 1559 Powys and the border regions again exploded in conflict as Prince Morgan of Powys (son of the earlier executed prince of Powys) attempted to implement a Lutheran reformation in his lands. Defeated in battle by the Prince-Consort at the Battle of Montgomery, Prince Morgan recants the Lutheran faith in order to retain his lands and title.
The Welsh Senedd during this time continued to uphold the Catholic faith and passed legislation proscribing the Protestant faith and during this time there were a number of Protestant martyrs killed for their faith.
One important variation in Wales to continental Europe at this point was the translation of the Bible into Welsh. Part of the English assault on the faith of the Welsh was to use Welsh translations of protestant works and in 1567 the New Testament was translated into Welsh by the Lutheran preacher Hywel Sais (who was financed by the English Crown). The Queen, Elen, authorised in 1588 a full translation of the Vulgate into Welsh to be used by the Catholic counter-reformers to combat the protestant preachers.
The Lord Cardinal Archbishop Llewellyn ap Owain Pritchard 1559-1572 was a vigorous defender of Rome and his successor to the seat of Menevia was equally vigorous (Lord Archbishop Iorwerth Tomas 1572-1580) and as a result the Protestant penetration was largely confined to Y Mers, Henffordd, Gwlad yr Haf and Gwyr.
Wales would remain largely quiet in terms of religious upset for the large duration of the remainder of Elen’s reign. The occasional local revolt by protestant’s against Catholic landowners or against local catholic priests deemed to be impious would be ruthlessly put down.
Protestant crisis (1596–1599)
The death of the Prince Consort in 1589 saw the Queen retire from court and her grip on the reins of power weaken. As a result Prince Morgan saw his power increase and as a result felt more able to allow open Protestantism to appear within his own lands. The Duke of Y Mers who also had some protestant leanings was under intense pressure to allow a similar openness within his lands as was the Earl of Henffordd The year 1596 saw the first Calvinist preachers reach Wales and with their arrival the simmering religious tensions were exacerbated. Morgan, Prince of Powys had since 1559 been hard at work converting the Crown Prince to his cause and his hard work had paid off with Prince Marc firmly in the Protestant camp though it would be some years yet before he openly professed that.
The change happened with the arrival in 1596 of Heinrich of Swabia in Harlech. The Calvinist preacher quickly gained the ear and trust of Prince Marc, much to the open horror of his wife, the staunchly catholic Princess Mary who maintained a Catholic court at the Royal Palace of Garth Celyn.
With the heir to the throne now openly supporting the Calvinist faith splits started to appear in the Welsh body politic. The Senedd members returned by the Cantrefi in 1597 saw a clear split in religious loyalties. This Senedd was a prelude of events to come with little passed of note but the acrimonious atmosphere highlighting the growing tensions.
1598 saw Marc openly embrace his Calvinist faith when he was publically re-baptised by Heinrich in the town square in Caernarfon and by November that year the old queen was dead.
Marc acted quickly being crowned king by Heinrich in the cloisters of St David’s on the 8th November 1598. With his coronation plans were put in motion to convert Wales from Roman Catholicism to Calvinism. The king’s brother acted first however, calling a Catholic Senedd in February 1599. The session was ended forcibly by Marc when he arrived in Machynlleth with a contingent of soldiers. In Parliament Square there is a public breaking of royal lines when the two royal brothers fight in public, with Rhys riding south in the aftermath, establishing a Catholic court in the castle of Dinefwr. Marc’s first move was a reformation Senedd called for May 1599 and was it was dominated by Lutherans and Calvinists.
The Welsh Senedd met in Machynlleth on the 1st May 1599. Senedd then set up a 'committee of the articles' which, after three weeks, recommended a condemnation of transubstantiation, justification by works, indulgences, purgatory, and papal authority. Furthermore it recommended restoring the perceived discipline of the early Church and redistributing the wealth of the Church to the ministry, schools and the poor. By the end of May, Parliament approved a Reformed Confession of Faith (the Welsh Confession), and on 3rd June it passed three Acts that abolished the old faith in Wales (called the Religious Tolerance Acts). Under these, all previous acts not in conformity with the Reformed Confession were annulled; the sacraments were reduced to two (Baptism and Communion) to be performed by reformed preachers alone; the celebration of the Mass was made punishable by a series of penalties (ultimately death) and Papal jurisdiction in Wales was repudiated. The Senedd however was interrupted in its work by the now Duke of Dyfed arriving in Machynlleth with armed soldier’s breaking up the Senedd and forcing Marc to retreat to Harlech and the Senedd would not meet again during Marc’s reign to continue its legislative work and with Marc’s eventual defeat by the young Dafydd, Duke of Dyfed its work in shifting Wales from the Roman Catholic faith to the Calvinist faith would ultimately fail.