Religious Changes under the Duke of Somerset 

Kieran Hughes MA, May 2017

Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was a late convert to radical Protestantism and some of his religious changes were considered cautious and considered. However, he was Lord Protector when the Crown issued a set of radical royal injunctions in July 1547. Michael Tillbrook (2015)[1] says that the changes ‘mounted a sustained attack on the religious experience of ordinary people.’  Edward’s injunctions clearly demonstrated his iconoclastic policies in practice. He demanded the suppression of idolatry, images, relics and superstition, calling for an end to hypocrisy and abuses. He banned the enticement of people to saintly pilgrimages. His officers routinely destroyed shrines, tables, candlesticks, paintings and stained glass-windows. The injunctions made it clear that to claim saints performed miracles was a detestable superstition. The injunctions reflected the radical attitudes inside Edward and Somerset’s government at the time; one where the conservatives were subdued and the evangelicals were in the driving seat.

The changes had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they lost their processions and practices; Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday. They no longer had access to what they held sacred; saints and relics. They could no longer be encouraged to go on pilgrimages and their whole religious practice had been forcibly altered beyond recognition. They would have been frightened for their souls and for the souls of their deceased relatives. It should be remembered that Protestants were still in the minority at this time. Susan Brigden (1991)[2] suggests that only twenty per cent of Londoners were Protestant in 1547. Radical religious reform engineered by Edward and driven through by Somerset clashed with the reluctance and hatred of the people. Their precious religious practices were challenged and destroyed. No more violently or extremely than in London, under Nicholas Ridley, one of Somerset’s staunchest supporters. Catholic survivalism prospered better further north in Lancashire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, and in the far south-west of England.

In December 1547, Somerset’s government turned its attention to the dissolution of chantries and religious guilds. This destructive ecclesiastical policy was economically motivated; the Crown needed money to pay for an expensive foreign policy. The property and wealth of all chantries and guilds were systematically seized by the Crown. This was a radical and dramatic attack on the Catholic masses, severing their ties with the dead from their communities and stripping their finances from guilds that supported feasts and celebrations.  But it was even more than this, Mariee-Helene Rousseau (2016)[3] describes the chantries as ‘crucial to the spiritual well-being’ of the people.  These were the same people who had already been affected by the dissolution of the monasteries which had also been an integral part of communities. Monks had also been local landowners, farmers, employers and alms providers. Edward and Somerset continued to strip the Catholic nation of its traditional ways of religious worship.

Meanwhile, Somerset’s cautious label has been challenged by CRN Routh (1997)[4]  who states that the Duke might have increased his radical religious reforms but had to tread carefully whilst battling the French. He did not want to upset the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Therefore, his foreign policy helped determine the pace of his religious policy according to Routh. It was a necessity, a controlled decision making process rather than a genuine leaning towards conservative elements. After disastrous and expensive wars in Scotland and losing Boulogne in 1548, Somerset had nothing to lose and so proceeded with the Act of Uniformity that paved the way for the publication of Archbishop Cranmer’s Common Book of Prayer in 1549. The new prayer book allowed people to read it, not in Latin as favoured by the Catholic Church, but in English. There were to be no more local variations; it was to be a standardised and uniformed approach. A universal understanding was one of the key objectives of the legislation; the second was to establish a homogeneous form of church service. It was far less radical than the injunctions endured two years previously. It included an equivocal declaration of the Eucharist which could have been interpreted as a continued acceptance of the Catholic transubstantiation.

By 1549, the people had had enough of the turbulent times under Somerset. Their religious practices had been changed beyond all recognition. But the 1549 Common Prayer Book was decisively conservative; its English translation perhaos the most radical part. Catholics had already lost what had been dear to them and there were revolts in Devon and Cornwall. Pressure on the lower classes was increased by a new poll tax on sheep and Somerset’s opposition of enclosures to help poorer people had not been a success. The new tax would have affected the region significantly because the West Country was an area of sheep farming. Local nobility was absent for reasons of service and attainment and this created a casm of authority. Cornish people saw themselves as different, culturally and geographically. They did not appreciate an English Prayer Book when their first language was Cornish. Therefore, the major discontent was religious, fiscal and military after disasters in France and Scotland.  The major rebellion was eventually put down by Somerset’s men but for the Protector, it was the beginning of the end as Kett's rebellion in the east, for some of the same reasons but also against corruption of local government. This was the rebellion Somerset could NOT put down. It took the Earl of Warwick to deal with this, a step on his imminent promotion to protector and Duke of North Nortumberland.

Both men were ambitious and opportunistic, Somerset by snatching power from the Regency Council and taking advantage of his family position as Edward's uncle, and Northumberland as he successfully led a coup against Somerset when he was crippled under domestic and foreign challenges.


[1] M. Tillbrook, (S. Waller Ed.), The Tudors, England: 1485-1603, (Oxford University Press, 2015), p.135.

[2] S. Brigden, London and the Reformation, (Oxford University Press).

[3]M. Rousseau,Saving the Souls of Medieval London: Perpetual Chantries at St Paul's Cathedral, c.1200-1548,   Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West, (London: Routledge, 2016), introduction.

[4] C.R.N. Routh, (G. Treasure, Ed.), Who’s Who in Tudor England, (London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 1990).