- Henry VIII and the Anabaptists by Albert Pleysier
The current consensus is that a split opened up in Henry VIII's reign between conformist evangelicals and those who supported the more radical Swiss reformers. Whereas evangelicals rejected the sacrifice of the Mass but clung to a belief in the Real Presence, a small minority of radicals known as "sacramentaries" denied that Christ was really, objectively and bodily present in the bread and wine, claiming that the Eucharist was but a "sign and a memorial" and that Christ was only figuratively present. And in time these radicals came to prefer a church organized entirely on Swiss lines. After Acts of Parliament in 1539 and 1543 reaffirmed Henry VIII's belief in a largely conventional, if idiosyncratic Catholic theology despite his proscription of the pope and the monasteries, around forty per cent of evangelicals no longer conformed, while followers of the Swiss reformers went into exile. After Henry's death, the brakes came off. With the enactment of Religious Settlements of 1552 and 1559, Swiss theology largely prevailed in the Church of England in the shape agreed in the Zurich Consensus of 1549, but stripped of the Swiss view of clerical dress and church organization.
The gap Albert Pleysier has spotted and seeks to fill is that this version of history leaves out the Anabaptists, the most extreme of the radical reformers. Clearly as he shows, there were Anabaptists living and preaching in England. How many nobody knows, but around sixty or so can be found, whether English-born, Flemish, Dutch, [End Page 805] German, or Swiss, and in the 1530s the bookseller John Gough was famously caught importing books from Antwerp for an Anabaptist conventicle in London.
Everyone in authority agreed (or pretended to) in Henry's reign that sacramentaries and Anabaptists were beyond the pale. They were repeatedly denounced and persecuted, often lumped together in royal proclamations and other instruments of repression despite their significantly differing beliefs. Unlike sacramentaries, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism. Those whose beliefs can be nailed down can be closely linked to the writings of Melchior Hoffman. But in Henry's unstable consciousness, these separate heresies amounted to the same thing. And when in 1538 the reformed coalition cobbled together by Thomas Cromwell as the king's "vicegerent in spirituals" collapsed and new battle-lines were drawn that fell little short of a full-scale heresy hunt, many moderate evangelicals became confused with the radical fringe. After Cromwell's plan to marry Henry to Anne of Cleves went dramatically awry, the vicegerent was himself executed as a traitor and alleged "sacramentary," swiftly followed by Robert Barnes, a mainstream Lutheran used by the king as an ambassador in his negotiations with the Schmalkaldic League, who was burned at the stake. No one knew for what specific heresy Barnes was condemned. Those who retrospectively accused him of Anabaptism were out to blacken his name. Pleysier works chiefly from the multi-volume calendar of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII and Hughes and Larkin's classic edition of Tudor Royal Proclamations. He tracks down all the evidence known from printed sources for the activities of genuine Anabaptists in England and offers valuable insights into their beliefs gained from William Barlow's writings and a general pardon issued after the annulment of the Cleves marriage, where (for once) Anabaptist doctrines were clearly distinguished from those of sacramentaries. Experts may find relatively little that is new in the book, but students will find it a helpful guide to the more radical strands of the English Reformation and to some of Henry VIII's religious diplomacy.