Contested Reformations in the University of Cambridge, 1535-1584

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Ceri Law
Studies in History
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer
    , June
     245 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The years between 1535 and 1584 were a yeasty period at the University of Cambridge. With four reign changes in the monarchy—each with differing religious views—theological and political situations in Cambridge were in flux during this time. Ceri Law’s careful study details this contested period—the viewpoints that clashed and those that found varying degrees of acceptance in the university. A value of this close examination is to show “how the competing forces of conflict and unity, of change and a quieter continuity, played out in the sixteenth-century University of Cambridge” (2). The book’s central argument is that religious change at Cambridge over this fifty-year period was “always a contested and contradictory process.” The book challenges the long-held view of the University as “cradle, nursery and finishing school of Reformation” (2). Law contends that “the multiple reformations of Tudor Cambridge can only be understood as processes inevitably and deeply shaped by the communities in which they were received, accepted, resisted and adapted” (2). A related claim is that “in Cambridge can be seen both the aims and the limitations of ‘official’ reformation displayed with an unusual and elucidating clarity” (3). The whole is a “complex process of religious change shaped by the reality of religious diversity” (3). 

The early Lutheran movement in Cambridge, told by Gordon Rupp and revised by Richard Rex, centers around Robert Barnes, sometimes claimed to be “the first man to give public voice to Lutheranism in Cambridge” (19). Henry VIII’s break with Rome over the royal marriage included Henry’s enlistment of Cambridge (and Oxford) to support his position. In the Cambridge case, the break with Rome revealed “an institution deeply divided” (27). A 1535 visitation of the university led to an imposed oath (October 23, 1535) that affirmed Henry as the rightful head of the English church. Cambridge again submitted, but in a divided way. The key issue of the visitation was “the rooting out of papal power in the universities—and its replacement with the authority of the king” (30). Curriculum changes were enacted as well as abrogation of some university powers. In sum, the visitation enacted a subjection of the university and its colleges to royal power (31). By the 1540s, the Henrican Reformation had made inroads in Cambridge even while arguments about religious reform continued.

The short-lived reign of Edward VI brought efforts to spread Protestantism but, unlike in some portrayals, Law suggests that “conservatism was far from absent in Edwardian Cambridge” (44). While a Protestant university was in the process of being constructed, with Thomas Cranmer’s importing continental Protestant Reformers—Paul Fagius and the venerable Martin Bucer—attempts to consolidate conformity were made, but a religious oath was never imposed. Yet disagreements continued as compliance and conformity were tested (59-64). By 1553 and with Edward VI’s death, “the Protestant university” hoped for by some “had not yet materialized.”

The restoration of Roman Catholicism came with the reign of Queen Mary I. Law shows that “the seeds for the rapid re-establishment of Catholicism in Cambridge under Mary could be found, in part, within the Edwardian university” (65). Mary took immediate interest in the universities, purging evangelical college heads for “‘new, conformable heads’” by March 1554. The renunciation of “‘the heresies lately spred in this Realm’” was the goal as well as subscription to an oath to the “‘catholyque doctrine now receyved’” (72). This took place in the context of shifts in the religious climate of the nation itself (74). The corpses of Fagius and Bucer were exhumed and burned (76). Visitations of Oxford and Cambridge intensified the external intervention of the Crown in the universities (82).

Protestants fled to Europe, including a number from Cambridge University. Law goes into detail on this, concluding that “the idea of a widespread evangelical flight can be jettisoned, but the picture remains a muddled one” since varying motives and situations were involved in the numbers of those who left the country (89; cf. Appendix I). There were those within the university “who enthusiastically welcomed and supported restored Marian Catholicism” (89). So religious tensions continued, especially over the refashioning of churches and restoration of altars (93). Other theological practices such as a recovery of prayers for the dead apparently received support from the general population (96). 

Mary died in November 1558, and attempts to re-establish the Protestant University were carried out under Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1564. William Cecil became “the single most important man in the Elizabethan regime” (99). Cecil’s visitation (1559) was to carry out Elizabeth’s purpose for the university: “‘augmentacion of good lernying and for establishynge of … uniformitie in the cause of religion touching commen prayer and divine service’” (101). This reflected the broad goal of “Protestantising the people and the practice of the university” (104). Shame over treatment of Fagius and Bucer led to their reinstatement as members of the university (112). College heads were replaced as many left for Roman Catholic institutions on the continent. With the passage of the Act of Uniformity, liturgical changes were made and altars exchanged for communion tables (118). 

From 1564 to 1584, a consolidation of royal control in the universities occurred. Theological controversies, such as those between Thomas Cartwright and John Whitgift over church government, took place as part of the “Admonition Controversy” (125). 

Through it all, “the University of Cambridge and the Elizabethan ‘godly’ had a special, if frequently strained, relationship” (141). Law presents case studies of “conservative” figures to indicate part of “the many shades of grey between full conformity and total defiance in the face of the demands of the Elizabethan state” (142). They are John Sanderson, Philip Baker, John Caius, Thomas Legge, and Richard Swale (142-155). 

Law’s interesting study has added needed nuance and texture to the religious controversies at the Usniversity of Cambridge. She has well-fulfilled her aim: “not to demolish but to complicate and nuance the idea of ‘godly Cambridge’, and to place it more firmly in its social, political and religious context” (188).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ceri Law is Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.


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