Religion in the 15th Century

Core Beliefs & Practices

The Roman Catholic Church was well established by the 16th Century throughout Europe and the English isles. The Church had survived multiple schisms, including the formation of the East-West Schism of 1054 and the Western Schism (1378- 1`417).  Cathedrals and churches had been constructed in communities across Europe and England while more than 800 abbeys and priories of Benedictine, Augustinian, Cistercian (Trappists), and other religious orders vied for their shares of laity tithes.

Late medieval Christianity included complex interrelationships among basic Christian beliefs, institutions, and practices. Christian salvation history stretched from God’s creation through his incarnation in Jesus Christ to the Church as the instrument of his salvation for humanity.

Basis for Christian Salvation

The basic story of Christian salvation history began with God’s creation and will eventually end with the apocalypse. Its authoritative source is the Bible, understood as God’s revealed Word. Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience against God made all human beings subject to pain, suffering, and death. In his mercy, God called a people to himself, the Israelites, and made a covenant with them, foretelling through their prophets a future messiah who would usher in a messianic age.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah – the incarnation of God – who preached the “good news” (Gospel). Through his obedient death, humanity was redeemed, and the possibility of salvation renewed. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus commissioned his followers to preach the Gospel to all nations and to baptize. From this early movement, emerged the Church, the instrument of God’s salvation on earth, which derives its authority from Christ.

Human Life

Human life was seen as a transitory period before the afterlife and judgment by God. Faith and the practice of faith by following the Church’s Seven Sacraments – were believed to be essential for eternal salvation. Right belief and right behavior were prerequisites for the
possibility of eternal salvation; otherwise, one was not following Christ.

Faith and Works

Medieval theologians distinguished between the act of faith (fides qua) and the content of faith (fides quae). In the Church, the terms distinguish two crucial aspects of religious belief:

  • Act of faith: This refers to the personal decision to trust in God and accept the truths revealed in Christianity. It’s a free and conscious choice, often described as a “leap of faith” involving trust and surrender to God’s word. Imagine it as opening your heart and mind to God’s message. The act of faith is personal and internal; it comes from within each individual,
  • Content of faith: The content of faith is communal and external, a shared body of knowledge passed down through the Church’s teachings and traditions. Think of it as the specific knowledge and understanding that comes from embracing the act of faith.

The act of faith is the foundation for accepting the content of faith. Without the initial decision to trust God, individuals wouldn’t be open to receiving and understanding the Church’s teachings. The content of faith strengthens and nourishes the act of faith. By learning and understanding the Church’s teachings, believers deepen their trust and commitment to God.


The Church in England

Geographically, Christendom as a whole was overseen by the papacy (including cardinals), while bishops oversaw dioceses with their priests and deacons who were responsible for laypeople in parishes. The members of religious orders, both male and female, coexisted with this geographical framework, and ecclesiastical institutions as a whole existed alongside secular authorities at every level of governance.

In England, the Catholic Church held undisputed authority, with the Pope as the supreme head. The Church included all orthodox, baptized Christians, present and past, a community of the living and the dead. The minimal practice of the faith expected (but not always enacted) of all baptized Christians included weekly attendance at Mass, participation in the sacraments, and observance of basic ecclesiastical prescriptions. Church rituals and teachings permeated daily life, with tithes mandatory for all. While many parishioners undoubtedly felt piety and devotion, there were also concerns about corruption within the Church hierarchy and abuses of power.

The fundamental understanding of time was liturgical. Christian beliefs and worship structured the basic divisions of days, weeks, and the year as a whole. The week was geared toward Sunday as a day dedicated to God and to rest. The year was organized around Christ’s life, from the preparation for his birth during Advent before Christmas, through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, six weeks after Easter. Other major holy days were devoted to important events in the life of Mary.  Every “ordinary” day was named in honor of one or more saints, Christ’s special friends and Christians’ intercessors with God.

Early Protestant Movement

Henry VIII in the Protestant Movement

England was a late entry into the Protestant Movement due to Henry VIII’s devout Catholic practices and the dispersed population throughout the country. Unlike early reformers, Henry VIII’s action came when the Church was actively engaged in fighting protestants in the Holy Roman Empire.