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Women of the Reformation

1 January 2014 | by Sheila Stephen

Women of the Reformation: In the Court of King Henry VIII

In Romans 16 the apostle Paul names a number of women who were partners with him in gospel ministry. This doesn’t mean they were apostles or church leaders, they were fellow workers, co-labourers, women who worked hard in the cause of the gospel. Since then there has been a seamless stream of women, through the centuries of church history, who have worked hard for the gospel and whom the Lord has been pleased to use. Some of these women have been in prominent positions in society, others comparative unknowns – but God reaches into every nook and cranny of our society to call people to himself and use them for his glory.

Esther of old

Anne Boleyn is sometimes likened to Esther of old. Both were beautiful and influential but in a precarious place at the royal court of their day. Both had ‘Christian unions’ of women who prayed with them in their palaces. Both were married to grumpy men. Anne Boleyn used to mark Bible passages and leave them at King Henry’s place for breakfast for discussion. She appointed godly chaplains and sought to advance the cause of the reformation as she was able. When she died many thought that a light had gone out and that the reformation would flounder without her godly influence.

However, God was still at work behind the scenes and Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and last wife, was holding Bible studies in the palace with the ladies of court. Katherine Parr was an educated woman, fluent in a number of European languages as well as Latin and fascinated with the teachings of the reformation. Her chaplain was none other than Miles Coverdale and editor of the Great Bible which Henry later decreed should be placed in every church in England. But religious life was still a melange of the new and Roman Catholic doctrines.

A small group of evangelical noblewomen surrounded Queen Katherine, some of whom were active in distributing tracts and booklets. One such was Anne Askew who was tortured and martyred for her faith at 25 years of age. Her silence protected the other women at court, most notably the Queen herself. Anne would not waver on important doctrines which threatened the sufficiency of scripture. Katherine followed in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn in having theological debates with her husband. Henry was capricious, sometimes welcoming the discussions, sometimes angered by them.

A godly influence

Enemies of the reformation used their ambivalence to threaten the evangelical cause and Katherine herself. An apology from Katherine brought her back into favour and extended her life, and ultimately her influence at court, particularly over Henry’s children, Edward and Elizabeth. Such was the influence of Katherine that Elizabeth, at only age 12, translated chapter 1 of Calvin’s Institutes into English for a gift for her.

Katherine also had a godly influence over the young Lady Jane Grey, third in line to the throne. Though beheaded at sixteen years of age, Lady Jane Grey held firm to her Protestant faith and her writings portray a piety and godliness beyond her years.

Into the reign of Elizabeth the first, the Protestant reformation grew and flourished.  Powerful women at court were reading the Bible and finding consolation in the scriptures. God’s power reaches into every nook and cranny of society and finds men and women he can use for his glory and the extension of his kingdom.

Pause for reflection:

  • Do we pray for the men and women who are at the centre of the power bases of our world today?
  • Do we include the wives of influential men in our prayers?
  • Do we encourage women in the knowledge of doctrine and theology?
  • How do we encourage our teenage girls in godliness?

Sheila Stephen lectures in Women in Church and Mission at WEST, Bridgend.

Interested in reading more? Diana Lynn Severance’s book, ‘Feminine Threads – Women in the Tapestry of Christian History’, was the inspiration for this article and Faith Cook’s book ‘Lady Jane Grey – Nine Day Queen of England’ is a challenging read.