The religious conflict that had started with Henry VIII’s drive for a male heir, flourished for some into a complete overhaul of the English Church. The court was very much divided into the two camps- The Old Guard, mostly old families and who still secretly or otherwise embraced the old ways and old faith, and the New Men, up and coming young men who made up for their lack of family with holy zeal. It was into this divide that Robert Crowley made his appearance into history.
Crowley first experienced an evangelical conversion while at Magdalen College, which he joined as a scholar in 1539. Magdalen College was described as a “hotbed of evangelicals” and there he joined the likes of Lawrence Humphrey, Thomas Cooper and Owen Oglethorpe and other men who we become bishops under Elizabeth I. Their decidedly protestant bent went directly against the Act of Six Articles, or the Whip with Six Strings as it was known. This made things decidedly difficult and he left Magdalen in 1542, either because of a purge of evangelicals or his objection to taking holy orders, which required celibacy. He found work as a tutor with a noble family along with a certain John Foxe, of Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s fame.
After the ascension of Edward VI, everything changed. Being an evangelical protestant was no longer looked on with disfavor. The young king and his regent, his uncle Edward Seymour, were both sympathetic to the reformist cause. Crowley fell in with printers at the St. Paul Chantry and became a proofreader, quickly moving up the ranks. During this time, Crowley acted as the printer of editions of Piers Plowman, the gospels in Welsh, and the first English Psalter with harmonized music.
The party came to an end when Jane, the Nine Days Queen, was deposed by the victorious Mary I. She set about bringing the English Church back to Rome with a will, and the reformists who flourished under her brother Edward scattered. Crowley ended up with the English community in Frankfurt, Germany. There they became the model for the other English Churches in exile. However, they went further than the other churches in their reforms, who maintained the use of the second Book of Common Prayer from Edward VI’s reign. Conflicts in Frankfurt amongst the exiles only set the stage for further conflicts after Elizabeth I came to power.
Once back in England after Mary I died and Elizabeth I ascended the throne, Crowley published an account of the reformation under Edward and said it primarily failed because of the corruptions of its leaders. These were primarily Edward Seymour, Thomas Seymour and John Dudley. He said that the poor paid a price for this failure even though he termed these men as martyrs to the faith. Crowley’s work became the basis for his old friend John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, whose fame surpassed the source material.
Matters came to a head under Elizabeth I with the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Supremacy. She was trying to steer the English Church on via the medium path of the day. What she forgot that the middle way is attacked on both sides, and Robert Crowley led the charge. As vicar of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate, he instigated the first protest on April 23, 1566 by refusing to allow the “superstitious rags of Rome to enter” the church. Crowley won the first round as the men in surplices retreated. Similar protests broke out through 1566 and 1567.
Complaints from the Lord Mayor to Archbishop Parker brought Crowley in front of the Archbishop along with the Deputy of the Ward. Crowley refused to allow surplices and would not relinquish his duties unless charged. He was prepared and almost happy to go to prison for his faith. He got his wish and was discharged and put under house arrest for three months. This did not deter him; by 1568 Crowley was no longer a member of the clergy and was back to printing. He went on the attack with works such as A Briefe Discourse Against the Outwarde Apparel of the Popishe Church, written in 1566. There he sites vestments as superstition and vanity. For this he was accused of denying royal supremacy and rebellion. Serious charges for just clothes.
It was disputes like these that let to the deepening difference between what we know as Puritans and the rest of the Church of England. All of this setting the stage for the religious conflicts in later decades, which would bloom into the English Civil War.
Sources available on request