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Disenchanting the English Reformation

Richard Rex on the myths of English history

Edward VI and the Pope, Artist Unknown, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


At some point in the second half of the twentieth century, England somewhat unexpectedly ceased to be a Protestant nation. It has been undergoing a seismic cultural shift of a similar order to that which it experienced in the sixteenth century, when it even more unexpectedly ceased to be a Catholic nation. Both of these profound changes were intimately linked to epoch-making technological innovations in the media: the Gutenberg Revolution in the early modern era, and the rise first of television and then of the internet in recent times. The strange death of Protestant England, not to be confused with English Protestantism, which still flourishes in diverse forms, has had major implications for our understanding of that earlier cultural shift, which we label “the English Reformation.” On the one hand, with English identity no longer so tightly bound up with Protestantism, more critical approaches to the Reformation have been able to gain a wider hearing, enabling some hallowed myths to be challenged. On the other, with all forms of Christianity more muted in public discourse and consciousness, and with the differences among them less clear even to Christians, let alone to the rest of the population, it gets daily more difficult for people to understand what was going on and what was at stake four or five hundred years ago. A modicum of critical distance has been achieved, then, but the gain in criticism is to some extent offset by the increase in distance. That increased distance is best measured by a change in the terminology of historical periodization. For the Reformation as a whole has, in living memory, been relegated from “modern history,” within which it still tended to be located back in the 1950s, to what is now called “early modern history.”

It was the success of Eamon Duffy’s magisterial study, The Stripping of the Altars that signaled the acceptance of a new way of seeing the English Reformation. As was observed by some reviewers, often from Protestant backgrounds, this was a manifestly Catholic account of the English Reformation, avowedly concerned not with the building up of the new order, but with the dismantling of the old, with the destruction of “traditional religion.” What matters for our purposes, though, is neither the openly Catholic perspective of the author nor the Protestant prickliness of some reviews, but the fact that neither of these things mattered in the marketplace: The Stripping of the Altars made it onto the non-fiction best-seller lists. Catholic critiques of the myth of the English Reformation can be traced back two hundred years to Lingard, by way of Philip Hughes, Belloc, and Gasquet. But not until 1992 could a Catholic account of the English Reformation pass beyond the old boundaries of the “Catholic community” to provoke a debate, rather than a mere reaction, in the wider public sphere.

The death of Protestant England has therefore opened a window of opportunity in which the cherished myths of the English Reformation can be challenged. The myths are still out there, although they no longer stand in undisputed possession of the public square. The most potent of them is the notion that the English Reformation took place and triumphed above all because it satisfied popular demand. As a leading author and journalist put it in 2007, confronting the “revisionist” version of the English Reformation head-on:

I could more plausibly argue that most Britons had, by the late-15th century, come to regard the Roman church as an alien, corrupt and reactionary agent of intellectual oppression, awash in magic and superstition. They could not wait to see the back of it. (Simon Jenkins, Sunday Times, 9 Sept. 2007)

The notion of Catholicism as a religion foreign to English sensibilities, as repugnant to common decency in its nepotism and naked acquisitiveness, as offensive to common sense in its ready appeal to the miraculous, as opposed on principle to human progress, and as maintaining its position solely by force and persecution, constitutes an overpowering vision of the English Reformation as the solution to long and deeply felt popular grievances. This explanatory model pretty much dispenses with the need for close historical investigation. Of course an institution of that character would go down. It was only a matter of time and timing.

Yet the researches of a generation of historians, starting with Margaret Bowker and Peter Heath and culminating in the work of Eamon Duffy, showed that the notion of pervasive corruption in the late medieval church results from the privileging of the remarkable over the routine. The mass of evidence, material as well as textual, still surviving from the medieval church despite the ravages of purposeful iconoclasm and archival negligence, tells an entirely different story. The churches themselves are the main story. The vast majority of England’s surviving medieval churches were substantially extended or rebuilt in the century preceding Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The faded and damp-stained wall-paintings that still surface from time to time as the whitewash of centuries flakes off give us a hint of the riot of color that once prevailed within them. Moreover, massive rebuilding and lavish decoration were funded largely by voluntary donations. Churchwardens’ accounts, parochial inventories, and individual wills and testaments in their hundreds and thousands furnish abundant evidence of the decoration and embellishment of parish churches, of continuing goodwill towards the mendicant friars, and of unremitting confidence in the intercession of the saints and in prayers and Masses for the dead. This mundane evidence of the spiritual can become tedious in its sheer bulk, though it always has human interest at the individual level. Agnes Spenser (d. 1508), a spinster of Cambridge, requested thirty Masses in her parish church, St Clement’s, and gave cash from her little estate towards glazing a new window there. Besides this, she left bedding and linen for the care of the poor in the alms-house across the road and asked her executors to continue supporting Nicholas Clynt, “my scholar.” There was both criticism and dissent in the late medieval English church. But there is no evidence that these were of such a nature or on such a scale as to show that the English people “could not wait to see the back of it.”

Whether or not one wishes to posit long-term “causes” for the English Reformation, or to identify conditions and circumstances that helped make it possible, it has always been agreed that the actual process began with Henry VIII’s pursuit of a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his consequent decision to repudiate papal jurisdiction over the Church of England and assume personal control of it as Supreme Head (1534). This move was all the more surprising in that Henry (1509-47) had spent the first twenty years of his reign as a vigorous ally of the papacy in both temporal and spiritual affairs, renownedly earning the papal accolade “Defender of the Faith” for writing a book, The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, against Martin Luther. But having laid out so much ideological capital in defence of the papacy, Henry expected an appropriate return of gratitude when the need arose, and he became rapidly disillusioned when that gratitude, in the form of an annulment of his first marriage, was not forthcoming. Hence his “break with Rome.”

The principal myth of the “break with Rome” is that Henry’s decision represented the longed-for release of the English nation from “papal tyranny,” or what Jenkins, again, more recently termed “the autocracy of Roman religion.” The roots of this myth lie in the events themselves, for Henry was anxious in the extreme to represent his démarche in precisely these terms. One dutiful publicist of the 1530s prayed God to strengthen the arm of

our prince, to thrust down this Bishop of Rome, not only his adversary, but chief enemy to thy glory, which seeketh by tyrannous presumption to bring in his subjection, all princes of the world.

He called down blessings upon that “Most Christian King Henry VIII, the Supreme Head of the Church of England,” by whom

the people of England are brought from darkness to light, from error to the highway of right knowledge, from danger of death eternal to life that never endeth, in short, even from hell to heaven. (Henry Parker, Lord Morley, 1539)

Yet the politics by which all this was brought about says otherwise. In 1534 Henry required of all male subjects an oath to the new plans for the royal succession, an oath which in effect repudiated papal jurisdiction. A still more explicit renunciation of that jurisdiction was required of all his clergy and of all Crown servants not just once, but whenever they took up a new office or benefice. A relentless preaching campaign was launched to inculcate the royal supremacy while trampling down the papal primacy, and this was backed up by a series of printed pamphlets to the same effect. You do not resort to universal oaths and a full-blown propaganda campaign in order to give people what they want. You do such things to make them want what you are giving them.

The second myth of the Henrician Reformation is that Henry did not do much to change religion once he had taken papal powers in England into his own hands. This view is classically summarized in the description of his system as “Catholicism without the Pope.” There is a certain truth in this as, despite some wobbles here and there, Henry never sanctioned any departure from the seven sacraments he had defended against Luther in 1521. Nor, more broadly, did he adopt Lutheran or “Reformed”doctrinal positions on any of the major disputed questions of the age except for that of the papacy, which Henry allowed to be denounced in apocalyptic terms as Antichrist. His Church upheld free will and a co-operative account of justification against the Protestant assertion of “faith alone” and hard-line predestination. The Catholic church structure of bishops and priests and ecclesiastical courts was retained except for the pope and cardinals. And Henry continued to burn as heretics those who denied that Jesus Christ was present, body and blood, in the consecrated eucharistic wafer and chalice during what was still the “sacrifice of the Mass.” And the Mass, of course, was still celebrated in Latin, by priests who were still forbidden to marry.

Yet the idea of Henry’s church as “Catholicism without the Pope” is tenable only on the basis of an unduly narrow concept of “religion,” one restricted to dogma, hierarchy, and liturgy. Henry, as is well known, wiped out English monasticism and destroyed virtually all the religious houses (1535-40), erasing 900 years of sacred history. In addition, he prohibited pilgrimage, shut down the shrines, and rubbished or incinerated the relics and images that were venerated in them (1538). Perhaps still more explosively, he formally granted permission for the publication and use of the Bible in English (1538-39), reversing over a hundred years of suspicion towards vernacular scripture that had arisen from its association with the home-grown English heresy of “Lollardy.” This was to change religion – not totally, but substantially, and decisively. It was to relocate the boundaries of the sacred, to desecrate what had once been sacrosanct, and to legitimize what had once been grounds for suspicion of heresy.

The third myth of Henry’s Reformation is that he intended what happened next, namely the full-blown Protestant Reformation introduced in the brief reign of his son, Edward VI (1547-53). The idea that Henry planned and prepared for further Reformation is probably a legacy of the Elizabethan “bedpost” narrative painting made famous and decoded by Margaret Aston in The King’s Bedpost. Henry, on his deathbed, sits up and points significantly to the center of the composition, where the boy king sits in royal estate looking down on the prostrate figure of a pope whose neck appears to have been broken by the impact of a large and well-aimed Bible. Actually, Henry had made it clear on his deathbed that while others had taken up extreme positions on religious matters, “he had been directed in the mean way of truth, and therefore was meet to be arbiter between the others to reduce them to the truth.” He made his councillors swear that they would alter nothing in church or kingdom until his son came of age. This oath they did not keep.

In retrospect, events often take on a remorseless logic they rarely manifest in prospect. In the choices he made for the Regency Council that would rule during his son’s minority, and in the teachers he appointed to preside over his son’s education, Henry has been seen by some historians as knowingly paving the way for further Reformation. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else expected, or had any reason to expect, what transpired once he was safely in his tomb at Windsor. Barely six months before he died, heretics were still being burned in Smithfield for what would only a few years later become the official teaching of the Church of England.

What the Edwardian Reformation shows is what can be achieved by a committed cadre of believers when they are enabled by circumstance to seize the levers of power and the lines of communication and thus take advantage of the loyalties and allegiances that constitute the mystique of a society. Henry’s Reformation had succeeded largely because it was founded upon two of the paramount elements in the mystique of medieval society: monarchy and the Bible. The royal supremacy both presupposed and then perfected a sacralization of kingship that had been burgeoning in late medieval English Catholicism. When two of the few open opponents of Henry’s Reformation, Thomas More and John Fisher, could yoke kings together with priests as “the most eminent orders that God hath here ordained on earth” and as those on whom “the welfare or downfall of the Christian Republic chiefly depends,” it is easy to see how the royal supremacy could be integrated into the contemporary worldview. The royal supremacy was then justified primarily on the grounds of the “Word of God,” that is, the Bible, whose availability from 1540 onwards in a single printed volume, in English, made what had always been a powerful symbol into a still more potent force in the English imagination. It was with the royal supremacy and the Word of God that Henry had prosecuted his further reforms. And when those same powers were placed behind the Protestant Reformation under Edward, there were no ideological or mystical resources left with which to stem the tide of innovation.

The story is swiftly told. The first couple of years (1547-48) saw the extension of Henry’s reforms into a program of all-out iconoclasm. Wall-paintings, stained-glass windows, carved crucifixes, and often even funeral monuments were variously removed, burned, or whitewashed in order to expunge the cult of the saints and root out all “idolatry” from people’s hearts and minds. Fierce polemics against the Mass were unleashed and urged on, and in 1549 Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer replaced the complex cycle of Latin liturgy, only to be replaced itself by a still more Protestant second recension in 1552, while priests, once bound to celibacy, were permitted and encouraged to take wives. Historians who doubt the power of the Tudor State should reflect on the organizational and political capacity needed to change the ancient liturgy of an entire kingdom at a stroke, on a single day. It could not even have been imagined before the age of print. The old sacred language of Latin was silenced in church, as for the most part was the old sacred music, whether ancient chant or new-fangled polyphony. The very altars were ripped out as church interiors were comprehensively redesigned to erase the memory of the old religion and to instill the precepts of the new. Even the church silver, the vessels and implements once used to serve at the altars, was confiscated to service Crown debt.

The myth of the Edwardian Reformation was that it was over. Mid-twentieth-century accounts, such as those of A. G. Dickens or G. R. Elton, saw England by 1553 as a Protestant nation and the English as a largely Protestant people. Yet even the sense that the Edwardian Reformation was over in legislative terms is arguably mistaken. The pace of change under Edward had been headlong. Even after the Second Book of Common Prayer (1552) there came the Forty-Two Articles (1553), an attempt to define the church’s doctrine, and the Reformation of Ecclesiastical Laws, a project to replace medieval canon law with a bespoke local and Protestant law-code. The articles were formally promulgated just weeks before Edward died, while the law-code never came into effect at all. The Reformation elsewhere had gone and was still going further, and there is no reason to believe that, had Edward lived longer, Thomas Cranmer, the guiding spirit of the Edwardian Reformation, would not have turned his attention to church government and to deeper questions of theology.

Nor was the Reformation even remotely over in terms of making Protestants out of Catholics. Six years of headlong change were hardly enough to achieve profound nationwide conversion, and the ensuing five years of the Catholic Restoration under Mary I (1553-58) showed just how shallow the impact had in general been. The myth here is the “Marian Reaction,” a common label for what happened in her reign, and one which is redolent of a teleological narrative of “progress.” That narrative is itself a modernized version of the providential story first told by John Foxe. His Book of Martyrs immortalized the courage of those such as young Joan Lashford of London burned at Smithfield, January 27, 1556, who accepted a cruel death rather than renounce their faith during Mary’s persecution of Protestants. There was nothing mythical about the persecution, the most ferocious episode of heresy-hunting in English history, with nearly 300 executions in not much less than four years. But to reduce the history of those years to the “Marian Reaction” will not do. The name is heavy with intimations of foredoomed failure, of a deeply unpopular attempt to turn back the march of progress. Historical myopia has been more evident in the treatment of Mary’s reign than in that of any other aspect of the English Reformation. And that holds true from the time of John Foxe to the time of A. G. Dickens. It is manifested in both by the way they focus almost exclusively on the experience of Protestants. This is understandable in Foxe, whose purpose was to vindicate the ways of Providence by reminding his readers of the tribulation through which the Protestants had passed on the way to ultimate triumph. But it is less forgivable in Dickens, who aimed to write a history of the English Reformation. The wholesale revision of the story of Mary’s reign carried out by Duffy and others in the last twenty-five years rests on a massive body of evidence about Catholicism under Mary that previously was not so much discounted as unknown, unsought, and unsuspected.

The “Marian Restoration,” as it might more fairly be termed, is a test-case for the reversibility of Reformation. We can easily fall prey to the delusion that history is a one-way street, an ineluctable path from A to Z. But while what is done can never be undone, what is changed one way can sometimes and to some extent be changed back. Restoration is never the same as what went before, but it can serve. The Mass, abolished in 1549, was restored to parish churches in 1553 within weeks of Mary’s triumphal entry into London. The changes of Edward’s reign and then also of Henry’s were soon enough unpicked. Married priests were separated from their wives and from the churches which they had served while married, in one of those astonishing feats of administrative thoroughness of which the Tudor State was occasionally capable. The re-equipping and redecoration of parish churches for Catholic worship was soon under way. The rapid reappearance of all sorts of items from the pre-Reformation inventory, from altar-stones to vestments, testifies moreover to undercurrents of dissent in the previous reign which are not otherwise apparent in the records of that reign itself, and which would have been forgotten entirely had it not been for the accident of Mary’s seizure of power. It is a reasonable conjecture that more than we can ever hope to know had been spirited away under Edward in the hope of better days to come.

The Catholic Restoration was not achieved without difficulty or opposition. The repeal of the royal supremacy was not attempted until Mary’s third Parliament (November 1554), and was less straightforward than the restoration of the Mass the previous year. This is hardly surprizing. With the passage of twenty years since the Act of Supremacy (1534), something like half the population had never known a time when the pope had been head of their church. They had only ever heard of him as Antichrist, or, more politely, the “Bishop of Rome.” It would be a challenge to restore any Catholic sense of the pope as the successor of Peter or the Vicar of Christ, though Mary’s church set about it with a will. Even in Parliament, the repeal of the royal supremacy was more problematic than the restoration of the Mass. England’s landowners, whose interests above all others Parliament existed to safeguard, were nervous of how the restored jurisdiction of the papacy might affect their title to their ex-monastic lands and houses. Land was the one thing they held sacrosanct. Ultimately, real estate mattered more to them than real presence.

The deal that secured repeal therefore had to leave landowners secure in their title, and it duly did so. But they seem in general to have been happy with the restoration of the “old religion,” as it was now coming to be known. That much is implied in a brief comment found in a little narrative of Tudor religious change compiled by a parish priest in Yorkshire. Robert Parkyn, vicar of Adwick-le-Street just outside Doncaster, gleefully reported how priests at the start of Mary’s reign had resumed the celebration of Mass, even before the law was changed, at the behest of “lords and knights catholic.” These four words convey two messages. First, they testify to the overpowering social weight of the landed elite in early modern England. But more importantly, they testify to a new social reality – religious division. Fifty years earlier, no one would have felt it necessary to specify that any English lord or knight was “Catholic.” It literally went without saying. Not so by the 1550s. When an English knight left the realm for religious reasons fifty years before, it was to go on pilgrimage, like Sir Richard Guildford, who died in the Holy Land in 1506. When they left for religious reasons in the 1550s, like Sir Anthony Cooke (d. 1576), it was to escape persecution and to seek a safe haven for the practice of the true faith.

The Marian Restoration was remarkably successful, even though far from complete when Mary died on November 17, 1558. Diocesan visitations towards the end of the reign found almost universal compliance with the ritual requirements of the old religion, and charted enormous progress towards the restoration of Catholic church furniture. Altars and albs, chalices and candles, roods and rochets, missals and pyxes were in use almost everywhere. That said, the centuries of investment which had been trashed or at least dislodged under Edward could not be replaced in a mere five years. But the shocked and disgusted testimony of the returning Protestant refugees in the following reign furnishes the best epitaph for the Marian achievement. In the “cruel reign of Mary,” wrote Richard Cox, soon to be Bishop of Ely, “popery so much increased both in numbers and strength, that it was hardly to be imagined how much the minds of the papists were hardened.”

The Edwardian Reformation and Marian Restoration between them draw our attention to a more modern myth or misunderstanding of the Reformation process, the myth of “popularity.” Arguments have raged over whether the Marian Restoration was popular. There is not much reason to think that the Reformation under Edward was popular, and even less to think that the Restoration under Mary was unpopular. But it did not matter either way. The question is almost a category mistake. Consumer capitalism and democracy both tend to privilege “popularity,” but “popularity” in the sixteenth century was as pejorative a concept as “novelty.” The Marian Restoration may well have been popular, but that is not why it happened. It happened because the queen wanted it to happen and because she was able to put the power of the Tudor State behind it.

The work of Mary was formally undone by Elizabeth I, in what has come to be known as the “Elizabethan Settlement” of 1559. That very appellation is the principal myth of the Elizabethan Reformation. The “Elizabethan Settlement” was an invention of the closing years of the nineteenth century, when the fullness of the complacency of Victorian England looked back and saw the Victorian compromise reflected in an Elizabethan mirror. A nation that had been triumphantly immune to the noxious influences of European Revolution in the nineteenth century must surely have been equally sturdy in resisting infection from Europe during the Reformation of the sixteenth century! Elizabeth’s own subjects were more clear-sighted in their analysis and nomenclature. They spoke of the “alteration of religion,” and of the replacement of the “old religion” by the “new.”

The label “Elizabethan Settlement,” though, is associated with a wider complex of myths about the alteration of religion. It tends to accompany the idea of the distinctively English via media, the middle way between the extremes of Catholicism and Protestantism, between Rome and Geneva, which was by this time replacing Wittenberg as the capital of international Protestantism. The key elements in the myth of the via media are the ideas that it was moderate and mediating, that it was chosen, and that it was popular. As we have already noted, popularity was not a crucial political issue in Tudor England. In this case, there is no evidence to suggest widespread popular demand for a return to Protestantism, although there was considerable support evident in London and some other places in the south-east quadrant of the realm.

The Elizabethan “settlement” was not notably moderate. Nor is it apparent that anyone apart from Elizabeth actually wanted it the way it turned out. It was distinctly, though patchily, Protestant in theology and in general tone. The Catholic bishops in the House of Lords all voted against it in 1559, and only one subsequently agreed to serve under the new regime. In the middle ranks of the church’s hierarchy there were a few hundred priests expelled from their positions for refusing to subscribe to the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. Nor were even the zealous Protestants very satisfied. They accepted what was offered in 1559, because it was Protestant. They settled for it rather than opted for it, in the hope that further progress would soon be made towards the more full-blooded Protestantism that many of them had seen in Europe during their exile under Mary.

Hopes and expectations of a more thorough Reformation were the soil out of which grew what came to be called Puritanism. The myth of Puritanism is the obverse of the myth of the Elizabethan Settlement. In this perspective, Puritanism was seen as the ultra-Protestant challenge to the popular moderation of the Elizabethan Church. Tone-deaf to the literal and metaphorical harmony of the Elizabethan Church, color-blind to its moderate ceremonial, and oblivious to the sturdy Englishman’s common-sense preference for a dignified form of religion that did not make extravagant demands upon his conscience or intellect, the Puritans sought to replace the distinctively English middle way with the Calvinism they imbibed from Geneva. They were insurgents who threatened to upset the balance of Church and State. It was the life’s work of Patrick Collinson to dismantle this interpretative structure, offering instead a vision of Puritanism as almost the manifest destiny of the Church of England, and of the Puritans as the standard-bearers of English Protestantism. Puritans were Calvinists, indeed, but they were hardly distinctive in this. Almost all the teachers and leaders of the Elizabethan Church were “Calvinist” or “Reformed” in their theology. The Lambeth Articles of 1595, which aimed to resolve an academic controversy over predestination, aligned the Church of England more closely with Calvinism than with any other theological tradition on this key issue. They were drafted and agreed by a committee that included not only William Whitaker, the patriarch of English Puritanism, but also John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury and hammer of the Puritans. The articles were, after all, formulated at Lambeth – in Whitgift’s episcopal palace.

Elizabeth I herself might have seen 1559 as a settlement, but the preceding thirty years had made it almost impossible for anyone else to share her view. In the previous fifteen years, regime change had invariably heralded religious upheaval, as Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth successively overthrew the achievements of their predecessors. So when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, the received wisdom was that religion changed with the monarch. Some feared and some hoped for a lurch towards Protestantism Scottish-style – Presbyterian, Sabbatarian, and grey as granite. In the event, the Hampton Court Conference (1604), presided over by the new king in person, yielded some very modest concessions to Puritan aspirations, together with a resounding commitment to episcopacy. “No bishops, no king,” James declared, arguing on the basis of his Scottish experience that episcopacy was a powerful ideological bulwark for monarchy. Back in the 1560s, though, the hottest prospect for the succession in the event of Elizabeth’s death was James’s mother, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, more French than Scottish, and Catholic to the core. Elizabeth contracted smallpox in 1562, and came close to death. Had she died, all the cunning of her chief minister, William Cecil, might not have been enough to keep “Mary II” off the throne and forestall yet another change in the religious wind.

As it was, hopes of a Catholic succession animated the hearts of English Catholics for a generation or more. After Mary Stewart had foolishly lost her own kingdom, and had even more foolishly sought refuge in Elizabeth’s, fanatical elements among England’s shrinking body of Catholics conspired in a series of plots for nearly twenty years to free the captive princess and ultimately place her on the throne. The ill-judged attempt of Pope Pius V to further a Catholic rebellion in 1570 by excommunicating Elizabeth and calling for her overthrow made it tragically simple for Elizabeth’s regime to argue that all Catholics were potential traitors. Politics in the narrow sense therefore helped shape religion as fears of Catholic plots at home and Spanish power abroad combined to brand Roman Catholicism in England as alien and seditious, a taint that would hang around it until well into the nineteenth century. “England” and the “English” were arguably the constructs of Catholic Christianity, in a process documented or perhaps even carried out by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The transformation of Catholicism from the “natural” religion of England to an exotic and suspect import in less than a century was one of the more spectacular and most enduring results of the Reformation.

The resulting persecution of English Catholics was not as fierce as that of Protestants under Mary, but persecution it most certainly was. The parboiled pieces of Catholic priests that were used to decorate the gates of the city of London were evidence of that. So too was the terrible silence of Robert Southwell (d. 1595) in the Tower, under the indescribable tortures devised and inflicted by the government’s half-tame psychopath, Richard Topcliffe. The passing of Protestant England has rendered it unnecessary to continue the special pleading, first set out by William Cecil in 1584, which explained away the persecution as a matter of “politics” rather than “religion.” And while it would still be unfair to present as “religious persecution” the reprisals of early 1570 that followed the failed Catholic rebellion, it is still not widely known that those arbitrary hangings of hundreds of men in but a few weeks were the single most savage judicial atrocity meted out in England in the entire century.

The “fear of popery” that rested on firm foundations laid by John Foxe was constructed of Catholic plots and Protestant scaremongering. As Peter Lake has argued, antipopery was more than a mere prejudice. It played a vital role in generating powerful forces of negative cohesion which counteracted the potentially dangerous tensions within the English Church. For England’s was par excellence an “Unfinished Reformation.” There was permanent tension between the Puritan urge for further reform and the satisfaction of more moderate Protestants with what Elizabeth bequeathed. Like the heavy make-up that hid the reality of the Virgin Queen’s aging body, fear of popery plastered a skim of unity over the cracked body of the Church of England. Puritanism and a less-demanding Protestantism could co-exist reasonably happily on this basis. But when a new vein of anti-Puritanism took hold in, and then of, the Church in the 1620s, the force that had held things together became one of the forces that pushed things apart, as first Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) and then King Charles I (1625-49) started to be denounced for popery. Puritanism helped bring down the monarchy in the wars of the 1640s, and the Church of England fell with it. This might have been the moment when the Unfinished Reformation was brought to a satisfactory conclusion. But the recurrent fissiparousness of Protestantism precluded all possibility of religious consensus, and the opportunity proved to be an illusion.

The new understanding of the Reformation in England that has gained currency among scholars in the last thirty years has shown, then, that the familiar and reassuring label of the “Elizabethan Settlement” makes sense of 1559 only in hindsight – and pretty distant hindsight at that. If the English Republic of the 1650s had proved a political reality rather than an illusory interlude, the “Elizabethan Settlement” would never have come into being. With “no bishops, no king” turned from an argument against Presbyterianism into a political agenda, the episcopalian Protestantism that prevailed from 1559 until the 1640s would look like the elaborate funeral procession of the hierarchical church rather than the first steps on the road to a distinctively English religious way. As it was, the abandonment of the republican experiment in 1660 was followed by the restoration of the Church of England in 1662. The Puritan element was expelled from that church, and the Unfinished Reformation was re-established as the English norm. The English Reformation had never finished, but it was at least over: the outcome came to be known as Anglicanism.


Richard Rex is the Professor of Reformation History at the University of Cambridge, where he has spent his entire academic career. A keen cricketer, he is a recent convert from wine to beer, and seems to be becoming more English with every passing year. An expert above all on the English Reformation under Henry VIII, he also has research interests in the wider context and background of the Reformation in both England and Europe, and has written a controversial monograph on Lollardy as well as some important articles on Renaissance humanism. He has also translated several books from French, including Lucien Musset’s Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell & Brewer, 2005) and Emile Perreau-Saussine’s Catholicism and Democracy (Princeton UP, 2012). His own latest book, The Making of Martin Luther (Princeton UP, 2017), takes a fresh, rigorous, and iconoclastic look at the crucial phase in the intellectual development of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. To celebrate the appearance of the book, he dashed off Ninety-Five Theses of his own (a good many of them drafted in the hotel next-door to Luther’s house in Wittenberg).


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