Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Reformations

A Tale of Two Reformations: It was the best of churches, it was the worst of churches...

One of the most heated historical debates in the history of early modern England has been over the causes and effects of the English Reformation. While we rightly assume that it had its roots in marital politics and Henry VIII’s desire for an heir (which would in turn keep England from sliding back into civil war), the role of the people in the Reformation is not something that many people (outside historians) consider. (Given they have to compete with so outsized a monarch this is no surprise.)

The first great historian of the English Reformation was A.G. Dickens, whose landmark book The English Reformation set the terms of a long debate that would follow. In it, Dickens traced the roots of the English Reformation to a medieval heresy called Lollardy. With its vocal denunciation of corrupt clergy, its rejection of the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, and its insistence on reading the Bible in English rather than Latin, the dots are there to be connected. (Whether they ought to be connected is a different issue.) Dickens went on to argue that the Church in England was in a state of decay, and that Reformed religion would have come to England no matter what happened at court.

That position endured for many years, until a younger generation of historians endeavored to overturn it. Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy (among others) offered a radically different view of medieval Catholicism, one in which traditional religion was vibrant, and would have survived if not for Henry’s difficulty in fathering an heir. They showed the population’s sullen obedience to Royal decrees, and demonstrated that as the Reformation progressed people gave less and less money to the church in their wills. Haigh and Dufy also show the genuine enthusiasm with which people greeted the accession of Mary I, and the speed with which they restored Catholic ceremonies, often at enormous personal expense. (For an enormously enjoyable account of these events, see Duffy’s Voices of Morebath.)

As things stand, it seems that Haigh and Duffy were on the mark, or at least closer to it than Dickens, and had Mary lived another ten years (or provided a Catholic heir) it is entirely possible that England would be Catholic to this day.

But this begs a simple question: How then was there a Reformation?

With no standing army, no police, and nothing remotely resembling a professional bureaucracy, the English crown had none of the coercive tools we so often associate with government. Monarchs had a great deal of authority, but very little power to force their will on a reluctant populace. It is thus is clear that the people played a vital role in making the Reformation possible. In my next post, I’ll discuss the role of the average Englishman (and woman!) in advancing a religious revolution they didn’t necessarily want.


  1. An interesting post. I agree that there would have been a degree of reformation of religion without Henry VIII. There was a strong influence from reformers such as Martin Luther in many countries including England. But the main concern of English monarchs was that their subjects should swear allegiance to them and that their laws should not be over ruled by the pope.

    It was not easy to convince many of the population to do that because they feared that their souls were in danger and eternity was more important to them than life on earth - a reason why so many priests were willing martyrs. And when you consider the spy network that existed in the reign of Elizabeth I you see how many of the lords, who influenced the monarch and therefore the government of the country, had huge power over individuals. There was no need for an army or a police force when any man or woman could have been an informer and no one knew who to trust.

    1. I found a great answer to why the English people eventually went along with the successive English Reformations (Henry's, Edward's, and Elizabeth's) here:

      David Knowles, in his study of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Bare Ruined Choirs, establishes the significance of Henry VII’s reign—and the succession of Henry VIII as taking full advantage of certain trends—on a much more profound level:

      ". . . the minds of the early Tudor age found security in two pillars of strength. The one was the common law of the land, tangible, acknowledged by all, and applied by experts taken from their midst. The other was the command of the sovereign, drawing its strength from his claim of obedience in conscience."

      Knowles points out that the authority of the sovereign had hitherto been limited or countered by the Church and canon law, by natural and divine law, and by the very limitations of centralized government – but:

      "At the of the fifteenth century all these limiting factors had vanished or diminished; all that was now wanting was a king with sufficient intelligence, tact, and self-assurance to supply his subjects with the governance they desired and with the sense of security they needed. A firm government that did not outrage too violently the proprieties of common law and the material interests of the propertied classes could draw on a limitless fund of loyalty and submission."

      With Thomas Wolsey’s help as Chancellor, Henry VIII fulfilled that model early in his reign, earning trust and obedience from the propertied classes. One of the economic aspects of the English Reformation is that with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII was able to distribute wealth to members of that class, binding them more surely to him in loyalty and submission.

      Knowles comments that such a generalization about the intellectual and cultural milieu of late fifteenth century England shares the usual burden of generalization—that there are exceptions. If he is accurate in his depiction of the situation, however, it goes a long way to explaining why so many of the ruling class went along with Henry VIII in his commandeering of the Church as a part of the State. As long as it did not violate the common law as it affected them, they saw no reason to protest.


  2. I would take issue with A.G. Dickens being "the first great historian of the English Reformation". He might be one of the most representative historians of the Whig interpretation of the English Reformation in the twentieth century, but there were others before him. John Lingard might be better given that title. Using what we now regard as standard methods of research using primary and archival sources, he wrote a revisionist history of the English Reformation against the prevailing Whig interpretation that it was inevitable and part of the necessary process leading to Whig hegemony well before Haigh, Duffy, Scarisbrick, Bossy, et al.

  3. It is a fabulous article.I really look forward to the next episode. An important consideration is Scotland in that it was reformist and I would like to know what your thoughts are about the common people there especially in the lowlands,borders and the bigger towns.