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.