Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Reformation and the English People

In an earlier post, I got pretty deep into the weeds in the historiography of the English Reformation, outlining two very different views of religious change under the Tudors. In a nutshell, you had one view which said that the Reformation was a “bottom up” event, driven by popular disgust with the Catholic Church. This view has largely been overtaken by more recent arguments that the Church was in fine health, and if not for the dynastic troubles of the Henry VIII and his descendants, England would have remained Catholic.

What this latter view cannot explain, however, is how the English went from being a Protestant nation to a nation of Protestants. (The phrase is Christopher Haigh’s.) It is one thing to change doctrine, but it is another to change hearts and minds, and there can be little doubt that in the long run the Reformation was a resounding success.  How did this happen?

One answer to this has been offered by Ethan Shagan in his book Popular Politics and the English Reformation. In this book, Shagan traces the myriad ways in which the English people participated in the Reformation and (deliberately or not) helped to advance the Protestant cause. A few examples will illustrate Shagan’s argument.

Over a period of months in 1540-41, the Cistercian abbey at Hailes in Gloucestershire – which had been formally dissolved some months earlier – was pillaged of nearly everything of value: windows, doors, ceiling timbers, lamps, locks, even the abbey’s beehives were taken. What makes this even so interesting is that it was not done by rapacious agents of the Crown, but by English men and women living around the abbey. (Indeed, the government was furious about the theft, for once dissolved, the abbey’s goods belonged to the Crown.)

What makes this event particularly interesting is that Shagan’s analysis demonstrates that this was not a Protestant project. Records show that many of those who participated in the plunder were Catholics who overcame any religious qualms they might have had, and joined their Protestant neighbors in ransacking the abbey.

While one explanation for this is mere hypocrisy, Shagan offers a more sensitive interpretation. In order for a Catholic to tear the lead roof off the chapel or remove a stained-glass window and steal the iron bars supporting it, he would have to believe that the space was no longer sacred, that whatever holiness had once resided in the church had now gone. But who had the power to do such a thing? Who had the authority to say, “That was a church, a place of holiness, but now it is not?” The answer is clear: The Crown.

Thus, when Catholics pillaged the abbey, they implicitly acknowledged that the Crown (and not the Papacy) had the authority to decide what was holy and what was not. That is no small thing, and the destruction of Hales is hardly exceptional: whether it was by participating in the destruction of religious houses, or the enthusiastic pursuit of monastic lands, the English people proved willing participants in the physical dismantling of the Catholic Church.

A similar example of this kind of behavior can be found in disputes between priests and their parishioners. While conflict at the parish level could be over doctrine, more prosaic disputes were far more common. The priest was obliged both to discipline his flock and to collect tithes, and not everyone appreciated these efforts.
While disagreements between priests and parishioners were not new in the sixteenth century, the Reformation provided parishioners with a new weapon against priests, for they now had a potential ally in the government. Parishioners could go to a government official, accuse their priest of religious unorthodoxy, and have the offending minister removed. The Crown, of course, was eager to assert its authority over the clergy, and took every advantage to demonstrate their new-found power. What makes this strategy important was that you did not have to be a Protestant to use it. A devout Catholic saddled with a rapacious or lewd minister could appeal to secular officials (again, not the Papacy but the Crown) for his removal.

What ties these examples together is that in each case, English men and women began to act like Protestants, even if they had no particular affinity to Protestant doctrine. They accepted the power of the government to confiscate monastic lands, to de-sacralize holy sites; in short, to govern the religious life of the nation. They might use the new order to their own advantage by stealing a monastery’s property or by buying its land, and they might even say, “Better that I have it than the heretic on the throne.” But whatever the case, every time a man or woman collaborated with the government to the detriment of the Catholic Church, they helped to shape and advance the Reformation. And once the people began to act like Protestants, the road to getting them to think like Protestants became much clearer.

Sam Thomas's debut novel The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery will be published in January 2013 by Minotaur/St. Martin's press. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his very own website

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