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The Reformation: Its History and Legacy (December 2017): The English Reformation

By Matthew Hill

The English Reformation

The English Reformation deserves its own place in Reformation historiography, as it developed differently from its Continental counterpart. However, its development on the British Isles and Continental Europe shared similar intellectual roots, and the English Reformers were no doubt directly influenced by events in Europe. It did, however, have its own internal political dynamics.

The classic work is The English Reformation, by A.G. Dickens. Though it took a literal divorce to sever England from the Papacy, Dickens argues that the prior groundwork laid down by the Lollards, though not sufficient to launch a reformation, softened the ground to absorb Reformation ideas. Furthermore, Dickens sees the English Reformation as not merely a religious quarrel between king and priests but also part of a longer story of Protestantism within the national development of England in the struggle for independence and autonomy, and within European power politics. The pre-Reformation Catholic Church, long considered to be hopelessly ransacked by inept priests, a morally bankrupt Papacy, and an indifferent populace, was ripe for reform, and Protestantism put forward a positive agenda for needed change. More recent works, however, have challenged this view.

One such challenge is presented by J.J. Scarisbrick in The Reformation and the English People. Dickens saw pre-Reformation England as largely unreceptive to early Protestant ideas, and laymen as less disgruntled with the Catholic Church than Dickens allows. However, Scarisbrick argues that Protestant reforms were unpopular, and that their reversal under Mary I were widely encouraged. Further challenging the view of a decadent pre-Reformation England is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. Duffy uses church and parish records to study popular reactions to Protestant reforms in England. He rejects the thesis that pre-Reformation Catholicism was decadent, arguing instead that it was an active part of the everyday life of the English people. Furthermore, Duffy rejects the thesis that there existed a wide gulf between a supposedly educated elite and superstitious commoners. The author argues instead that the two shared a similar theological universe, and disagrees with the view that Protestant Reformers overturned centuries of culture and tradition.

A particularly concise and straightforward narrative is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Later Reformation in England, 1547–1603. MacCulloch runs the story from the Edwardian reforms to the death of Elizabeth I. Especially important is the greater credence he provides to Lollard influences, despite their limited means to effect change in their own time. Continuing this theme is a well-crafted survey by Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors. For Haigh, Catholics in England were neither static nor hopelessly decadent, and far from primed for Protestant ideas. Haigh argues rather that Protestant reforms ebbed and flowed as individual Tudor monarchs put their own stamp on reforms, and long-term changes were the product of monarchical coercion and individual acceptance of Protestantism.

The English Reformation cannot be understood apart from the central role of Henry VIII. On this subject see Richard Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation, for the Tudor king’s strategic role. A thorough and more comprehensive work of the entire Tudor era is Susan Brigden’s New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of The Tudors, 1485–1603. Though Brigden covers the English Reformation, she provides a more rounded survey of the Tudor political context. Church and People: England 1450–1660, by Claire Cross, takes a longer view by bookending her work from the early Lollard protests through the era of Cromwell. For Cross, the myriad reforms were often pressed by laymen who questioned the sole right of the Papacy and monarch to judge doctrine. The reforms, then, were contested ground rather than passively accepted.

“Bloody Mary” has been long been condemned by historians for her rolling back of Protestant reforms, purging of Protestant Reformers from England, and the burning of more than 200 Protestant martyrs at the stake during her reign. The leading Scottish Reformer, John Knox, for instance, was one such Reformer who fled to Continental Europe. Eamon Duffy, in his controversial work Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, seeks to rehabilitate Mary I and revise her nearly universal condemnation. The author sees Mary as more imaginative and creative in pushing through Catholic reforms than previously thought. He particularly takes issue with A.G. Dickens’s image of Mary’s reign as hopelessly retrogressive.

Broadening his theme, Duffy argues for a more diversified view of the Reformation in Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants, and the Conversion of England. Rather than seeing the Reformation as a simplistic dichotomy between Protestant and Catholic, and the Counter-Reformation as nothing more than a reaction to Protestantism, Duffy argues that Protestants were divided among themselves, that the Catholic Counter-Reformation was more constructive than reactionary, and that the anti-traditionalist forces unleashed by the Protestants were divisive rather than reforming.

Peter Marshall’s recent, thorough work, Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, centralizes religion as the primary focal point of the English Reformation and argues that it was not simply a replacement of Catholicism with Protestantism, but rather an expression of how religion was lived and experienced. Instead of seeing the English Reformation as the triumph of the English crown, Marshall argues that it ironically undermined its own mystique and legitimacy among the English people, as the new trends created greater pluralism rather than uniformity.

Alec Ryrie’s Being Protestant in Reformation Britain provides insightful essays on the lived rather than the doctrinal experience of English Protestants. Dividing his book into four parts, Ryrie considers such themes as emotionalism, prayers, private devotion, and family and public worship. This work helpfully explores not simply what Protestants believed, but also how they lived. Coeditors Ryrie and Peter Marshall’s The Beginnings of English Protestantism contains nine good essays that helpfully clarify specifics related to the English context of the Reformation. Lastly, an important work is Susan Wabuda’s Preaching during the English Reformation. The Protestant Reformers centralized preaching as the main form of communication with parishioners. Even Calvin, despite his detailed systematic theology text, saw preaching as central for the pastoral role. 

Works Cited