Who’s coming from where? Different perspectives on the English Reformation
by Canon Eric Woods, Vicar of Sherborne

Date: Tuesday 28 October 2014

This great religious, social and political revolution in sixteenth century England has been totally re-written by modern Historians. How? And why?

(NB The text of Canon Eric Wood's talk is included below)


The text of Canon Eric Wood's talk follows:


Who’s coming from where? Different perspectives on the English Reformation[1]

On Friday 27 July 2012 The Guardian published a review of a new book by Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. The book was Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition[2]the reviewer wasthe Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford, Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch. It was an incendiary review. You will forgive me if I quote it at some length – remembering what Tertullian wrote at the end of the second Christian century: "Look," they say, "how [the Christians] love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other) – usually misquoted as ‘See how the Christians love one another’!

MacCulloch wrote this:

Much of this book works; a significant amount doesn't; none of it is dull. It opens with polemical surveys of how English reformation history has been written and Protestant English identity created, and it moves on to delicious though elegiac studies of how English parish life was transformed in the Tudor age. There are insightful and empathetic portraits of two Catholic prelates. First is the gaunt but hospitable Bishop John Fisher, a great theologian and a martyr for papal obedience at the hands of Henry VIII. Then we meet the refined, aristocratic and enigmatic Cardinal Pole, who despite knowing that Martin Luther was right in his theology of justification by faith alone, created martyrs in two contrary senses, resurrecting the reputations of Fisher and Thomas More, while enthusiastically hounding leading Protestant clergy to death at the stake; Thomas Cranmer was the most exalted victim. Duffy is very good at seeing the realities of Mary Tudor's regime, for good or ill: he even mentions that she burned quite a lot of Protestants….

Reading through this pageant with much enjoyment, I kept applying the brakes with a "Yes, but …" Repeatedly I noticed assertions pushing evidence beyond what is justified in the interests of making a tidy and cogent case. For instance, it may be true, as Duffy says, that it was only in the late 1650s that Mary Tudor was called "Bloody Mary" in print, but a century before, Edwin Sandys, vice-chancellor of Cambridge and Elizabethan Protestant bishop, was fond of calling her just that; only propriety during the reign of Mary's half-sister prevented more widespread public abuse. In Duffy's account of the grand and hauntingly beautiful parish church of Salle in Norfolk, he wants a particular clergyman, Roger Townsend, rector of Salle, not to be a pioneer Protestant at all. So he devotes three pages to explaining away all the evidence that Townsend was indeed a pioneer Protestant, while missing the significance of one killer fact he actually cites: Townsend left a big pot of money for commemorative sermons by one of his clerical neighbours, Robert Nicolles, who just happened to be one of Archbishop Cranmer's chaplains and one of the most aggressive Protestants in Henry VIII's Norfolk.

Of wider importance is Duffy's take on the great East Anglian popular commotions of 1549, now known as Kett's Rebellion. He is patently uneasy with a heap of evidence that the mood and rhetoric of the crowds involved were pro-reformation; that's just too many Protestants for mid-Tudor England, who on Duffy's reading shouldn't be there. So he seizes with relief on the fact that when one village contingent marched off to Robert Kett's great camp at Norwich, they carried with them the banner from their village church. That does look a rather pre-reformation or even anti-reformation thing to do, until you realise that is precisely what a lot of villagers had done in the great German popular uprisings of 1525, inspired by Martin Luther's revolution against the Pope.

Duffy should consider the significance of the next two upheavals of Tudor England: Mary Tudor's coup d'état against Queen Jane Grey in 1553 and Sir Thomas Wyatt's rebellion against Queen Mary six months later. Neither Mary nor Wyatt laid any emphasis on the religious cause that really excited them – Roman Catholicism in Mary's case, Protestantism in Wyatt's. Instead Mary talked about her claim to the throne as Henry VIII's daughter, Wyatt tried to arouse English fear of foreigners. Why was that? Because they both realised that they would alienate too many potential supporters across the religious divide if they talked about religion; they knew that England was already deeply split between Catholics and Protestants. That is the reality of mid-Tudor England.

The last sentences in the book are frankly silly. Playing with recent assertions that William Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, Duffy asserts on the strength of a single famous but elusive phrase in one Shakespeare sonnet about "bare ruin'd quiers" that "In the mind and mouth of the most illustrious of all Elizabethans, the Tudor religious revolutions had elicited not even the most equivocal of endorsements". This is said of the playwright who systematically, though with his usual subtlety, turned Henry V, that most popish of medieval English kings, into a Protestant avant la lettre, who cast Archbishop Cranmer in the role of prophet of a golden Elizabethan age in his collaborative play Henry VIII, who used the craggily Calvinist Geneva Bible as much if not more than any other biblical translation, and all through his career, fruitfully (though with increasing discrimination) drew on the classic Protestant historical narratives created by John Foxe.

That illustrates the besetting fault of this collection. You wouldn't expect Duffy to write a book about Protestants, because he is writing a book about Catholics. But to write a really effective book about Catholics, one has to listen in a balanced fashion to voices on the other side. There are a number of fine leading historians in this country who are Catholics, but you wouldn't know it when they write about the reformation: they are historians of Tudor England who happen to be Catholics. At times here, Duffy ceases to be a Tudor historian who is a Catholic, and becomes a Catholic historian. That will please many, but it's a shame: almost as bad as being a Protestant historian, rather than an historian who is a Protestant.

Whew! The big beasts of Reformation history with locked horns. To be honest, I haven’t seen any riposte by Duffy. Perhaps, graciously, he has declined to issue one. But you can see now why I want to make the judgments of historians about the Reformation my theme for this lecture – and to ask, more broadly – what shapes and moulds an historian’s judgment?

This is not a new question. Theologians have long known that theological writing is heavily influenced by the individual’s perspectives, and that these perspectives are not just influenced or conditioned by religious faith – and different and differing beliefs and doctrines – but also by upbringing and childhood influences, schooling, environment, even climate. One of the questions I attempted to tackle in my Oxford entrance examination back in 1968 was ‘Liberty never flourishes where the orange grows – discuss’. Think about it. Little did I imagine as I attempted to answer that question that one day Professor Geoffrey Parker would publish a magnum opus of nearly 900 pages entitled Global Crisis: War, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century.[3]   

To stay with the theologians for a moment, listen to this extract from a book written by a Roman Catholic monk, Klaus Klostermaier, who in the 1960’s found himself teaching at a Hindu college for boys in Vrindaban, in northern India – the little town where Lord Krishna romped with the milkmaids and fell in love with Radha:

A short, uncomplicated article on the Christian idea of God had to be done for a Hindu magazine. Nothing modern, something quite ordinary. The subject had been discussed in all the theological textbooks, of course. All that need be done is to argue a few single points a little. However, what was written there and what one had studied with adequate zeal only a few years ago now seemed so inadequate, so irrelevant, so untrue. Theology at 120° F in the shade seems, after all, different from theology at 70° F. Theology accompanied by tough chapatis and smoky tea seems different from theology with roast chicken and a glass of good wine. Now, who is really different, theós or the theologian? The theologian at 70° F in a good position presumes God to be happy and contented, well-fed and rested, without needs of any kind. The theologian at 120° F tries to imagine a God who is hungry and thirsty, who suffers and is sad, who sheds perspiration and knows despair.[4]

That’s about writing theology. But why should writing history be any different? Well, one answer of course is that theology is about beliefs, ideas, dogmas. Surely history is about facts? But facts are slippery things. Historians have so many of them that they need to edit. History is always edited. And inevitably the historian will select the facts that most support his or her point of view. To put it crudely, imagine that you had an argument with your next-door neighbour this morning. And when you arrived here this evening you told your friend about the row. Now, be honest. Did you tell your friend the whole story? No. You selected the facts most favourable to you. You edited the details to show yourself in the best light, and your neighbour in the worst. We all do it. Theologians do it. Historians do it.

To complicate matters, historians of religion and religious movements also have to deal, just like theologians, with beliefs, doctrines and dogmas. And so their own faith (or non-faith) positions and prejudices determine how they interpret the evidence, and arrange it. Think for example of everything you know about the Crusades. From whom did you learn it? Was it from Sir Steven Runciman’s seminal three volumes published in the early 1950’s?[5] Or from one of the many western analyses ever since (of which perhaps the best is Jonathan Phillips, Holy Warriors[6])? But I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t learn about the crusades from – for example – Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes[7]You would have a different understanding of the Crusades if you had.   

So, what are we to conclude from this excursus into theology and Crusader history? Simply this. The good historian, like the good theologian, needs profound self-knowledge. Both also need the ability and readiness to move imaginatively out of their particular faith or non-faith position to assess how the evidence might be viewed from a different perspective. The judgments of historians need to be, in the best sense of the word, professional. But there remains plenty for historians to disagree about – and they do. The history of disagreements between historians has become almost a profession in itself. It is called historiography. So it is to the historiography of the Reformation to which we must now turn.

Scholars tend to date a big sea-change in Reformation studies to 1964. Before then, the received wisdom – which many of us here imbibed at school – was that Henry VIII was a conservative catholic who wanted to marry Anne Boleyn; that the Pope – afraid of Catherine of Aragon’s uncle, the Emperor Charles V – was reluctant to grant a divorce; that Thomas Cranmer, an obscure academic and archdeacon, figured-out a way forward; that Henry therefore broke with Rome whilst remaining a conservative catholic in all other respects; that Thomas Cromwell enforced the break and dissolved the monasteries for their wealth; that Edward VI, under the influence of evangelical tutors, sought to impose far more radical reforms upon a generally unwilling Church and nation; that Queen Mary tried to put the clock back but failed, and that Elizabeth I engineered a Settlement with which most people except really ardent catholics and really ardent puritans could accept. And if that is, broadly speaking, how you have always understood the Reformation, fear not – so do most people to this day. 

The change in 1964 was brought about by the publication of The English Reformation by A. G. Dickens.[8]  Dickens, who was born in 1910 and died in 2001 at the age of 91, had taught at Oxford and Hull. When The English Reformation was published he was Professor of History at King’s College, London. The book was beautifully written and highly accessible – I read it for A-level – and it became a bestseller. It was also informed by Dickens’ own original research, particularly into religious faith and practice in late medieval and Tudor Yorkshire. In the court records of the Diocese of York he had discovered a good deal of what might be called ‘popular heresy’ – that is, ordinary Yorkshire men and women who were late Lollards (followers of John Wycliffe) and early Protestants. The big write-up of that research was Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, published in 1959.[9]  Here were people who were at odds with the Catholic Church, its clergy and their expression of faith long before Martin Luther: men and women who were to embrace ‘Protestantism’ as soon as it became available. 

The notion that the Reformation in England was not just a King’s whim or a movement of ideas imported from Europe – that it flowed from a deep and authentic English stream of Lollardy and anticlericalism, and was not just ‘top-down’, but ‘bottom-up’ also – caused something of a palace revolution amongst professional historians in the 1960’s, not least young Turks researching their Ph.D.’s who made a dash for County Record Offices, some to count heretics, some to read wills. Dickens had made the creative suggestion that 16th century wills were not just about the disposition of worldly goods, but also testimonies – in the sense of ‘Last Will & Testament’ – of the religious views of the testators. Tudor wills characteristically contained such a testament, or preamble, and Dickens believed that those preambles could identify the testator’s religious beliefs and so be used to track the progress of religious change.  

This all raised further questions. Dickens had concentrated on Yorkshire. Had the Reformation really been longed for and then welcomed all over the country? If so, why? Some scholars in the 1970’s challenged him hard on this, in particular Christopher Haigh who used the same methods as Dickens but this time in Tudor Lancashire.[10]  And there he found something different – no great waves of ‘popular heresy’ but considerable support for pre-Reformation Catholicism and significant resistance to Reformation change.

This led Haigh to conclude that there was not one Reformation, but several. Different counties had different levels of affection for the pre-Reformation Church, and responded differently to subsequent changes. To some of us, that came as no surprise. More conservative areas of the country mourned the loss of their monasteries. Here in Sherborne, the great Benedictine community – reduced to an abbot and 16 monks by 1539, with no great record of recent spiritual or academic vitality – was not greatly missed by the local folk, who gladly subscribed to buy the Abbey from Sir John Horsey, who had acquired the monastic estate, and gleefully pulled-down the little church of All Hallows into which they had been decanted by the monks, in order to regain possession of what for nearly four centuries had been their cathedral.[11]

In other words, England and Wales (and Scotland too, but Scotland – as always – is another story) responded to religious change differently, from region to region, from county to county, from town to town and even from village to village. Why scholars should have expected to find anything different is a puzzle. The same phenomenon characterises the years leading up to the Civil War in the seventeenth century, and local responses to the Commonwealth and Protectorate. It is extremely interesting to compare Dorchester and Sherborne during the Civil War and its aftermath: two towns then of comparable size, just eighteen miles apart, and Dorchester so Puritan – so Calvinist – that it was described as the ‘English Geneva’ and Sherborne the most royalist and Anglican town in the West Country.[12]

The mistake which many historians made in their reaction to Dickens was to try to discern, or impose, clear patterns on a national analysis of the Reformation where they imply do not exist. And this is where Eamon Duffy and his fellow Roman Catholic Professor Jack Scarisbrick have, in my view, been most at fault. They have taken the ‘revisionist’ argument (as it has come to be known) to a new extreme. To caricature their positions slightly (but not much) England just before the Reformation was a happy and holy Catholic land, with happy and holy Catholic lay folk led by happy and holy clergy and religious. The revisionists’ England did not want the Reformation, and was extremely reluctant to accept it when it came.[13]

So, of course, the revisionists love to tell us about the reactions of folk in the conservative north and southwest of England. They are less eloquent about the east and southeast, where the European ‘New Learning’ naturally had its first big impact. We can follow this through their accounts of the reception of the Edward VI Prayer Books. The first prayer book called The Book of Common Prayer received the Royal Assent on 14 March 1549 and by 9 June that year, Whit Sunday, it was the sole legal form of worship in every parish in every diocese in England. Almost immediately there flared-up the so-called ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ which raged throughout Devon and Cornwall until August. Its leaders produced a manifesto demanding the restoration of the Latin Mass, with communion in one kind only for the laity, and that only at Easter; a ban on the Bible in English; the restoration of ashes and palms and that the sacrament should be reserved and ‘worshipped’ as before. The rebels described the new Prayer Book as ‘but like a Christmas game ... and so we Cornish men (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English’. Interestingly, the rebels seemed to have no interest in restoring the power and authority of the Pope over the English Church: they wanted simply to return to the days of King Henry VIII ‘of blessed memory’. Their manifesto was answered by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Thomas Cranmer, who could not resist asking those who ‘understood no English’ whether they understood Latin better.

Fair enough. In at least two respects, the revolt was characteristic of many popular conservative movements before and since. First, it came from an essentially rural rather than an urban population and, second, that population was in a part of the kingdom far from London. To illustrate the first point, we discover that attitudes were very different in the south west’s towns and cities, and amongst those who regularly travelled further afield. And while there was another, smaller, revolt in 1549 in Yorkshire, elsewhere popular demonstrations – like Kett’s revolt in Norfolk – produced manifestos which, if they had a religious dimension at all, were Protestant in flavour. As Judith Maltby puts it, ‘The Book of Common Prayerhas a “social” history as well as an intellectual history, because the church has a social history as well as an intellectual history.’[14] Maltby reminds us that the Reformation ‘took a long time’, and that when we reflect on its social history it stops looking like a Rubicon, and we may question the stark ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures put forward by traditional Whig historians like Dickens as well as revisionists like Duffy. ‘A story of continuity and discontinuity needs to be told’.[15] But we are beginning to realise that the Book of Common Prayer became hugely formative of private devotion as well as have a profound influence of the population through its use in public worship. Alec Ryrie has shown the Prayer Book was used in private prayer much like the Bible itself. The Prayer Book model in general, and some aspects of it in particular, were extremely influential on models of private prayer throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and not only amongst conformists and conservatives. By the early seventeenth century the Prayer Book was the third most widely circulated volume in England, after the Bible and the metrical psalms. All three were commonly bound together.[16]

So, we may conclude that the history of the Reformation is messy, inconsistent and not readily susceptible to the imposition of clear and neat patterns. Patrick Collinson makes exactly this point in his splendid and succinct account of the Reformation across Europe, when he entitles his eighth chapter ‘Exceptional cases: the Reformation in the British Isles’.[17] He has one passage which I want to quote at length:

The last generation of Catholic Englishmen believed that their dead grandparents and children were in purgatory and that prayers and masses could be efficacious in winning them remission. The evidence is in the hundreds of chantries founded by the rich and the many thousands of guilds and fraternities (’poor men’s chantries’) to which ‘everyone’ paid their subscriptions, the main function being the perpetuation of what has been called a religion celebrated by the living on behalf of the dead. So how was it that a government whose instruments of forcible coercion were limited was able, in a short space of time, to make such associations illegal and to confiscate many of their assets? This has been called the ‘riddle of compliance’.

We may be forced to construct the following syllogism: a religious change so drastic and so unwelcome cannot have happened, but it did happen; ergo, it cannot have been all that drastic and unwelcome. Among those who believe there was a great change, there is a consensus that it must be understood in terms of the interplay of what have been called ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ factors and forces. Neither top-down nor bottom-up explanations will work on their own. The history of the English Bible provides a good illustration of the double process. The Bible was translated by self-appointed volunteers, beginning with William Tyndale. This was reformation not only from below but from outside, since Tyndale worked in exile. The printers and booksellers naturally had their own interests in the process. Soon, however, Henry VIII adopted the Bible as a symbol and instrument of his majesty and it was placed, by order, in all churches.

There was no symmetry or perfect match in this process. Not even Henry VIII could control what all those people might make of scripture. The English Reformation in its secondary and tertiary developments produced a variety of dissenting nonconformities and a long-term future of religious pluralism. It was another of history’s jokes that the first of these nonconformities should be the Catholicism that survived the Reformation as a repressed and disadvantaged minority, ‘the popish sect’ as Protestants disdainfully called it, until in the nineteenth century Irish immigration and papal ultramontanism made it something more than that.[18]

The same contradictions are apparent in what historians make of Henry VIII’s own views. No-one but the most rabid Protestant would nowadays deny that the apparent trigger of the break with Rome – Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon – was anything other than a shabby business. But it is becoming increasingly obvious – whatever the most rabid Catholics say – that the Reformation in England was not something cooked-up overnight to get Henry out of a tight corner. As Glyn Redworth of the University of Manchester has put it,[19] ‘Rather it was the unforeseen culmination of trends that went back to the start of the reign.’

Redworth was writing as long ago as 1987, but I am not sure his arguments have been given the consideration they deserve. He shows, for example, that Henry VIII began tinkering with the Coronation Oath, possibly almost at the moment his father died. There is an undated copy of the oath revised in the King’s hand. The original required the King to swear to uphold the ancient liberties of the Church, including its right to make laws binding on his subjects. Yet the eighteen-year old monarch altered it to read that a king need uphold the Church’s rights only so far as his royal conscience would permit and (most important) only so long as these privileges were ‘lawful and not prejudicial to his Crown or Imperial jurisdiction’.

At the same time there was developing a legal debate about the often rival claims of papal and state power. This was true on the continent of Europe as well as in England, where many rulers of German states had wrested considerable powers from the papacy, and both the Most Catholic King of Spain (Rex Catholicissimus) and the Most Christian King of France (Rex Christianissimus) had acquired increasing influence over ecclesiastical appointments and property. Henry was always enigmatic about religion. Sometimes he took a friendly interest in the New Learning; more often he stood for conservative doctrine and practice in all except the Royal Supremacy. That has prompted one historian to ask if Henry was a pope without Catholicism, or a Catholic without a pope. Towards the end of his reign he certainly seemed to shy away from some of the Protestant ideas being pressed upon him: he used Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, as a kind of brake on Thomas Cranmer, but always protected the latter from too vigorous an assault. In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s phrase, he became an umpire between competing factions, while the leaders of the factions practised the tricky and sometimes dangerous art of presenting their ideas to Henry already dressed up as though they were his own.

I have made a brief reference to continental Europe, and that must be expanded. If in the 1960’s A. G. Dickens was the great historian of the Reformation in England, the English historian who wrote most influentially about the Reformation in the rest of Europe was the German-born G. R. Elton.  Gottfried Rudolf Ehrenberg, or Sir Geoffrey Elton as he became, was the son of Jewish parents who fled to Britain in 1939. He was elected a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, in 1949 and was Regius Professor of Modern History there from 1983 to 1988. His nephew, incidentally, is the writer and comedian Ben Elton.

So no-one could accuse Elton of writing either as a Protestant historian or as a Catholic historian. In fact he represents the successful secularisation of Reformation studies. He liberated the history of Protestantism from being written almost exclusively by Protestants, and the history of Catholicism from being written almost exclusively by Catholics. For that alone the study of Reformation history is hugely in his debt.

Elton believed that the history of the Reformation – indeed, the history of all major movements and events – needs to be placed into a political narrative context. But he was also a traditionalist who had no time for those who try to interpret history in socioeconomic terms, like the Marxist historians Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.

For Elton, the historian’s role was the empirical gathering of evidence and then the objective analysis of what that evidence had to say. But, having no time for interpreting the evidence in terms of abstract, impersonal forces, he placed great emphasis on the role of individuals in history. Thus it was that his 1963 book Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 is largely organised around what he saw as the duel between Martin Luther and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. You will look in vain in his book for cross-disciplinary efforts to combine historical analysis with that of anthropology, economics or sociology. He was dedicated to political history, and political history is about the big players on the stage. I can hear my own history master at school declaiming ‘geography is about maps; history is about chaps’.

Interestingly, in one respect at least Elton is back in fashion. His emphasis on the role of the individual rapidly began to look old-fashioned as his academic enemies became more influential. But now biographies are the books of the moment. David Starkey – who is not averse to the genre himself – has nevertheless complained about the undue attention being given to women as a result – for example, Henry VIII’s wives rather than Henry himself. Starkey calls this ‘feminised history’ – another category for 16th century historiography! – adding ‘so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience.’[20] Talking to the Daily Telegraph, Starkey said that while writing about Henry VIII, ‘even I fell into the trap of subjugating the history of Henry ... to that of his wives’. He said he did so because ‘they are a gift to the writer – you end up with six stories for the price of one.’ But he warned that the ‘soap opera’ of Henry's personal life should come second to the political consequences of his rule, such as the Reformation and the break with Rome.

We ought to note that Starkey went further, claiming that modern attempts to paint many women in history as ‘power player’ was to falsify the facts: ‘If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.’ For example, while he considered Elizabeth I to be a great monarch, ‘the way she is presented as some sort of female icon is ludicrous’.  Small wonder, perhaps, that Lucy Worsley has labelled his comments as ‘misogynistic’.[21]

But to return to Elton. Once again, as with Dickens, his picture of things was too clearly drawn, too un-nuanced. Just as in English regions, so in European countries the state of the Catholic Church before the Reformation varied widely. We simply should not generalise from Luther’s sweeping criticisms of the German Church to reach conclusions about the Church in Europe as a whole. That is why in many parts of Europe Luther’s teaching fell on stony ground – which has prompted some more recent historians (not least of the Catholic variety) to talk of the ‘failure’ of the Reformation.[22] But this is an over-reaction. As Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrew’s, has put it,

It is certainly true that a geographical survey of late sixteenth-century Europe does reveal the failure of Lutheranism to put down deep roots in many parts of the continent. Historians are only now becoming aware that the reformation went through a profound mid-century crisis around the time of Luther’s death (1546), coinciding as this did with reverses for the evangelical movement in several other parts of Europe. A sense of this makes clear why the emergence of Calvinism as an international force was so vital in consolidating the Reformation’s achievement. But beyond this, to talk of ‘failure’ in any fundamental sense is overdrawn, because we now realise that the reformers’ own ambitions of transforming religious behavior in a single lifetime were hopelessly unrealistic. Much more in recent years, historians have begun to talk of a ‘Long Reformation’, a process requiring many generations before the changes in belief and behaviour anticipated by the reformers could be accomplished. This is true on the part of both Protestant and Catholic churches. Scholars of Catholic reform, in much the same way, now recognise that it was deep in the seventeenth century – if not later – before the reforms anticipated by the Council of Trent (1545-63) began to take root in the parishes.[23]

I suppose the key question in Reformation studies is whether we as historians should concentrate on the principal protagonists, or the great mass of the population. Elton preferred the former; Duffy in, for example, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village[24]prefers the latter. Personally, I believe we need both. And of course the ‘great mass of the population’ can only be explored by intensely local studies, which is why Duffy et al need to remember that what was happening in one English village was not necessarily happening in the village down the road. Dorset is a good example here. For some reason which has more to do with geography than history, Dorset villages tend not to ‘blend’ into one another in the way that many villages in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire do. There are exceptions, of course, but the rural clergy of Dorset will testify to being extremely high-mileage as they race between the parish churches of their benefices. And that gave plenty of room for local animosities dating from medieval times to harden into religious differences in the Reformation and political differences during the Civil War. To this day, there are villages in Dorset which make uncomfortable bedfellows in a single Benefice: they have not ‘got on’ for centuries and they see no reason why they should now.

We need to recognise that we are in a new world in historical studies. Both Dickens and Elton – and remember, these were the heroes of the historical studies of so many of us, less than half a lifetime ago – would have been bewildered by the way in which we now have to take into account the impact of the Reformation on family life and gender relationships and popular culture and local parish expenditure and so on and so on.

There is also a serious to question to ask about the date when the Reformation ceased to happen because it had happened. Dickens regarded the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 as the end of the Reformation in England. Others dispute whether or not Protestantism had taken any meaningful hold on the country even by the end of the century. Christopher Haigh has suggested that, by 1600, the efforts of Protestant clergy had created ‘a Protestant nation, but not a nation of Protestants’.

Haigh and his fellow revisionists insisted that, not only were there a series of Reformations rather than just one, but they were slow Reformations imposed ‘from above’ on a largely reluctant population. Dickens hit back in 1989 with the second edition of his The English Reformation with a new chapter containing new material on both popular anti-clericalism and popular Protestantism. He also drew on the work of Susan Brigden to demonstrate the importance of young people in spreading abroad the Reformation ‘from below’.[25] In his 1989 preface he added this:

In my preface of 1964 I urged that throughout this story the development of Protestant convictions in English society, however varied as between the regions, should be regarded as far more prominent role than hitherto. I also criticised the tendency of earlier historians to allow ordinary men and women ‘to fall and disappear through the gaps between the kings, the prelates, the monasteries and the prayer books’. This has sometimes been misinterpreted as a naïve ambition to write the history of the Reformation purely ‘from below’. Yet I also wrote then that ‘one dare not lose grip of the conventional themes, for governments and leaders remain important; the story will not cohere in their absence.’ I still believe that this duel approach must be firmly maintained. To make the Reformation merely socio-biographical would be as stupid as to make it purely political and constitutional. Whether I have now got this balance right – and meaningful for today – readers must again judge for themselves.’[26]

Dickens rightly warned against an over-tidiness in our interpretation of Reformation history. If you want a thoroughly good read that will demonstrate that with verve and colour, I recommend – if you do not know it already – Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic.[27]I was so intoxicated as an undergraduate by that amazing book that I simply had to read it again, from cover to cover. Thomas, a former Professor of Modern History at Oxford and President of Corpus Christi, is avowedly an atheist. He paints a picture of late medieval Europe as a place of magical, semi-pagan and ancient folk belief which was what had the real grip on the lives and the superstitions of most ordinary people in Europe. To simplify (and therefore to caricature) their beliefs, they saw the Catholic Church as a kind of sympathetic repository or reservoir of all sorts of magical powers, ready and available to be deployed in the ordinary secular needs of everyday life. The Catholic clergy were seen as an agency of these powers – and were respected as such – but were by no means regarded as their sole agency. Witchcraft, astrology, alchemy, sorcery, the creation of spells, and potions, the invocation of ghosts and fairies: few people in early sixteenth-century Europe doubted that these things were real.

Then along came the Reformation, which waged war on these things. So when the ordinary folk objected to Protestantism, it may be that they were fighting for something much less clearly-defined than the Church of Rome. They were fighting for a much murkier religious, spiritual and cultural environment which often seemed more accessible than the religion of their new Protestant pastors.

So for me, the Jester in the Reformation pack is that great mass of relatively unformed religious, spiritual and superstitious belief which was owned by the vast majority of the population. Here is where ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ historians unite: they do not like this pulsating mass of inchoate and indefinable religious attitudes, and they feel uncomfortable with it. It suits them, therefore, to ignore it. But as the parish priest of Sherborne for over 21 years, I know perfectly well that the vast bulk of my parishioners take their religious opinions, not from me or my Roman Catholic and Free Church colleagues. They take their religious views from what we used to be able to call a “Woolworths’ Pick & Mix” range of opinions, attitudes and prejudices. ‘Pick & Mix’ is how the people of these islands now do their religious opinions, beliefs and attitudes.

I have a pretty shrewd suspicion that that is how they have always done them. And upon that historians attempt to impose their patterns in vain.[i]


Canon Eric Woods

The Reverend Canon Eric Woods read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, and Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge.  For many years he was a part-time Lecturer in the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. He is Currently Vicar of Sherborne and a Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset.


[1] A lecture given to the Sherborne Historical Society on 28 October 2014

[2] E Duffy, Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition, London, 2012

[3] G Parker, War, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century, Yale, 2013

[4] K Klostermaier, Hindu & Christian in Vrindaban, ET London 1969, p.40

[5] S Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Three vols, Cambridge, 1951, 1952 and 1954

[6] J Phillips, Holy Warriors: A modern history of the Crusades, London 2009

[7] A Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, Paris 1983, ET London 1984. See also P M Cobb, The Race for Paradise: an Islamic history of the Crusades, Oxford, 2014

[8] A G Dickens, The English Reformation, London 1964

[9] A G Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, Oxford, 1959

[10] C Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, Cambridge, 1975

[11] It is interesting that, apart from some small indication that Brother John, the Almoner of the Monastery, tried around 1223 to found a ‘House of Mercy’ in the town, the Benedictine community seems to have showed little interest in providing Sherborne with an almshouse. The first initiative of which there is documentary evidence was taken by a secular priest named William Dodill, who in 1406 gave a dwelling house in the Hound Street Tithing for the use of the poor. C. H. Mayo in his A Historic Guide to the Almshouse of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, Oxford 1933, and J Fowler in his Medieval Sherborne, Dorchester, 1951, give very full accounts of how that foundation metamorphosed in 1437 into the present Almshouse just across the Close from the Abbey.  The Vicar of Sherborne (another secular priest) and the Bishop of Salisbury (Robert Neville) were closely involved in the 1437 foundation. The monastery is conspicuous by its absence.

[12] See especially David Underdown’s splendid study of Dorchester, and his references to Sherborne, in Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century, London, 1992

[13] For the ‘revisionist’ case see especially E Duffy, The stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992 and C Haigh, The Plain Man’s Pathways to Heaven, Oxford, 2007.

[14] J Maltby, ‘The Prayer Book and the Parish Church: from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Restoration’, in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, edd. C Hefling and C Shattuck, Oxford, 2006, p. 79.

[15] Loc. cit.

[16] A Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, Oxford, 2013, pp. 232ff

[17] P. Collinson, The Reformation, London 2003

[18] Ibid, pp. 108-109

[19] In History Today, Volume 37, October 1987

[20] Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2009

[21] Daily Mail, 31 March 2009

[22] Eg Gerald Strauss, Luther’s House of Learning, Baltimore, 1978

[23] A Pettegree, ‘Reformation Europe Re-formed’, History Today, Volume 49, January 1999

[24] E Duffy, The Voices of Morebath, Yale, 2001

[25] S Brigden, ‘Youth and the English Reformation’ in Past & Present, xcv

[26] A G Dickens, The English Reformation, 2nd edition, London, 1989, p.11. I am conscious that, like Dickens, I have said little or nothing in this paper about the Reformation in Scotland or Wales. For the former see I  Cowan, The Scottish Reformation: church and society in 16th century Scotland, London, 1982, and A Ryrie, The Age of Reformation: The Tudor and Stewart Realms 1485 – 1603, Harlow, 2009. For the latter see G Williams, Wales and the Reformation, Cardiff, 1997  

[27] K Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Lon, London, 1971


[i] The historiography of the ‘witch craze’ which was at its height in the latter part of the sixteenth and the earlier part of the seventeenth centuries is almost as broad in its range of different interpretations of the phenomenon as the historiography of the Reformation. Most recently, see B Levack (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, Oxford, 2013 



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