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Heretics and Believers:
A History of the English Reformation
By Peter Marshall
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The English were surprisingly divided about the Tudors’ break with the pope in Rome and the introduction of the Reformation.
JUST a day after the English Book of Common Prayer was first used in Sampford Courtenay, Devon, on Whitsunday in 1549, an angry mob appeared at the church door. They demanded that the elderly rector reconsider using the new liturgy. Somewhat sheepishly, one imagines, he decided to don his popish vestments and revert to saying the Latin mass.
That village protest was the first of a series of English uprisings in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and the south-west, which led to perhaps 10,000 deaths as King Edward VI’s regime suppressed dissent. It would be a mistake to think that the English Reformation was mostly peaceful, with beheadings and burnings confined to a small and fervent elite.
The historiography of Tudor England usually focuses on the monarchs’ Reformation: how the state imposed religious change on the nation. Shelves groan with royal histories, but new accounts of how the ordinary English felt, objected to and imbibed it all are much more scarce. On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Peter Marshall has written a fine history of a momentous time as seen from the bottom up, drawing on a wide range of primary sources and his evident scholarship.
Mr Marshall has two contentions. First, that the English did not meekly comply with religious change. In the cities they were enthused by it, but many others resisted, especially in the rural and conservative north and west of the country. Second, that though royal supremacy was the aim, the state ultimately lost control as Christian pluralism flowered. In places the King’s majesty was questioned, as some began to think afresh about monarchy and church government. England ended with a less united religion than it had at the start of the 16th century.
The central story will be familiar. Henry VIII wanted to cut financial and legal ties to the Catholic church, in order to achieve national sovereignty and marry whom he liked. He was keen to shut down monasteries, rivals to kingly power for nearly 1,000 years, but he was never a zealous advocate of radical new ideas, about the meaning of the communion service, for example.
Henry’s attempts to please opposing court factions left England with a vague, incoherent set of tenets for a church without a pope, thinks Mr Marshall. Confusion about the national religion led more people to define and investigate their faith for themselves. Under Henry’s children, Edward VI and Mary, state zealotry fuelled outrage and enthusiasm. Edward’s ministers set out to destroy idolatry in church, including saints’ paintings, church silver, inappropriate altars and glitzy vestments. Mary returned sovereignty to Rome and launched a campaign of burning heretics.
In St Paul’s Cathedral hung a rood, a grand figure of Christ on the cross, the centre of the medieval churchgoer’s attention and piety, which provided a political bellwether through these years. The rood was ordered to come down under Edward. It crashed to the floor, killing two labourers beneath: perhaps not a great omen. The rood was ordered up again in Mary’s reign. A man rose from his pew to deliver a mocking encomium to “your Mastership”, the ascendant rood. It soon came down again under Elizabeth I.
What became known as the Elizabethan settlement—a return to Protestantism—far from settled the matter. The queen’s bishops wanted to go further than Edward VI; some in England wished to ban bishops altogether, looking to John Calvin in Geneva for inspiration. Elizabeth’s bishops despaired of her liking for icons and vestments, but defended her nonetheless.
Mr Marshall provides convincing evidence that Catholicism survived well into Elizabeth’s reign. At least 800 clergymen were deprived or removed themselves for reasons of conscience, including as many as a quarter of the clergy in one diocese, Rochester, that is not far from Canterbury. Only 21 out of 90 senior clergy in northern England assented to the settlement, and 36 openly disagreed. Dissent among middle-ranking clergy was even higher. Of those not removed by the 1559 flu epidemic, fewer than half wished to continue.
A rebellion reckoned to be 7,000-strong in favour of the pope in 1569 was brutally suppressed. Many followers of the old religion simply conformed and dissembled. It is hard to understand how the people coped through these years. Tombs were vandalised; vicars protested at funerals. One village curate was known to shave his Protestant beard every time a change in religion was rumoured. However the English survived the Reformation, they did so as a nation divided.
Whig histories typically focus on the progress that the state and evangelicals made in forging a Church of England: a history of the winners. Mr Marshall’s contribution is a riveting account of the losers as well, the English zealots and cynics who wanted a better world or an unchanging one. The resulting story is of a Henrician supremacy that failed and an Elizabethan unity that never was.
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