Smelling the Gospel

Patrick Collinson

  • London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden
    Oxford, 676 pp, £55.00, December 1989, ISBN 0 19 822774 4

Since the Second World War, the cutting edge of English historical studies has been not ‘world history’ but English local history, a fact by no means adequately reflected in the Report of the National Curriculum History Working Group, nor even in the menus of courses currently on offer in university history departments. Local studies have been central to recent investigations of those complex processes conventionally described as the Protestant Reformation which, in the course of the 16th century and beyond, profoundly modified the civilisation of this country: but in spite of the national scope and aspirations of reforming legislation, not all at once or to the same extent in all regions and localities. If we were to ask when England became a Protestant nation, and also what it might mean so to describe it, we should have to be prepared for different answers for Essex and Sussex, Lancashire and Kent: while not forgetting that these counties, macrocosms in themselves, contained a variety of small worlds, in Lancashire as different as Bolton. ‘the Geneva of the North’, and the coastal Fylde, in 1600 as Popish as Ireland.

It has been a widespread assumption that the true story of the English Reformation, an accurate account of its pace, progress and ultimate profundity, will consist of the sum of these many parts, the consensus of a large number of local studies, based on those diocesan ecclesiastical records which are one of our archival glories and the envy of historians elsewhere. So it was that a recent monograph on the Reformation in the diocese of Lincoln was hailed as a means of short-circuiting this endeavour. For was not that vast area equivalent to Middle England, as it were the Kansas and the conscience of the nation, where, if anywhere, the lowest common denominator of changing religious sentiment might be unearthed?

But English history was not made in Lincolnshire. A much better case can be argued for London as the place where significant things happened. Yet to regard London as a locality implies a paradox, almost a contradiction. The Institute of Historical Research in the University of London contains a Local History Room – and a London Room. As centre, London has confronted locality, has trespassed and encroached upon it. Insofar as the Protestant Reformation succeeded, it can be regarded as a cultural imposition by London on provincial England. To attempt a counterfactual history of this, as of many other aspects and episodes of English history, missing out London, would be an absurd enterprise, truly Hamlet without the Prince. So a considerable part of Dr Susan Brigden’s magisterial account of London and the Reformation has to do with events of transcendent, national importance, which occurred in London. After all, the seat of government, Court, Council and Parliament, was normally located in London, or just outside it, together with the central courts of justice, the hub of international trade and finance and, in effect, the third university, the Inns of Court. The initial business of the so-called Reformation Parliament, national business, derived from London interests. Sir Thomas More’s repressive reaction to the early Protestant movement was focused on London, as was Queen Anne Boleyn’s promotion of it. The fall of the reforming statesman Thomas Cromwell happened in London, with immediate religious consequences for London. Almost everyone who died on the scaffold in high political circumstances which were also religious died in London. The restoration of Catholicism under Mary was threatened and redeemed at Ludgate, where Wyatt’s rebels were repelled. It was in London that Mary died and that her sister Elizabeth was fêted and crowned.

But London was also the most volatile and influential of the many local communities which made up Early Modern England, as well as by far the richest and most populous. The history of the 16th-century religious changes in London is in principle no different from the history of these developments elsewhere. It had to do with the abandonment, partly constrained, partly voluntary, of old entrenched beliefs and of the practices, institutions and interests associated with them; and with the adoption of a new theology which altered the motivation and substance of religious and charitable aspirations and foundations and much else besides. But, to say the very least, the locality of London had a unique capacity to convert the rest of the realm. According to an Elizabethan bishop, ‘if London were reformed, all the realm would soon follow.’ As was said of another metropolis and the cause of Catholic Counter-Reformation: ‘to purge Rome would be to purge the world.’

From this it follows that London and the Reformation contains at one and the same time an important account of national events, from a central vantage-point, and a reconstruction of Protestantising processes in the most sensitive of all localities: here is the local history of the Reformation for which we have all been waiting, a work of greater importance than any of the county studies which have appeared.

Susan Brigden’s over-arching theme is of a world of shared faith broken, a Christian community irreparably divided. This was how the London annalist John Stow, who lived through the entire process, understood it, with much nostalgic mourning for all those seasonal rituals and festivals and the social reconciliation they symbolised, a slightly more sophisticated version of the common saying that it was a merry world when the old religion still prevailed and you could buy a dozen eggs for a penny. Indeed, a significant fragment of Stow’s childhood memories was of buying a quart of milk hot from the cow for a halfpenny, a stone’s throw from the Tower. (Stow did not openly deplore the loss of the Mass, or of prayers for the dead, but writing, under Elizabeth’s Protestant government, he couldn’t, could he?)

Susan Brigden, with scholarship rather than sentiment, confirms many features of the world which Stow had lost, an appropriately iconic account of a universe of religious plenitude in which every space was covered with ‘gay outward things’. But the critic may well ask whether, any more than Stow, she has avoided looking at this lost world through rose-tinted spectacles. How sure can we be that the pre-Reformation city enjoyed unity in religion? If it did, in any significant measure, this was a unity secured through the reconciliation of difference and diversity, the diversity of 106 parishes, perhaps as many as a hundred religious fraternities, both parochial and trans-parochial, and of many other professional and commercial institutions which gave to a high proportion of householders a significant social and even political role to play, and to everyone a place. Faith, one faith, was both anchor and social cement, the source not only of charity but of a general integrity. Breach of faith was the least forgivable of sins. So everyone said. But whether citizens were so universally faithful, charitable and honest is of course a question beyond the historian’s scope. It is necessary to be on one’s guard against the insidiousness of the devout rhetoric used when drafting a will, or appropriate to other occasions conducive to good behaviour.

One of the more familiar breaches of Christian charity divided the omnipresent clergy from the laity, a phenomenon inaccurately and unhelpfully categorised as ‘anti-clericalism’ by some historians. Dr Brigden finds that ‘nothing put the clergy and laity at odds so much as money.’ Until its partial resolution in 1546, the problem of personal tithe provoked acrimonious disputes in many London parishes. But criticism of the clergy was also indicative of spiritual expectations, the heightened religious idealism which fuelled both Protestantism and orthodox reactions to it.

At the point in time where Dr Brigden’s story begins, the religious unity of the city was already compromised by the corrosive presence of heretical opinion in the form often defined as ‘Lollardy’, the religion of the ‘bible men’ so well known in mid-15th-century London to Bishop Reginald Pecocke. The difficult question which we look to her to answer concerns how well-known these ‘known men’ were and how unacceptable their beliefs and unbeliefs in the perception of their conventionally religious neighbours. And next we want to know how cleanly the Protestant minority, as it took visible shape from the late 1520s, was grafted onto this ‘distinct heretical community’. Dr Brigden says that the heresy of the Lollards ‘outraged’ their neighbours (‘yonder goeth the heretic’s wife’) and that such behaviour put them outside society. This is strong language, and it may not address the contradiction which often existed between the detestation entertained for religious dissent in principle and a considerable measure of peaceful co-existence which may have obtained in practice, not to speak of the capacity of the dissenters for compromise, and a measure of conventional and expedient social integration.

Towards 1530, ‘known men’ and women, by a process which has never been better understood or more fully documented than in this book, became evangelical brothers and sisters, such as ‘had begun to smell the Gospel’: ‘christian brethren’, ‘christian’ being now employed in an exclusive rather than inclusive sense. Thereafter we are never for long out of the company of this underworld or network, consisting of a hard core of perhaps four or five hundred evangelical individuals, whom Brigden persuades us were in a real sense the same people in 1540, when the religious reaction of Henry VIII’s later years was signalled by their arrest and temporary imprisonment, in their brief triumph under Edward VI, and in the testing time of the Marian persecution. And perhaps they were only partially assimilated in the Elizabethan enjoyment of an established Protestant settlement, for it may have been essentially the ‘same’ people who were by then known to their more conventionally religious neighbours as Puritans. With their household dependents, they comprised perhaps 2 per cent of London’s mid-Tudor population.

However, if we define Protestant adherence in less arduous terms, as it were Palm Sunday rather than Good Friday religion, we may arrive at a rather different model, one of ‘London half converted’. It was said that ‘Latimer many blameth and as many doth allow.’ Contemporary perceptions spoke of ‘some of the old-fashioned and some of the new’. If this was really the case, a city divided more or less down the middle, then of course the social consequences look very drastic indeed.

And then came enforced religious change. ‘What a world it shall be,’ a Catholic priest told his hearers on the eve of Henry VIII’s death, when the heretics shall have the rule. ‘It will be treason shortly to worship God.’ And so Protestantism became official orthodoxy. The question then arises: does the essential history of the Reformation in London (and elsewhere) consist of the story of a sectarian remnant, the self-defining community of the godly, or is it the history of the all-comprehending parochial majority, the national and civic Church which Reformation legislation rendered formally Protestant?

The answer must be that it was both, that the Reformation forged a new kind of religious unity, albeit less than complete and on altered foundations: but simultaneously set up a tension between majority and minority religion with profound implications, from the civil wars of the mid-17th century to early 20th-century Parliamentary politics.

Who were London’s earliest Protestants? Dr Brigden cannot and will not reply in broad socio-economic categories. At the outset she takes her stand on a committed position. ‘The Reformation was made by individuals, not by social forces.’ Empiricism must say that, since such evidence as the religious preambles to wills, and the known identity of those evangelicals arrested in 1540 and of the Marian Martyrs, suggests that evangelical religious preference was socially cross-sectional, embracing some who were worth less than five pounds a year and a few (millionaires in modern values) who could spend more than five hundred: on the one hand artisans, on the other the merchant aristocracy and their wives, mercers and merchant taylors who account for a significant proportion of the early evangelical wills. Dr Brigden can write of ‘the evangelical wedding of the year’. This means that almost anyone, of any class, could be a committed Protestant: but that most people, of all classes, were not. The choices made in faith were as likely to bring division within as between social classes. As for explaining the choices of those who comprised that socially extensive minority, empiricism, indeed history, cannot do it. Why was John Harrydaunce, the illiterate Whitechapel bricklayer, constrained to preach sermons out of his window, declaring Scripture as well as if he had studied at the universities? George Tankerfield was a cook who originated in Yorkshire. What made a martyr of such inherently unlikely material? We cannot say that Londoners were converted to Protestantism because they were recent migrants (almost a majority of the population), or women, or the young (both categories nearly predominant), although the new religion appealed to many in all these and other definable groups. ‘Religious conversion occurs for reasons which are private, and usually secret.’ But not always. ‘Frantic’ Collins who shot his arrow at the famous image of Christ in the church of St Margaret Pattens was made frantic by the infidelity of his wife, we are told.

Did Dr Brigden consider engaging with comparative history, comparing the history of the Reformation in London with that of other ‘great cities of the Reformation’: Nurnberg, Strasbourg, Edinburgh and Paris? And was she not tempted to make an ‘in-depth’ study of certain select parishes, if only to decide how far the history of her subject was a tale of a hundred parishes, how far of a single city in which parish boundaries for her purposes counted for little? Any account of the Reformation which ends, as this one does, in about 1560 is bound to be incomplete. But it is an annoyance for authors to he told that they should have written a different kind of book. What Susan Brigden has written is a richly detailed, circumstantial, anecdotal book, catering for the modern taste for ‘thick’ narrative, soaked in the archives, teeming with the vivid street language of the 16th century.