Henry VIII’s jurisidictional quarrel with the Papacy was not resolved, and its consequences are with us still. In Henry’s eyes the dispute was one of authority, not doctrine, but doctrinal questions soon became involved. His quarrel coincided with religious ferment on the Continent and with the emergence of religious diversity in England, as the religious teachings of Luther and Zwingli spread in the late 1520s and early 1530s. But for the divorce, Henry would no doubt have continued to stand firm against heresy, and he might well have been successful. But once he had broken with Rome and asserted his royal supremacy over the Church, he relaxed his persecution of dissent. He needed his royal supremacy preached up and down the land. And who better to preach it than Thomas Cranmer or Hugh Latimer, full of Continental learning, opposed to Papal pretensions, and keen to see Henry as a godly prince who would destroy idolatry and embrace true religion. Henry had not intended to go so far along that road of reformation, but he had unleashed a process that proved lasting.
It is remarkable that so few leading churchmen challenged Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Only one did so outspokenly – and he was rewarded by a martyr’s death. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was executed in June 1535 for refusing (like Thomas More) to take the oath of succession. He was prepared to swear to the succession itself, which he believed that King and nobles were entitled to change, but was unwilling to swear to the preamble of the Act, since by doing so he would be denying Papal authority and implicitly rejecting the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. From 1527 he had been the staunchest defender of this marriage, writing some eight tracts expounding the highly complex canon law of the case and firmly rebutting Henry’s claims at the 1529 trial. By 1535 virtually everyone had acquiesced in the break with Rome: isolated dissidents such as Fisher were compelled to swear against their conscience or to accept death. Such a man deserves to be studied in a broader context than is offered by the many biographies that approach Catholic hagiography. This was Brendan Bradshaw and Eamon Duffy’s purpose in organising a conference in 1985 to mark the 450th anniversary of Fisher’s execution. The proceedings of this are now published as Humanism, Reform and the Reformation.
Several essays emphasise Fisher’s career as an outstanding scholar. An important paper by Stephen Thompson shows that he was also a model bishop, residing in his diocese, preaching, ordaining priests in person, generous in his charitable giving. Henry Chadwick offers a sketch of the royal supremacy that Fisher was combating, but discusses it as a matter of theology and ecclesiology, without relating it closely to the realities of power that led to its articulation by the King in the 1530s. This is an impressive collection of essays, adding greatly to our knowledge and understanding of Fisher’s life and death. Only Bradshaw slips back into old-fashioned Catholic apologia. ‘The question was whether the jurisdiction of the state can so far constrain the liberty of the individual as to regulate the domain of conscience.’ It was not, however, any such principle that Fisher defended – he was ready to invoke the assistance of the state to regulate the conscience of heretics – but the role of the Pope, and the place of the Church of England within Christendom. Fisher was undoubtedly the victim of royal tyranny, but it may be unhelpful to describe Henry VIII as ‘the most contemptible human specimen ever to sit upon the throne of England’. Moreover it is questionable whether Fisher displayed that capacity for leadership – ‘clarity and confidence of vision, tenacity of purpose, resourcefulness and decisiveness in action’ – that Bradshaw attributes to him. He wrote forcefully in defence of Catherine of Aragon’s marriage. He defended the Church against royal and Parliamentary anti-clericalism in 1529-30. He tried hard to resist the King in early 1531 – but was compelled to yield. He preached in defence of the Queen in June 1532. If Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, is to be believed, in the autumn of 1533 he twice went so far as to urge the Emperor Charles V to act against Henry, though whether he was calling for an armed invasion or just a trade embargo is not clear. But he never made a firm public statement against the break with Rome. He did not speak out, so far as we know, in early 1532, when royal pressure on the Church was at its most intense. His protests were intermittent, and his appeal to the Emperor was an individual not a collective act: he was in no sense the leader of a political opposition. What he did was nevertheless astonishingly brave, given the pressures on him: there seems to have been an attempt at poisoning in early 1531; he was urged to conform by several of his fellow bishops; he was imprisoned for three months in the spring of 1533, presumably to prevent him from interrupting the divorce proceedings. What best characterises the man and the nature of his faith is his weeping for joy on hearing the prophecy of Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent, that if Henry were to marry Anne, he would not remain king for long.
Once Fisher and More and a handful of public opponents had been crushed, Henry proceded to dissolve the monasteries, and to attack abuses relating to the doctrines of intercession and purgatory. More radical religious articles were briefly promulgated, and a Bible in English made available to all, though soon the Six Articles and King’s Book put forward a much more Catholic view of religion, and in 1543 reading the Bible was restricted by law to the higher social groups. More definitely Protestant measures were adopted in the reign of Edward VI but reversed under Mary; in 1559 Elizabeth accepted a religious settlement that was Protestant, but in many ways ambiguous – and by no means as radical as some of those she appointed to run the Church would have wished.
Robert Whiting’s book assesses the impact of all these changes in the parishes. His is a study of the religion of ordinary people in Devon and Cornwall. Meticulous and thorough, the fruit of years of reflection and hard work in the archives, it suffers from a relentlessness of approach. What emerges is that up to the break with Rome, the practices and beliefs of the Late Medieval Church commanded the affection and support of ordinary people: ‘On the eve of the Henrician Reformation, the continuing commitment of the region’s population to its traditional rites was ... beyond question.’ A multiplicity of bequests for church-building, for ritual equipment in churches, for masses, for roods, for images and for lights, suggests a strong but discriminating piety which does not bear out the book’s title (drawn from the words of the mid-Tudor divine, John Hooker). Whiting makes no attempt to assess to what extent Late Medieval religion reflected an informed commitment and to what extent it was mere conformity. The most original part of his book is his demonstration of the sheer destructiveness of the Henrician and Edwardian Reformations. Screens, statues, windows, altars were destroyed at the command of central governments. Very little new ritual equipment was installed in parish churches after the 1530s. Bequests for masses declined. Prayers to the saints dwindled. Church-building declined. Whiting denies that this was the result of any general enthusiasm for Protestantism: people acquiesced and obeyed, but no more; the long-term consequence was a growth in religious indifference. This is a telling thrust against recent arguments that emphasise the tenacity of surviving Catholic belief, not least because it shows that so much that was necessary to the practice of Catholic liturgy had gone. This destruction was the work of governments and of small numbers of local people, yet the damage to popular confidence in the practices of the Late Medieval Church was immense. But Whiting may be too quick to see the consequences as religious passivity and indifference. Despite the great difficulty of resistance, there was a significant rebellion in the South-West in 1549. Whiting plays down its religious character and its extent. He points to the relatively small numbers involved, to the use of physical intimidation in recruiting, to the pressure of economic difficulties, to rumours of a tax on sheep, to the numbers of loyalists, especially in Exeter, and to the limited nature of the rebels’ religious demands. But he has to concede that the rebels won a lot of sympathy, and that ‘religious conservatism provided the rebellion with its most important single stimulus.’
The English Reformation did less damage to Tudor cathedrals than might have been expected. The dismantling of shrines removed one of their principal functions: in a sense, Protestantism made them superfluous. But the essential structure of cathedrals changed little. Those cathedrals staffed by monks survived the dissolution, with priors turning into deans and monks into canons. Their most distinctive feature came to be the provision of music, which is fascinatingly discussed by Stanford Lehmberg. George Herbert went twice a week to Salisbury Cathedral, ‘and at his return, he would say that his time spent in prayers and cathedral music elevated his soul and was heaven on earth.’ Cathedral choirs sang the difficult music of Tallis, Byrd and Weekes: Lehmberg argues that this suggests standards were high. On the whole, he offers a benignly Trollopean view of cathedral closes: he touches on Puritan denunciations of cathedrals as dens of all loitering lubbers, but is very brief on disputes between cathedral chapters and the rulers and people of the cities in which cathedrals stood.
English Protestantism also changed the calendar. Saints’ days were attacked. Many were removed, though surprisingly many were retained: they continued to determine the legal terms and, notably in the 1640s, to provoke controversy. They were replaced as festive occasions by new days of celebration, marked by bonfires and bells. The accession of Elizabeth I was marked on 17 November. The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was celebrated on 5 November. The execution of Charles I was mourned on 30 January, and the escape of his son in 1650 was marked by Royal Oak Day – 29 May. By drawing profusely on churchwardens’ accounts, David Cressy attempts to illustrate the relative impact of these occasions – though it is not always clear what, if anything, can be concluded from differences in payments. Such difficulties are not overcome by the author’s tendency to slip into anthropological jargon, and the broader significance of bonfires and bells remains imprecise.
Patrick Collinson is also concerned with the impact of Protestantism. Not long ago, the dominant view was that in the later 16th century England became a Protestant country, but in recent years this has been vigorously challenged. Collinson attempts to assess these challenges. He draws on contemporary sermons, of which he has an unrivalled knowledge, and on much recent writing: his acute intelligence and allusive style give his book the character of a searching review or a sparkling tutorial. What is striking – not least if one compares this book with Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants (1982) – is how far he has been led to accept the criticisms of the Protestant country view. He allows that if God was regarded as an Englishman, he had been so regarded from the 14th century. He grants the claims of Medievalists that in practice, given the influence of kings over the pre-Reformation Church, the royal supremacy claimed by Henry VIII was not so novel. He accepts that few towns, ‘alas’, conformed to a model of a Protestant urban community. He concedes that far from fostering a Protestant nation, Protestant theology tended towards an exclusive view of religion: what emerged was a Protestant godly élite, and religious divisions that were eventually to contribute to civil strife.
But in two respects – in family life and in culture – Collinson holds to the birth of a Protestant England. He agrees that earlier claims that Protestants developed a distinctive style of family life fail to describe continuing realities adequately. But he strongly argues that Protestant writers did develop a new ideal of the family – as a patriarchal household in which a marriage arising from mutual love was welcomed as a divine blessing, rather than merely accepted as a means of avoiding fornication and as a second-best to celibacy. In order to sustain this claim he is forced into exquisite contortions. Too honest to ignore the similarity to supposed Puritan ideals of the work of the Bridgettine monk Richard Whitford, who wrote in the 1520s, Collinson is compelled to treat Catholic Humanists as proto-Puritans – which weakens his claim that it was Puritan divines who held a distinctively Puritan attitude to the family. Moreover, he is led into caricaturing the approach of Kathleen Davies, the author of a pioneering article on the alleged novelty of Puritan attitudes, who ‘seems to think there is nothing new under the sun,’ since she has found similar attitudes in 14th-century writers. Collinson’s attempt to dismiss Davies’s article as ‘a correction of some points of detail’ and his curious suggestion that it was the long time-span from the 14th to the 17th century that saw a change in attitudes to the family seem desperately unsuccessful ways of shoring up the edifice of a new post-Reformation Protestant ideal.
In the most fascinating chapter of the book, he argues that, ‘culturally speaking’, the Reformation was ‘beyond all question a watershed’. In the mid-16th century, Protestants such as John Bale and Nicholas Udall were happy to use drama polemically to further their ends; by the 1580s, religious drama and paintings had come to be seen as the work of the devil. This is stimulatingly laid out, but perhaps does not take sufficient account of earlier philistine attitudes to be found in the later Middle Ages, not least within drama and poetry itself. It also leaves unexplored the possible development of an alternative Puritan aesthetic in which the bare whitewashed walls of churches, and the lettering of the Ten Commandments now displayed in them, exerted their own pull over the senses. Moreover, this chapter isolates a strand of Protestant thought and illuminates a minority rather than a general view: it undermines still further any claim that what emerged was a Protestant nation, rather than Puritan attitudes shared by just a number of the godly.
The Reformation, Michael MacDonald maintains in a stimulating introduction to a facsimile reprint of John Sym’s Life’s Preservative against Self-Killing (1637), strengthened and deepened Medieval arguments that suicide, which was seen as prompted by the Devil, was the greatest sin against God. The number of suicides reported to the court of King’s Bench had risen sharply in the early 16th century and remained at those new levels well into the 17th century. Possibly the very severities of Protestant theology and the prominence given to the Devil tipped over the brink some who came to lose hope of their own salvation: more prosaically, such increases may reflect royal officials’ new financial interest in the verdicts of the court, rather than any increase in actual suicides. However that may be, contemporaries such as Sym did see the problem as growing, and bent their minds to deal with it. They saw it in religious terms: ‘temptations to despair and suicide were a key moment in the drama of spiritual redemption in Protestant sermons and tracts.’ Like other Puritan ministers, Sym regarded himself as a physician of the soul: he hoped to minister to troubled minds, and to convert the unregenerate to a godly life, and despite his severity against the act of suicide, revealed a prescient understanding – as MacDonald shows – of secular causes of suicidal despair. His work is claimed here as the first systematic treatise on its subject in English.
With Nigel Smith’s study of the impact of Protestantism on some half-educated or self-taught but religiously-inspired men and women in the 1640s and 1650s, we come on to the nutcases and fruitcakes of the English Reformation – although these are descriptions that Smith would contest. He offers a thorough and sympathetic examination of individuals or groups who wrote or delivered sermons, prayers and prophecies expressing extremely radical views. Such people saw themselves as perfect and inspired by divine grace.
Conversions, inner transformations, prophecies, declamations and visions do not make an easy subject of study. We often know of such matters only from collections of experiences made by others, or from hostile witnesses. Smith is well aware of the difficulty, but in practice finds it impossible not to take his sources more or less at face value. By writing a book of this kind, he is claiming that such people formed a clear category, ‘with their own distinctive linguistic usages, their own habits of expression and communication, their own literature and culture’, yet he treats them as individuals whose common denominator was their distance from organised religion. It is obviously vital to gauge the extent of such ideas in the 1640s and 1650s, but though Smith carefully delineates the Biblical and theological influences on each of his radicals, he rather takes as read the wider context of Civil War and Interregnum Puritanism. He may exaggerate the volume of such writing. One chapter deals with the influence of Hendrik Niclaes, founder in the mid-16th century of the group known as the Family of Love. Some of his works were republished in the 1640s and 1650s – but in the absence of any new works by any followers, it is hard to justify the chapter’s running head, ‘Familist Writing in the Interregnum’. It is also important to clarify the extent of influences and connections. Smith is apt to claim too much here. Sometimes he gives exaggerated credence to obvious nutcases – like Abiezer Coppe, who thought he was God, fell down before rogues and beggars, kissed their feet and gave them money, and put his hand in gipsies’ bosoms. Smith uses abstractions whenever possible: these sometimes make heavy weather of straightforward points. When he remarks that ‘at their most extreme the radical prophets looked beyond human language in an attempt to capture divine language and substance itself: the result was a lapse into solipsism and incomprehensibility while the extent of sectarianism and autodidactism was revealed,’ he appears to mean that sometimes they went mad and talked nonsense, while using a Puritan rhetoric and style which they did not quite understand. Such a way of writing risks lending his radicals a greater sophistication of thought and language than they themselves achieved. Smith makes claims for his researches as a study of the language used by radicals. But when he says that ‘special notions of the acts of speaking and writing were at the heart of radical theology,’ he seems to confuse form and content. What mattered to the radicals was the substance of their visions: language was never more than a key to those mysteries.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.