Scarisbrick’s Bomb

Peter Gwyn

  • Reformation and Revolution 1558-1660 by Robert Ashton
    Granada, 503 pp, £18.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 246 10666 2
  • The Reformation and the English People by J.J. Scarisbrick
    Blackwell, 203 pp, £14.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 631 13424 7

Two very different books by two professors at English universities. That written by Professor Ashton is a bad book of a kind that is all too common, that by Professor Scarisbrick is good, perhaps very good, but of a kind that is now all too rare, in that it was written for the simple, old fashioned reason that its author was passionately interested in imparting his views. Professor Ashton, writing to meet the requirements of the A-level student, seems never even to have decided what he really wanted to tell us. It looks as if at one stage he may have had it in mind to engage with Christopher Hill, whose heroic efforts to persuade a sceptical English audience that during the 17th century some kind of Marxist revolution occurred in England, leading to the rise of such things as capitalism and science, will be familiar to all those with any interest in this period. Indeed, it might be thought that so familiar are Dr Hill’s views, and so telling the many criticisms of them, that a book which took them as a major theme might now be redundant.

One of Professor Ashton’s problems may have been that his book took him a long time to write, and that as a result many of his original views may have been challenged by the recent wave of ‘revisionism’. The revisionist historians of the Stuart period, led by Conrad Russell with Kevin Sharpe in support, have sought to persuade us that, contrary to what most English historians have led us to believe, the first two Stuart kings were on the whole a good thing, the Parliamentarians a bad thing. Perhaps even more important than this, they want us to believe that, but for the wars with Scotland in 1639 and 1640, there would have been no Parliamentarians at all: in other words, that the notion of a sustained Parliamentary opposition to James I and Charles I, leading inevitably to a military conflict fought over constitutional principles, cannot be sustained. Indeed, they look with deep suspicion at any notion of inevitability. They admit that the Crown was faced with serious problems – of religious diversity and finance – but then all governments are faced with serious problems, and what these particular problems do not explain is what happened in 1641 and 1642. The revisionists adhere to the dictum that a week is a very long time in politics, and they see the faction fighting at court as the key to events. Of course, the fighting frequently spilled over into Parliament – and incidentally the revisionists have a tendency to see the House of Lords as being every bit as important as the House of Commons. All this has been very exciting, but also, for Ashton at any rate, rather worrying.

On many matters of detail, such as the failure of the Parliament of 1625 to pass a tonnage and poundage Act, previously but no longer thought of as being a matter of some constitutional importance, Ashton tends to agree, albeit reluctantly, with the revisionists. However, he stitches these agreements into an older view of Stuart incompetence, a view which is much more congenial to him. James I in particular is not a favourite of his. Unlike Elizabeth, James relished Lord Henry Howard’s ‘unctuous brand of flattery’. He also had a penchant for beautiful young men. Ashton makes no moral judgment about their gender, but he is very critical of the fact that, unlike Elizabeth, who also had male favourites, James allowed his to monopolise power and patronage. When a favourite of Elizabeth’s like the Earl of Essex did aspire to such a monopoly, according to Ashton, he was ‘driven out into the wilderness’. Actually, he was driven into rebellion, which perhaps does not reflect so well on Elizabeth’s superior political skills. James’s prodigality in the giving of cash rewards and the bestowing of titles of honour are both considered by Ashton extremely damaging to royal prestige and influence – and again the comparison with Elizabeth’s careful management and reluctance to bestow titles is very unfavourable to James. Nothing here about the dangerous drying up of royal patronage during the last years of her reign which some historians have commented upon. As for James’s efforts to unite his realms of Scotland and England, this is only evidence of his desire for ‘self-glorification’.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in disliking James I, though I confess to rather a liking for him. The worry is that the dislike and criticism are nowhere brought together into a coherent whole or supported by any sustained analysis. Instead, they are released by way of haphazard and arbitrary judgments which only irritate, and certainly do not add up to a portrayal. The same is true of people Ashton appears to approve of. He tells us that John Pym had skill and statesmanship and that he was a leader of the ‘middle-group’. He is also allowed a few bit-appearances during the various Parliamentary episodes of the 1620s, but that is about it, which seems too little for someone whose role in the events leading up to the Civil War, whatever one’s interpretation of them, was very great. Oliver Cromwell if anything does worse. He is apparently approved of as ‘one of the truly dynamic personal forces in English history’, but why he should be is left for the reader to guess.

Ashton’s treatment of his leading personalities is very similar to his treatment of revisionism: bitty, muddled and unconvincing. It does not matter that he is not a revisionist himself. The cult of the ‘new’ and therefore ‘right’ is all too prevalent among modern historians. On the other hand, any book on this period appearing today has surely got to engage seriously with revisionist arguments. That might mean accepting some and rejecting others, which is what I suppose Ashton would argue he does. My own feeling is that because not enough has been thought out, or re-thought, the reader ends up in some confusion. There is no coherent view and no sense of excitement, though the events Ashton describes are some of the most exciting in English history. One is forced to ask the question why this book was written.

Professor Scarisbrick leaves us in no doubt why his book was written. It begins: ‘This book is about a supreme event in English history, the Reformation. Its theme could be summarised thus: on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came.’ Scarisbrick would be the first to admit that in thus throwing down a challenge to the Protestant view of the Reformation, i.e. the view of most English historians during the past four hundred years, he has had the support of much recent research. Christopher Haigh, in particular, has argued forcibly in a number of recent articles for the enduring strength of Catholicism throughout the 16th century. Dr Haigh tends to crack the whip and tells us that if we do not accept his views it is only because we do not think. Scarisbrick would let us off more lightly, might not even have to punish us at all so catching is his enthusiasm and so skilful is his pen. It therefore seems right that he should be the first to take the new views to a wider public.

These views most directly challenge the work of the two historians who over the last thirty years have dominated Tudor scholarship, A.G. Dickens and G.R. Elton. I remember very well my excitement on first reading in 1964, the year of its publication, Professor Dickens’s The English Reformation. His thesis was almost precisely the opposite of Scarisbrick’s. What he portrayed was a late Medieval Church which, while not all wrong, was for a whole series of reasons losing its grip on the imagination of English men and women. In other words, he portrayed an England ripe for Protestant conversion. Thus, when Luther’s works began to appear in England during the 1520s and 1530s (despite efforts by the government to prevent them doing so), the people of England responded to them with enthusiasm, and continued to do so, as they did to the works of other reformers, in ever-increasing numbers, until quite quickly most of them were Protestants. Such a person was William Malden of Newington near Chelmsford, who in the late 1530s or early 1540s became so excited on hearing the New Testament being read to him in English that he decided he would have to learn to read it for himself, did so, purchased his own New Testament, told his mother off for worshipping the crucifix, and for his pains was nearly murdered by his irate father. The question, of course, is how many William Maldens there were. Scarisbrick’s answer is not very many – certainly not by that date. Instead, there were many more people like John Nichols of Boddington in Northamptonshire, who, when he died in 1535, ‘left 2s. to the Rood light, to Our Lady’s and St John’s lights, 2s. to other “torches” and 2s. to the bells in his parish church’. He also left fourpence apiece to all four orders of friars and 26s. 8d. to the prioress of Catesby ‘to be praied for’. His bequests to the Church appear to have comprised about 40 percent of everything he had to give.

One of the reasons Dickens believed that English people were excited by Protestantism was that he was clearly excited himself. His book, like Scarisbrick’s, was one which, for all its underlying scholarship and concern to arrive at the truth, was also deeply felt. It was also a liberating book, for it helped to rescue many people’s thinking about the English Reformation from the Erastian rut which it was then in: viz. that the Reformation was imposed from above and generally accepted, not because the English were eager for conversation, but because, like all English people at all times, they took a rather sensible low-key approach to religion and found that the new flavour rather suited this. What Dickens did was add an ideological element to the pragmatic view which was then being taken. In so doing, he appeared to provide a better explanation for the English Reformation. If his views were not accepted by everyone, and they were by most people, they had certainly made people think.

One person he appears to have influenced was Professor Elton. In 1964 Elton was already much in love with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s leading royal servant during most of the 1530s, the man responsible for carrying out the great changes that took place during that decade, not least in religion. At that time Cromwell was still being presented as the great reforming bureaucrat who modernised the Tudor state, a man to whom strong religious feelings were about as alien as they would be to a computer. He came up with the answers, but it was a matter of intellect and reason rather than emotion and religion. Elton has always disliked, indeed appears to be almost frightened by, anyone who shows signs of being an idealist, and therefore, by his account, achieves nothing in the real world. The result has been, among other things, Elton’s extraordinary vendetta against Sir Thomas More, who in his version is not only ‘the authoritarian servant of a dictatorial Church’ but also a disturbed, if not mad, adolescent with a serious hang-up about sex. The mad Sir Thomas More – mad, at least, when he took up his pen to write against heretics – is a travesty of the truth. What interests me is Elton’s rhetorical strategy in calling his opponent (for that is what More becomes by daring to resist Cromwell’s ‘reform and renewal’) mad or sexually disturbed, and therefore of no account. The fact is, surely, that Cromwell (‘I do not cease to give thanks that it hath pleased God’s goodness to use me as an instrument and to work somewhat by me’) believed just as strongly as More did in his own version of religious truth, and, just like More, died for it, even if in Cromwell’s case his royal master chose to distort the nature of his religious beliefs for propaganda purposes. Whether this makes Cromwell mad or sexually disturbed is another matter.

Over the years Elton has gone some way towards accepting the Protestant or at least ideologically more committed Cromwell. His new Cromwell is still the political realist, but one with a genuine concern for ‘reform and renewal’, both in church and state. In the process Elton has also gone some way towards accepting Dickens’s view of the English Reformation. The result of this merger has not, in my view, been altogether happy. His assumption remains that Protestantism was a good thing, and was seen to be so by most people, or at least by sensible people. The Reformation did require a little stage management, which was most skilfully provided, as Elton himself has shown, by Cromwell. But that it needed such skill has not shaken Elton’s assumption that most things were for the best in admittedly not quite the best of all possible worlds. The merger has also involved Elton in his own version of Newspeak. In his view, only people associated with the radical position – that is, Cromwell’s – had any concern for a better commonwealth. The bishops and other churchmen accused of praemunire, with the prospect, if found guilty, of forfeiting all their lands and goods and of being imprisoned for an indefinite period, get little sympathy, because they were resisting ‘a renovation in faith and manners’. On the other hand, the radicals appear to favour a via media, which somehow makes them sound safe and cosy. Moreover, behind all Cromwell’s actions lay his constitutionalism, his love of Parliament and statute, and his concern for discussion and consent. This, however, did not prevent him pushing through Parliament in 1534 a Treason Act specifically designed to prevent discussion about the royal supremacy over the Church, for it made mere words as well as overt action a treasonable offence. This, in Elton’s view, is all right, because it was ‘better to have the offence defined in law rather than left to be haphazardly construed by this or that judge’. As for the dissolution of the monasteries: ‘insofar as so violent a deed could be done considerately it was – a fact which helps to explain the speed and smoothness of the operation.’ Of course, many regimes have chosen to do their violent deeds with speed and smoothness, but I am not so sure one really wants to applaud their success.

Scarisbrick’s book puts a bomb under this by now rather complacent view of the English Reformation. What it argues – for the most part successfully – is that the Reformation was disliked by the vast majority of the English people, and strongly resisted by all manner of them in all manner of ways, though in the end the power of the state was too great for them. One episode alone should have alerted historians to this a long time ago: ‘the Pilgrimage of Grace’, called by Scarisbrick with much justification ‘the largest rebellion in English history’. English historians, with some notable exceptions such as C.S.L. Davies, have gone to great lengths and have used much ingenuity to try and explain why this was not a revolt against the religious policies of the Crown. For Elton, it was the work of a remnant of the ‘Aragonese faction’ – Newspeak for people who thought that Catherine of Aragon had been hard done by, and who disliked the royal supremacy in religion and the ensuing religious changes. As there were about ten thousand ‘pilgrims’ in Lincolnshire and well over twenty thousand in the North, in a total population of probably under three and a half million, it seems a very large ‘remnant’. In fact, these numbers are crucial evidence that the English Reformation was intensely disliked. Moreover, if either the Dukes of Norfolk or Suffolk or the Earls of Derby and Shrewsbury had chosen to be disloyal to their king, the ‘pilgrims’ would probably have been successful.

The King is, of course, another crucial factor in this story. In recent years there has been a tendency to portray Henry VIII as a man easily led by people like Cromwell or Wolsey or manipulated by factions. One piece of evidence cited by Scarisbrick suggests that nothing is further from the truth. Henry’s advice to Scotland’s rulers in 1543 on how to achieve ‘the extirpation of hypocrisy and superstition maintained in the state of monks and friars’ went something like this. First of all, keep your intentions ‘very close and secret’ so as to forestall any efforts to hinder your plans. Then send out commissioners ‘as it were to put a good order in the same’, but really to ‘get knowledge of all their abominations’, knowledge which can be used in the propaganda war. Then make clear to noblemen and bishops that they will be well rewarded from the spoils of the dissolution, while the monks themselves should be assured of reasonable financial provision, with the implicit proviso that this will only be forthcoming if they behave decently and offer no resistance. What Henry does not mention, though he had plenty of practical experience of it, was the usefulness of executing those who did resist. Henry’s advice exhibits one face at least of the English Reformation, and it is an ugly one. But, of course, if Scarisbrick is right in saying that the Reformation was the work of a small minority, then much of it was bound to be ugly. In 1536 Robert Plumpton wrote to his mother: ‘You have much to thank God for that it should please him to give you licence to live until this time, for the Gospel of Christ was never so truely preached as it is now.’ For people like Plumpton and Thomas Cromwell, as indeed for Dickens and Elton, the ugliness was in the end worthwhile, but it is high time we realised how ugly much of it was.