Saints, Sacrilege, Sedition
Bloomsbury, hb, £25.00
Anyone who studied the Tudors for ‘A’ level history in the 1960s as I did and looks at what contemporary historians are saying about the subject will find a sea change has taken place. The old consensus represented by the work of AG Dickens that saw the Reformation as the triumph of Protestantism, the overthrow of a corrupt Catholic Church and liberation from papal oppression has itself been overthrown, a highly significant development when you remember the role this view had in shaping our national identity.
In its place has come the realisation that the medieval Church was working well in England on the eve of the Reformation and that it was not very difficult for Mary to reverse the changes her father had put in place. Protestantism only really began to establish itself in the reign of Elizabeth.
There are one of two who still cling to the old myths. Eamon Duffy has an amusing quotation from Simon Jenkins, Guardian columnist and son of a distinguished non-conformist minister, who still believes most people in Britain in the late 15th Century saw the Roman Church as an ‘alien, corrupt and reactionary agent of intellectual oppression’ but most scholars appear to accept the new view of the Reformation, at least in its broad outlines.
Not all the revisionary historians are Catholics. Christopher Haig is not. The firmly Protestant historian, Patrick Collinson, gave support to the new view by his analysis of religion under Elizabeth and James, a period when he saw Puritanism become the accepted orthodoxy before the rise of Laudianism.
Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars was a landmark work that argued, in his words, that “the Reformation represented a deep and traumatic cultural hiatus with the medieval past” and did so by examining the strong hold that Catholic beliefs and practices held at the parish level without denying the existence of dissidents, notably the Lollards. Duffy admitted there was some popular support for the Reformation but critics like Diarmaid MacCulloch have argued that he pushes his case too far and underestimates the strength of popular Protestantism to be seen, for example, in Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.
In this new collection of essays Duffy devotes two, one on rood screens and another on Salle church in Norfolk, to the impact of the Reformation on parish life. He has two other chapters on Bishop John Fisher, one of the great theologians of the time and a man Duffy argues who should be seen as much as a humanist as one who looks back to the medieval past (although Duffy also claims that we should not make a sharp distinction between medieval and humanist ideals).
Two essays, one of the conservative voice in the Reformation and the other taking its title from a line in Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 ‘bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sing’, help us to understand not only the continuing appeal of Catholicism but why there was later a reaction against the Protestant ascendancy described by Professor Collinson. Duffy does not claim Shakespeare was a Catholic but the does argue that he must have struck alert contemporaries as an unsatisfactory Protestant.
For Anglican readers this book is important in tracing a change in attitudes that often gets overlooked. For a start, Duffy is sceptical that Henry’s reign saw the emergence of a ‘Catholicism without the Pope’. Conservative bishops and others were simply trying to salvage as much of the old religion as they could. After Henry’s reign English Protestants increasingly regarded themselves as part of a wider Protestant world while their Catholic opponents claimed the old religion was the real faith of the English. After Elizabeth’s reign, Anglicans began to reject a place in a wider Calvinist family and to stress the distinctive marks of their church.
Duffy may exaggerate here. Anglican divines of the 17th century were certainly in touch with the wider currents of European religious thought, both Protestant and Catholic, but the broad point he makes is true. He has fun with a collection The Anglican Tradition edited by GR Evans that refers to the Reformation as the ‘16th Century Emergency’ and contains the Fourth Lateran Council definition of Transubstantiation but has no extract from Calvin. Despite its influence under Elizabeth and James I, Calvinism never established itself as the dominant influence on Anglicanism.