Time to Reform the Reformation

For five centuries England has been in denial about the role of Roman Catholicism in shaping it. The coin in your pocket declares the monarch to be Defender of the Faith. Since 1558 that has meant the Protestant faith, but Henry VIII actually got the title from the Pope for defending Catholicism against Luther. Henry eventually broke with Rome because the Pope refused him a divorce, and along with the papacy went saints, pilgrimage, the monastic life, eventually even the Mass itself – the pillars of medieval Christianity.

Elizabeth I

To explain that revolution, the Protestant reformers told a story. Henry had rejected not the Catholic Church, but a corrupt pseudo-Christianity which had led the world astray. John Foxe embodied this story unforgettably in his Book of Martyrs, subsidised by the Elizabethan government as propaganda against Catholicism at home and abroad. For Foxe, Queen Elizabeth was her country’s saviour, and the Reformation itself the climax of an age-old struggle between God, represented by the monarch, and the devil, represented by the Pope.

Fear of Catholic Spain, the greatest power in Europe, gave Foxe’s story urgency. That fear escalated under the Stuart kings, for all of them married Catholics, and were suspected of favouring their wives’ religion. The prospect of a persecuting Catholicism imposed by an apostate monarchy fuelled Protestant anxiety. It led to Civil War, and the execution of King Charles I. Ironically, Charles was a loyal Anglican, but both his sons, Charles II and James II, did eventually embrace Catholicism.

In 1679 fear of Catholicism triggered a last orgy of persecution. The so called Popish Plot, to murder the king and seize the throne, was a paranoid fantasy concocted by Titus Oates, but it unleashed a wave of gruesome executions, including the judicial murder of the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett.

At the height of the hysteria, Protestant mythology achieved definitive form in a book that would shape the writing of Tudor history down to our own day. In 1679 Gilbert Burnet, a Scottish cleric, published the first volume of a massive History of the Reformation, an anti-Catholic narrative given scholarly credibility by the inclusion of dozens of documents gathered from public and private archives. Burnet would be the chief propagandist for the “Glorious Revolution” which deposed James II and set the Protestant William of Orange on the throne. His history rammed home the message that Catholicism and Englishness were utterly incompatible: Catholicism was tyranny, Protestantism liberation. “They hate us,” he wrote, “because we dare to be freemen and Protestants.”

It was a message the nation wanted to hear: Burnet was thanked by a special vote of Parliament. His work was supplemented by John Strype, another ardent “Orange” cleric, in a stream of biographies and collections of Reformation documents, many of them gathered from Foxe’s archives. Till well into the 20th century, historians of the English Reformation would rely on Burnet and Strype for their source materials, in the process perpetuating their late-Stuart take on the Tudor age.

The creation of the Public Record Office in 1838 made accessible thousands of documents from Tudor England, but didn’t radically alter this traditional spin on the Reformation story. The greatest Victorian historian of Tudor England was James Anthony Froude, who eagerly explored the archives, but read them through inherited spectacles. A Protestant to his fingertips, he hated clergy, doctrine, religious mystery and, above all, Catholicism. He saw the break with Rome as the beginning of Britain’s rise to imperial greatness, and the Reformation as a confrontation between two incompatible civilisations. Froude knew that the Reformation had been imposed to begin with on a reluctant nation, but he rejoiced that this had happened.

A disciple of Thomas Carlyle, he thought history was not for the little people, but was made by heroes. “Up to the defeat of the Armada,” he wrote, “manhood suffrage in England would at any moment have brought back the Pope.” Happily, there was no democracy in Tudor England, and the country had been saved from itself by the tyrannical Henry VIII, and if the abbeys were unroofed, and a few hundred priests butchered in the process, that was a small price for imperial greatness and the march of progress. Shorn of its more blatant jingoistic rhetoric, Froude’s Protestant version of the Reformation would be recycled in the writing of academic history late into the 20th century.

Historians no longer take that venerable Protestant version for granted, but it is still alive and well in the wider culture. It underpins, for example, Shekhar Kapur’s biopic Elizabeth. It was reiterated recently by the journalist Simon Jenkins when he wrote that “most Britons had, by the late 15th century, come to regard the Roman church as an alien, corrupt and reactionary agent of intellectual oppression, awash in magic and superstition. They could not wait to see the back of it.”

But in multicultural England, the inherited Protestant certainties are fading. It is time to look again at the Reformation story. There was nothing inevitable about the Reformation. The heir to the throne is uneasy about swearing to uphold the Protestant faith, and it seems less obvious than it once did that the religion which gave us the Wilton Diptych and Westminster Abbey, or the music of Tallis, Byrd and Elgar, is intrinsically un-English. The destruction of the monasteries and most of the libraries, music and art of medieval England now looks what it always was – not a religious breakthrough, but a cultural calamity. The slaughtered Popish martyrs look less like an alien fifth column than the voices of a history England was not allowed to have.


Eamon Duffy is Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge. His latest book, Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: religion and conflict in the Tudor Reformations, is published by Bloomsbury. This article originally appeared in the London Telegraph and is republished with permission.

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  • Irving_mary

    Despite what the history books say, it is not true that “Henry eventually broke with Rome because the Pope refused him a divorce.”  Actually, the pope refused to grant him an annulment – another proof that the Catholic Church is divinely instituted.  The pope would have loved to grant him an annulment if he could.  The pope knew and dreaded the consequences of his refusal.  However, he knew that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid and nothing could be done about it. Thank God for the Roman Catholic Church which despite the weaknesses of her leaders cannot teach error! 

  • MaxMarieOFS

    We need to let go of the term Roman Catholic. The church is simply Catholic. To continue to call it Roman is a slight against all our other beautiful rites. After all, it is the Catechism of the CATHOLIC Church. The term Roman Catholic was launch by Henry (see the entry at NewAdvent.org) as a derogatory term. After all, the Anglican Rite was just as Catholic as the Latin one. And he couldn’t call us Latin as the Anglican Rite was in Latin at that time. Henry wanted create his Catholicism as the ‘true Catholicism.’

  • Pacificangels1

    There are 21 Rites in the Catholic Church…this diviision came about due to the Schism of 1054. Latin is the Western Church, which after the Schism of 1054 becomes clear as the Eastern Church has the Orthodox ( Greek, Russian, etc.) They don’t recognise the Pope as the Head of the entire church, they have their Patriarchs.
     A few of the Rites  are the  Byzantine, Maronite, Chaldean, Syrian.      Henry VIII was given the name Defender of the Faith as he did not want England to follow Martin Luther or the other Protestants groups of the time into Heresy.   Henry  VIII broke apart after this time, because of his inability to secure a Male Heir to his throne, not because Catherine was not a faithful or honorable wife.This is why he wanted a divorce.  SO instead he divorced the Church and made himself Head of HIS church.
      There is a book   “The Protestant Reformation of England and Ireland” written by  William Cobbett, a Protestant, published by Tan Books.
       IT is a fantastic reference and shows how things were before the Reformation, what happened during and afterwards.  He wrote this in the 1800’s.  IT has many footnotes in it as well.
    Another great book is “How the Reformation Happened”  by Hillaire Belloc in 1928.  He describes it as “not doctrine, but avarisce and rebellion against the clergy , which originally fuelled the Reformation.”

  • dan

     Amen!  I have long fought this socially accepted backhand and would love to see it drop from favor by both clergy and laity alike. It is factually incorrect and historically false.

  • Annamarie53

    Wow!  If the Protestants that I personally know, my own mother among them, ever accept the fact that the “Reformation” is not only mis-named, but a lie in toto, they will have a collective heart attack!  I doubt many of them would acceed to the facts because they would be forced to come home to Holy Mother Church and their morality, of which in many instances they are justifiably proud, is itself therefore a lie and the flexibility they use to their own advantage now would therefore collapse.  They don’t seem to understand that we Catholics have much less “rubber band” characteristics to ours, and very little wiggle room.  Being Catholic is not for sissies!

  • Rory O’Donnell

    As some below remark, there have been both popular and scholarly refutations of the Henry, Edward VI and Elizabeth reformations: these began as polemics such as the defences of St Thomas More or the London Charterhouse martyrs which were issued under the Catholic Queen Mary. But the cultural drag of the Protestant view,even amongst unbelievers such the very influential journalist (Sir) Simon Jenkins, who is chairman of the 3 million National Tust (UK) is still strong. English Heritage recently issued as magisteria larchitectural  history of the London Chatehrouse and its subsquent history: the martyrs are referred to in the blurb as’ recalcitrant monsk’!

  • Everett

      For decades, Holy Mother Church was more concerned about protecting its image than protecting its children and subjected them to the vilest of sins.  I am an apostate Protestant , but I will never be Catholic.  Historically, the Church of Rome has been far more concerned about power than truth. 

  • Everett

      The Pope refused to grant an annulment to Henry VIII because his wife, Anne Boleyn, was the aunt of Emperor Charles V who  was adamently opposed to it.  The pope’s decision was purely political, not “proof that the Catholic Church is divinely institluted.” 

  • Everett

      You neglected to mention during the last three years of Catholic Mary Stuart’s reign, she had three handred men burned at the stake for the sin of Protestantism.  That’s how she earned the epithet “Bloody Mary.”  Catholics tend to have selective recall when it comes to their history.

  • Everett

      A mea culpa for an error above.  It was Mary Tudor, not Mary Stuart.  another one my increasingly common senior moments.

  • Djnightingale2

    what’s the proof that the Pope’s decision was purely political/