How a Protestant spin machine hid the truth about the English Reformation

Today, the 23rd of May, is the anniversary of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon —­ the event which started the English Reformation.

If Catherine had borne Henry a son, everything would be different …

In 2003, Charles Clarke, Tony Blair’s Secretary of State for Education and Skills, expressed strong views on the teaching of British history.

I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.

In response, Michael Biddiss, professor of medieval history at Reading University, suggested that Mr Clarke’s view may have been informed by Khrushchev’s notion that historians are dangerous people, capable of upsetting everything.­­­­­

In many ways, Khrushchev was correct. Historians can be a distinct threat —­ both those who create “official” history, and those who work quietly to unpick it, filling in the irksome and unhelpful details.
Rulers in all ages have tried to control how history sees them, and have gone to great lengths to have events recorded the way they want. The process is as old as authority itself.

The result is that generations of people learn something at school, only to find out later that it was not so. For instance, children brought up in the communist countries of the 20th century have little idea of the indiscriminately murderous mechanics at the heart of their founding revolutions. More recently, in the United States, anyone young enough not to have lived through the two recent Iraq wars might, if they only read political memoirs, actually believe that the wars were fought to root out al-Qaeda.

So what about England? Has our constitutional monarchy and ancient tradition of parliamentary democracy protected our history from political manipulation? Can we rely on what we are taught and told, or are there myths we, too, have swallowed hook, line, and sinker?

Where better to start than with that most quintessentially English of events ­— the break with Rome that signalled the birth of modern England?

For centuries, the English have been taught that the late medieval Church was superstitious, corrupt, exploitative, and alien. Above all, we were told that King Henry VIII and the people of England despised its popish flummery and primitive rites. England was fed up to the back teeth with the ignorant mumbo-jumbo magicians of the foreign Church, and up and down the country Tudor people preferred plain-speaking, rational men like Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin. Henry VIII achieved what all sane English and Welsh people had long desired ­– an excuse to break away from an anachronistic subjugation to the ridiculous medieval strictures of the Church.

For many in England, the subject of whether or not this was true was not even up for debate. Even now, the historical English disdain for all things Catholic is often regarded as irrefutable and objective fact. Otherwise why would we have been taught it for four and a half centuries? And anyway, the English are quite clearly not an emotional race like some of our continental cousins. We like our churches bright and clean and practical and full of common sense. For this reason, we are brought up to believe that Catholicism is just fundamentally, well … un-English.

But the last 30 years have seen a revolution in Reformation research. Leading scholars have started looking behind the pronouncements of the religious revolution’s leaders – Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley – and beyond the parliamentary pronouncements and the great sermons. Instead, they have begun focusing on the records left by ordinary English people. This “bottom up” approach to history has undoubtedly been the most exciting development in historical research in the last 50 years. It has taken us away from what the rulers want us to know, and steered us closer towards what actually happened.

When this approach is applied to the Reformation, what emerges is a very different picture to the one we were taught in school.

It seems that in 1533, the year of Henry’s break from Rome, traditional Catholicism was the religion of the vast majority of the country. And in most places it was absolutely thriving.

It had developed a particularly English flavour, with a focus on the involvement of ordinary people in parish churches, village greens, plays, and pageants – much of which seemed to involve a good deal of community parties, dancing, and drinking.

It is true that English religion in the early 1500s was not especially studious or erudite. The people did not spend hours a day in biblical studies, contemplation, and moralising in the manner of the more intense European reformers. But England had a nationally cohesive spirituality that was alive and exuberant, with a distinctly community feel.

It is true that English religion in the early 1500s was not especially studious or erudite. The people did not spend hours a day in biblical studies, contemplation, and moralising in the manner of the more intense European reformers. But England had a nationally cohesive spirituality that was alive and exuberant, with a distinctly community feel.

If you looked inside an English parish church on the eve of the Reformation, you would have seen a space filled with the lives and loves of the community. The saints would be draped in the parishioners’ best clothes, jewellery, and beads, often given as bequests in wills. The nave would have numerous side altars, most funded by local guilds to provide daily masses for favoured saints and the deceased of the parish. If the church had the relics of a saint, the reliquary or tomb would be festooned with gold, silver, and wax models of everything from healed limbs to ships saved from calamities at sea — it would be a mini-history of the gratitude of the people. Flowers and candles would be everywhere, as would parishioners, who regularly attended weekday prayers and masses at the many guild and chantry altars. In an age of increasing literacy, significant numbers of the upper and artisanal classes read along in their own devotional books. Religious printing had become big business. It has been estimated that, on the eve of the Reformation, over 57,000 Books of Hours were in circulation in England.

All in all, parish churches were at the heart of a vibrant English parish life, where the living celebrated their good fortune and remembered the dead.

The first thing to go under the reformers’ axe was the cult of saints. The ancient robed and flower-garlanded effigies were smashed up and carted off. Stone and alabaster were ground up. Wood was burned. In addition to the dramatic loss of these cherished protector figures, the parishes were also deprived of around 40 to 50 saints’ “holy days” (holidays) a year, when no servile work was allowed from noon the previous day. This was a dramatic change to the rhythms of life the country had known for centuries. The reformers were keenly aware this would boost economic activity, and welcomed the increase in output it would bring.

The next biggest change was the abolition of purgatory. The reformers ridiculed the cult of the dead (“purgatorye ys pissed owte” one memorably wrote). But these age-old rites of death and the afterlife provided a unique framework that late medieval English people embraced to cope with death. When the reformers ripped out grave stones and brasses inviting prayers for the departed, when they burned the local bede-rolls remembering the dead of the parish, and when they sledge-hammered the chantry altars where relatives were daily prayed for, they did something even more profound than the vandalism. They stole the dead from the daily lives of their communities, rendering the deceased suddenly invisible to those long used to honouring and remembering their departed relatives and friends. Whether or not intentional, this was an attack on people’s memories.

Protestants iconoclasts at work (c. 17th)

The early and high Middle Ages were a time when cathedrals and monasteries dominated religious life. But by the late 1400s and early 1500s, religion had been taken over by the people — most notably in the form of the religious guilds that had mushroomed in every parish. For instance, King’s Lynn had over 70; Bodmin had more than 40.

These guilds funded festivals, parades, and pageants — and the parish records show that the celebrations were regularly and widely enjoyed. The guilds’ most spectacular contribution to late medieval religious life lay in the great mystery play cycles they sponsored. These moral dramas were performed in English (not Latin), often around the feast of Corpus Christi. Despite being declared illegal and destroyed by the Reformation, enough copies survive for us to get an idea of their sheer scale: from Chester, Cornwall (in Cornish), Coventry, Digby, Towneley/Wakefield, and elsewhere. They were a focus of intense regional pride, and took entire communities to stage them. The York cycle alone comprised 48 plays.

Inside parish churches, uniquely English customs had also developed. There was the festival of boy bishops and misrule on St Nicholas’s day; the setting up of an Easter sepulchre as a mini stage-set for re-enacting the Passion; and the dramatic “creeping to the Cross” on Good Friday — a humble barelegged and barefoot procession on the knees to adore the cross, before swaddling it and laying it inside the Easter sepulchre. These rituals, as well as the many festivals in honour of local or patronal saints, were deeply embedded into communities, and people stubbornly persisted with them long after they had been outlawed.

Away from the life of the churches, increasing literacy meant more stories, poems, songs, and carols. A favourite theme was, unsurprisingly, the Virgin Mary, who was frequently portrayed as that most English flower, the rose:

Of this rose was Cryst y-bore,
To save mankynde that was forlore;
And us alle from synnes sore,
Prophetarum carmine.

This rose is so faire of hywe,
In maide Mary that is so trywe,
Y-borne was lorde of virtue,
Salvator sine crimine.

(Of a Rose Synge Wec. 1450)

Finally, the cult of relics was junked. It is true that provenance was rarely scientific, and the reformers were able to jeer at their favourite fakes. But the records suggest that this empirical approach, which counts the number of duplicated and inauthentic relics, misses the point. These objects brought people into the presence of the numinous, and joined the living with the dead. Many relics were even practical. For instance, articles of saints’ clothing were given to expecting women to wear in the hope of a healthy delivery. Relics were therefore a part of day-to-day life, offering people a sense of protection and connection with the sacred.

Given the intensity of people’s attachment to early 16th-century popular religion, the stark Tudor reforms were met with incomprehension, outrage, and sometimes passionate violence.

The men sent to smash up the churches knew this grassroots anger all too well. There are innumerable records of the hostility and violence they faced from distraught parishioners trying to protect churches and graves.

Once the bussed-in workmen had inevitably triumphed, and the heat of confrontation had worn off, people were left bereft:

On the feast of the Assumption 1537 Thomas Emans, a Worcester serving-man, entered the despoiled shrine of Our Lady of Worcester, recited a Paternoster and an Ave, kissed the feet of the image, from which jewels, coat, and shoes had been taken away, and declared bitterly for all to hear, “Lady, art thou stripped now? I have seen the day that as clean men hath been stripped at a pair of gallows as were they that stripped thee.” He told the people that, though her ornaments were gone, “the similitude of this is no worse to pray unto, having a recourse to her above, then it was before.” (from Eamon Duffy,The Stripping of the Altars)

There was, before long, coordinated dissent. In 1536, an uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace came south from northern England and occupied Leicester, demanding an end to the radical changes and personal revenge on Thomas Cromwell, whose mercenary looting of the abbeys had shocked people profoundly. Meanwhile, around 30,000 (including the Archbishop of York) took York, with similar demands for the reforms to stop. Predictably, it all ended in catastrophe. Some 250 protestors were executed, killing off any further mass protests. The Tudor monarchy was, after all, one of the most powerful in Europe.

The conclusion of this modern grassroots scholarship is that bulldozing the Catholic Church off the face of medieval England was not a “bottom up” revolution in which Henry merely acquiesced to his people’s wishes by throwing off a widely hated foreign domination. To the contrary, it looks increasingly like Henry and his circle imposed the Reformation “top down”, unleashing 100 years of deep anger and alienation that was only overcome by sustained politicking and ruthless force. Politics and economics have always fitted together snugly, and it was no different in Henry’s day. By spreading some of the lands and wealth stolen from the monasteries, Henry was able to create a firm coterie of influential landholders who had a financial interest in seeing the reforms through.

Reading Abbey, vandalised by ‘reformers’

While we are debunking, we should also look to another “fact” we have been commonly taught, which is that England was moving towards Protestantism by Henry’s time owing to the widespread popularity of Wycliffe and his Lollards. This movement, according to Protestant legend, embodied and expressed the true sentiment of English people. However, the evidence is overwhelmingly that this is a red herring, as research is revealing that Lollardy was never more than a small regional and dynastic movement in select parts of England. Moreover, it was almost dead by the mid-1400s – over a century before Henry’s divorce. Although Lollardy had, in its day, been a genuine expression of dissent (like many others across Christendom for the last two thousand years), it was never a mainstream – let alone a majority – English religious movement.

That is not to say everyone loved the Church. By the time Cromwell was sharpening his pen to gut the monasteries more thoroughly than the Vikings ever had, there were known and identifiable pockets of English Protestants, especially in London, the South-East and East Anglia. But the records show they were a small minority of the population, and the tone of King Henry’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments (more below) solidly reflected mainstream thought.

However, nothing ever stands still, and England in the early 1500s – just like everywhere else – had its modern humanist philosophers and theologians. But here there is sometimes a misunderstanding. Humanists were not atheists or anti-Church. They were merely interested in applying the philosophies and knowledge of the day, as thinkers had done in every century. The Netherlands produced Erasmus, who was great friends with England’s leading humanist: the exceptionally talented St Thomas More, one of the first victims of the English Reformation, executed by Henry for not agreeing to the split with Rome.

So how did all this happen? Why did Henry VIII, in 1533, cut a wound so deep into his country that four and a half centuries later it has still not healed?

The story is a tragedy.

On the 23rd of May 1533, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sat in the lady chapel of Dunstable Priory to pronounce one of the most significant legal judgments in English history — infinitely more seismic than Magna Carta.

The underlying issues was that Henry VIII’s marriage of 16 years had produced no boys. But his mistress, the Marquess of Pembroke, was pregnant, so time was ticking. The usual legal channels had failed to grant Henry a divorce, so the Archbishop of Canterbury stepped up to the mark.

In order to give Archbishop Cranmer the unprecedented legal authority to do what he was about to do, Henry’s slippery hard man, Thomas Cromwell, drafted and rushed The Act in Restraint of Appeals 1532 through Parliament. Cromwell’s Act suspended all the usual laws in this regard, and give Cranmer full authority to give judgment. (Interestingly, to do this, Cromwell claimed that Cranmer had full authority because England was an empire. At the same time, his spin machine was working overtime, pumping out fantastical ancient histories linking the English empire to Troy, therefore making it older than, and so independent from, Rome.)

Therefore, in the hope that the King’s mistress was carrying a boy, Cranmer solemnly declared King Henry VIII divorced from Catherine of Aragon.

In the event, Henry’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, gave birth to a girl (and would, with Cromwell’s help, be beheaded within three years). But the deed was done. Cromwell had divorced Henry from Catherine, and England from Rome.

The whole affair was radical.

Since time immemorial, canon law had reserved appeals on marriage and divorce to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s boss, the Pope. English kings­, like all monarchs in Latin Christendom, had always observed this ancient legal structure. Henry had happily used it himself, when he had needed a dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon (his brother’s widow) in the first place.

The reason Cromwell had pushed for a break with Rome was that everyone knew
Henry had no legal basis for divorcing Catherine.

Cromwell knew there was no legal basis for the divorce (Holbein: Getty images)

Henry’s argument (which he worked out himself, and was proud of) insisted that the Bible forbade a man from marrying his brother’s widow, and therefore his marriage to Catherine had all been a dreadful mistake and was, regrettably, invalid. However, all canon lawyers in England and Europe (apart from Henry’s circle of advisers) knew it was a hopeless argument, as there was a well-recognised exception to this rule. In a “levirate” marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–10), a man was required to marry his brother’s widow if she had no children, which was the case here, and why Henry had been permitted to marry Catherine and seal a vital bond between England and Spain.

Therefore, to no one’s surprise, the Pope said no to the divorce.

Until this point, Henry had been an ardent Catholic. When he first read Luther’s works, he had been so outraged by Luther’s attack on the Church that he wrote a book (in Latin) systematically taking Luther’s arguments apart. He published it in 1521 with a dedication to the pope. In it, he referred to “the pest of Martin Luther’s heresy … a deadly venom … infecting all with its poison.” He continued:

But, O immortal God! what bitter language! What so hot and inflamed force of speaking can be invented, sufficient to declare the crimes of that most filthy villain [Luther], who has undertaken to cut in pieces the seamess coat of Christ, and to disturb the quiet state of the church of God!

Henry made his personal position very clear:

Convinced that, in our ardour for the welfare of Christendom, in our zeal for the Catholic faith and our devotion to the Apostolic See, we had not yet done enough, we determined to show by our own writings our attitude towards Luther and our opinion of his vile books; to manifest more openly to all the world that we shall ever defend and uphold, not only by force of arms but by the resources of our intelligence and our services as a Christian, the Holy Roman Church. (King Henry VIII, Defence of the Seven Sacraments)

In grateful recognition, the Pope awarded Henry the personal title “Defender of the Faith”. (Since the break with Rome, Parliament has, slightly strangely, conferred this title on all British monarchs.)

However, when the Pope refused to allow Henry to divorce, Thomas Cromwell came up with a corker of a solution ­– break with Rome; turn the country Protestant; and, at the same time, solve the problem of the empty royal coffers by trousering all the wealth in the country’s innumerable abbeys and parish churches.

Like King Philip IV of France two centuries earlier surveying the wealth of the Templars, the temptation for Henry was just too much to resist.

The only problem was that although Cromwell’s plan suited Henry and his circle (who would all get very rich off the scheme), there was the small matter of the English people.

To change a country’s religion lock, stock, and barrel was no easy task. In the end, it took Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. The strategy was fairly predictable for a medieval monarchy, and again, it has striking similarities with how Philip IV took out the Templars. Cromwell’s plan only needed three steps: outlaw everything to do with Catholicism; denigrate and malign it at every opportunity in official pronouncements and sermons; and execute anyone who objects.

One example of the type of propaganda deployed must stand for many. Turning a blind eye to the hundreds of English Catholics executed by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I’s administration came up with the notion of convincing people that religious executions had been invented by Elizabeth’s older sister, Mary I. Despite the fact that images were banned in churches, they ordered a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, hot off the press with the ink still wet, placed in every collegiate church in the land, where all people could be appalled by its 150 gruesome woodcut illustrations showing the Protestant martyrs executed by Mary. What it failed to show, of course, were those Catholic victims that Henry had consigned to identical deaths before Mary’s reign, and the hundreds that Elizabeth was now ruthlessly persecuting in exactly the same way. But, of course, that is the nature of propaganda. Elizabeth forbade the printing of any Catholic materials in her kingdom, leaving her full control of all books and pamphlets.

The Tudor violence meted out to enforce the break with Rome was extreme, designed to deter by shock. For instance, one of Henry’s earliest victims was Sister Elizabeth Barton, a Benedictine nun. When she criticised Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn, he had her executed, and her head spiked on London Bridge ­— the first and only woman ever to have suffered this posthumous barbarity.

Henry and his inner circle of politicians and radical clerics put to death hundreds of dissenters, pour encourager les autres. None of these people were plotting to kill him or destabilise his rule. Their “treason” was to oppose the destruction of their religion or the despoiling of their property. The brutal strangulation, emasculation, disembowelling, beheading, and quartering they endured as traitors was hideous, as was the total absence of any form of due process or justice.

Take the death of Richard Whiting, the elderly abbot of Glastonbury, England’s greatest abbey. Thomas Cromwell’s administrative diary entry about him reads starkly:

Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to be tryed at Glaston and also executyd there with his complycys.

Whiting was, in fact, a member of the House of Lords, and entitled to be arraigned before Parliament if he was to be charged with any crime. But that was much too cumbersome for Cromwell, who just wanted the abbot out of the way in order to seize the abbey’s wealth and line his own pockets with it. Whiting was therefore dragged on a hurdle to the summit of Glastonbury Tor, where he was subjected to the full horrors of a traitor’s death. And he was not alone. Similar summary executions took place up and down the land to clear the way for Cromwell’s commissioners, who boxed up every last cross and candlestick they could find, and shipped them back to London to be melted down and pumped into their personal accounts.

The evidence shows that it actually took the Tudors around 45 years to eradicate all memory of this country’s Catholic past.

Henry started it all, from 1533–47. His reforms were harsh on the people, yet he rather hypocritically remained a practising Catholic himself. He had a newfound hostility towards the Pope, born of his divorce debacle, but he continued to hear Mass regularly. Although he presided over the looting of the abbeys and a good deal of local church vandalism, he nevertheless exercised certain restraining influences over Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and the other zealots. Things therefore only really kicked off once Henry was dead and the reformers were able to take the nine-year-old King Edward VI on a radical six-year Calvinist journey (1547–53). This was the period of the harshest destruction of English religious art and culture, when even the smallest church in the kingdom was ransacked and all its valuables seized. For several generations, people said that they had suffered under Henry’s reforms, but they dated the utter desecration of the English church to Edward’s reign.

When Mary I briefly returned England to Catholicism from 1553–8, many churches and parishioners cautiously took out the few treasured saints’ statues and missals they had recklessly managed to hide, and they set up their churches again, happy for normality to have returned.

But when Mary unexpectedly died and Elizabeth began the persecutions again, people started slowly to give up. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, no one remembered religious life before Henry. The memories were gone, and so was the will to fight the regime any more.

Amid the turmoil of the English Reformation – with its wanton destruction of communities, their imaginations, and centuries of their books and art – the one thing that stands out most is the sheer scale of the undertaking.

Under the influence of Calvin and Zwingli’s puritan doctrines, Edward VI ordered his commissioners to:

Take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, candlesticks, pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glasses, windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses.

And following Edward’s reign, Elizabeth I repeated the command and finished what he had started. The result was the wholesale destruction of a millennium of irreplaceable English craftsmanship in windows, statues, frescoes, and paintings. The Tate recently estimated that over 90 per cent of all English art was trashed in the period, and scarcely a handful of books survived the burning of the great monastic and university libraries. Oxford’s vast Bodleian, for instance, was left without a single book.

Anyone who doubts there was a political aspect to the destruction needs look no further than the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. It was England’s most popular pilgrimage destination, and Becket’s cult had international reach, with mosaics, icons, and relics of him venerated as far afield as Sicily and the Holy Land. Henry ordered his tomb pulverised, his bones scattered, and his name effaced from history. The reason for this special harshness is not hard to see. Becket’s claim to fame was as a churchman who stood up to royal interference in the Church. Becket was therefore a natural rallying symbol for anyone thinking of challenging Henry’s reforms. Becket represented the sanctity of dissent, and Henry could absolutely not have that.

In the process of all the destruction, it was not just traditional day-to-day spiritual life, the free medical and social care provided by the monasteries, and a country full of creative thought and art that were obliterated. The reformers hacked out and discarded an entire slice of England’s history, alienating the English from an especially vibrant part of their own amazing past.

So Khrushchev was right — historians are dangerous. In the case of the Reformation, generations have perpetuated the artful story spun by the Tudor machine, with the result that we fail to acknowledge that medieval religion in this country was, for a thousand years, as English as tea, warm beer, Maypole dancing, and cricket. As has been said many times: within three generations, England went from being one of Europe’s most Catholic countries to one of its most anti-Catholic.

The medieval world was quite capable of outrageous smears. One needs only think of the blood libel against the Jews. Yet it seems that we, too, are the victims of politicised and twisted history because we are still living with the radical agenda of a small group of Tudor reformers who seized upon a king’s marital needs in order to effect a change they (not the country) desired, and at the same time treated themselves to undreamed of personal wealth.

We are the only European country to use the phrase “the Dark Ages” for the medieval period, and in large measure it is because we have retrospectively made it dark. Henry VIII started it by denigrating and destroying the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual output of ten centuries, emptying out cathedrals and library shelves, leaving them barren and devoid of any human ingenuity or beauty. It is no wonder that, looking at the slim remnants of English medieval life, it appears dark to us. To compound matters, rather than recognise the Tudor sack of our culture, we have collectively stuck to their breathtakingly arrogant claim that England was a backward, gloom-filed wasteland until Henry brought the searing flame of enlightenment.

Our complicity in this myth is partly because the sectarian language of the Tudor court and its clerics’ sermons has proved immensely durable and is now so deeply ingrained that we continue to be blinded to the vitality and unique Englishness of our pre-Reformation culture. Instead of celebrating our nation’s vivid and exuberant history, we swallow Henry’s spin and damn it all as nothing more than the output of an infested ragbag of “corrupt abominations”, “papistical superstitions”, and “unsavery teaching”. The result is a gross distortion, and equates to the theft of our past. Happily, it is a wrong that historians are now, in increasing numbers, eloquently addressing.

Perhaps the final word should go to Robert Peckham, who died in Rome in 1569 during the reign of Elizabeth I:

Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who, after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith, and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 23 May 2014)