Popular Politics & The English Reformation

Earlier this month I read this important history of the English Reformation by Ethan H. Shagan. Popular Politics and the English Reformation is a study of popular responses to the English Reformation rather than an attempt to count how many (or few) English people “really” converted to Protestantism or remained faithful the the old religion.

This focus on the “popular response” at the political level enables Shagan to move beyond “the “twenty-year-old scholarly dilemma of how the English Reformation could have succeeded despite the inherent conservatism of the English people,” as the blurb on the back of the book puts it.

It is important to note, however, that Shagan is not implacably hostile to the work of historical revisionists such as Eamon Duffy, who argues in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 that there was widespread opposition to Protestantism during the reigns of Henry and Edward, and “that no substantial gulf existed between the religion of the clergy and the educated elite on the one hand and that of the people at large on the other.” (p. 2)

The work of Duffy, Haigh and others, emerged in opposition to the established view, best articulated by A. G. Dickens, in The English Reformation,  a study of the historical and doctrinal emergence of Protestantism in England, seen as part of a wider European movement. In Dickens’ view, English Catholicism was a decayed and corrupt institution and Protestantism had a fresh, direct and dynamic appeal that struck a chord with many ordinary Englishmen of the time. Dickens’ focus on the impact of the Reformation on lives of the common people by studying church records, wills and other local records was a notable innovation and his historical account of the Reformation, published in 1965, was the most influential account of the English Reformation for about a quarter of a century.

According to Shagan, the work of the revisionists,

 “…has had a tremendous and largely beneficial influence on our understanding of the English Reformation, and few historians writing today would deny that in a simple contest between A. G. Dickens’s interpretation on the one hand, and Haigh’s or Duffy’s interpretation on the other, Haigh and Duffy win hands down. The anti-Catholic prejudices embedded in the traditional model have rightfully been overthrown, and the newer interpretations have forced us to appreciate the coherence and vitality of the religious system that was so violently ripped apart in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Yet…” (p. 3)

I am not sure whether Dickens’ view was informed by “anti-Catholic prejudice” any more than Duffy’s is informed by “anti-Protestant prejudice,” but the important point that Shagan makes is that the revisionist model,

“…remains no less imprisoned than its predecessor in a paradigm defined by the phantasmagoric goal of ‘national conversion’…” (p. 5)

In either case, the historian attempts to count or estimate how many Protestants were in England at certain points during the Reformation, and comes to different conclusions.

The weakness of the “body count” method is both the very difficulty in attempting to make windows of men’s souls and the tendency to play down political considerations that were at play in the various forms of resistance, accommodation, co-operation and collaboration that various people engaged in as they sought, in Shagan’s words, “to co-opt state power for their own purposes.” As such, Shagan’s book has been called “one of the first post-revisionist attempts to understand the English Reformation,” at least by his publisher.

In Shagan’s new paradigm the English Reformation is seen as “a piecemeal process in which politics and spiritual change were irrevocably intertwined” (7). This goes some way towards explaining how an apparently conservative people came to accept and adapt to a radical break with the past without enthusiastically embracing the doctrinal reforms of the Reformation.

Shagan demonstrates in the first part of his book that the break with Rome was not at all popular, but that the debates over royal supremacy politicized the Reformation and turned it into a question of loyalty rather than of theology. This resulted in the division of the conservative opposition into “conformist” and “non-conformist” Catholics.

A similar approach is followed by Shagan in looking at the way in which political collaboration and personal or local communal interest caused sections of the local population to co-operate with the dissolution of the monasteries, an aspect of the English Reformation about which both Haighs and Duffy had relatively little to say. Many of those who helped despoil the monastery at Hailes, for example, were Catholics who “could not have been ignorant of the fact that their actions had spiritual connotations; they were constantly being told as much by their more intransigent co-religionists.” (Shagan, p. 195)

Anybody with an interest in the English Reformation should read this book.

David Hurley

Here’s another useful review of the book:

Susan Wabuda. Review of Shagan, Ethan H., Popular Politics and the English Reformation. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. August, 2003.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8041