Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I

Here’s the conclusion of this 2014 book by Peter Ackroyd:

* The reformation of the English Church was, from the beginning, a political and dynastic matter; it had no roots in popular protest or the principles of humanist reform. No Calvin or Luther would have been permitted to flourish in England. Reformation was entirely under the direction of the king. The English Reformation had other unique aspects. In the countries of continental Europe that espoused Protestantism, all the rituals and customs of Catholicism were abolished; there was to be no Mass, no Virgin Mary and no cult of the saints. Yet Henry, in all matters save that of papal sovereignty, was an orthodox Catholic. The monasteries may have been destroyed, and the pope replaced, but the Mass survived.

* Those who supported the king’s cause were, in large part, of a practical persuasion; they wanted the lands and revenues of the Church for themselves. They were lawyers and courtiers. They were members of parliament, which voted in accordance with the king’s will throughout this period. Only for a few scholars and divines was the theology of the Reformation important. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was a man of piety rather than of principle; he was as much an ecclesiastical lawyer as a divine who saw his way forward through compromise and conciliation. The refining of Church doctrine under Edward, and the reversal of practice under Mary, serve only to emphasize the slightly incoherent framework of the religious polity.

The Elizabethan settlement created what Lord Burghley called a ‘midge-madge’ of contradictory elements that was soon to pass under the name of Anglicanism. It was as alien to the pure spirit of Protestantism, adumbrated in Zurich or Geneva, as it was to the doctrines of Rome. The English liturgy contained elements old and new, and the perils of religious speculation were avoided with a studied vagueness or ambiguity. The Book of Common Prayer is also animated by a spirit of piety rather than dogmatic certainty.

England therefore became Protestant by degrees, and by a process of accommodation and subtle adjustment. The people acquiesced in the new dispensation. Time and forgetfulness, aided by apathy and indifference, slowly weakened the influence of the old religion beyond repair. If, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, England had become a Protestant nation, therefore, the nature of that Protestantism was mixed and divided; we may only say, perhaps, that England was no longer Catholic. The passage of time had accomplished what the will of men could not work.

We may see the enduring effects of the Reformation in the emphasis upon the individual rather than upon the community. Private prayer took the place of public ritual. Manuals addressed to the personal devotional life abounded. Justification by faith alone, one of the cardinal tenets of the new religion, was wholly private in character. The struggles of individual consciences, with the constant awareness of sin, now became the material of the religious pamphlets of the period. We may suspect the influence of the reformed religion, too, on the conditions that made possible the birth of the modern state; the word itself emerged towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth. The Protestant calendar was devoted to the celebration of a new national culture, with such holy days as the queen’s birthday and the defeat of the Armada. It became a civic and courtly, rather than a religious, timetable.

* The belief in divine providence, one of the blessings of the Protestant spirit, led to submission and obedience to the secular authorities. Where once the monks had taken responsibility for the indigent, their place had been taken by parish officers; the overseers of the poor, and the workhouses, became the solutions to what was now regarded as a social problem rather than an ordinance of God. When the House of Commons took over the former royal chapel of St Stephen’s in 1549, it was the mark of a larger transition; the law of God ultimately gave way to the statutes of parliament. The idea of good governance emerges most fully in the sixteenth century, and the state itself was deemed to have a formative role in social and economic policy.

* The demise of the mystery plays and the whole panoply of religious drama, which had possessed so strong a hold over England for many centuries, led ineluctably to the secularization of the drama and the rise of the London playhouses. The great efflorescence of the English drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be regarded as one of the consequences of the Reformation. In literature, too, the translation of the Bible into English inspired writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Milton and Bunyan. In a more general sense the new place of the English language encouraged the growth of literacy among the population. This may in turn help to account for the great increase in educational provision through the period; in the 1550s forty-seven new school foundations were made, and in the following decade a further forty-two.

* William Cobbett once wrote that the wretchedness of the landless labourer was the work of Reformation.
The abandonment of public rituals in the streets and open places of the towns led in the course of time to social fragmentation. When popular pastimes were curtailed and despised, the richer sort tended to think of themselves as a class apart. Seats were soon supplied in churches for families of local stature. We may see the change from another perspective. It has been estimated that the number of alehouses doubled in the fifty years after 1580; with the demise of the guild fraternities, the pageants and the church-ales, there had to be an alternative source of refreshment.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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