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Historiography of the English Reformation

Introduction to a Historiography of the English Reformation

This is the first in a series of hubs from a historiographical essay that I wrote on this topic for a class in British history. More to come later.

One of the more controversial and interesting events in British history is the English Reformation. Many have investigated what happened and why. The conclusions that they have reached have varied greatly. Some historians, like Christopher Haigh, have argued that the Reformation “was not a specific event which can be given a specific date; it was a long and complex process,” while others, such as A. F. Pollard, have argued that the disestablishment of Catholicism was an inevitable outcome.[1] The English Reformation caused the disestablishment of the traditional Roman Catholic faith of the English people and replaced it with the establishment of the still “catholic,” but not Roman Catholic, Church of England. The Reformation began with the perceived need of Henry VIII for a male heir to his throne. Henry requested an annulment of his marriage from Pope Clement VII based upon the belief that the papal dispensation allowing his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s deceased brother’s widow, never should have been granted on biblical grounds. After the pope denied this request, Henry broke with the church and declared himself Supreme Head of the newly constituted Church of England. However, the English Reformation was nowhere near complete, and there is little doubt that it was a long and sometimes difficult process.

Exactly how and why the Reformation occurred has long been a matter of debate amongst scholars. In a 1982 historiographical essay that was published in The Historical Journal, Christopher Haigh argued that the Reformation could be grouped into “two matrices,” one related to the “motive force behind the progress of Protestantism” and the other related to “pace of religious change.” He then argued that there were two basic interpretations in both of the matrices. In relation to the force behind religious reform, historians saw the Reformation as either being forced upon the people from above by coercion or being “spread horizontally by conversions among the people.” The pace of religious change could likewise be interpreted in two ways: either the Reformation was relatively rapid and largely complete by the demise of Edward VI or the Reformation saw “little…achieved in the first half of the century and the main task of protestantizing the people had to be undertaken in the reign of Elizabeth.” According to Haigh, there were, thus, “four main clusters of interpretations.” These four interpretive clusters have continued to dominate the study of the English Reformation.[2]

The historiography of the English Reformation began at an early date. One of the most influential works that shaped popular opinion of the English Reformation appeared scarcely five years after the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne. Some, including Geoffrey Elton, have posited that the Reformation was substantially completed with the 1558 adoption of the Elizabethan Settlement that was embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles. Just five years later, in 1563, English Protestant John Foxe published the first edition of his Acts and Monuments, better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe made his Protestant sentiments clear throughout the pages of his work. He argued that God had bound Satan up for 1,000 years after the early persecutions of Christians ended in the fourth century. According to Foxe’s interpretation, the God allowed Satan out of his chains in 1324, just before the time of John Wycliffe, when “the Lord, after long darkness [began] some reformation of his church.”[3] While Foxe discussed some of the martyrdoms that Henry VIII carried out during his reign, Foxe believed that Henry’s reign

continued with great nobleness and fame the space of thirty-eight years. During his time there was great alteration of things, in the civil state of the realm, and especially in the ecclesiastical state, and in matters appertaining to the church. For by him the usurped power of the bishop of Rome was exiled and abolished out of the realm, idolatry and superstition somewhat suppressed, images defaced, pilgrimages abolished, abbeys and monasteries pulled down, monkish orders rooted out, the scriptures translated into the vernacular tongue, and the state of the church and religion redressed.[4]

Just before his discussion of the persecutions that took place during the reign of Mary Tudor, Foxe showed his disdain for Catholicism by explaining extensively his view of the “great absurdity, wicked abuse, and perilous idolatry, of the popish mass.”[5] After his discussion of the mass, Foxe went on to describe the “bloody murdering of God’s saints, with the particular processes and names of such good martyrs, both men and women, as, in this time of Queen Mary, were put to death.”[6] Concern over Mary’s accession was evident quite early. Bishop Nicholas Ridley attempted to convert her to no avail. He found her “stiff and obstinate,” and, after a sermon that announced his concerns, Mary’s coronation took place and Ridley took up residence in the Tower.[7] The attempt by Mary to re-establish Catholicism was problematic for Foxe and other avowed Protestants, and led to the exile of the martyrologist. The impact of Foxe’s work was and continues to be immense. M. Hobart Seymour wrote in the preface of his edition of the Acts and Monuments that “no volume in the range of our literature, that has been more effective in maintaining the principles of the Reformation—that noblest of all achievements.” Seymour argued that English subjects should never consent for the pope to hold any power in England.[8]

[1] Christopher Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” The Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (Dec. 1982): 995-1007. Haigh republished this essay in his compilation The English Reformation Revised (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 19-33; A. F. Pollard, Henry VIII (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), available at; Internet; accessed 23 November 2010.

[2] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” 995.

[3] John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. M. Hobart Seymour (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 212-213

[4] Ibid., 407.

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[5] John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Volume VI, ed. Stephen Reed Cattley (London: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1838), 356-383.

[6] Ibid., 592.

[7] Ibid, 389-390.

[8] John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. M. Hobart Seymour, i.

My Blog on Church History

Books on the English Reformation


Chris Price (author) from USA on February 23, 2012:

Thanks for the comment PHD. I've gotten the first five installments of this historiography. There will be at least one more, if not two...depending upon how I break it up.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on February 23, 2012:

Hi cprice - Enjoyed the first installment, looking forward to reading more. I have a few Hubs posted on thertieth century history. Glad you are here on HP.

Chris Price (author) from USA on February 12, 2012:

Thanks for the comment Bretsuki. There is no way that the Church of England was Protestant until the Elizabethan Compromise at the earliest. Henry basically wanted Catholicism without the pope, in spite of GW Bernard's argument in The King's Reformation. The vestiges of Catholicism remaining in the seventeenth century were a big deal to the Puritans (broadly defined). I'll post more of the paper at a later date. Didn't want to overload people with a 28-page paper.

William Elliott from California USA on February 12, 2012:

Hello cprice75, as a history major, I really enjoyed this hub. I was particularly impressed that you got the Church of England as being a Catholic church, not a Protestant one, correct. I will look forward to reading your future hubs on history.

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