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Geoffrey Elton, A. G. Dickens and the English Reformation

Updated on September 25, 2012

Part 3 of a historiography of the English Reformation

Later Whig Historiography

In the early post-World War II era, the Whig interpretation continued to dominate accounts of the English Reformation. One of the leading historians of the English Reformation in this era was Sir Geoffrey Elton, a naturalized British citizen of German origin who was at one time widely considered the leading scholar of the Tudor era. Elton wrote extensively regarding the Tudors, and some of his most important work dealt with the machinations of Tudor government. In The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII, Elton emphasized what he considered radical changes in the constitution of the English government. He argued that the machinery of government during the Tudor period changed from a medieval household government to a modern bureaucracy. The fall of Wolsey signaled the end of the medieval government. The rise of Thomas Cromwell began the modern English state in which the “duality of church and state was destroyed” and “parliamentary statute triumphed over the abstract law of Christendom.” These developments were integral to the rise of the modern English state, according to Elton.[1]

In an influential article that Elton published in 1954, he questioned who was responsible for starting the English Reformation. He pointed out that Pollard, as mentioned above, viewed the Reformation as a “natural development” that “was given its particular direction by the king himself.” Elton displayed a serious disagreement with Pollard’s assessment, both of the events and of Henry himself. While he viewed Henry as a “first-rate politician,” Elton questioned his standing as a “first-rate statesman” and went so far as to describe Henry as “lazy.” This eminent historian continued to put forth the common belief that the Reformation arose from Henry’s desire for the divorce, and that the general antipathy that the laity had for the papacy and the clergy aided events. While Pollard and Gairdner argued that Henry knew what he was going to do regarding the break with Rome from the beginning, Elton concluded that the king was “bankrupt in ideas” by 1531 and that some people believed that Henry was about to take Catherine back. The official that was responsible for the break with Rome was Thomas Cromwell. However, Elton’s view ignores the possibility that factions had an impact on Henry’s actions. Elton based his premise upon the timing of Cromwell’s rise to prominence. It was only after his rise to a position of power that he was able to introduce Henry “to the potentialities of statute.” According to Elton, the government used legal maneuvers to solidify the break with Rome, and Parliament passed the Reformation statutes only after Cromwell’s rise. There is no doubt that Henry used statute to obtain the break with Rome and his subsequent divorce. However, G. W. Bernard argued that Henry merely intended to buy time to improve his position with his subjects before announcing the break, and this view made sense through the use of evidence that Elton ignored, such as communications that Wolsey had with Rome that warned of dire consequences if the pope did not grant Henry his wish. In addition, Elton failed to take Cromwell at his word when the minister said that he could do nothing without the king’s permission because it did not fit his argument. The belief that Cromwell would have taken his own initiative on such important matters without obtaining permission from a king known for tyrannical outbursts was a serious weakness of Elton’s work.[2]

Elton’s 1972 work Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell investigated the question of “whether the regime of Thomas Cromwell practiced a ‘reign of terror.’”[3] Elton again argued that the English Reformation led to a great change in official policy and that Thomas Cromwell was “the architect of most of what was planned and done.” According to Elton, by the time of Cromwell’s execution, “the realm had accepted the new situation and was, for the moment, obedient as instructed.”[4] In order to implement the new order, Cromwell utilized circular letters and propaganda sermons by sympathetic clergy to explain the king’s (Cromwell’s) message.[5] In the final chapter of Policy and Police, Elton argued that Cromwell refrained from instituting a new police force, but rather relied upon tips from citizens who were sympathetic to the crown and the Reformation. There was nothing “resembling a network of spies; no rewards or inducements were offered; no plans existed for reforming or replacing these essentially informal arrangements.” In this, Elton emphasized collaboration, an important argument that later historians, such as Haigh and Ethan Shagan, would come to support.[6]

Elton backed off on the strength of his assertions regarding the power of Thomas Cromwell later in his studies. He came to believe that he “singled out Thomas Cromwell too much and overemphasized the originality of his ideas,” but then went on to weaken his statement by saying that he “accepted too late a date for his first political intervention.” Elton also argued that those who thought Henry completely in charge of events during the period of the divorce looked at the issue too simplistically.[7]

Not all historians studied the Reformation from a political standpoint. James McConica looked at the English Reformation as an intellectual movement in his work English Humanists and Reformation Politics. In this study, McConica argued that the Christian humanism of such continental intellectuals as Desiderius Erasmus was “the continuous thread…the link between the ‘fellow-work’ of Oxford reformers and the peculiar climate of the Elizabethan settlement.” Erasmus found a fellow reformer (although neither wanted to actually tear down Catholicism) in Englishman Sir Thomas More, whose work Utopia emphasized some of the religious and political problems of his day. McConica also investigated the importance of changes in the English universities just before the Reformation. The end of “the traditional lecture system conducted by regent masters” led to the rise of humanism, which “had been present as a leaven since the late fifteenth century.” At the time of the Reformation itself, McConica, like Elton, pointed to Thomas Cromwell as an influential figure. While Cromwell had no use for the conservative humanism of More, he nonetheless helped to establish an “Erasmian polity” that was accepting of all but the “extremes of Protestantism and a rooted attachment to Rome.” The Henrician Reformation had the ability to maintain the support of intellectuals because they viewed it as “not simply a compromise, but the fulfillment of a positive tradition rooted in the cause of Erasmian reform.” While McConica’s emphasis on intellectual developments leading up to the Reformation was a different interpretation, most historians continued to view it as a political or social process.[8]

Many historians, including Haigh and Hutton, pointed to A. G. Dickens as the most influential Whig historian who wrote in the latter half of the twentieth century. One of Dickens’ most important works was a case study in which he looked into reactions to the Reformation on a smaller scale, although he argued that his region was too large to be considered a local history. Dickens’ study of York, much like his later work, The English Reformation, emphasized the impact of Protestants and Lollards on the coming of the Reformation. In spite of the common view of the North as a backward, conservative region, Dickens argued that an early Protestant presence existed there. He cited Sir Francis Bigod’s rebellion as one important example. However, Dickens also pointed to secular and ecclesiastical court records to show that there were several instances of trials for Lollardy and the Dutch heresy (Anabaptism) in the Diocese of York during the Reformation era. While the number of cases for heresy appears low, just thirty-two during the reign of Henry and forty-five during the reign of Mary, Dickens argued that the Lollards attempted to avoid suspicion, so the number of cases was necessarily skewed. However, on this particular point, he only referenced secondary sources and did not list any primary documents or anecdotal evidence to back up the assertion that Lollards attempted to avoid suspicion. Dickens also pointed out that the “wills and other records” from 1540 and afterward showed a declining belief in “Purgatory, masses for the dead, chantries, the cult of the Virgin and of the saints.” However, this assessment of a decline in belief of common Catholic doctrine is problematic because most of the wills belonged to the wealthier segments of society. Lower class beliefs were not easy to ascertain because they left fewer records. Dickens acknowledged this weakness. However, he continued to argue that the number of trials was not a good barometer of Lollard and Protestant activity because there were many more heretics lurking below the surface who avoided interrogation. Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, 1509-1558 set the table for Dickens’ later general survey of the English Reformation. [9]

In 1964, Dickens published a general survey of the Reformation period that he ingeniously titled The English Reformation. In this work, Dickens tended to agree with the martyrologist John Foxe’s account of sixteenth-century events even going so far as to point to Foxe as one of the best references available. Dickens viewed traditional Catholic religion in a negative light. In discussing popular religion, Dickens argued that there was an “effort to attain salvation through devout observances…fantastic emphasis on saints, relics and pilgrimages…tendency to allow the personality and teaching of Jesus to recede from the focus of the picture.” He continued, “That the connection of such writings with the Christianity of the Gospel is rather tenuous could be demonstrated with almost mathematical precision.” These presuppositions seemed to color the entire argument of The English Reformation.[10]

Dickens emphasized the importance of Lollardy in the Reformation, even so far as to call the work of John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers “the abortive reformation.”[11] He also argued that the Lollards survived persecution throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and remained a somewhat sizeable group up to the time of the Reformation. According to Dickens, during the fourteenth century Wycliffe had already formulated much of the same doctrine that Luther would come to espouse in the 1510s, with the exception of Luther’s most famous doctrine, that of justification by faith. Dickens generally agreed with Elton that Thomas Cromwell “laid the legal foundations of the national church,” going so far to say that “Henry chose the methods proposed by Cromwell.”[12] For Dickens, the Reformation was an important step on the way to religious toleration. He pointed out that shortly after the Reformation the crown removed the sword from its religious arsenal. In his work, Dickens attempted to paint the Reformation as a popular movement from below that ended quite quickly. In this respect, his work differed little from that of previous Whig historians who viewed the Reformation as a step toward a more democratic modernity that displaced a backward Catholicism. However, his work did not stand unchallenged for long, as revisionist historians soon provided an improved interpretation that questioned Whig assumptions of progress and rampant lay anti-clericalism.[13]

[1] G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 1-9.

[2] G. R. Elton, “King or Minister?: The Man behind the Henrician Reformation,” History39 (October 1954): 216-232; G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005). In his discussion of historiography, Bernard disputed Elton’s work more than that of any other historian.

[3] G. R. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1972), vii.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid, 216-217 .

[6] Ibid, 382; Haigh, The English Reformation Revised, 209-210; Ethan Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1-25.

[7] G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 103 note.

[8] James Kelsey McConica, English Humanists and Reformation Politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 11-12, 37-43, 76, 199.

[9] A. G. Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, 1509-1588 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 236-252.

[10] A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 4.

[11] The second chapter of Dickens’ The English Reformation that discussed Lollardy is titled “The Abortive Reformation.”

[12] Ibid., 109-122.

[13] Ibid., 322.


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