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Revisionist Historians and the English Reformation

Updated on September 25, 2012

The Revisionist View of the English Reformation


In the 1960s and 1970s, historians began to look at the English Reformation in new ways. In doing so, authors began to use newly available sources in county and local record offices that previous scholars had not utilized. While the earliest county record office opened in Bedfordshire in 1913, others, such as Lancashire (1940) opened much later.[1] While some of these studies were broad in their scope, others such as Dickens’ Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, 1509-1558 (although a Whig interpretation)and Christopher Haigh’s Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire involved regional case studies that would have been difficult in the early twentieth century before all of the county record offices opened. The most famous of the revisionist scholars was Haigh, a Roman Catholic who repeatedly questioned previously held assumptions about the Reformation. One of the major assumptions that he disputed was the “whiggish” idea that the Reformation was a great progressive movement that embraced “the rise of anticlericalism, the rise of the modern state, the rise of rationalism (and humanism, and Protestantism), the rise of the middle class, the rise of capitalism, together with the decline of feudalism, the decline of monasticism, the decline of clerical power, the decline of Catholicism.”[2]

One of Haigh’s earliest publications was Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, which he published in 1975. This study on Lancashire was one of the first to utilize county and local records after the opening of the Lancashire County record office in 1940. Using local accounts, Haigh argued that at “in the North-West at least religious change was a slow and far from unimpeded process.” Lancashire traditionally had a low population density, but this situation changed by the early sixteenth century. This historically low population density resulted in the formation of large, sparsely populated parishes, which failed to increase in number with population growth. Therefore, few priests served the region in the sixteenth century. The priests that parishioners had available to them in Lancashire were among the least educated and the least influenced by the new learning of the universities, according to Haigh. Pluralism became a problem because of the population growth. Priests held multiple benefices. The needs of the people led to the rise of chapels in communities without parish churches, and these chapels fell under the control of the local gentry, rather than the parish priests. Because of this situation, the priests were unable to indoctrinate adequately the laity in religious instruction. Therefore, when the crown attempted to enforce the religious changes of the Henrician Reformation, the priests themselves were less likely to enforce them because they had less exposure to the new ideas. Haigh’s study had a compelling argument, although other regional studies, such as Dickens’ study of York arrived at completely different conclusions.[3]

In 1987, Haigh edited The English Reformation Revised that included a collection of essays by Haigh and other prominent historians of the Tudor period. In his essay titled “Anticlericalism and the English Reformation,” Haigh argued that anticlericalism was a cliché that avoided critical thinking, which he referred to as a “difficult business.” Haigh concluded that anticlericalism was a “fiction” that owed its existence to the belief of G. G. Coulton, who wrote in 1930 that “the clergy must (italics in original) have been unpopular or the Reformation would be inexplicable.” However, Haigh found that ordinations and benefactions were on the rise just before the Reformation, and “those indicators which show conflict, such as mortuary and tithe litigation, were at a low level before the Reformation and rose thereafter.” He viewed these indicators as evidence that the laity did not have a problem with most clergymen before the Reformation. The subsequent rise in problems after the Reformation led Haigh to conclude that “’[a]nticlericalism’…was not a cause of the Reformation; it was a result.”[4]

In another of his essays in The English Reformation Revised, Haigh argued that the rise of recusant Catholicism in the very areas that had been the most piously medieval Catholic before the Reformation showed a continuity of Catholic beliefs between the pre- and post-Reformation eras. Again, this argument minimized the religious makeup of the other areas of England. The main difference was the belief that a Roman Catholic Church could exist in England without being the official state church. However, the Catholic piety of many laypeople continued with the help of the seminarians from the continent who led the recusant church.[5] The overarching argument of The English Reformation Revised was that the Reformation “was not a joyous national rejection of outmoded superstition; it was a long drawn-out struggle between reformist minorities and a reluctant majority, and the victory of the reformers was late and limited.” In spite of the view that many Englishmen had of the Reformation, Haigh conceded that it happened nonetheless. To explain why the Reformation ultimately succeeded, he pointed out that a certain amount of collaboration between the government and the laity who opposed the Reformation was necessary.[6]

Haigh followed the publication of The English Reformation Revised with English Reformations in 1993. In English Reformations, Haigh expanded his argument of a slow Reformation that the powerful enforced upon the masses from above. Drawing upon his earlier work, Haigh pointed to the “unchallenged” church of the pre-Reformation era. He then argued that there were two political reformations in the period between 1530 and 1553. The first related to the divorce of Henry VIII and the break with Rome. However, after 1538, Haigh concluded that Henry became concerned with Protestant heresy and threw himself behind conservative bishops, effectively ending the first political reformation. The second political reformation occurred during the reign of Edward VI. The elevation of Protestants made the Edwardian Reformation a much more Protestant affair and led to the replacement of the mass with communion, a decrease in the number of bequests to the churches by parishioners, and the confiscation of “church plate and valuables.”[7] English Reformations concluded with the making of a Protestant minority, the Catholic restoration of Mary, and the legislation that finally established the Anglican Church. Haigh pointed out that the Protestant evangelists who preached during Elizabeth’s reign did not make the majority of Englishmen Protestants. The masses “did not share—they did not even think they should know—the key Protestant beliefs.” Rather, they expected to be saved by their works. Haigh’s work, rather than arguing for a quick Reformation from below, contended that Henry and his councilors forced it upon the masses in a very long and difficult process.[8]

Nearly every historiographical overview from the last thirty years has included the works of Dickens and Haigh as the standards for their respective positions. A discussion of revisionism in Ronald Hutton’s Debates in Stuart History emphasized the influence of Dickens (going so far as to say that even Elton largely followed his arguments, although much of Elton’s work pre-dated The English Reformation), but went on to argue the superiority of Haigh’s interpretation because of inherent problems with Dickens’ view. The problems that led to the rise of the revisionist school of thought in the late 1970s were the availability of new records at the local level, the discovery of factual conflicts by Elton’s research students at Cambridge, and the decline of Christianity in the West. As Haigh previously argued, there was little call on the part of illiterate general parishioners to trade in the beauty and symbolism of medieval Catholicism for a Protestantism based upon the written word and lengthy doctrinaire sermons. This fact puzzled many atheist and agnostic historians. Hutton astutely pointed out that the sides of the debate tended to fall along confessional lines, with traditional (and later post-revisionist) historians viewing the Reformation as a positive and almost inevitable event and the revisionists holding to a belief that the king or another important individual or group forced the Reformation upon an unwilling Catholic majority.[9]

Another of the important revisionist historians was J. J. Scarisbrck, who in 1984 published The Reformation and the English People. In this social history, Scarisbrick concurred with Haigh and argued that the Whig view of the English Reformation that presumed a quick change in English religious practice from the ground up was erroneous. He discussed his reasoning thus: “The only valid reason for challenging a widely held view on how the English Reformation ‘happened’ is that the evidence…no longer seems to accord with it.”[10] Scarisbrick investigated several topics that seem to indicate that the English people were not utterly antagonistic to the Roman Catholic faith. Two of his most important examples were wills and lay fraternities. Scarisbrick pointed out that most of these wills, even after the Act of Succession and the Act of Supremacy, left donations for churches and religious orders. The donations could be either cash gifts or gifts in kind, but the importance of the Catholic religion in the minds of the people was clear. They spoke with their wallets. There was apparently widespread belief that the prayers of the monks and priests would be beneficial to the recipients after their deaths, and many people left funds to ensure these prayers. The lay fraternities were also very important to the English people before the Reformation. These organizations were voluntary associations that charged dues that went to help the poor and pay for the funerals of members and were a sort of welfare system for their members. While lay fraternities disbanded after the Henrician Reformation, there is little doubt after a reading of Scarisbrick’s evidence that they were an important part of English religion in the Tudor period.[11] Nicholas Tyacke pointed out a serious problem with Scarisbrick’s work, however. Where Cardinal Gasquet’s work allowed for a “Lutheran invasion,” Scarisbrick failed to mention Luther once in his index. This same argument that revisionism was largely a re-hashing of Gasquet’s work could also be made regarding the work of Haigh.[12]

One final revisionist work that deserves specific mention is The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy, which went back further in its discussion of Catholicism to the late medieval period. Duffy did not use the term “popular religion” because of the tendency to equate such terminology with magic and superstition. He referred to the religion of fifteenth-century England as “traditional religion,” and he contended that there was little difference between the beliefs of the learned and the laity. The Stripping of the Altars focused upon the traditional religion of the English church and its breakdown. The book ended at 1580 because Duffy believed that the reformed Anglican Church was sufficiently in place by that date to make a return to traditional Catholicism unlikely. In discussing traditional religion, he again looked at the wills of Englishmen. Many of these wills made elaborate provisions to ensure that prayers would be said and candles would be lighted for them after their death to speed them through purgatory. Often, people left one of their most prized possessions, their Hours of the Blessed Virgin, better known as a primer, to important people in their lives. Catechisms and calendars also received in-depth discussion in The Stripping of the Altars. The catechisms taught important Catholic doctrine, while the religious calendar ordered the rhythms of the year and provided opportunities for relaxation and festivities through extensive holy days. Duffy referred to the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI as an attack on the traditional religion. His work fell squarely into the revisionist camp with its emphasis on the traditional religion and the idea of a relatively slow Reformation imposed from above.[13]

[1] Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service; Internet; available at; Accessed 15 December 2010; Lancashire County Council; Internet; available at; Accessed 15 December 2010.

[2] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 15.

[3] Christopher Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), viii, 20-45.

[4] Christopher Haigh, “Anticlericalism and the English Reformation,” in Christopher Haigh, ed., The English Reformation Revised (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 56-74.

[5] Christopher Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,” in Haigh, ed., The English Reformation Revised, 176-208.

[6] Haigh, The English Reformation Revised, 209-210.

[7] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 181-183.

[8] Ibid., 284.

[9] Ronald Hutton, Debates in Stuart History (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004), 21-25.

[10] J. J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 1-2.

[11] Ibid., 1-39

[12] Nicholas Tyacke, ed., England’s Long Reformation (New York: Routledge, 1998), 3-4.

[13] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-1580, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 1-9.


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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Lots of history and interesting facts on the reformation in England. It is always fascinating to learn from history and reflect upon how we can use it today. Seems like there was a quite a bit of consideration of class and money in establishing the churches.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the comment Teaches. History tends to explain why things are the way they are, which is one of the reasons that I like it.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

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