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Post-Revisionist Views of the English Reformation

Updated on September 25, 2012



Dickens refused to relax and allow revisionists to challenge his work without attempting a rebuttal. In 1989, he published the second edition of The English Reformation and attempted to answer some of his critics. He added an introductory chapter that endeavored to set the English Reformation in a wider context. To do so, Dickens looked at the Reformation in light of the successes that its continental counterparts had. Other chapters featured expansions upon previous areas of contention. However, he still argued that most of the chapters needed many revisions of details, but “few fundamental changes.” Dickens disagreed with Haigh’s assessment that many historians overestimated the impact of anticlericalism. In a new chapter 13, through the use of published sermons and poetry, Dickens discussed the influence of anticlericalism and the reasons for the uneven spread of the new religion to explain why he disagreed with Haigh.[1]

A relatively recent work that emphasized gender and looked into the impact that five women had on the English Reformation was Paul F. M. Zahl’s Five Women of the English Reformation. Zahl investigated the rather scant writings of Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katherine Parr, Jane Grey, and Catherine Willoughby, and argued that Reformed beliefs influenced these women. For the majority, their beliefs (as well as political intrigue) led to their executions. Zahl was not a professional historian, but rather a systematic theologian. However, his work did a good job of placing these women and their writings within the context of sixteenth-century England and its reformed faction. Zahl argued that there were three generations of Reformed theology among these women. The first concerned itself with the doctrine of justification by grace, the second with the issue of transubstantiation, and the third with the doctrine of election. While he did not discuss much in the way of historiography, Zahl made his frustration with the “Catholic revisionists” led by Christopher Haigh evident. He argued that the revisionism was merely a “newer form of partisan Catholicism among the academic historians,” but added that Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ashley Null were at the forefront of refuting the Catholics. While Zahl emphasized gender from an obviously Protestant stance, he nonetheless believed that the Reformation was a lengthy process that continued until the Glorious Revolution banned Catholics from the monarchy in 1688. This argument actually had merit in light of the concern Englishmen had regarding the religious preference of its monarchs at that late date.[2]

Ronald Hutton also referred to Dairmaid MacCulloch as one of the leaders of the post-revisionist historians of the English Reformation. In an essay titled “The Myth of the English Reformation,” MacCulloch disputed the “Anglo-Catholic” view and pointed out the influence of Edward VI on the English Reformation and then discussed the change that took place in houses of worship. The cathedral became less important, except for High Church, Arminian, or Laudian Anglicans. Parish churches became more like common Protestant churches and the sermon became the centerpiece of many Anglican services, much as it was in most continental Protestant services. He also pointed out the widespread iconoclasm that took place under the watchful eye of Protestant clergy under Elizabeth, and argued that the tie to the superstitious Catholic rituals was the reasoning behind this destruction. This view does not allow for a material deterministic interpretation for English iconoclasm that emphasized the value of such icons. MacCulloch’s main purpose in this essay was to dispute the Anglo-Catholic myth that the Reformation never happened.[3]

Another of MacCulloch’s works was The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603. In the preface of this work, MacCulloch mentioned the fact that he was an ordained clergyman from the Church of England in an attempt to make his potential biases clear. The title itself gave evidence that he believed in a long Reformation. However, he also argued that there was widespread popular support for the Reformation because of sizeable pockets of Lollardy. This work made an interesting assertion in light of the Whig vs. Revisionist debate. MacCulloch argued that regional differences were the reason that people accepted the Reformation at different rates of speed, and this argument made sense in light of the case studies that Dickens and Haigh undertook with differing conclusions.[4]

[1] A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 2nd ed. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), 9-12, 316-338.

[2] Paul F. M. Zahl, Five Women of the English Reformation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 57-58.

[3] Dairmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation,” in Andrew Pettegree, ed., The Reformation: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 188-204.

[4] Dairmaid MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 125-143.


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