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Brief Overview of the Historiography of the English Reformation

Updated on July 15, 2016

The Final Installment in this Series

Other Recent Studies

Some recent studies of the English Reformation fall into neither the Whig or revisionist camp. Ethan Shagan’s 2005 work, Popular Politics and the English Reformation, was one such work. Shagan argued that this study attempted to go beyond the views of A. G. Dickens’ The English Reformation and Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations. These books “are the two poles between which scholars of sixteenth-century religious change must forever oscillate.” Instead of looking for the cause of the Reformation, Shagan investigated how it was able to succeed in spite of solid evidence that many English citizens were religious conservatives who were quite happy with their Catholicism. Shagan denied that mass radical conversions among the people were common. While revisionism tended to focus upon resistance to the Reformation, Popular Politics and the English Reformation looked into the issue of collaboration and posited that reform would not have been successful without a great deal of assistance by English laymen. In this respect, Shagan expanded upon an important argument made earlier by Elton and Haigh.[1]

A couple of important examples that Shagan used to illustrate collaboration with the Reformation by otherwise conservative Catholics were the Pilgrimage of Grace and the dissolution of the Abbey of Hailes. During the Pilgrimage of Grace, nearly 50,000 northern Englishmen assembled and took up arms in response to the dissolution of the monasteries and rumors of similar actions against some parish churches. Shagan pointed out quite astutely that it would have been difficult for Henry’s government to defeat the rebels had they continued to London. However, the pilgrims stopped well short of a full-scale revolt. Perhaps more telling is Shagan’s investigation of the destruction of the Abbey of Hailes. Many otherwise good Catholics participated in the despoliation of this religious house. When asked why, one vandal questioned why he should not get his share if everyone else was. While many Catholics were not thrilled with the prospect of reform, they nonetheless collaborated with Henry’s actions out of self-interest. People simply thought that they could benefit by gaining political or economic favor through going along with the government’s move away from Rome. In this way, “the Reformation entered England through the back door, not dependent upon spectacular epiphanies but rather exploiting the mundane realities of political allegiance, financial investment and local conflict.”[2]

Shagan did not really concern himself with a Reformation from above or below, nor did he focus upon its speed. His main concern was the way in which the Reformation succeeded, in spite of popular Catholicism. The topic of collaboration is one of the more important aspects of the Reformation that scholars have discussed because the Reformation cannot be explained completely without some measure of collaboration on the part of the masses for the reasons that Shagan discussed.

Many of the authors that studied the English Reformation over the last fifty years wrote social and cultural histories that emphasized the reaction of the masses to the Reformation. This trend should come as no surprise, as two of the leading journals on social history, Social History in the United Kingdom and the Journal of Social History in the United States, only began publishing after 1965. Most of the newer Reformation studies have argued that the Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, or some combination of important individuals forced the Reformation upon the laity from above. G. W. Bernard recently published a work on the Reformation from a political viewpoint that emphasized Henry VIII as the main character. Most historians, even dating back to Foxe, have argued the importance of Henry’s decision in the break with Rome. However, the general consensus viewed Henry as a tyrannical monarch who only wanted his way. Furthermore, many believed Henry incapable of carrying out the Reformation on his own initiative and dependent upon factions at court for his religious direction. The general view of Henry also emphasized the dissolution of the monasteries as an economic decision. Bernard, however, depicted Henry very differently. While Bernard still portrayed Henry as a tyrant, he argued that the desire for a divorce came not from Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn or a desire for a male heir, but rather from his moral scruples related to his marriage to his brother’s widow. Instead of viewing Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries as revenue-driven decision, The King’s Reformation argued that Henry’s closing of the smaller monasteries resulted from the king’s genuine concern over the proper administration of religious duties, as well as a reportedly high incidence of sexual misdeeds on the part of monks and nuns. These arguments were unconvincing because such altruism on the part of a monarch long considered a selfish tyrant was a difficult argument to sell, especially in light of the economic benefit Henry stood to gain with the dissolution of the monasteries.

Another topic that Bernard discussed in The King’s Reformation dealt with the course that the Reformation actually took. Elton previously viewed Henry as indecisive until Cromwell told him which way to go in regard to religion. However, Bernard concluded that the seeming indecisiveness was a plan on the part of Henry to avoid the extremes of Rome and Wittenburg or Rome and Zurich. Henry viewed Luther and Zwingli as problematic because the Reformation and its belief in justification by faith without any works tended to undermine authority and encourage antinomianism. On the other hand, Henry also believed that continuation in the Roman Catholic Church under the control of the pope undermined his authority in his kingdom. For these reasons, Henry attempted to find a middle way. This part of Bernard’s argument was more convincing.[3] Neither Bernard nor Shagan made their religious affiliations evident in their work, and neither really fit terribly well in either Haigh’s grid or a Protestant/Catholic dichotomy.


The English Reformation has a long historiographical tradition that began in the sixteenth century with John Foxe’s religious polemic against Catholicism. This tradition has continued to the present and new work continues to be published. With respect to Christopher Haigh’s assessment that there are four clusters of interpretation, the arguments have actually tended to fall into two major categories. Those from a Protestant background, such as Foxe, Pollard, Dickens, or MacCulloch have generally argued that the Reformation owed much to the undercurrent of Lollard dissidents that had been percolating under the surface of English religion since the days of Wycliffe. Since anticlericalism was a major characteristic of sixteenth-century England, the Reformation concluded quickly for these historians, with the exception of the short Marian interlude that attempted a re-establishment of Catholicism. Although most have credited Haigh with the beginning of a revisionist interpretation, the work that he, Scarisbrick, and other revisionists produced in the 1970s and 1980s tended to re-state the argument that Cardinal Gasquet made in the early years of the twentieth century, merely adding information from newly available sources. These Catholic-leaning historians have argued for a slow Reformation that the government imposed upon the unwilling masses.

A major difference between the writing of historians in the first half of the twentieth century and those who came afterward was the change from a traditional political history that focused upon the major players to more of a social history that looked at the activities of the masses. The sources that the earlier historians used consisted of the Letters and Papers from Henry’s reign and other published pamphlets and sermons from the sixteenth century. This evidentiary base tended to focus upon important people in a society, rather than commoners. The opening of local record offices in the twentieth century provided many of the resources that provided some knowledge of the lives of the lower sort. This evidence has tended to support the revisionist interpretation, but it is likely that slight variances in interpretation will continue indefinitely into the future.

[1] Ethan Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1-25. Haigh briefly touched upon the idea of lay collaboration in the conclusion of The English Reformation Revised.

[2] Ibid., 89-130, 131-161, 306.

[3] G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).


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