hysteriaWhich will it be?

Once upon a time the people of England were happy Catholics, visiting their holy wells, attending frequent masses and deeply respectful of purgatory and afraid of hell. The lustful King Henry forced the to abandon their religion. England was never merry again.


Once upon a time the people of England were oppressed by corrupt churchmen. They yearned for the liberty of the Gospel. the, Good King Harry gave them the Protestant nation for which they all longed.

So Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy begins his fascinating study Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition. In his book, Duffy continues to explore his area of speciality, the English Reformation. As a preface to the work he takes time to outline the tug of war that the subject itself has been for the last five hundred years. It is a drama in itself, with various versions of the history fueled by nationalistic hysteria, high drama and dubious historical method.

First up to bat in 1565 was Catholic Thomas Stapleton who translated the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede, a monk at Monkwearmouth in Northeastern England, completed his work in the year 731. Stapleton’s translation was an attempt to convince Elizabethans that Catholic Christianity was the first and most genuine religion of the English people.

Proving that English religion was not only Catholic but loyal to the pope was the legend of second century King Lucius who sent to Pope Eleutherius asking for missionaries to baptize him and his people. If the ancient British king submitted to the pope, so should all good English monarchs….or so the went the argument which was picked up and polished to perfection by one of the brightest of Tudor England’s minds, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

Duffy explains that unfortunately, the same story was used by the Protestant polemicists. A letter, which scholars think was forged during the quarrels between Pope Innocent III to King John in the early thirteenth century was supposed to be from Pope Eleutherius to King Lucius telling the king that he did not need papal approval for his decisions because he had the Scriptures and he was to rule in his own land and “be God’s vicar in your kingdom.” Even in the sixteenth century those in the know smelt a forgery, but nevertheless, the Lucius legend was used not to support papal supremacy but to refute it.

cd8d0c2d40855ba6b0068d38df241349After the short reign of Mary Tudor the Protestant Elizabeth, threatened by the Catholic powers of the continent, needed an even stronger and more virulent anti-Catholic pro-Protestant narrative. It was provided by John Foxe. His Book of Martyrs provided a version of the Reformation that linked the persecutions of Protestants under Mary Tudor with the sufferings of the early Christians. Duffy observes, “Foxe’s great book provided the materials on which were built all subsequent versions of the black legend of popish craft and cruelty, and in particular the notion of an age-old opposition between the spirit of popery and the spirit of England.”

Thereafter, the Catholics were the dreaded foreign powers and true Englishman would die rather than espouse such a religion. The historians were key propagandists to propagate the bigotry. Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation, published in 1679, would be used to support the “glorious revolution” nine years later in which Catholic King James II was deposed in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband. Burnet’s work was pure anti-Catholicism turned to the support of English patriotism. This “Whig view of history” had a long shelf life. The historian Thomas Burgess at the beginning of the nineteenth century was still promoting a view of English church history in which the propaganda was only exceeded by bogus theories of the English church being founded by St. Paul, the Anglo Saxons being independent of Rome and an ancient Celtic church that knew nothing of a pope.

In 1838 the Public Record Office in England began to gather historic archives in one location making a factual reassessment of the Reformation period possible. James Anthony Froude was the historian to first attempt a modern, research based history of the period. Duffy praises Froude’s work, but recognizes in it a new kind of Protestant bias. Froude was not so much a Protestant polemicist as a secular modernist. The fall of the Catholic Church was for Froude not so much a victory for the Protestant religion as it was a victory for modern man—who shook himself free of medieval superstition.

This was to be the predominant strain in the writing of English ecclesiastical history throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century until a new wave of Catholic polemicists took up their end of the rope in the never ending tug of war. Fr John Lingard was a meticulous scholar and apologist, the colorful Aidan Gasquet along with the cheerful Chesterton and the bellicose Belloc waded in with books that offered a fresh understanding of the Protestant revolution from a confidently Catholic point of view.

By the mid 1950s a more scholarly and balanced approach came from the Catholic side in the form of Monsignor Philip Hughes’ study of the Reformation. Despite his erudition and balanced approach, the secular-Protestant-modern approach prevailed with the historian A.G. Dickens predominant. Duffy says of Dickens that his “influential writings about Reformation and counter Reformation set the tone of academic study of the subject in England for decades. At the center of that work was his manifest conviction that everything that is dearest and best in English religion, even in the Middle Ages, …must somehow have remained free of the taint of Romanism.”

The stage was set by the turn of the century for the new wave of “revisionist history” of the Reformation led by Catholic Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Duffy himself. Haigh’s 1987 book The English Reformation Revised and Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars published in 1992 used unexpected sources, extensive research and detailed discoveries to build up a complex mosaic portrait of the real situation in pre-Reformation England. They show that the Catholic faith was vibrant and positive, and that real reform in the church was already happening at the institutional, academic and local levels. Furthermore, they prove with their further research that the English people did not take easily or happily to the new religion and that the state religion only succeeded after a long, hard campaign of coercion by the crown.

What is most interesting is how the hysteria and histrionics that have surrounded the study of English church history have been the very factors that have produced the present scholarly and objective revisionist histories. Duffy admits that his work is a “self consciously polemical work” but it is also a work that is comprehensive in its findings and profound in its implications.

They say history is written by the winners, but if the historians persevere in their search for the truth it turns out that history is the winner.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email