Competing Narratives:

Recent Historiography of the English Reformation under Henry VIII

Gregory Johnson • Saint Louis University • Fall 1997



            Over the past two decades scholars of the English Reformation have for the most part been divided into two competing schools of thought, understanding the reforms of that era within the context of two rival historical narratives.  These two schools are generally known as the  Whig-Protestant school (a name used mainly by its opponents), which is characterized by the approaches of A. G. Dickens, G. R. Elton, and Joseph Block, and the revisionist school, including figures such as Christopher Haigh, J. J. Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy.  Though scholars grouped within either of these schools do at times differ over specific points, the Whig-Protestant and the revisionist camp each shares among its adherents broad characteristics that make it possible to group them in this way.  The two schools of thought are best understood by contrasting the one with the other, as the two schools give differing accounts of the nature, sources, and success of the Henrican Reformation.  Interpreting a large amount of evidence from contrasting perspectives, these two schools continue to battle over the now-contested ground of the English Reformation under the reign of Henry VIII.


1.  The Nature of the Henrican Reformation

            To Whig-Protestant historians, the Reformation under Henry VIII (and the English Reformation generally) was essentially the rise of Protestantism against the backdrop of late medieval Christendom.  The Reformation is understood in positive terms, as the establishment of a reformed church with a reformed spirituality.  A. G. Dickens is characteristically Whig-Protestant when he opens his revised 1991 edition of The English Reformation in these terms, "In England as elsewhere, the Protestant Reformation sought first and foremost to establish gospel-Christianity, to maintain the authority of the New Testament over mere church traditions and human inventions" (p. 13).  The positive vision of reform takes center stage, and all else, including medieval Christianity, are viewed in relation to it.  While Dickens views the Reformation as primarily theological in nature, his fellow Whig-Protestant G. R. Elton sees it in political terms, but still positive political terms, as the rise of the modern nation-state.  Within either Dickens' theological or Elton's political interpretation, the reforms under Henry VIII were constructive, establishing a new vision for English Christianity.  The narrative of Reformation is a positive narrative of advancing Protestantism.

            Revisionist historians by contrast have tended to understand the Protestant reforms in negative terms.  For Eamon Duffy, the Reformation was "the attack on traditional religion."  In The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400–c.1580, he writes, "Iconoclasm was the central sacrament of the reform" (p. 480).  The reforms are seen as destructive, a shattering of a meaningful and vital religious consensus.  Duffy understands the reforms, not in light of the ideology of the reformers, nor in light of the vision they hoped to establish.  The reforms are viewed through the eyes of the traditional religious practices which they sought to bring to an end.  This understanding of the nature of reform as negative is evident in Duffy's structuring of his book into two parts, the former, comprising the first two-thirds of the book, is topical and static, describing traditional religion in the century before Henry VIII.  The latter third of the book is chronological, describing the destruction of this late medieval consensus.  Indeed, in The Stripping of the Altars, the reader must wait until page 377 before the first altar is stripped, suggesting to some Duffy re-title his work, The Altars that were Stripped.

            This negative understanding of the nature of reform is not unique to Eamon Duffy.  In his 1984 book The Reformation and the English People, revisionist historian J. J. Scarisbrick spends more than a third of the book describing in a static manner English religion before Henry's break with Rome, only to title his chapters on the Reformation itself as "The Old Order Disintegrated" and "The Spoliation" before coming back for a discussion of the survival of the old faith at the end of his book.  Christopher Haigh in his 1993 volume English Reformations:  Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, summarizes the Henrican reforms in equally negative terms, "Henry VIII disposed of the pope, the monasteries, four of his wives, and two of his closest advisers.  There was constant muttering against religious change, and there were dangerous rebellions" (p. 295)  While Whig-Protestant historians have looked forward and seen the Henrican reforms positively as the early rise of a renewed Christian and Protestant vision for England, revisionist historians have looked back to an earlier medieval religious consensus and understood the reforms under Henry negatively as a violent assault on traditional religion.  For the former school of thought, the reforms under Henry VIII are the beginning of the story; for the latter school, the Henrican reforms are an attack on the story.


2.  The Sources for the Henrican Reformation

            Not only do Whig-Protestant and revisionist historians differ over the nature of the Henrican Reformation, they also disagree over the sources for the reforms under Henry VIII.  Whig-Protestant historians, again looking forward to future Protestant dominance in England, have tended to work with a developmental model of history which expects to find precursors to reform before Henry's break with Rome.  While giving Henry a primary place of importance, Whig-Protestant scholarship has tended to look for support for the Reformation "from below."  For A. G. Dickens, the primary reason for the English Reformation lies in the theological bankruptcy of late medieval Catholicism, the popular reaction to which had been visible in Lollardism and popular anticlericalism, as Dickens has argued in numerous studies since the 1950s.  When a legal alternative to medieval religion became possible in Protestant reforms, the majority of the English populace followed these reforms, not merely out of a grudging obedience to the Crown, but further because they themselves were easily persuaded.  The people, in short, were beginning to think like Protestants, and only a minority would retain their ties to Catholic religion.

            More recently, Whig-Protestant scholarship has continued to emphasize popular discontent with late medieval religion, in particular understanding the Lollards as proto-Protestants who laid a foundation for the popular reception of Protestant ideals.  Anne Hudson takes this approach in her 1988 study The Premature Reformation:  Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History, arguing from diocesan records for a survival of Lollardism through the crucial years of 1430–1480, and arguing that the rapid increase in Lollard heresy trials after 1480 is due to what she proposes was an increased, coherent and influential Lollard presence.  Margaret Aston had contended in her 1984 study Lollards and Reformers:  Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion that Lollardism, while lacking respectability in the century before Henry, had nevertheless survived in the midst of a substantial popular anticlericalism.

            Similarly, Joseph R. Block, who describes himself as a "vulgar empiricist" in his 1993 Factional Politics and the English Reformation seeks to demonstrate from a study of clerical patronage that Reformation ideas from the Continent blended easily with "native religious dissent" and "anticlericalism" to create a powerful ideological force which reformed both Church and State in England (p. ix).  This is also the position Rosemary O'Day comes to, albeit with greater hesitancy, in her 1986 work The Debate of the English Reformation, and the view of J. F. Davis in his 1983 study Heresy and Reformation in the South-East of England 1520–1559.  In his 1992 publication Revolution in Religion:  The English Reformation 1530–1570, David Loads follows G. R. Elton's earlier work in seeing a long-festering tension between sacred and secular authorities, as well as Lollardy, as a significant source for the Henrican Reformation.

            Revisionist writers take issue particularly with the notion that Lollard and anticlerical ideas gave fertile soil for a popular reception of Henry's reforms.  Any reform that would come would be coerced "from above."  In essence, the first two-thirds of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars is taking up the burden of proof to demonstrate that traditional religion had a strong and vibrant hold on the English people.  On one level the whole of Duffy's work can be viewed as a polemic against what revisionists see as an extreme exaggeration of popular discontent on the eve of the Reformation.

            J. J. Scarisbrick argues that the Reformation was forced upon an unwilling English people from above in his 1984 volume The Reformation and the English People.  Scarisbrick criticizes those who would "speak of a rising groundswell of lay discontent with the old order" or of a "growing 'spiritual thirst' during the later Middle Ages" which led to a union between Crown and people to repudiate Rome, though Rosemary O'Day accuses Scarisbrick of arguing with a straw man at this point.  But while Scarisbrick acknowledges that pre-Reformation England was not "a land of zealous, God-fearing Christians,... there is no evidence of a loss of confidence in the old ways, no mass disenchantment" (p. 12).  On this point, at least, many scholars would seem to agree with revisionists like Scarisbrick.  O'Day, for example, suggests only that Lollardism and anticlericalism were contributing causes to the acceptance of reforms, but not sources for the Reformation is the strongest sense of the term.

            Still, revisionists emphasize to a greater extent than those in the Whig-Protestant tradition that the reformation under Henry was essentially an act of state, not the product of some larger shift in mentalitι.  Scarisbrick takes aim at the Annales tendencies of Whig-Protestant interpreters when he writes:


Modern tastes have tended to prefer the grand, long-term explanations of big events (especially if they give pride of place to impersonal changes in social structures or aspirations)....  But we still find it difficult to do without the model of late medieval decline and alienation — followed by disintegration and then birth and renewal — just as we still find it difficult to believe that major events in our history have lacked deep-seated causation or have ever run fundamentally against the 'general will' (p. 1).


The revisionist argument, in essence, is that the Henrican Reformation had no sources but the will of Henry himself and his decidedly more Protestant courtiers.  In Duffy's account of the reforms, vice-regent Thomas Cromwell is the chief director of the attack on traditional piety, backing up his endeavors with claim to the royal will and the threat of a charge of treason to those who questioned his activities.  It was Cromwell who actively protected reformist preachers, as did Archbishop Thomas Cranmer after Cromwell was executed.  Reform under Henry VIII was an act of state carried through with little prior disposition among the people. 


3.  The Success of the Henrican Reformation

            Debate centers, not merely on the nature and sources of the Henrican Reformation, but also on the degree to which Protestantism succeeded during the reign of Henry VIII.  Whig-Protestant historians have tended to see greater Protestant success during Henry's reign than have revisionists.  In an essay titled "The Early Expansion of Protestantism," in Margo Todd's 1995 Reformation to Revolution:  Politics and Religion in Early Modern England, A. G. Dickens responds to revisionist claims of a weak Protestantism during Henry's reign.  Dickens grants that Protestant success varied from region to region, but draws on extensive local studies in an attempt to demonstrate that Protestantism encountered resistance primarily in less populous areas of lesser political import.  In London and in the south and east of England, Protestantism appears to have expanded throughout Henry's reign, and even more rapidly during Edward's reign, so as to give it foundations strong enough to withstand Marian persecution.  Protestantism during the Henrican era grows and to a considerable degree replaces Catholic piety among the populace.  To a considerable degree, the Henrican reformation was a success.

            Revisionist historians have responded by arguing for a weak Protestantism and a strong Catholicism at the end of Henry's reign.  In The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy does acknowledge that in many cities Protestantism was strong and even dominant, even where a numerical majority may have been lacking (p. 479).  And Duffy further acknowledges that in some areas, especially in London, iconoclasm arose out of deeply held Protestant convictions, but Duffy sees London as an exception, the majority of the kingdom complying only as a "grudging fulfillment of the will of the Crown" (p. 480).  Duffy agrees that the majority of the English people complied with reforms, but he insists that this compliance was not because of any lack of vigor in late medieval piety, but because of Royal coercion.  About the rapid conformity of parishes with reforms, Duffy writes, "Such conformity in itself implies nothing about the beliefs of clergy, wardens, or laity in the parishes" (p. 481).    Duffy follows Christopher Haigh and J. J. Scarisbrick in contending that English Catholicism remained dominant until well into the reign of Elizabeth I.

            In a work that fits neither the Whig-Protestant nor revisionist paradigm, Robert Whiting's 1989 study of the southwest of England titled The Blind Devotion of the People:  Popular Religion and the English Reformation examines wills, churchwardens' accounts and material remains of churches and concludes that, while there were some cities such as Exeter that became predominantly Protestant during the reigns of Henry and Edward, the majority of southwestern England moved from a committed Catholicism in 1530 to a religious indifference which would remain throughout the century.  But if there were relatively few committed Protestants, Whiting suggests, there were even fewer committed Catholics, each religious group being a minority among a generally ambivalent laity, Catholicism having fled and Protestantism not yet having filled the void.  But despite the possibilities for a synthesis of the Whig-Protestant and revisionist understandings propsed by Whiting's work, scholars have nevertheless reached no consensus as to the success of the Henrican Reformation.


4.  The Biased Reader and the Problem of Competing Narratives.

            These differences between Whig-Protestant and revisionist historians reflect two broad and competing narratives.  The former school of thought understands the reforms of Henry VIII to have been at least partially prepared for in advance by the continuing presence of Lollardism and the rise of anticlericalism.  Protestant ideology from the Continent thus found fertile ground in England, and grew in strength through the reigns of Henry and Edward, displacing Catholicism as the dominant religion by the coronation of Mary.  In this way, a Protestant vision for biblical gospel life was planted and grew strong enough so as to render it indestructible through the reign of Mary.  The latter, revisionist school understands Henry to have instigated a violent and destructive attack on traditional religion, an attack the people did not welcome, but to which they grudgingly conformed.  By the coronation of Mary, the people had had enough and joyfully returned to the old ways, only to be smothered slowly under the reign of Elizabeth.

            Scholars from both schools of thought argue and counter-argue their positions from evidences, but they disagree nonetheless.  Several issues arise in attempting to understand the two schools' competing uses of evidence.  Some of these concerns follow:


a.  How big must numbers be to be significant? 

            This is an interpretive question that is central to the historian's evaluation of his evidence.  For example, how large a Lollard presence is large enough to make it a significant factor in encouraging the acceptance of reforms?  In a 1990 article "The English Reformation:  A Premature Birth, a Difficult Labour and a Sickly Child," Christopher Haigh argues that Lollards were a "weak foundation for a future Reformation" since in 1521 Lollards comprised "no more than 10 per cent" even of a notoriously Lollard-ridden town like Amersham (p. 451).  Is 10 per cent of a town being Lollard significant or not?  Similarly, A. G. Dickens argues that, since 3,000 early Protestants are known to have either been tried for heresy of exiled upon Mary's accession to the throne, they represent only the "tip" of a large iceberg of many thousands of convinced Protestants.  Revisionists respond that such an iceberg may be very small, since all we see is the tip, Christopher Haigh remarking, "There may have been no Reformation:  indeed, there barely was one" (p. 455).


b.  Are all non-Protestants Catholic?  And are all non-Catholics Protestant? 

            This question of what to make of those who neither agitated for nor protested the arrival of reform is key to both the Whig-Protestant and revisionist paradigms, and follows upon the question of the significance of numbers.  Whiting's study suggests that in southwestern England neither Protestants nor Catholics amounted to much, the majority during Henry's reign being unconcerned about such churchly matters.  This question also arises with the interpretation of will preambles.  Most, though not all, scholars seem to agree that a preamble—at least during the reign of Henry—which is committed to the Blesses Virgin and the saints and which endows masses usually reflects Catholic piety, while a preamble committing one's soul to the merits of Jesus Christ alone reflects at some level Protestant convictions.  But there is disagreement over what to make of apparently "neutral" wills, which mention only God the Father and Jesus his Son.  The move toward such wills—by far the most common by the end of Henry's reign—may indicate increased Protestant conviction, or they may indicate only a Catholic accommodation to a state-favored Protestant discourse.

            Similarly, there is debate over what to make of the clergy's willingness to at least go along with Henry's reforms.  The Ten Articles, for example, demonstrate a compromise between conservative and radical positions within Henry's government, indicating that, despite Duffy's suggestion of widespread opposition to reform from the clergy, church leaders in Convocation were willing at least to go along with not insubstantial reforms, including decrees that images were not to be venerated but were merely didactic, justification was by faith, lay Bible reading in English was encouraged, Purgatory was largely rejected, and most holy days were dropped.  But interpretations vary as to whether such willingness makes these men Catholic or Protestant.  Dickens, for example, highlights the degree to which reforms were accepted as being the truly amazing story to tell, while Duffy highlights the degree to which reforms were only partial and at times opposed as being the story worth telling.  Behind these scholars' selection and interpretation of evidence lie value judgments which determine which narrative is to be told, be it the narrative of Protestant advance or the narrative of traditional Catholic resistance.  This matter of emphasis is therefore key to the historian's framing of the discussion, since demonstrating either a high level or a low level of Protestant conviction is one of the most important steps in establishing either school's paradigm.


c.  What are we to make of regional variations? 

            This same question of emphasis can be seen in the many regional studies to which appeal is made by the competing schools of thought.  For example, Whig-Protestant historians have countered the revisionist reading by accusing it of selectively emphasizing conservative parishes to tell the story of reform.  In his 1995 article "The Reluctant Reformation?:  Dismantling Roman Catholicism in Late Medieval England", D. Jonathan Grieser accuses Duffy of selectively choosing his evidence, "Popular agitation for reform goes unnoticed, while popular agitation against reform receives Duffy's close attention" (p. 182).  Duffy argues that the reformed communities that arose in Essex, Suffolk and Kent, not to mention London itself, do not represent the "average Englishman."  Rather, rural and conservative Morebath, where images were often late removed and early replaced "almost certainly offers us a more accurate insight" into what the Reformation meant to the average Englishman (p. 503).  In an otherwise favorable review article in the Journal of Theological Studies, Ronald Hutton takes Duffy to task on this count, asking why conservative parishes such as Morebath, Ashburton, and Stanford in the Vale, and not reformed parishes, best represent the common man (p. 764).  Does the heavily Protestant southeast of England, or the more strongly traditional north and west of England—or, for that matter Whiting's indifferent southwest—best represent the average Englishman?  Or, for that matter, does it matter what views the average Englishman held, or only the most influential Englishmen, as Dickens suggests, which would again bias the study toward the more Protestant London and the southeast?


d.  How does one measure motivation?

            The problem of assessing the motivation behind human actions is one which has taken center stage in the debate between Whig-Protestant and revisionist historians.  Eamon Duffy, for example, criticizes Whiting and others for assuming that changes in wills, particularly relating to bequests for masses, prayers, and charity, reveal an underlying shift in mentalitι (p. 504), arguing that such a change in wills would be expected in light of the Crowns hostility to guilds and masses for the dead.  Were such changes motivated by religious conviction or by governmental coercion?  Similarly, revisionists argue, over against Dickens and others, that will preambles, which show a removal of references to Mary and the saints after 1530, do not evidence a change in mentalitι or a new Protestant piety, but merely a change in conventional form.  Actions themselves do not imply motivation.

            And even the best of historians can be accused of inconsistency on this point.  Ronald Hutton, for example, criticizes Duffy for assuming wills under Mary to be sincere (though conformity was more important during her reign than ever during Henry's) when earlier Duffy had suggested that wills under Henry and Edward were only "prudent conformity with government ideology" (p. 764).  Similarly, Grieser notes that swift response to reform under Henry is viewed by Duffy as "grudging obedience," but asks why swift response to counter-reforms under Mary are viewed as joyous and popularly welcomed (p. 186).


e.  To what extent is history developmental?  Do changes in practice reflect changes in mentalitι?

            Similar to the problem of assessing motivation is the assumption of how change occurs.  Is an historical event in fact a snapshot of one static mentalitι giving way to another static mentalitι?  Is history developmental, so that the historian's task is to seek out the "roots" of change developing in an earlier era?  To an extent, this has been the approach of Whig-Protestant scholarship who see a Reformation "from below" beginning before Henry ever broke with Rome.  Or, conversely, does change occur when individuals coerce and influence things sufficiently to change, not only events, but the mentalitι as well?  This has been the approach of revisionists, who prefer to speak of a Reformation almost strictly "from above".

            These approaches may not be mutually exclusive.  Even revisionists like Duffy acknowledge that "The Henrican religious revolution had been preceded by a vigorous campaign against heresy, in both its familiar Lollard forms and its newer Lutheran forms" (p. 379).  Duffy further notes that Kent had "an established Lollard presence in many parishes" (p. 422).  In so doing, he would appear to lend credence to the notion that the English Protestant Reformation began before it gained state support.  Further, Duffy notes that "Iconoclasm had been a growing feature of the 1520s, and eastern England in the early 1530s saw a minor epidemic" (p. 381).       Revisionists like Duffy at times acknowledge these pre-Henrican reformist movements, but do not interpret them in light of future developments.  The difference between the two schools may be largely one of emphasis, the Whig-Protestant approach assuming a developmental model of history in which the historian seeks to explain the reality of the present by looking for its roots in the past.  The past is explanatory of the present, with the result being that history is written largely from the perspective of the conqueror, not the vanquished.  Thus, the English Reformation is the story of advancing Protestantism.  It is this narrative which revisionists have disputed, which brings into question the broader problem of narrative.


f.  Can Henrican reforms be studied apart from a larger narrative? 

            Few studies exclusively deal with reform under Henry VIII— Henry at times seems caught between two competing narratives which see his reign either as a beginning or as an end, but rarely as an object in itself.  Within a Whig-Protestant narrative, Henry begins the glories of Protestant England.  Within a revisionist narrative, Henry attempts the brutal murder of traditional religion, failing during his reign, the murder being carried through by Elizabeth later in the century.  In breaking with a Whig-Protestant narrative, revisionists have not freed Henry from the biases of narrative, but rather interpreted him within an equally value-driven narrative.  Either way, Henry is part of a larger process, be it a negative or a positive process.  Henry is either leading away from something or leading to something, but his reforms are seldom discussed apart from a larger narrative.


            In their questioning of the Whig-Protestant narrative, some would suggest that revisionists have sidelined early English Protestantism, failing to give it attention in its own right in order to subsume it within a larger revisionist narrative.  Reform becomes instead an "attack".  In what may be too cute a turn of ironic fate, the very interpretive tactic which Whig-Protestant Reformation scholars have used on medieval Christianity for years is now being turned upon themselves.  Evidently medievalists have learned the subtle, polemical power of the narrative, and have sidelined the Reformation just as the Reformation had sidelined them.  While medieval Christianity had for years been relegated to chapter one of the Reformation, now revisionists are relegating the Reformation itself to a mere post-script of medieval Christianity.

            Perhaps one could suggest that these two competing approaches are in fact not competing at all, but complementary.  While questions of "fact" will still be debated, it is possible that the one school's narrative views Henry's reforms as Protestants might have viewed them, the other narrative viewing the reforms as Catholics might have viewed them.  Both narratives are dependent in part on presupposed value judgments, each choosing which evidence is to be chosen and emphasized, how it is to be interpreted, and which evidence is to be relegated to the value-driven category of the "exceptional".  Unless scholars on either side of the debate are prepared to argue that their narrative is from the standpoint of "objectivity", neither the Whig-Protestant nor the revisionist school can fully exclude the other's interpretation.





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