Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts


Ely Cathedral in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England / Wikimedia Commons


Lecture by Dr. Keith Wrightson / 09.22.2009
Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History
Yale University

Religion

Saint Agatha’s Church, Easby, Richmond, North Yorkshire, England / Wikimedia Commons

We have looked at the early Tudors reestablishing the authority of the monarchy, and now we turn towards what was to prove one of the biggest problems for most of the sixteenth century: the question of the authority of the church and of the nature of English religion.

Let’s start by taking you to a couple of places. A few miles north of the city of Cambridge in the Fenlands — the flatlands stretching up towards — the sea, here lies the small city of Ely, which has one of the greatest of English cathedrals in it. Ely Cathedral dates back to the twelfth century and when you go there the main nave of the cathedral is of magnificent Norman architecture, but rather gloomy. But at the bottom of the nave there’s a little door which leads through to the Lady Chapel. And if you go through there you get struck almost immediately by a dazzling light. You find yourself in a beautiful chapel, late medieval chapel, with vast windows glazed in clear glass with the light streaming through. On a sunny day it’s quite an astonishing contrast. And it’s only when your eyes get used to the light that you notice that in the stone tracery of the windows there are niches where once statues stood. Some of them are still there with the heads broken off or half the statute is still there. And here and there in the white glass of the windows you see a little bit of stained glass that they found and replaced in what were once windows full of stained-glass pictures. So that’s Ely Cathedral.

And if you go a couple of hundred miles north to North Yorkshire there’s a little church there called Saint Agatha’s Easby. It lies by the river, not far from the town of Richmond, which I was talking about last week. And at Easby there’s a tiny twelfth-century church, Saint Agatha’s. The windows are very small and when you go in it’s exceedingly dim. But again when your eyes adjust to the light you notice on the walls faded wall paintings which were probably put there sometime early in the thirteenth century. There’s Adam and Eve. There’s the nativity, a very nice nativity scene with a very sweet donkey, and so the story continues ’round the walls to the crucifixion, the resurrection. And in the spaces left by the main paintings there are little portrayals of medieval peasants at work sowing, plowing and so forth. And outside by the river are the ruins of Easby Abbey, which was quite near the Church of Saint Agatha’s.

We can use those two places to symbolize the way that the Protestant Reformation has been presented in the historiography of early modern England. To some people it was, as it were, a flood of light: purifying, bracing, invigorating, liberating. On the other hand, other historians have greater sympathy for the religious culture represented by those faded wall paintings in the church at Easby or the empty niches in the windows at Ely Cathedral or the ruined monastery by the river, Easby Abbey. They have a greater sense of what was lost, of the destruction of a great deal of beauty in the course of the zeal of the reformation.

Prior to the 1980s one could say in general that it was the first approach which tended to be the dominant tradition. The reformation was generally seen as being positive. As Christopher Marsh puts it, it “had purpose, direction and also a certain inevitability.” Nowadays the dominant trend is rather in the other direction. It tends to stress the destruction of the older religious tradition, a destruction which, to quote Marsh again, was “regrettable, undesired and undesirable.” So as a result we now have a much more two-dimensional historiography of the reformation. And that’s a good thing. History should involve critical examination rather than mere celebration or self-congratulation. But if we have a more two-dimensional picture, one which includes not only the reformers and the victors but also those who resisted and those who lost, it’s still not exactly even handed, and historians inevitably have their preferences. They tend to lean one way or the other, and this whole story is one which still engages a good deal of passion.

The Pre-Reformation Church

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England / Wikimedia Commons

Today I want to start approaching all of that by considering the nature of the old religion and the state of the pre-reformation church: its strengths, its weaknesses, and those who were already there criticizing some of its features. And that will help us to begin consideration of how it was possible in only a few years to bring this great edifice crashing down.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the church was of course the greatest corporate institution in the kingdom. It was the English branch of a great international institution which gave Western Europe its identity, collectively, as Catholic Christendom. The church in England — of course, there wasn’t a Church of England yet — the church in England was organized into two provinces with archbishops at Canterbury and York, and then there were twenty-one diocese each of them headed by a bishop, and beneath that archdeaconries and deaneries and so on down to somewhat more than 9,000 parishes at most local level each with its parish church. And in addition scattered around the landscape but particularly concentrated in parts of the north and the west were the great monasteries and nunneries, some 750 of them in all.

The clergy who staffed this institution were a distinct estate of the realm as you already know. Attempts have been made to estimate their numbers. It’s been estimated about 60,000 in all, which would mean that the clergy comprised about four percent of the entire national population or, since most of them were men, something like eight percent of the entire male population; a very large presence. Members of the clergy enjoyed a privileged position before the law. They were dealt with in the church courts in the first instance, though they could sometimes be handed over to the secular authorities if they had committed crimes, and they were supported by a variety of fees and dues paid to them and, in particular tithes, by which people gave a tenth of their income or produce for the maintenance of the church. And then of course there were the great endowments given to the church by pious members of the laity.

So it was a great institution, a wealthy institution, the owner of a great deal of land and property, but also a collection of more than 9,000 small Christian communities periodically united in their parish churches in worship, in the practice of their religion. And in considering the old religion and its nature we should perhaps start there with the fundamentals of the nature and characteristics of the old faith.

Well, the central doctrines can be covered briefly. They were as follows: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had made salvation available to sinful humankind through grace; divine favor. Access to grace, the means of salvation, was made available through the church and through its sacraments. Membership of the church was gained through the sacrament of baptism, usually in infancy of course, and it was demonstrated by continued participation in the sacraments, especially the mass when elements of bread and wine were consecrated and transformed into the body and blood of Christ through the miracle of transubstantiation. The Christian life involved obedience to the Ten Commandments, avoidance of the seven deadly sins, participation in the sacraments, the doing of good works and prayer. Given that all mankind was sinful, believers were enjoined to repent of their sins, to confess them, to perform penance for them and in return they were granted absolution by the priest. The church as a whole was conceived of as a community of saints, and so it was possible to pray for the souls of others, in addition to which the saints already in heaven were believed to intercede with God on behalf of living believers, so petitionary prayers could be addressed to saints. And finally the expiation of sins committed in life could continue after death when souls lingered in purgatory until they were purged of sin and made fit for heaven. The living could ease the passage of the dead through purgatory by their prayers. Only those who failed to achieve salvation by their rejection of the means of grace would probably ultimately suffer eternal torment in hell.

York Minster Cathedral, York, England / Wikimedia Commons

Okay. Those are the basic beliefs. In its transmission of these central beliefs and in its practices of worship the pre-reformation church fostered what’s been described as a ritually and visually rich religion. In a society in which the vast majority of people were illiterate, the decorations of the church — the paintings on the wall like those in Easby, the images, the carved images around the walls or the altars, the stained-glass windows with their pictures — all of these were to a large extent the books of the unlearned. And often they conveyed the essence of central Bible stories, like the progression from the Garden of Eden through to the crucifixion and so forth at Easby, and they conveyed sometimes the central doctrines of the faith in visual representations. An outstanding example of this is the fifteenth-century stained-glass window which survives still in a church near Exeter in the West Country called — at a place called Doddingscombeleigh. They have interesting place names in the West Country. I haven’t written it on the board because the word’s too long, but you’ll find it on your handout, Doddingscombeleigh. In the great window there they have portrayals of — in seven panels — of each of the seven sacraments. Each of those panels is also linked by a red line in the glass to the wounds of Christ on the cross, and the message is quite clear: Christ’s sacrifice, the flow of grace along the red lines through the sacraments, which the window represents the congregation participating in.

Or again most churches had an elaborately carved ‘rood screen’ which stood at the entrance to the chancel, where the altar was, with wooden statues above it — again a crucifix and various central saints all there for observation and veneration by the congregation. Well, numerous other images and pictures would adorn the side chapels of the churches, there would be altars dedicated to particular saints and so forth, and indeed this devotion to the saints was a particularly marked characteristic of late medieval popular religion. Images and shrines and relics of the saints were much venerated and much visited. There were some very great centers of pilgrimage. In Canterbury Cathedral was the shrine of Saint Thomas á Becket, a twelfth-century English saint. At Walsingham was a shrine dedicated to the Virgin. At Durham was the shrine of Saint Cuthbert, the great Saxon saint of the north of England, and so one could go. These were the great shrines. But there were also many lesser localized places which were visited by pilgrims from the area ’round about, and they would make donations to beautify the images at the altars of the saints and to maintain their shrines.

For example, down near Exeter again there was a local saint called Saint Sidwell, S-i-d-w-e-double l. She was a Celtic martyr from the early days of the church in Britain. And records survive of the gifts that people made to Saint Sidwell in Exeter. One person gave her wedding ring to Saint Sidwell. Girdles were given to adorn the statue. Rosary beads of fine quality were given to be hung about the statute. There was money given for renewing the gilding on Saint Sidwell’s statue. One person even gave money to buy her a new pair of velvet slippers. And in return people of course made petitionary prayers to the saint. You could borrow the girdles to lay across a woman in childbirth, which was thought to protect her.

Potential Weaknesses

Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, Bury, England / Wikimedia Commons

Well, obviously this was a system which could offer a great deal of comfort, but at the same time it could be open to the risk of corruption. It could obscure people’s focus upon the central doctrines of the faith and substitute devotion to particular saints’ cults, and at times expectations of an almost mechanical manipulation of the powers of particular saints in response to acts of veneration and donations. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist scholar of the early sixteenth century who taught at the University of Cambridge for a while, was deeply critical of all this. He wanted a simpler, more Bible-centered faith, and he joked in one of his essays about how there were enough pieces of the true cross, or alleged pieces of the true cross, in churches in Europe that if you got them all together you could build Noah’s ark. So Erasmus was prepared to scoff at all of this, and he wasn’t alone.

There was undoubtedly an accretion of superstitious practices around these forms of devotion which scrupulous churchmen like Erasmus found very hard to take. And some of the saints who were venerated were of rather dubious provenance. All over the country there were holy wells and holy trees where people would hang gifts and offerings and make requests for assistance. Many of these were of very dubious origins and probably had originated as Celtic water spirits and tree spirits which had been gradually incorporated into the local practice of Christianity in the early Middle Ages. And then of course there was the whole business of the relics. The Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, which lies about halfway between Cambridge and Norwich, had quite a collection. They had the clippings from Saint Edmund’s nails. They had the coals with which Saint Lawrence had been toasted to death. They had Sir Thomas — Saint Thomas — of Canterbury’s penknife and one of his boots, all of which were objects of veneration. Well, a lot of this was clearly very far from being impeccably Christian. It was the product of the medieval church’s toleration of what people refer to as syncretism, the blending together of different religious traditions, the Christianizing of some older traditions like those holy wells and sacred trees and so forth. And at times it could undoubtedly be hard to draw the line between where Christian devotion to the saints ended and superstitious practices began.

Okay. Well, the old historiography tended to lay a lot of emphasis on that kind of thing, stressing the corruption and degeneracy of the old church and the compromised nature of its spirituality. But more recently in the work of historians like J. J. Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh, all of whom are on our reading lists, there’s been a tendency to point out instead the soundness of some of the core elements of worship and to argue that whatever its faults the pre-reformation religious system was in fact hugely successful and hugely popular. Far from being a sort of rotten tree ready to fall before the first blast of reforming wind, Christopher Haigh argues that late medieval Catholic Christianity, to quote him, “was not only secure in early Tudor England but also luxuriant and energetic.” And the strongest arguments in favor of such views derives from the evidence of “energetic commitment to conventional devotions” at the lowest level, at the level of the parish.

Portrait from tomb of Robert Jannys, Mayor of Norwich, 1517, oil on canvas / British Museum

There are three major sources of such evidence which people draw upon. First of all, there are people’s wills. Most of them from the early sixteenth century leave some bequest to religion. The request — the bequest — of money for services, for the beautification of churches and so forth. One of the most spectacular examples is a man I’ve mentioned before, the extremely wealthy Robert Jannys of the city of Norwich who left when he died in the 1520s the greater part of his fortune for religious purposes. He left 1,400 pounds in all, which I was trying to translate into modern money. It’s difficult to do that but five or six million dollars perhaps, left to religious purposes, in modern equivalent. And there was a particular focus in such pious bequests upon the endowing of prayers and masses for dead souls. Robert Jannys for example of his 1,400 pounds laid down that 800 of it was to be spent on paying priests to say prayers for his soul and for all other Christian souls. And in addition he provided 400 pounds for masses which should be said for the same — dedicated to the same purpose. So pious bequests is one form of evidence of this enthusiasm and involvement.

Secondly, there are churchwardens’ accounts, the account books of parish churches which sometimes survive, and they reveal the substantial sums of money which people raised and spent on their churches, on the fabric of the church and its rebuilding, and beautification, and on its furnishings. They spent far more on such purposes than they ever paid in taxes or than they paid to their manorial lords in rents.

Thirdly, there’s the evidence of the activity of religious guilds. All over the country there were numerous fraternities or guilds formed for religious purposes where people would band together to maintain an altar and to pray for the souls of members of the guild, both the living and those who had passed on. They also often had charitable functions, poor relief, and educational functions. And there were very, very many of these voluntary fraternities and guilds which people joined. In the city of London alone there were eighty-one religious fraternities operating in the early years of the sixteenth century. In Norwich in 1500 there were twenty-one and even much smaller places could have them. The tiny parish of Morebath in Devon, which is to the north of Exeter, was a place where they had several guilds which would — which were run by different groups within the population. There was a women’s guild; there was a young people’s guild. The peasants of the area dedicated some of their sheep to the maintenance of their guilds, and the members took turns to look after those sheep and the profits went for the maintenance of the guilds’ activities.

Well, clearly there’s a lot of evidence of such activity, and such investment in traditional religion was clearly prodigious and participation was widespread. You can’t gainsay that; the evidence is clear. It supports such views as that of the historian Richard Rex who argues that “it’s possible that the ideal of a Christian community united in belief and worship,” an ideal which was to be pursued so zealously by Protestants and Catholics alike, “was never so closely approximated” to as in the late medieval parish. It’s certainly possible to read the evidence that way. And at present, as I’ve said, that’s the dominant trend in the historiography, but at the same time one has to recognize that it’s not without some ambiguities.

One can’t be sure quite how well attended parish churches actually were. One can’t be quite sure just how extensive participation in parish guilds was — in some places it seems to have been quite widespread though some guilds were somewhat socially exclusive. And above all it’s been said that a vast amount of the money which was invested in the late medieval church was invested for the specific purpose of easing the passage of one’s soul through purgatory. That was fundamental to a great deal of it, as in the case of Robert Jannys. And arguably that preoccupation with easing the passage of souls through purgatory was motivated more by fear than by anything else. In a sense, purgatory could have been a somewhat oppressive doctrine, raising anxiety particularly amongst those who couldn’t afford to pay for masses for their souls. In other words, the fact of heavy investment in traditional religion cannot be denied, but its meaning is open to interpretation. Like so much historical evidence you can read it more ways than one.

Well, you can say the same sort of thing about the evidence relating to relationships between members of the clergy and the laity. Certainly, there was sometimes quite acute conflict, especially over such matters as tithes. People sometimes resented the payment of tithes and resisted it, or similarly other dues which might be demanded by the clergy, mortuary payments when people died and so forth. And then there was the perennial problem of instances of clerical misbehavior, especially the sexual misconduct of a clergy was — which was — theoretically celibate. That was the butt of a great deal of ribald comment throughout the late medieval period. Sometimes the jurisdiction of the church courts, which had jurisdiction over such matters as marriage and the probate of wills and other things which were of a spiritual nature, this was sometimes resented particularly by their rivals, the common lawyers in the secular courts. Or again the pomp and the pride of some of the great clergy could occasion a certain amount of cynicism and contempt.

Portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, by Sampson Strong, 1526, oil on canvas / Christ Church, Oxford

An outstanding example of a great clergyman who attracted that kind of opprobrium was Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Wolsey, who to all intents and purposes ran the government on Henry VIII’s behalf between 1514 and 1529. Wolsey was proud; he was arrogant; he was extremely able but he was arrogant; he held multiple livings. He was Archbishop of York; he was Bishop of Durham; he held other church livings, places he never visited, and drew the income from them. He engaged in a great deal of conspicuous consumption, building his own palaces most of which were eventually confiscated by the king. He had a mistress and children and so on and so forth. It’s been argued that if few people envisaged an alternative religion before 1520 there was nonetheless a good deal of anticlericalism which could be drawn upon when action was eventually taken against the church.

That view in — clearly has some strength, and yet again one has to consider whether it might be overdrawn. It’s true that the parish clergy were often not very well educated, that some of them had moral failings, that some of them came into conflict with their parishioners. But on the other hand the crucial issue was whether they were adequate to perform the religious services which were expected of them. Their principal duties were not as educators; their principal duties were as priests. Their principal duties were sacerdotal. They had to perform the rituals, the sacraments, the mass. If they had their faults, they also had the sacred power by virtue of their ordination to perform those sacraments. They had the power to consecrate the elements in the mass. They had the power to administer the last rites to the dying. They had the power to absolve sin and that above all set them apart, and it could make them objects of reverence or even of anxiety. In a sense then human weaknesses could be cloaked by the majesty of the office.

As for the higher clergy, by the early sixteenth century men like Thomas Wolsey were really spectacularly exceptional. Most bishops on the whole were quite an impressive group. If a lot of them were primarily administrators in their functions, and servants of the state very often as well as of the church, they were often conscientious enough in running their dioceses. So given the powers and the privileges of the clerical estate it was inevitable that abuses could provoke resentment and indeed conflict and there were occasional notorious scandals which appear particularly significant in hindsight. Nevertheless, if such incidents reveal tensions they don’t necessarily reveal a fundamental hostility to the established church.

Criticism

 

Left: Portrait of John Colet, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1535 / Royal Collection
Right: Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 / Frick Collection

But there was real criticism which went beyond mere occasional resentment and it came from three sources. First of all, there was criticism that came from reformers within the church itself. John Colet, the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, was a man who was deeply troubled by the failings of the church. He — in a famous sermon which he preached to Convocation, which was the gathering of the leading clergy, the parliament of the church if you like — in a sermon to Convocation in 1511 he castigated the pride and the worldliness which was to be found among some clergy. And Colet could be said to be representative of the long reformist tradition within the church itself, whereby strict moralists demanded from time to time that the clergy should live up to the standards of their own profession in a manner which would deserve the privileges that they enjoyed.

And Colet wasn’t alone. His close friend, the pious layman Thomas More, a learned and devout man, sympathized greatly with Colet’s desire for the reform of clerical standards and so did others among the senior clergy. Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, which is down in Kent, or Bishop Tunstall, first of London, then of Durham, were other bishops who had reforming agendas of this kind within the church. Well, most of these were elite critics. They, one could say, enjoyed the luxury of knowing better, but they weren’t willing to challenge the ultimate authority of the church itself nor were they really willing to damage the practice of piety of the common people. They were very anxious not to break the unity of Christendom though they wanted the church to reform itself, and all of them died Catholics. Indeed, Thomas More and John Fisher both died as martyrs for the old faith, executed in the early years of the reformation by Henry VIII. They died in defense of the papal authority over the English church.

So there were some critics within the church. At the other end of the scale there were a set of very trenchant plebeian critics of both church authority and the conventional nature of late medieval Catholicism, and these were the heretics known in England as the Lollards. Lollards were the followers of a fourteenth-century Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe, who had been very critical of the church of his time. Wycliffe had died in 1384 but his ideas survived him. The Lollards were an underground heretical sect and they had survived for over a century despite intermittent persecution. They were deeply hostile to the privileges enjoyed by the church. Many of them saw both the pope and the church hierarchy as being a kind of collective representation of Antichrist. They were deeply hostile to veneration of the saints, the reverence shown to saints and to relics of the saints. They regarded it as fraudulent and idolatrous. They were skeptical of the doctrine of transubstantiation in the mass which — they tended to see the communion service more as a service of remembrance. They regarded the doctrine of purgatory as a false doctrine which had been late introduced into the church, and they saw the saying of masses for souls as simply a mercenary racket to put money into the pockets of the priesthood. And above all they relied upon the authority of the Bible. From the 1380s onwards, Lollards had translated the New Testament into English and copies of their New Testament translation were secretly circulated amongst Lollard groups. Some of them are extremely beautiful. One tends to imagine these as being rather primitive products produced in secret, but some of them survive and they could be in fact very beautifully produced, even illuminated.

Portrait of John Wycliffe / British Museum

So these were the Lollards, and all of these features of their beliefs and attitudes tend to make them sound like proto-Protestants, and so in a sense they were. Wycliffe undoubtedly influenced the great Bohemian reformer of the fifteenth century, Jan Hus of Prague, and Jan Hus’ teachings deeply influenced Martin Luther so there is a connection which can be traced. Both Catholics and Protestants were later to see the Lollards as being forerunners of the reformation in England. That’s a view you find already current by the 1540s and 1550s.

But more recently their role has been somewhat questioned, or at least their potential for bringing about change. The point usually made is that certainly the Lollards were present but they were not very numerous. Well, that’s true. Nevertheless, there were some areas of concentration. There were quite a few of them in London, hiding out in the crowd as it were. There were some areas of the country where their influence had spread and remained deeply rooted. The Chiltern Hills just to the northwest of London was one area where they were well established. There were outposts of Lollardy scattered through the small towns of East Anglia. We know about all of this because occasionally bishops would conduct a kind of purge of Lollards within their diocese; they would seek them out. In 1521, one bishop conducted such a purge in the county of Buckinghamshire, which is over here, and he brought in over 400 Lollard suspects — so within a single county there were a fair number of these people.

They were nevertheless contained. The church courts were vigilant. There were these occasional purges. Occasionally, a Lollard was burned though most of them when they were found tended to recant and then quietly go back when they weren’t being observed to their private beliefs. Occasionally, though, examples were made and people were burned. Over the nation as a whole they were a tiny minority but they were there and in some areas they were quite a significant presence, especially amongst the literate laity of London and parts of the southeast of England, with scatterings of sympathizers elsewhere. There were even some members of the clergy who secretly sympathized with the Lollards. So they were able to retain a presence, they were able to retain a certain coherence through their underground contacts, and I think it’s a mistake to dismiss them entirely. One could compare them perhaps to the dissidents of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, who were hard put to survive and were in no position to overthrow the established system, but were nonetheless a corrosive presence within it. And when the structures of power were eventually to be shaken the Lollards similarly were ready to come out into the open when they had the opportunity and many did.

Well, between the critics within the church, the reforming members of the higher clergy, and the Lollards at the other end of the scale, there were small numbers of people who can be legitimately described as early Protestants. Most of them didn’t actually owe much to the Lollard tradition. They were mostly highly educated; in fact, they were mostly members of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, but in particularly Cambridge. They were mostly men of evangelical orientation, very pious, and when they learned of Martin Luther’s doctrinal protests made in Germany in 1517 they took an interest. Luther’s books were actually available in the early years after his first protest of 1517. They weren’t actually banned until the early 1520s, so people could get hold of copies from Germany and they were able to read them to see what was going on. Some of them became persuaded of Luther’s arguments.

Cambridgeshire Folk Museum (originally the White Horse Tavern) / Wikimedia Commons

The Cambridge men, who included Thomas Cranmer, later to be the Archbishop of Canterbury under the reformed church, met secretly at a tavern known as the White Horse Tavern which was in the red light district of the town near the river — it still stands; it’s now the Cambridgeshire Folk Museum — and the meetings amongst them were known as Little Germany because they were discussing books which had been smuggled from the centers of the early reformation in Germany. They also discussed the works of the early Swiss reformers which were available to them. Well, the position of these early Protestants was often rather ambiguous. Not all of them had made a full transition to doctrinal heresy. One who was much venerated later was a man named Thomas Bilney, who was actually captured and burned at the stake in 1531. It seems unlikely that Bilney was ever a full-blown Lutheran. Nonetheless, he was a passionate evangelical who detested some aspects of the practice of worship at the time. He saw it as a cluttered form of devotion. He wanted a much more biblically based religion and he preached openly these beliefs. In his own words, he “went up to Jerusalem” for those beliefs and was eventually burned in the city of Norwich. Bilney was a sort — of Protestant one could say; he was halfway there.

Or another example is William Tyndale. Tyndale was the first translator, other than the Lollards, of the New Testament into English, the translator of the first published version of the English New Testament. He had long had the idea that it was desirable to translate the scriptures into English, but he originally brought that project to Cuthbert Tunstall, the reforming Bishop of London. He was willing to do it within the boundaries of the existing church. Tunstall, however, would not back him. Tunstall, like many churchmen, associated the scriptures in English with Lollardy. He thought it was too dangerous. So Tyndale had to look for support elsewhere and when rejected he found patronage from a London merchant called Humphrey Monmouth. Humphrey Monmouth is known to have been a Lollard sympathizer. He sent Tyndale abroad where Tyndale eventually became a Lutheran and in 1526 produced his New Testament in Germany, had it printed there, and copies were subsequently smuggled into England through the cloth trade with the Netherlands. The fact that these early Protestants were mostly based in Cambridge and parts of East Anglia and London is no accident. These are the areas most easily reached by the trade routes from the Netherlands and Germany.

Portrait of William Tyndale, Protestant reformer and Bible translator / From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, British Library

Well, as William Tyndale’s story indicates, people like him had a rather separate origin from the Lollards, but not infrequently they eventually linked up with them. The older Lollard networks were sometimes activated to smuggle New Testaments into England and Lutheran books into England once they were banned, and by the 1520s the two movements had to a large extent overlapped. To some extent they were merging together and becoming one, a critical underground. So one can say that England had a religious underground by the 1520s. It did not in itself mount a significant challenge to the hegemony of traditional religion. In all probability, it would never have spontaneously gained the strength to mount a victorious challenge to the religious status quo of the kind that was mounted by Protestants in some of the cities of Germany and Switzerland and Flanders and so forth. But to say that, that they might never have gained the spontaneous strength to mount such a challenge, is speculation because of course what actually happened is that this tiny minority of dissidents actually won.

And what made it possible was a contingent circumstance, a contingent circumstance of the kind that so often makes history take turns which are otherwise utterly unpredictable. And that circumstance is probably known to you. In 1527, King Henry VIII, a man whose hostility to Martin Luther and the early Protestants was such that he had written a book against them and had been awarded the title Defender of the Faith from the pope in 1521, this man decided that he needed to have his marriage dissolved. He was thirty-five. His wife, Katherine, was forty-ish. They had one daughter but they had no son and the Tudor succession was in danger. Henry needed his marriage dissolved; he needed it desperately. All the achievements of his father and his own early reign in establishing the Tudor dynasty were at risk of being lost without a male heir to the crown. He needed a new wife. He needed to remarry, hopefully to beget such a son to succeed him. The pope, Clement VII, would have loved to cooperate. Popes usually cooperated with kings over such difficult matters. But he couldn’t oblige for political reasons since the pope was in the immediate power of the Emperor of Germany, Charles V, who happened to be Queen Katherine’s nephew. So these were the contingent circumstances and it was those contingent circumstances which were to make all the difference.

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