I just got hold of Eamon Duffy’s latest book Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations (Just published in Britain, and due out in the US in August). Duffy is a wonderful historian whose 1992 book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 was a staggering evocation of the religious life of Pre-Reformation England, and a grim account of how this was all swept away from the 1530s onwards. While generations of Protestants have believed that the Catholic Church in 1500 (say) was irredeemably corrupt and widely hated, Duffy shows its remarkable vigor and popularity. Instead of being a closed and arcane business for clergy alone, church life involved virtually every lay person, through a complex network of fraternities and devotional societies. Destroying that structure took a couple of generations, and a great deal of state-directed armed violence, mainly motivated by royal and aristocratic greed. After reading Duffy, you will never again accept without question the standard mythology of the Reformation – in Britain at least – as a spontaneous popular revolution. It was a vast act of political and cultural repression and plunder, inflicted by a cynical elite, which may or may not have accepted the new theologies. Duffy’s other recent work includes The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village.

When we think of the Reformation in terms of Luther and the church door, it’s salutary to think of some very different images that reflect how the revolution affected everyday people. Duffy reports one incident that occurred in 1549, when the up and coming landowner Walter Raleigh was riding through a Devonshire village (this was the father of the famous explorer). Seeing an old woman carrying her rosary beads, he ordered her to get rid of them immediately under threat of criminal penalty. The woman told her neighbors that “except she would leave her beads and give over holy bread and water the gentleman would burn them out of their houses and spoil them”. The enraged people rioted, almost lynching Raleigh, and order was restored only when the forces of the state “ruthlessly butchered” the villagers. Liberty of conscience is a wondrous thing.

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition follows very much along these lines, stressing the cultural and spiritual losses associated with the Reformation. This latest contribution is nothing like as revolutionary as Duffy’s previous work, and it is really a collection of loosely connected essays, but nevertheless, it still makes for good reading. In a recent newspaper column, Duffy summarized his argument thus: “The destruction of the monasteries and most of the libraries, music and art of medieval England now looks what it always was – not a religious breakthrough, but a cultural calamity. The slaughtered Popish martyrs look less like an alien fifth column than the voices of a history England was not allowed to have.”

Obviously, for a modern-day Protestant this makes for uncomfortable reading, and a historian like Diarmaid MacCulloch presents a very different view of the depth and sincerity of Protestant activism in that era. But even so, it’s still hard to argue with Duffy’s core point that the Reformation was imposed from above on a population that mainly wanted nothing to do with it. One of his most striking themes is how successive generations of English historians have more or less accepted that argument, while stressing that the reforms were in the best interests of the ignorant people who had their old religious forms uprooted so savagely.  Right up to the end of the sixteenth century, a Protestant minority ruled a country in which most people notionally conformed, but any sensible person knew that the slightest political change would bring them back overnight to the old ways. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a key turning point, and as a popular faith, Protestantism really took roots only from the 1590s onwards. Actually, that’s one thing that makes Shakespeare’s works so interesting historically, as he was living through that transition.

So it’s a familiar ethical (and spiritual) issue: how can a government justify forcing the vast majority of reluctant people to do things that it believes are in their best interests?

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  • If I may add a note of caution:

    The Reformation in England was more similar to the Calvinist Reformation in Switzerland, than Luther’s reformation work in Germany. Lutheranism did not, unlike Calvinism, throw out and destroy the traditional church vestments, ornamentation and art, but kept it. Calvinism is the branch of the Reformation that gained the upper hand in England and the iconoclastic work in England is attributable to Calvin, not Luther.

  • Lisa

    Rev. McCain:

    Really? Henry VIII was motivated by *Calvin* in the dissolution of the monasteries?


  • Jesse Reese

    Lisa, Henry VIII was a Catholic-favoring politician, and really a blip on the radar of the English Reformation as far as its long-term shape was concerned. Both his Archbishop Cranmer as well as many of the post-Marian divines took the English Reformation in the direction of a “moderate Calvinism.” Contrary to the pop historiography of Catholicism and the rest of Protestantism, the English Reformation is not simply Henry VIII. It was a two-hundred year process.

  • Chip Atkinson

    History such as this played a major role in my conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin, by the way, would have influenced Queen Elizabeth, not her father.

  • Chip Atkinson

    Also, Henry VIII and Calvin are most responsible for the destruction of the separation between church and state. Henry VIII died a Catholic, but his legacy will be the joining of Church and state.

  • It’s amazing how one book can be published and all of a sudden the whole world thinks that the standard narrative of the Reformation is turned over sufficient to have its back porch painted bright red. Perhaps it would be wiser to consider that Duffy represents just one perspective and a decidedly partisan one at that. What will be important to learn from Duffy is not the details of his arguments but rather the presuppositions he has undoubtedly brought to the table in interpreting the data before us.

  • Jim

    Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) was probably more responsible for the final direction the reformation took in England than her father (Henry VIII). Her vicious five years on the throne sealed the fate of the Roman Catholic Church. A little more restraint and statesmanship on her part (as well as some needed reforms within the Church) could have probably led to to a more Roman Catholic Great Britain. Instead her reign hardened resistance and hearts against the Roman Church. (And none of the excuses the rapaciousness of Henry VIII, the “defender of the faith” and the aristocracy.)

  • Ctrent1564


    Duffy is indeed a Catholic, but if I recall, Prof. Jenkins is a Professor of Religion and History at Penn State and is an Anglican/Episcopalian, and thus his commens or review of Duffy’s book can’t be interpreted to be an historical analysis of the English Reformation thru Catholic Lenses. Would you at least agree with that point?

    Interesting thread and I have to admit, as a Catholic, England is the country that one looks back on and wishes it had remain in Full Communion with the Bishop of Rome and historic Apostolic Tradition and had not went over to the Reformation.

  • please note, friends, that as of last January, Philip Jenkins (I am proud to say) works for Baylor University!

  • Philip Jenkins

    Thanks for the correction!
    Expect blogs on Texas any day now.

  • John Charles

    There was no restraint from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. The point isn’t one particular monarch, but the entire historical political process in England was overthrown. That is the problem when extremes take control and innocent people are killed without restraint and no conscience protections. That is how the 16th Century monarchs ruled. They became the State and justified the Divine Right and the killing of people who opposed the Crown. We are headed in that direction with the killing of innocent persons in our society; we see the use of force to impose immoral actions upon a moral people, and the political polarization of our institutions and people. Reconciliation is possible but not through force; but respect for human dignity and the conscience of each person. Unfortunately, the via media became the via mediocrity. The end result is today’s Church of England whose gospel is political correctness.