How the English Reformation was Named: Historiography as Political Mythology (Guest Post by Benjamin Guyer)

How the English Reformation was Named: Historiography as Political Mythology (Guest Post by Benjamin Guyer) January 11, 2023

It is a new year and a wonderful time to welcome a new guest contributor to the Anxious Bench to tell us about his new book. Today’s post is by Benjamin Guyer, who is currently a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin, and an adjunct professor in the departments of Religious Studies and History at the University of Kansas. He is a Council Member of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, and was coordinating editor in June 2022 for a special issue of Anglican & Episcopal History on the Lambeth Conference. See more of his research at

Book cover

I’m thrilled to tell readers of the Anxious Bench about my new book (and first monograph), How the English Reformation was Named: The Politics of History, 1400-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2022). Allow me to begin with the back cover blurb:

How the English Reformation was Named analyses the shifting semantics of “reformation” in England between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Originally denoting the intended aim of church councils, “reformation” was subsequently redefined to denote violent revolt, and ultimately a series of past episodes in religious history. But despite referring to sixteenth-century religious change, the proper noun “English Reformation” entered the historical lexicon only during the British civil wars of the 1640s. Anglican apologists coined this term to defend the Church of England against proponents of the Scottish Reformation, an event that contemporaries singled out for its violence and illegality. Using their neologism to denote select events from the mid-Tudor era, Anglicans crafted a historical narrative that enabled them to present a pristine vision of the English past, one that they endeavored to preserve amidst civil war, regicide, and political oppression. With the restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England in 1660, apologetic narrative became historiographical habit and, eventually, historical certainty.

Deploying a linguistic methodology and drawing upon philosophical hermeneutics, How the English Reformation was Named studies the rise and early dissemination of a myth—a myth at once political and religious, and ultimately historical. By “myth” I don’t mean something negative and thus synonymous with “fiction” or “falsehood.” Rather, I simply mean “story.” The English Reformation developed during the British civil wars of the 1640s as a story that many English told themselves about themselves. Notably, it wasn’t a story related to anything involving Martin Luther. It was, instead, a story about how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious history in England and Scotland diametrically opposed one another.

The first paradigm: Reformation by council

It is customary to begin histories of reformation Europe with Martin Luther, but this is a product of historiographical (and often hagiographical) inertia. In truth, “reformation” saw three major semantic transformations between 1400 and 1700. I borrow from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and call these “paradigm shifts.”

The first paradigm was conciliar. The book begins in the early fifteenth century, when the Council of Constance (1414-1418) called for “reformation in head and in members.” Every subsequent council—Basel (1431-1445/9), Lateran V (1512-1517), and Trent (in three sessions: 1545-1547, 1551-1552, 1562-1563)—deployed the vocabulary of “reformation” just as freely. For the span of 150 years, therefore, reformation was a core Catholic value and pursuit, pursued through a conciliar framework. It’s one of the very odd accidents of history that we now associate “reformation” with Protestantism. In truth, “reformation” was not a Protestant keyword.

If you look at the major Protestant confessions and catechisms—for example, the Augsburg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion—you find that “reformation” never appears. The same is true of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses; “reformation” is wholly absent. Of course, Luther did speak of reformation, but almost exclusively within the context of a church council. We find this in his early work To the Christian Nobility (1520), and we find it again much later in 1539, with his treatise On the Councils and the Church. In words from the latter, “We see the necessity for a council or reformation in the church.” For 150 years, reformation was the work of Catholic councils. The first Protestants believed this just as much as their Catholic contemporaries.

There is an upshot here. I simply don’t believe that the English had any coherent idea of reformation under kings Henry VIII or Edward VI, or under queen Elizabeth I. Rather, they had it only under Mary I. In this, I politely depart from the scholarship of recent decades, which has portrayed Edward VI’s reign as the high water mark of the English Reformation (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Boy King is probably the most accessible such book in this regard). But Henry, Edward, and Mary all ascended the English throne when the first paradigm, that of conciliar reformation, reigned supreme. Elizabeth ascended the throne only as the second paradigm (discussed below) was beginning to circulate.

Because Mary returned England to papal allegiance, during her reign the corporeal metaphors and ideals associated with conciliar reformation returned to England’s social imaginary. We see this explicitly in Cardinal Pole’s constitutions for the English church, which are entitled Reformatio Angliae (The Reformation of England). To gently protest such works as Eamon Duffy’s often insightful study The Fires of Faith, Marian England was not, for its contemporaries, the beginnings of the Counter-Reformation (and, as John O’Malley has shown, “Counter-Reformation” was a term coined as an eighteenth-century Protestant insult). Rather, the Marian regime aimed at reformation as reformation was then understood—that is, reformation according to the norms instantiated by church councils, in this case, the ongoing Council of Trent.

Some will say, and some have already asked me (including one of the reviewers for Oxford), “what about the Edwardian reformation?” However, during Edward’s reign, “reformation” was not a keyword of any import. It was not used to justify religious change. As the phrase “reformation in head and in members” shows us, by the mid-sixteenth century, “reformation” had, for more than a century, been bound up with a broadly shared belief in the church as a social body. If people like Thomas Cranmer saw their work as “reformation,” they would have discussed it with reference to the English church as a social body. The very idea of the king of England as “supreme head” of the English church practically invited this kind of comparison.

But we look in vain for any such discussions or analyses. This seemingly curious disconnect probably happened for a simple reason: there was no precedent for applying, at the national level, metaphors and values that had historically existed with reference to international Christendom and its councils. So, if we use “reformation” as contemporaries used it, then no, reformation did not happen under Edward. Nor did it happen under Elizabeth. It happened, but briefly, under Mary.

The second paradigm: “Reformation by force of arms”

Paradigm shifts occur suddenly, and so it was in early modern Britain. The second paradigm broke with the international, conciliar framework of Catholic Christendom by rooting reformation at the local level. It was now applied, at least within a British context, to a specific kingdom—Scotland. John Knox famously (or, for many at the time, infamously!) described this as “reformation by force of arms.” But, as history is rarely full of breaks, there is a bright thread of continuity between the first and second paradigms: apocalypticism.

Whenever councils between Constance and Trent discussed reformation, they did so with reference to the very old, very familiar image of the corporate body. “Reformation in head and in members” was understood so literally that it is better to describe it as a metonym, rather than a metaphor. Popular belief contrasted healthy bodies with monstrous bodies, and we find repeated statements about fears of the church becoming a monster.

Reformation was ecclesial monster hunting; reformation existed to stave off the threat of divine judgment. So, when Knox and company began demanding “reformation by force of arms,” their redefinition of otherwise familiar language was not wholly novel. The early Scottish Presbyterians were acutely apocalyptic, and their fears of judgment were just as pronounced as any ecumenical council. They relocated ecclesial authority, transferring it from episcopal councils to their own congregation, but apocalypticism remained fixed firmly in place.

Under Elizabeth, the new paradigm of reformation by force of arms rapidly polarized the English. Polemical works from the 1590s are especially helpful here. Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was addressed “to them that seeke (as they tearme it) the reformation of Lawes, and orders Ecclesiasticall, in the Church of England.”

By Hooker’s time, some works, such as those by Martin Marprelate, had openly called for reformation by bloodshed within England. Scots Presbyterians had accomplished this against Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1560. Fears of religious violence were not merely rhetorical, but need to be taken seriously. Through the late seventeenth century, “reformation” was not a neutral term but was synonymous, in many peoples’ minds, with the threat of martial resistance. It was thus more akin to our word “revolution” today.

The third paradigm: Reformation as past event

And thus we come to the third semantic shift, reformation as a historiographical category. Here too we owe Knox quite a lot. His work The History of the Reformation of Church of Scotland was, at least within a British context, the first work that narrated the history of a national ecclesial reformation. Unfinished in 1572 when he died, the History was finally printed in full in 1644. It’s probably no mistake that the term “English Reformation” entered the popular historical lexicon shortly thereafter.

Notably, and in respectful dissent from recent scholarship, such as Anthony Milton’s work on Peter Heylyn, so-called “Laudians” did not oppose to the English Reformation at all. Rather, it was Heylyn and his contemporaries who invented the very concept, creating the neologism “English Reformation.” At the time, they also used the phrase “Our Reformation” and “Our English Reformation.” The plural possessive indicates a contrast—and the contrast was with Scotland and its reformation, not with anything done by Luther.

Throughout the 1640s, the English used “reformation” to describe immediately contemporary events, most notably, the civil wars that suffused the British Isles. So, on my reading, the earliest historiography of the English Reformation fought a twofold battle: against the attempted overthrow of crown and miter, but also historiographically, by locating in the sixteenth century an idealized reformation—that is, a reformation obedient to the crown and loyal to the episcopate.

Yes, there was some ambivalence about Tudor-era religious change. But that isn’t because people like Heylyn opposed reformation. Rather, it’s because they inherited ambivalence about these changes from an earlier generation of historians: the Jacobean authors Francis Godwin, John Hayward, Henry Spelman, and William Camden. Notably, all four wrote and published about Tudor religious history—but they wrote and published decades before the civil wars, and thus decades before Tudor religious history was polemically recast under the label “the English Reformation.”

The book concludes by studying how, after the Restoration and animated by antiquarian ideals, Heylyn was joined by Gilbert Burnet and others in publishing increasingly refined studies of the English Reformation. What began as historiographical polemic passed, within a generation, into historical certainty. And we’ve been writing about it ever since.


If I ever secure a tenure-track job, I will pursue a follow-up volume that traces the historiography of the English Reformation into the nineteenth century. Multiple academic societies were then formed in Britain to study the English and Scottish reformations, and some of those publications (e.g., the Parker Society volumes and the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology) remain standard reference works.

For now, I’ll conclude by noting some of the topics within the book that, in hopes of directing future academic inquiry, I suggest for further discussion and debate. First, I raise the possibility of abandoning the term “English Reformation” because it derives its worth from Anglican assumptions and beliefs. Should we, as historians, take terms that were originally value-laden and perpetuate them?

Second, given the import of fifteenth-century conciliar vocabulary, I argue that we should consider the descriptive value of a “long fifteenth century” in which recurring ecclesial fractures and their attendant apocalypticism are foregrounded over the allegedly “great ideas” of allegedly “great men.”

Third, given that “reformation” was disseminated within Britain in ways unrelated to how Luther’s career was then conceptualized, historians should analyze other uses and disseminations of “reformation” elsewhere in Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. I suspect that our ideas about sixteenth-century religious history do not derive organically from the sixteenth century at all, but instead come from centuries later.

About Benjamin Guyer
Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin and an adjunct professor in the departments of Religious Studies and History at the University of Kansas. He is a Council Member of the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference and was coordinating editor in June 2022 for a special issue of Anglican & Episcopal History on the Lambeth Conference. You can read more about the author here.
"Most historians get the origins of our republican form of government wrong. The writings of ..."

Undiscerned Retrieval: Ockenga and Protestant History
"As I interpret the article, the evangelical heart is in crisis when evangelicalism produces effects ..."

The Crisis of the Evangelical Heart
"A crisis in the heart of evangelicalism is mentioned repeatedly in this article, but never ..."

The Crisis of the Evangelical Heart
"I don't care for Baylor's leftward lurch, but this is a good idea. Next, Baylor ..."

Baylor’s Reckoning Has Begun: Memorial to ..."

Browse Our Archives