It is remarkable how popular historical fiction creates expressions such as ‘the Tudor machine’, a term hitherto unfamiliar in historical circles. Dominic Selwood, writing for the Telegraph on yesterday’s 481st anniversary of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, seems to have been dwelling in the realm of these historical romances when he remarks that Henry VIII’s divorce was “the event that started the English Reformation.” Furthermore, and here historical fiction triumphs completely, he argues that we are victims of a twisted and politicized history, for we have swallowed whole the myth, “spun by the Tudor machine,” that the late medieval church—at least in England—was in need of reform.
In the Telegraph, Selwood writes:
…bulldozing the Catholic Church off the face of medieval England was not a “bottom up” revolution in which Henry merely acquiesced to his people’s wishes by throwing off a widely hated foreign domination. To the contrary, it looks increasingly like Henry and his circle imposed the Reformation “top down”, unleashing 100 years of deep anger and alienation that was only overcome by sustained politicking and ruthless force.
Is this true? Serious differences of interpretation exist as to the reasons for the theological shift in England. There is indeed a current interpretation of the English Reformation, authored by Eamon Duffy, which is well worth reading, as new histories are, and which indicates that there was much more Catholic sentiment among the English people than earlier histories had suggested. But one would have to ask what is meant by “Catholic,” and whether such a definition is something that even the magisterial Counter-Reformers would use as feathers in their cap.
In approaching the question one hardly wants to consider the older histories mere attempts at myth-making or spin. Let us consider seriously whether or not the Elizabethan settlement was the outcome of a power play or a genuinely popular movement. Let us have honest debates about the facts. Unfortunately, that is not what Selwood offers.
The older argument offered by historians such as A. G. Dickens was that, under Henry VIII, England was theologically unreformed as a whole. In this Selwood is correct. But so also was Henry VIII leery of the Continental Reform, if not downright opposed to it. It was not without reason that Pope Leo X bestowed the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, upon Henry in 1521. Henry remained until his dying days mostly unreformed and even superstitiously Medieval and Catholic.
Can English acceptance of the Reformation really be construed then as a century of ruthless force beginning with the annulment of Henry’s marriage and the 1534 Act of Supremacy? Such a conclusion is hasty considering the many factors at work in the English Reformation beyond the King’s divorce. After all, changing views about accessibility to the Bible and the need for vernacular worship had been in progress for some time, not just in England but across France and northern Europe.
Theologians in Europe with access to the Greek New Testament had begun to challenge the supremacy of the Latin Vulgate. Others saw the need to translate the liturgy into the vernacular for an increasingly literate lay community. There was enthusiasm in the air for Reform all around.
England faced an influx of these ideas from continental scholars and merchants who traveled to Europe. Henry VIII’s reforms in response extended to providing texts in English, for example The Great Bible. He was petitioned in 1534 for an authorized version of the Scriptures in English, which he approved as the Coverdale translation in 1535.
As for Archbishop Cranmer, he was always uncertain about Henry’s theology–it was not easy being Archbishop of Canterbury with Protestant leanings under the unpredictable and ruthless Henry, who was tyrannical, resisted Lutheranism for most of his life, and died thinking himself faithful to the received teaching of the Church of Rome, if not to her ecclesiology.
Under Edward VI, Thomas Cranmer was able to translate what was most useful of the liturgy into the vernacular so to proclaim the truth of the Scriptures unmediated by medieval superstition. He did this in publishing The Book of Homilies in 1547 and the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, which provided the resources for Christian worship demanded by those who were convinced of the need for reform in the Church.
The two Books of Common Prayer Cranmer produced, while different in sacramental theology as is frequently remarked, were alike in setting out a new way of thinking about Christian worship, not simply as the preserve of the priest in his chapel, but as the public work of all the people of the realm so that even the ploughman might know the Bible and his prayers. In this manner Protestant reforms and the real establishment of Anglican doctrine came about under Edward VI, establishing practices which would not necessarily have been supported or foreseen by Henry VIII.