A Vanished World

As one of the great determining events of English history, the Protestant Reformation has never ceased to be the subject of passionate controversy. In his Acts and Monuments (better known as the Book of Martyrs), the sixteenth-century Protestant John Foxe portrayed the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and chantries, and the dismantling of Catholic worship as the triumph of godliness over anti-Christian corruption; it was a return to the simplicities of the early Church, whose traditions had been revived in the later Middle Ages by John Wycliffe and other proto-Protestants; persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Church, they triumphed, when godly monarchs rallied to their cause.

The alternative view was set out by Foxe’s contemporary, the exiled Catholic priest Nicholas Sander, whose Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism was posthumously published in 1585. Sander attributed the break with Rome to the desire of the tyrannical, lustful, and sacrilegious King Henry VIII for a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, which would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn, who, so Sander claimed, was really the King’s daughter by one of his mistresses. The Reformation which followed was motivated not by godliness, but by greed for Church lands and goods.

Those initial exchanges set the pattern for later debate. In the ensuing centuries, Protestants argued that the Reformation was a popular response to the corruptions of the Church of Rome, whereas Catholics condemned it as an act of state, imposed by selfish rulers upon an unwilling populace.

By the twentieth century, with the growth of academic history, standards of argument had become intellectually more demanding. If religious polemic was to convince, it had to meet the requirements of modern scholarship, supposedly impartial and value-free. But behind the footnotes and learned apparatus, the old attachments were still there. The study of the Middle Ages has always attracted Roman Catholics, just as Anglicans have been drawn to the history of the Church of England, Nonconformists to the study of Puritanism, Quakers to the annals of Quakerism, and atheists to the history of the Enlightenment. A modern Catholic is bound to feel resentment when visiting a medieval church originally designed for Catholic worship but now occupied by Protestants whose Tudor forebears tore down the rood screen, smashed the stained-glass windows, whitewashed the wall paintings, and defaced the statues of saints.

It is not surprising that those schol-ars who have portrayed the Reformation as a state imposition upon a reluctant people have tended to be Cath-olics, like the abbot and future cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet, who claimed in The Eve of the Reformation (1900) that “up to the very eve of the changes, the old religion had not lost its hold upon the minds and affections of the people at large”; or the histo-rian J.J. Scarisbrick, who asserted in The Reformation and the English People (1984) that “on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it …

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