Revisiting the Reformation: History always fails to shake off the prejudices of those that chronicle it02 March 2017 | by Eamon Duffy | Comments: 0
Unreliable narratorsThe past, especially the religious past, never looks the same to any two historians, and accounts of the Reformation in particular have always reflected the stance of their authors. Contrast the wise, humane and heroic portrait of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, with the sour and relentless bigot, soused in a double helping of vinegar, of Anton Lesser’s impersonation in the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Catholics have rightly deplored Protestant or secular narratives of the Reformation as the triumph of truth and rationality over ignorance and superstition. But Catholic accounts of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century were themselves often shaped by distinctive Catholic agendas.
Elizabethan Catholic writers, such as Nicholas Harpsfield and Nicholas Sander, simplified the story of the English Reformation to a catastrophe triggered by a tyrannical king’s lust for a scheming courtesan. In the process, they persuaded Counter-Reformation Europe that the break with Rome owed its origins to Anne Boleyn, a witch with six fingers on one hand, and they promoted the glorious fiction that Archbishop Cranmer had concealed his marriage from Henry VIII by carrying his German wife around with him in a padded box.
That historical tradition was continued by a succession of recusant writers, perhaps most entertainingly by Thomas Ward, a former Yorkshire Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism and served in Rome in the 1670s as a member of the papal guard. Ward’s four canto poem England’s Reformation, published posthumously in Germany in 1710, was a best-selling burlesque and extremely unflattering account of the founding fathers of the national church, starting with Henry VIII himself, who
… did, in spite of Pope and Fate
Behead, Rip and Repudiate
Those too-too long-liv’d Things,
with Axes, Bills and Midwives Knives;
When he the Papal Power rejected
And from the Church the Realm
And in the Great St PETER’s stead
Proclaimed himself the Church’s
When he his ancient Queen forsook,
And Buxom Anna Boleyn took,
Then in the Noddle of the Nation
He bred the Maggot Reformation ...
But Heralds grave, report this
That from old Harry’s Monstrous
It had it’s rise, as they do trace
It’s Pedigree. – A Blessed Race!
Ward wrote in the polemical spirit of Harpsfield and Sander, giving a Catholic spin to details culled from the standard Protestant narratives, including Gilbert Burnet’s stridently anti-Catholic History of the Reformation, first published to stoke the murderous no-popery frenzy of the so-called Popish Plot in 1679. Ward’s book made no pretence at balance, and its success infuriated Burnet, who called for its suppression.
More sober recusant historians would continue to harness the Reformation past to promote Catholic claims, by presenting themselves as fairer-minded and more balanced than their Protestant rivals. The Midlands-based secular priest Hugh Tootell, writing in the late 1730s under the name Charles Dodd, published a three-volume history of the English Reformation and its aftermath which, in the manner of Enlightenment “philosophical historians”, claimed absolute impartiality: “I presume all mankind are upon a level as to personal merit … Nature has very little regard to religion … I am only accountable to justice and decency in my characters.”
Tootell/dodd did indeed make a stab at presenting both sides of disputed questions, for example in his cautious discussion of the hoary Catholic myth that the Elizabethan Archbishop Parker had been “consecrated” by being hit over the head with a Bible during a drunken evening in the Nag’s Head pub. But his Catholic sympathies were never in question, and his illicitly published book made relatively little public impact.
It was a very different matter with the last great recusant historian of the Reformation, John Lingard, nowadays best known, perhaps, as the author of the hymn “Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star”. Trained for the priesthood in the English College in Douai, France, while Catholicism was still a proscribed religion in England, he was one of the founding staff when the seminary relocated to Ushaw, County Durham, and he lived long enough to disapprove of Cardinal Wiseman’s flamboyant advent as first Archbishop of Westminster.
A tireless pamphleteer and campaigner for Catholic liberties, Lingard was also a representative of a distinctive eighteenth-century “enlightened” Catholicism, self-consciously English, suspicious of “Italianate” devotions and resentful of undue Roman interference. He was a historian of genius, who harnessed the past to present Catholicism as the nation’s original and best form of Christianity, manly, English and politically unthreatening.
His first major book was a scholarly study of the Anglo Saxon church (1806), underlining continuities with modern Catholicism, but his masterwork was his 10-volume history of England, published between 1819 and 1830. Very large claims have been made for this history, and it is certainly true that Lingard insisted he had made it his rule “to admit no statement merely upon trust, to weigh with care the value of the authorities on which I rely, and to watch with jealousy the secret workings of my own personal feelings and prepossessions”. To do otherwise was “to sacrifice the interests of truth to the interests of party, national, or religious, or political”.
Lingard was also a pioneer in the scientific use of archival sources, and he used a network of contacts in England and Europe to search for unpublished materials on which to base his narrative. All the same, he wrote to a Catholic agenda: as he told his friend John Kirk, “Through the work I made it a rule to tell the truth, whether it be for or against us, to avoid all appearances of controversy … In my account of the Reformation I must say much to shock Protestant prejudices: and my only chance of being generally read … depends on my having the reputation of a temperate writer.”
Lingard was indeed “temperate”, a thorough and cautious worker who rarely ventured an inch beyond what the sources warranted. His dry eighteenth-century style, speculative caution and sardonic intelligence gave his judgements weight, and they have worn better than those of most other nineteenth-century English historians. But his archival trawls were by no means always open-ended examinations of all the available material. Instead he conducted targeted searches to support conclusions he had already reached.
The rector of the English College in Rome, Robert Gradwell, searched the Vatican archives on Lingard’s behalf, and his briefing letter is very revealing: “In a word you see what I want: whatsoever may make the Catholic cause appear respectable in the eyes of a British public. I have the reputation of impartiality – therefore I have it more in my power to do so …”
Lingard’s account of traditional Catholic historical “villains”, such as Cranmer or Boleyn, have a familiar feel to them; Sander and Harpsfield would have approved Lingard’s drift, if not his tone. As Gradwell noted in his diary, Lingard “wants proofs of Anne Boleyn’s criminal conversation with Henry, and that Rome inculcated loyalty to English Catholics”.
No historical writing is purely neutral, and Lingard’s History was a marked improvement on all previous scholarship: it rightly achieved multiple editions and acclaim beyond the Catholic community. But visceral anti-Catholic Victorians such as Charles Kingsley recognised in Lingard’s work a Trojan Horse, smuggling into the national consciousness a version of the English past that was fundamentally at odds with the self-understanding of the Protestant nation.
As Kingsley wrote: “Lingard is known to have been a learned man and … is now actually recommended as a standard authority for the young by educated Protestants, who seem utterly unable to see that … his whole view of the course of British events … of all which has passed for three hundred years since the fall of Wolsey is most likely to be … one huge libel on the whole nation, and the destiny which God has marked out for it.”
Given Kingsley’s blustering Protestant imperialism, that was an indictment Lingard himself, for all his patriotism, might have been content to endure.
Eamon Duffy is emeritus professor of Christian history at the University of Cambridge. This article is adapted from his book, Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, published on 23 February by Bloomsbury.