This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


In context

Five hundred years ago, German theologian Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, challenging the authority of the Catholic church. Luther’s work triggered fierce debate across Europe about the central tenets of Christianity. This led to the introduction of new forms of Christianity, most notably Protestantism, and heralded the beginning of centuries of religious reform, change and conflict, both on the continent and in the British Isles.

What exactly was the Reformation, and why was it so significant?

The Reformation essentially heralded the break-up of western Christendom. Throughout the 15th century, there had been a series of reform efforts focused on cleaning up the church, but what was new in the early 16th century was Martin Luther’s call for doctrinal transformation. While everyone agreed that many of the church’s institutions and officials were corrupt, that isn’t what Luther attacked. Instead, he challenged the fundamental theological presuppositions on which western Catholic Christianity had operated for nearly 1,000 years.

This led to a fissure right down the centre of Europe. Essentially, the north and east went Protestant, rejecting Catholicism, and two different Christian lifestyles emerged. One, Protestantism, was Bible-based with a heavy emphasis on the laity, while the other, Catholicism, attempted to reaffirm the structures that had dominated for the previous millennium.

Catholicism was sacramental, meaning it laid heavy emphasis on the material communication of spiritual truths. Catholics believed that Christ’s sacrifice was made present again in the mass, and that bread and wine communicated his body and blood. Most Protestant reformers rejected this emphasis on the material as a vehicle for the spiritual, and viewed the Eucharist as essentially symbolic. They wanted a retreat from external symbols, such as statues and relics. The seven sacraments were reduced to just two: baptism and the Eucharist. Another profound difference was that while Catholicism placed the centre of Christian authority in the papacy, the church and its living ministers, Protestantism placed it in the pages of the Bible.

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You suggest that ‘the Reformation’ is a problematic label. Why is that?

Especially if you capitalise it, the term implies that what existed before needed reforming, and is therefore laden with Protestant value. Several major recent studies have either pluralised the term, or dropped the definite article and talked about ‘reformation’. I think that’s a healthy development – it means that we’re not buying into judgments about the value or otherwise of what happened before we’ve even started.

What impact did these religious changes have in England?

Surprisingly, in the 1520s England under Henry VIII was a heartland of Catholicism. The king burned Protestants for denying the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and even wrote – or had ghost-written for him – a strong defence of the seven Catholic sacraments, directed against Martin Luther.

However, in the late 1520s Henry became anxious to get rid of his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He wanted a papal annulment that would allow him to remarry, but political circumstances meant that this just wasn’t going to happen; the pope was the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In the end, Henry severed relations with the church of Rome and absorbed all the previous legal functions of the papacy into the crown.

When Henry died, his bishops were divided between radicals who were deeply committed to the new ideas, like Bishop Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, and many more conservative figures who had acquiesced to reforms but were largely still Catholic. In Edward VI’s reign, this Catholic party was overthrown. The boy king was a convinced Protestant and Edwardine reform was extremely radical; the mass was abolished and replaced with a stark Protestant communion service. Had Edward not died young, the episcopacy [government of a church by bishops] itself may well have been abolished.

This drastic reform was halted by the succession of Mary I, a Catholic who restored the papacy for five years. There’s Not the slightest doubt that, if Mary had had an heir or had been on the throne longer, the success of the Catholic counter-reformation seen elsewhere in Europe could have been replicated in England.

Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, was committed to returning England to Protestantism, but she also liked ritual, so dug her heels in about allowing further reform. Elizabeth could be seen as the inventor of the mediating position of Anglicanism. She wanted reform to doctrine, but preferred a more traditional kind of practice.

To what extent was the English Reformation more about monarchical power than religious doctrine?

While rulers may have held genuine personal beliefs, religious convictions were also convenient pegs on which to hang royal authority. Religious orthodoxies,both Catholic and Protestant, could be used to consolidate secular power, and the enforcement of correct religious practice became an instrument of state and social control.

For example, Henry VIII’s personal beliefs, while a bit mysterious, were essentially conservative. Sacramentally and ritually, he remained Catholic. But because of the royal supremacy, Protestantism became identified with loyalty to the crown. When Henry talked about the ‘word of god’, he meant royal authority, and thus created a very clear identification between obedience to the king and obedience to god. The Henrician Reformation was undoubtedly all about the consolidation of power, driven not so much by doctrinal issues, but the need for a male heir.

How were the everyday lives of ordinary people affected?

The complex interlocking of social and religious life was stripped out. Before the Reformation, many more people were involved in the administration and ritual practices of local parish churches: maintaining lights and statues, and running youth groups, dances and social events. Being involved in the church could be an opportunity – a sort of apprenticeship that gave you influence in the community. The Reformation abolished all that. Things like youth groups disappeared or had to find a purely secular outlet.

Under Catholicism, the dead were seen as still part of the community. One of the most shocking parts of the Reformation for ordinary people must have been when they were forbidden to pray for dead family members. John Calvin campaigned to prevent widows from placing candles on their husbands’ graves. These differences cut very deeply into people’s psyche.

But there was also a pay-off from the Reformation. Protestantism placed enormous value on reading the Bible, which had a knock-on effect in promoting literacy. The standard of the clergy in England also improved: it became more expected that they would get a university degree, which gave them a basic training in liberal arts and religious catechesis. By the mid-17th century, most English clergy were graduates, which was a great achievement.

There used to be an assumption that the late-medieval Catholic church was incredibly unpopular, so the Reformation was a bit of a pushover, with everyone quickly and happily settling down into being good Protestants. This just wasn’t the case. There were parts of England and Wales where Catholicism was never truly eradicated. The Puritans always maintained that Protestantism was only skin deep. They argued that if you scratched under the skin of an ordinary person, they actually operated on a kind of Catholic folk religion, and were still attached to holy wells and magical medicinal cures.

Why did the Reformation result in so much conflict down the centuries?

Early modern Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, held that salvation was contingent on accepting certain truths and that it was the obligation of a Christian ruler to not only promote but also enforce correct belief and practice. Most Europeans believed you couldn’t have a stable country if people were fundamentally divided about what was true and about how to behave. It wasn’t until post-Enlightenment times that it became widely accepted that you could have a stable society in which people agreed to differ.

How did the Reformation affect England’s relationship with Europe?

You could call it the original Brexit. It was fundamental to Henry’s Reformation that England was an empire to itself and that no external authorities could decide on English matters. This idea of the nation-state, which could define and settle issues without reference to anybody else, was a new concept. This was radically different from the Middle Ages, when the fabric of Christendom was always portrayed as international. Brexit shows us that there is a strong sense in England of a distinct set of national values and cultural separation from the continent – at least some of that is a Reformation inheritance.

Where else can we still see the impact of the Reformation today?

For the past five centuries, England’s history has been a Protestant history. Think of Handel’s Messiah, the Lord’s Prayer or hymn-singing at football matches. English culture has a strong substratum of Protestantism.

Yet many of the cultural taboos that were transmitted by the Reformation, such as the idea that what is spiritual cannot be physical, have now gone. Think of the way we light candles or leave objects at roadsides where people have been killed: that simply didn’t happen 50 years ago, because these are Catholic gestures. People are much more eclectic in their symbolic and spiritual life now.


Eamon Duffy is the author of Reformation Divided (Bloomsbury, £30).