Popular Politics and the English Reformation

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Popular Politics and the English Reformation. By Ethan H. Shagan. [Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003. Pp. xiv, 341. $75.00 hardbound; $28.00 paperback.)

A great deal of expectation rests on this book. According to its rear cover text, ". . . it answers the twenty-year-old scholarly dilemma of how the English Reformation could have succeeded despite the inherent conservatism of the English people, and it presents the first genuinely post-revisionist account of one of the central events of English history." Whether it achieves these objectives is a matter we shall return to. For the moment, let us say that Shagan has not written a book but a series of essays about a theme, or perhaps two themes: popular politics and collaboration. The book borrows from recent discussions of collaboration in twentieth-century totalitarian regimes to apply some of the same ideas to the early Reformation. The book proceeds, however, by applying these insights to a small number of episodes, determined in part by the survival of exceptional material. The result is an episodic book in which each chapter has slightly different preoccupations. The first chapter concerns debates over the royal supremacy, the second the Holy Maid of Kent, the third the Pilgrimage of Grace. The fourth addresses the problem of anticlericalism, the fifth the post-dissolution demolition of the abbey buildings at Hailes, the sixth circumstances in Kent in the early 1540's. Two final chapters deal with attitudes to the dissolution of chantries (without considering the establishment of schools) and of the English people to the Edwardian Reformation. The various chapters are never less than interesting. Shagan recognizes the possibility of popular politics and the reality of individual opinion within the Reformation. He shows (notably in the chapter on the Prebendaries Plot) how preaching and proselytizing reached into and split Kentish parishes in the early 1540's. This is all to the good. So too are his demonstrations of how people could use the law and legal institutions to advance their concerns, sometimes in unpredictable ways, often incorporating into their bills the current buzz words which they hoped would earn them a favorable reception. This behavior, for Shagan, is evidence of collaboration.

The use of legal materials to examine the Reformation is innovative and gives the book much of its character. Where the most recent generation of historians have written the history of the Reformation from diocesan archives, Shagan is a Public Records Office man. Whether he is fully adept with much of this material is another matter. He reads it closely, and he reads it literally. Let us take an example from early on in the book. In 1535 the parishioners of Halifax (Yorkshire) petitioned Chancery to complain (amongst other things) that their parish priest, Dr. Robert Holdsworth, was still making them pay "Peter's Pence."They added to their bill the "enthusiastic confirmation that 'the king our sovereign lord is the supremum caput anglicane ecclesiae"'The first time this instance is cited it is used as an illustration of the way "many people who had no apparent Protestant leanings none the less chose to act as mouthpieces for the regime" (p. 15). Later these same words are described as "an absurdly superfluous reminder that the vicar should be made to answer the charges against him" (p. 145). I don't accept either of these interpretations. Someone was being highly constructive in taking a complaint against a parish priest to Chancery: the justification, to bring the case within the jurisdiction of the court, was a tendentious claim that since the establishment of the royal supremacy, Chancery could hear the complaint. What Chancery made of this is unrecorded, but I should be surprised if it acted on the bill. I simply don't see these words as carrying the implication Shagan claims for them; nor is it clear to me that the parishioners in whose name the bill was made would have been aware of what was done in their name. …