Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation

Article excerpt

KENNETH HYLSON-SMITH. Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation. Volume III: 1384-1558. London: SCM Press, 2001. Pp. xxii + 354, preface, introduction, appendices, bibliography, notes, index. £19.95.

The third volume of Kenneth Hylson-Smith's survey of English Christianity sets out from the latter part of the fourteenth century, gingerly steps through the fifteenth century, looking for whatever sound footing is available, and then strides through pre-Elizabethan Tudor developments with considerably more confidence. Like its predecessor, this volume depicts the church from the top down: reign by reign, the character and policy of monarchs and archbishops, their relation to Europe-wide and insular developments, leading to a more general account of the secular and religious clergy and then of the religion of the people. If that narrative structure is conventional and even oldfashioned, it has the virtue of moving from the better-known and better-documented to the less fully studied, and it requires the integration of politics and religion. Written for a wide audience, the volume assumes a rudimentary knowledge of English political and social history and of the Christian religion.

Hylson-Smith acknowledges the uneven state of scholarship on the fifteenth-century English church. He still succeeds in offering a measured if somewhat tentative account, giving considerable ground to catholic revisionists against the Whig view of a decadent and corrupt medieval church overcome by increasing modern progress. His fifteenth-century church is not moribund or rotten, but one in which Christianity held the deep loyalty of society, particularly on the parish level. The church was reasonably effective by medieval standards. Yet practical royal supremacy over the church and the sophistication of an increasingly literate laity were growing significantly. The royal servants filling the bishops' bench were unlikely to offer the vivid spiritual leadership that could raise the church's sights and deal creatively with the coming spiritual and political challenges. The church was perhaps somewhat disspirited and dull, but strong enough to crush public Lollardy and deep enough to shape the culture.

When Hylson-Smith gets to the early Reformation, he is on much surer ground. His view is that there were two forces that got the English Reformation into motion. The first was a small but extremely committed group of fervent partisans of Protestant ideas and goals, beginning in the 1520s and making some contact with the remains of Lollardy. That group made significant progress in some towns and among certain families, and even at court. The second was the royal Reformation, in which the political needs and personal opinions of the court and its servants dominated the national scene. When Elizabeth took the throne, the creation of England as a Protestant country was only beginning, but both fervent Protestants and royal reformers had significantly changed the landscape. This is a plausible and balanced interpretation, using increasingly rich secondary studies in a judicious and well-informed way.

Some of the strengths and weaknesses of the volume reflect the state of the scholarship on which Hylson-Smith depends. For example, his careful treatment of Lollardy makes good use of the excellent work done in that field over the last fifty years (although omitting G. …