Popular Politics and the English Reformation

By Ethan H. Shagan | Go to book overview
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'Open disputation was in alehouses':
religious debate in the diocese
of Canterbury, c. 1543

As important as it is to recognise how much of the Reformation English people experienced through the mediation of political debates and property disputes, it would be absurd to deny that they were also exposed to great swathes of systematic theology. Thus, when people adapted aspects of the evangelical programme to suit their needs, they were not unaware that they were sailing into potentially dangerous waters. In this chapter, then, I want to shift my analytical focus and consider the sorts of theological positions that were canvassed among ordinary English subjects. Yet, because the goal remains to trace a political process rather than one of national conversion, the argument of this chapter will necessarily appear somewhat perverse. While I discuss technical questions of theology, I make no claims about the relative popularity of different theological positions or the growth of Protestantism, the standard fare of most Reformation history. Rather, I want to demonstrate the crucial importance of a new phenomenon rampant and public theological divisionfor the ways people received and responded to the state-sponsored Reformation. In other words, instead of privileging the experiences of actively partisan minorities, this chapter examines those minorities in order to show how their debates conducted publicly and appealing for support at all social levels affected English political culture more generally.

To bring order to such a potentially wide-ranging subject, this analysis focuses on the evidence created by a unique and fascinating event: the Prebendaries' Plot of 1543.1 During that year in the diocese of Canterbury, prominent Catholics hatched an ecclesiastical coup d'état intended to oust Archbishop Cranmer and his evangelical clients and ultimately have them

On the Prebendaries' Plot, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, 1996), ch. 8; Glyn Redworth, In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), ch. 8; M. L. Zell, 'The Prebendaries' Plot of 1543: A Reconsideration', JEH, 27 (1976), 241–53; Peter Clark, English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution: Religion, Politics, and Society in Kent 1500–1640 (Hassocks, 1977), ch. 2.


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