Popular Politics and the English Reformation
Hoyle, R. W., The Catholic Historical Review
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. In fact, a further petition from Halifax against Holdsworth, this time to the steward of the manor of Wakefleld, reveals that they had petitioned the king as supreme head, the lord chancellor, Cromwell, and the Queen's secretary (Letters and Papers IX, no. 463 ). Shagan shows what wiser historians already knew: that in legal disputes, people were promiscuous in their use of the courts and whom they approached for aid. They were adept at blackening the names of their opponents and portraying themselves in the best possible light. And whilst he shows that some cases concerning priests came into Star Chamber after 1534, he never says how many. My suspicion is very few.
The reliance on legal materials introduces another doubt about the book. Most recent historians have worked intensively on relatively small areas. Shagan spreads himself thinly over the country. As a result he picks suits to prove his points without knowing a great deal about the circumstances from which they arose. He makes no reference to the other disputes between Holdsworth and his parishioners, nor the modern accounts of these disputes. On pages 248-249 he cites several cases to show how the dissolution of the chantries prompted violence. But he has no idea what lies behind these disturbances. The iconoclastic destruction of Billing chapel in Lancashire by one James Winstanley in 1553 and others is described (p. 265): but who was Winstanley? What was he doing? It matters that the "local gentleman Thomas Banke,"who embezzled the ornaments from the chapel at Bank Newton (Yorkshire), was the representative of the founder's family (p. 251). Here and elsewhere there is a sense of instances being called upon to prove a point rather than points emerging from the evidence.
Chapter 5 is an interesting account of the post-dissolution ransacking of Hailes Priory. Here the monastic buildings were denuded of their fittings by local men who seem to have just come and taken what they wanted-or could carry off. And yet I remain puzzled about what was going on here. It seems from the lease quoted (at p. 175, fn. 43) that some of the buildings-including the church, cloisters, chapterhouse, and infirmary-were judged to be "superfluous" and therefore their quarrying for stone acceptable. Others were to be kept, and these included the abbot's lodgings and the buildings necessary to maintain a household (the brewhouses, kitchen, barns, etc.). What had happened to these buildings at the moment of dissolution? How far had they already been slated for immediate profit? Why were some buildings to be kept, and what plan for them was undermined by their ransacking? When A. G. Dickens published Michael Sherbrook's recollections in 1959, we learnt that in the Reformation, it was everyone for himself what ever their consciences. After the "liberation" of Baghdad and its looting by its own inhabitants in 2003, it seems even more naive to try and categorize named pilferers in Halles by their religious convictions as expressed in their wills half a generation later. Unpalatable as it is, we have to accept that at some moments, it can be every man for himself. But as for the "desacralisation of Catholic space," there had been so much of it over the previous five years that who could blame people for doing a little more? The king had launched it; abbots, monks, and priests were complicit in it; and had the Almighty displayed his wrath to any of them?
I have no doubt that there was a general scramble to secure a share of the spoils of the Church from the summer of 1536 onwards. Pre-dissolution monastic leases, petitions to the king for monastic demesnes, the quiet disappearance of church ornaments, the petty pilfering of lead, wood, and stone from empty buildings, the petitioning and lobbying to switch endowments from chantries to schools, all are ways in which people tried to rescue something from the royal confiscatory instinct. Do these actions necessarily have religious overtones? Are we really to read theft from the king as a religious act or political statement?
There is much in this book to make one bristle, and generally there is a tone which is misjudged. For one there is Shagan's way of erecting straw men. Early on, colleagues are criticized (no names given) for "an unwavering belief in something called 'Anglicanism'" although I know of no one who holds the views described (p. 30). Chris Haigh, who can well look after himself, is the victim of serial asides. Barbed points are scored off other contemporaries of less standing (including, I am flattered to say, myself) in the footnotes. I did not warm to Shagan's habit of taking difficult issues and delivering himself of magnificent obiter dicta in which he is right and others dismissed without appeal. The book certainly lacks modesty. On page 90 Shagan is going to"creat[e] a new political narrative of the Pilgrimage of Grace"; on page 280 he promises to "construct a new narrative of the Edwardian Reformation." He does neither of these things. In fact I find his discussion of the Pilgrimage to be marked by a distinct contrariness.
Finally, we come to the question of whether collaboration is a useful idea to be used in historical investigations of life under early modern regimes. This book persuades me that it is not. It says on the back cover, that "this study argues, then, that the English Reformation was not done to people, it was done with them in a dynamic process of engagement between government and people." The trouble with the idea of collaboration is that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you stole the assets of a chantry, or tried to absorb them back into the community which had made the investment in ecclesiastical gold, silver, and cloth, then it seems you were collaborating by advancing royal policy against purgatorial institutions. Likewise, if you gave them up willingly, then you were also collaborating. If you complained for that goods had been concealed, goods in which you may have thought you had a stake, then again you were collaborating with the regime.
Shagan reminds us that the Reformation was messy. He reintroduces the competition to secure property as well as minds back into Reformation history. He also offers a lesson in how people tried to cope with and rescue something from a Reformation imposed from above. He shows how the possibility of collective resistance was negated by the reality of self-interest. This book embroiders and elaborates an existing thesis in a most helpful way: but it is not the post-revisionist beginning that it pretends to be.
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Publication information: Article title: Popular Politics and the English Reformation. Contributors: Hoyle, R. W. - Author. Journal title: The Catholic Historical Review. Volume: 90. Issue: 3 Publication date: July 2004. Page number: 546+. © 2003 The Catholic University of America Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.