Roman Catholics often write as if the Reformation in England would not have taken place if it had not been for the desire of Henry VIII for a divorce. Protestants, on the other hand, assert that it was due to the corruption of the clergy and the superstitions of the people. Economic writers emphasise the fact that the Church was excessively wealthy and politically powerless, so that the temptation to plunder her was irresistible. Political theorists maintain that the rampant nationalism of the English in the XVI century was incompatible with England's belonging to an international church. In this book the truth of these theories is tested; but the object of the author is first of all to describe what Pre-Reformation England was like and the opinions, of Englishmen at the time. He does not believe that any one theory will account for the Reformation; and he does not believe that it is possible to understand how the Reformation came about, unless we are alive to the many aspects of life in the preceding period.
The book opens with the death of Henry VIIin 1509, and closes with a review of the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, which was published in 1521; but the author looks before and after in his endeavour to understand, so that his book is not so much a history as the survey of an historical situation. All men in 1509 were not of the same age. The man who was then seventy had been fifteen when the Wars of the Roses broke out; and his grandson aged twenty-one did not reach seventy until the accession of Queen Elizabeth. To understand any period it is necessary to take into account what was within the experience of men then living, while the memories and reflections of men fifty years later are often of great value.
The first half of the book is devoted to an enquiry into the condition of the Church and the repute of the clergy; into the nature of the popular religion and the prevalent superstitions; into the social and economic causes of the changes that were taking place; and into the uneasy and still undetermined relations of Church and State.