There are several clearly defined traditions of historical writing about the English Reformation. The purpose of this volume is to describe and define these traditions, to trace their development over the centuries, and thereby to provide the reader with an introduction to the tantalizing problem of English Reformation history.
The traditions may be identified for these purposes as the Protestant, the Catholic, the Politique, and the school of the "New History." But a word of explanation is necessary here, if simplifications are to be understood properly. The words "Protestant" and "Catholic" clearly identify partisan religious stances in Reformation historiography. As we shall soon see with regard to Henry VIII himself, these terms may also often be said to imply others: hero and villain, for example. Also, by an extension of that implication historians of either persuasion have also seen More, Wolsey, Cranmer, and Cromwell in similar terms. Indeed, the quartet named have cast shadows upon historians' pages nearly as large as that of the king himself.
The term "Politique" as used here does not mean a tradition in which the historian is indifferent to religion or has no confessional loyalties. What it does refer to is that segment of the historical literature about the Henrician Reformation in which the historian's primary concern has not been the fate of the Church and its doctrine or ritual but the impact of the Reformation upon the English constitution and government. By the term "New History" is meant that growing school of Reformation historians whose frame of reference is not primarily religious, political, or biographical. Instead scholars of this school are chiefly concerned with the impact of Reformation upon English culture and society. That impact may be manifested in Renaissance literature, socioeconomic change, man's liberty in relation to authority, or the consequences of Reformation for particular institutions in Tudor England.
Such neat distinctions, however, are almost impossible to maintain. Since historians rarely, if ever, blind themselves to considerations other than character, if they are biographers; or religion, if they are church historians; or popular religion, if they are students of education and the transmission of ideas; or foreign affairs, if they are historians of the constitution -- it will sometimes be difficult to put any one writer in one tradition and keep him there. Allowances must always be made in these matters, and rigid classification must not become a hindrance to the appreciation of the fine shadings of interpretation to be found in all schools.
The Catholic tradition itself has had a long history and is represented here by the work of Polydore Vergil, Sanders, Lingard, Constant, Hughes, and Knowles. But as quickly becomes evident, Vergil, Lingard, and Knowles are not apologists for a religious tradition in the same sense that Sanders, Constant, and Hughes are. Furthermore, Knowles may fairly be said to represent the "New History" in many ways, while Constant fits easily among the Politiques. While both are Catholic historians and in holy orders, the one is primarily interested in the institutional and cultural dimensions of monasticism in a Christian society, and the other in the ecclesiastical and civil polity of England.
Whatever we may think of the historians to whom we can justly give the title "Catholic," it very quickly becomes evident that there are wide divergences even within that . . .