Divided by religion – Post-reformation Britain

Time Title Content
Ann Hughes, interviewed by Mike Gibbs
Professor Hughes thank you for agreeing to help us to understand the overwhelming importance of religion in the daily lives of people living in Britain in the seventeenth century and the fundamental divisions that had appeared across the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland as a result of the Reformation of the Catholic church.
Can you begin by giving us some examples of people’s religious attitudes at the time?
[00.00] As far as we know, everyone in 16th and 17th century England believed in the truth of the Christian religion.  Christian religion was their way of understanding how the world worked and their own place in that world.  This is fundamental to our understanding of the role of religion in the British Civil Wars.
People believed that there was a Christian God who was intimately and personally involved in everything. They believed that God’s providence governed everything that happened in the world.
I can give you two examples from people who I will be talking about later in these podcasts.
[01.27] Ralph Josselin, an Essex clergyman, wrote in his diary in September 1644 that he rode to Sudbury:

“God was good to me outwards and homewards.  When I came home, my good friend Mr Harlakenden sold one bag of hops for me wherein I was advantaged one pound, fifteen shillings.  This was God’s good providence”.

For Ralph Josselin, God was watching over him as he rode on a journey and as he made money out of selling his hops.  Everything that happened to him was governed by God’s power and God’s interest in the world.

[02.06] A more significant example is from Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the Parliament after his victory at the Battle of Naseby in June, 1645:

“This is none other than the hand of God”, he wrote “and to him alone belongs the glory wherein none are to share with him.  I attribute all to God and would rather perish than assume anything to myself which is an honest and thriving way”.             

God therefore was with the Parliamentary armies in their triumphs over the King.

But religion was not a unifying for force in Britain at this time.  In fact, religion was a source of dissension and conflict throughout Europe which contributed significantly to widespread political instability?

[04.27] It was assumed that religious unity, conformity to one version of Christian religion, was essential to both social harmony and political stability.  Religion encouraged good relationships amongst your neighbours and it encouraged obedience to authority, but the crucial trouble for early modern Europe and of course early modern England and the rest of the British Isles was that from the early 16th century people did not agree as to what the true Christian religion was or should be.
Historians now talk of the 17th century as a post-Reformation era, a period dealing with the aftermath of the breakup of European Christian unity with the Protestant Reformation.  Before the Reformation in theory and to a large extent in practice, there was one unified Catholic Church where the Pope at the head of that church ruled over Christendom, at least in Western Europe.
[07.26] In 1517, however, Martin Luther, a German monk challenged the power of the Pope and the central doctrines of the Catholic Church.  Very quickly he gained support in many German States, in Scandinavia and to some extent as we shall see in the British Isles so that instead -, after Luther and his successors, instead of a broadly united Christendom, you had all over Europe profound divisions between Catholics and Protestants and, of course, and increasingly divisions between different sorts of Protestants.

Could you briefly compare and contrast Catholicism and Protestantism for us? How did they differ?

The Catholic Church was an international hierarchical society, a hierarchical organisation with the Pope at its head and a series of rules and traditions that had been worked out by the Pope and Councils of the Church over time.  Catholics believed that true religion, how you should behave and what you should believe, was governed by the Word of God as revealed in the Bible, the scriptures, but also by the rules and traditions of this church.
In this church, in the Catholic Church, priests were distinguished very sharply from lay people.  Priests had particular sacred functions and were devoted to God so they did not marry and they carried out sermons in Latin which most people could not understand.  Particularly important was the Catholic Mass.  Priests performed a sacred ritual, the mystery of the Mass, which re-enacted Christ’s last supper before his crucifixion.

[10.56] Catholics believed that Christ’s blood and body was really present at the climax of the Mass.  If you are not Catholic, if you are not religious, this is difficult to understand but the divisions between Catholics and Protestants about what was happening in what was this Holy Communion reuniting Christians of this time with Christ and his Apostles, his followers in the Bible, really, really mattered to people,
Also, Catholic worship was a multi-media, colourful, active experience.  Catholics believed that if you were unable to read the Bible you could nonetheless lead a full Christian life through attending the Mass, through looking at pictures and shrines and statues in elaborate, vividly coloured churches, you could go on pilgrimages to particular holy places, you could pray to particular saints.  You could pray to St Lucy if you had a bad eye, you could pray to St Christopher if you were going on a dangerous journey, you could pray to saints, to Mary, the Mother of God to help you in the difficulties you faced in life.
[12.40] And you got to heaven through good works, through leading a Godly, religious life, through being kind and fair to your neighbours, but also through participation in the rituals of the church; going to Mass, going on a pilgrimage was one of the ways you could get to heaven or in technical terms, you could achieve salvation.

And how did Protestants differ from Catholics in their beliefs and practice?

Protestants thought this was over elaborate. Protestants simplified worship and simplified the ways in which you achieved salvation.
For Protestants in the first place, only the Scripture, only the World of God as written in the Bible, particularly the Word of God by Christ himself in the Gospels and by his followers who spread Christianity after His death was the true guide to how you could be religious and how you should organise your church.

[13.57] One obvious result of this was that the Bible and religious sermons should be available in English (or French or German) rather than only available in Latin.  You needed to be able to understand the Scriptures either directly or through the help of educated clergy, in order to benefit from Christ’s sacrifice and to gain salvation, so they believed in only the Scriptures as a guide to being religious and as a guide to organising the church.
The clergy were important in Protestantism as preachers of the Word of God and as interpreting the Bible to people who perhaps were less well educated or had less time to devote to it.  They were not, though, distinctly different sorts of people.  Very rarely were they called priests.  They were called clerics or ministers or sometimes pastors, shepherds of their flock.
[15.05] Protestant clergy married and that’s a significant sign that they intended to be like everybody else but better and more able to interpret the Scriptures.
Protestants believed that God was all-powerful and without the help of God and Christ, humans were irredeemably sinful, so they believed in salvation by faith alone.  You got to heaven because God’s mercy had been directed towards you.  You could not earn salvation.
This again is difficult to understand I think because most of us think if you lead a decent enough life you’ll get to heaven if we believe in heaven, but early modern Protestants believed that only through faith in God and laying your claim to Christ’s sacrifice could you get to heaven.  Christ had died to save sinful humanity or some of sinful humanity as I will say in a moment.
[16.12] The Catholic stress on earning salvation by things you did was regarded as presumption.  It was an arrogant challenge by sinful people to the power of God and God was all-powerful.

And there was a more radical group of Protestants – the Calvinists – who were to play an important role in the British Civil Wars?

At its most rigid, this way of getting to heaven was associated with the French-Swiss theologian, John Calvin, so it’s called Calvinism.
Calvinists believed that a minority had been predestined, chosen from the beginning of time not out of their own merit but out of God’s mercy to go to heaven and that probably most of the population was damned.
This did not mean that you did not do good works, that you should not lead a Godly, pious life, but you did that as a result of being saved, not to earn it.  Earning salvation, the belief that humans could earn their own salvation, was, as I have said, arrogant and presumptuous.

[20.31] English Calvinists stressed that you would have some sense, through leading a Godly activist life, being busy in your community and through meditating on the scriptures, going to sermons, an ‘inner assurance’, (an important term,) that you were one of God’s elect, and many people, (Oliver Cromwell is a very good example), struggled with this at many times but came to have an assurance that they were almost certainly, you could never be finally sure, but almost certainly one of God’s elect saints and that God had purposes for you in the world.  And these Calvinist ideas, this belief that this was the true religion affected how you were in the world but also affected you as individuals, is going to be important throughout the Civil War.

Up until the reign of Henry VIII Catholicism was the universal religion of the British Isles.  Then the period known to historians as the Reformation changed all that.  Please could you explain what happened and its significance for the years that followed?

[21.48] In England, the Reformation began from the top. Henry VIII became unhappy with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which had not given him a son.
He fell in love with Anne Boleyn, and he wanted a divorce, which the Pope wouldn’t give him and, although there were small groups of people in England who were interested in Lutheranism and the new learning, the new religion, it was mainly these political, personal issues that drove a Reformation in England in the 1530s.
[22.47] Henry VIII challenged and rejected the power of the Pope over the English church, and the English monarch became the head of the Church of England which is going to be very important for the 17th century.  The monasteries, where people, nuns and monks devoted themselves to a religious life, were dissolved because that did not suit a sort of Protestant notion of religion being active in the world but mostly Henry VIII, or Henry VIII’s government, retained Catholic doctrine and Catholic worship.
It was not a thoroughgoing Protestant Reformation, though the way it happened was to have momentous consequences. Actually making people Protestants, in terms of how they understood Christianity and how they worshipped in the churches, began under Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, and Edward VI himself a minor king, a young man, a young boy, and his advisors were zealous Protestants and many of the moves to get rid of something like the Mass, to make churches whitewashed arenas for preaching rather than colourful buildings full of shrines and pictures, began under Edward VI.
[24.15] He died very young and the whole thing was reversed under Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I.  By this time there were many committed Protestants.  Many as you will know suffered martyrdom under Catholic Mary, were burned for their beliefs.  Others were exiled to the continent which was important because they picked up their more zealous Protestant beliefs.  Many others just lay low and hoped for better times, so it’s only with the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 where there was a real start of making England a Protestant country in terms of how the church operated and what people were encouraged to believe in.
So, I want to make two points.  The first point is that the Reformation is still relatively new by the 17th century in England.  It’s not something that is over and done with.
Secondly, religion is inevitably tangled up with politics, with issues of power.  It’s particularly important in England where the monarch is the head of the church.  The monarch’s duty is to protect the church.  All religious teaching tells you you should obey authority, but there is an element there of conditionality; what do you do if you don’t think the monarch is protecting true religion.

I understand the Reformation affected the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland differently and this had important implications in the decades leading up to the Civil War?

[26.49] It’s rucial for what happens in England in the 1640s, that from 1603 when James VI of Scotland succeeds Elizabeth as James I also of England, that English monarchs are British and Irish monarchs.  They rule over three kingdoms, and in our discussion of religion, the crucial point is that the Reformation has affected each kingdom.
[27.58] With Ireland: very simply the Reformation failed in Ireland. The English were a colonising power, they weren’t very good or very interested in engaging with the native Gaelic Irish-speaking population, so most of that Gaelic population and most of the old English Norman conquerors who had been there for centuries, remained Catholic right through to the 17th century, to the 1640s.
[29.20] Scotland had the most complete Reformation.  The leader of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox, had been exiled in Germany and then in Calvin’s Geneva under Queen Mary, and he believed that the Genevan regime established by John Calvin was, after the Apostles, after Christ’s immediate followers, was the best church there had ever been in the world, and he built or contributed to, led, a Scottish Reformation that came to see itself as the rival to Geneva as one of the best Reformed churches in the world.
Religious Reformation in Scotland was done in opposition, not quite to the Crown, but to the French Regent and mother of the infant monarch who was Mary Queen of Scots who was to remain a Catholic. It was established as a Presbyterian Church and I am going to explain Presbyterianism because it becomes an issue in England, too, in the 1640s.
[30.36] Presbyterianism was a more participatory, decentralised structure where the church was governed by committees and ministers and laity in the parishes who sent representatives to committees ..CUT…at a regional and national level.
[31.46] And it is of course important that if you are King Charles I or King James I you are head of the church in England, you are not head of the church in Scotland.  You have a responsibility to defend that church, but as some of the more aggressive Presbyterian ministers in Scotland said ‘As far as religion goes, you’re just James Stuart or Charles Stuart’.
[32.38] The English church remained hierarchical.  There were parish ministers, parish clergy.  They were governed by bishops, and bishops in turn in the hierarchy were governed by the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York, so organisation, the church is not really reformed.
It looks very like the pre-Catholic Church as far as you don’t have monks and nuns, but as it operates in parishes which is how the church is organised, it looks very much as it had done in the 15th century and, yes, the church courts, separate from secular authority, still operated to control marriage, how you made your will and to enforce church attendance. So the officers of the church but also the courts that ran the church remained as they had done.

But for some in England the Reformation had not gone far enough?

[37.10] In England you get people who think the church needs further Reformation and these are the people who we call Puritans.
Puritans are usually described, as someone said in the 1560s, as the ‘hotter’ sort of Protestants.  It’s a loose definition but it gives you the sort of flavour of them.  They believed that the church still had too many marks of Popery.
[39.46] The Puritans therefore believed strongly in Calvinist predestinarian doctrine that I have explained.  They believed in purified worship.  None of this kneeling, bowing, signing the cross, and that preaching the Word was crucial.  They were strenuous and activist at an individual level, attending sermons, reflecting on their own state of sinfulness, meditation, seeking assurance of salvation, but they were also active reformers, improvers in their communities concerned about too many people being in the pub, concerned about immoral sexual behaviour, concerned about swearing and so on.
They have a strong sense of themselves as being part of a Godly community doing God’s work in the world and on themselves and they usually, perhaps when they weren’t being proud of being called Puritans described themselves as ‘The Godly’.
[40.57] Puritans are the most zealous opponents of Catholicism, are the most concerned anti-Papists, concerned with being opposed to Popery. For Puritans, Catholicism is not an alternative version of Christianity. It is the opposite of true religion.  Zealous Protestants believed the Pope was anti-Christ. And the Papists are plotters.  They act in a secret and underhand way and in the early 1640s in England a sense that there is a Popish Plot to undermine true religion and the laws and government of England is crucial to the divisions that are going to lead to Civil War.

Professor Hushes thanks very much for explaining the profound divisions over religion that were created by the different impacts of the Reformation in England, Scotland and Ireland and for focussing on Puritanism and particularly those hotter Protestants in England who did not believe the Reformation had gone far enough.
In our next discussion we would like to explore how these divisions played out in the reign of Charles I and ultimately resulted in Civil War.
Thank you again.