Philobiblon: The English reformation swung through 180 degrees

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The English reformation swung through 180 degrees

To the Historical Association dining club last night, and an interesting and appropriately provocative talk from Alice Hogge, author of God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. (No risk of post-prandial somnolence here.)

Her "secret agents" are the Catholics who tried to maintain the faith in England after the Reformation, through the reigns of Elizabeth and James, up to the Plot. And the author was, at least for the purposes of the evening discussion, definitely on their side.

Her thesis is that England (at least outside the South-East) was overwhelmingly and fervently Catholic at the start of Elizabeth's reign, and that it was forced into compliance. (Not, I might say, a view I share - but this is one of those historiographical debates that is just going to run and run.)

She suggested that Elizabeth was successful in maintaining the Church of England through three mechanisms:

  • England was at war with the continental powers, and so was inclined to "pull together" on that basis
  • After two decades of internal strife there wasn't much appetite for more trouble
  • Her calculated use of ambiguity - no one quite knew what she or her church stood for.

  • That at least worked until the outbreak of the Northern Rebellion of 1569. Then came the Jesuits, who the author maintains are really ordinary Englishmen from fairly ordinary backgrounds, much the same sort of class who had earlier become martyrs under "Bloody" Mary. These were, she argues, the "native" church, while Protestantism was a "Germano-Swiss construct" imported into England.

    That's what you call revisionist history. Not perhaps, as was said last night, one to be tried in Lewes on Bonfire Night. But a fascinating talk, and it is always good to look at history from the "other" side.

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