The parallels are irresistible, and the script seems almost to write itself. A large institution straddles western and central Europe, and promotes the idea of a pan-European cultural identity. Yet, even to many in its own orbit, the institution appears overly hierarchical and riddled with corruption. Within England – and I think we do have to say England specifically – a political crisis brings longstanding dissatisfactions to the boil. As the crisis escalates, the arcane rules and doctrines of the institution prove no match for the punchy slogans and eye-catching propaganda of its critics. Appeals to shared values and history, and warnings about disturbing the status quo, are trumped by a potent blend of nationalism and reformist rhetoric, fuelled by visions of an older history of proud independence and imperial greatness.
There is probably no need to go on: the 16th-century break with Rome looks a lot like the 21st-century bust-up with Brussels, even without having to invoke the theory that the blue flag with its circlet of 12 stars, adopted by the Council of Europe on December 8, 1955, feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a blatantly popish reference to Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse.
The idea that Brexit summons up the defiant spirit of the Reformation has rapidly become a journalistic and pop-history cliché – a favoured theme, for example, of the (avowedly Eurosceptic) Tudor historian, David Starkey. Yet I have a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction about this superficially pleasing historical analogy. Reformation-as-Brexit is not an especially helpful idea, if the intention is to identify withdrawal, separation and isolation as the keynotes of Reformation in the North Atlantic world – a Europe henceforth forever cut off by the proverbial fog in the Channel.
On the contrary, the Reformation was a time of intensified engagement with the “European Question”, bringing a new and sharper focus on how national identities might co-exist with international ones. Here, the focus will be on one party to the quarrel. Catholics are often seen as the “left-behinds” of the British and Irish Reformations. Regarding themselves as members of the same Church, before and after Henry VIII’s breach with the papacy, they represented continuity in a changing world, albeit, in Britain at least, increasingly as isolated remnants of a broken past.
Yet it is a significant error to regard Catholics merely as bystanders with respect to patterns of identity formation engendered by the break with Rome. Indeed, Roman Catholicism – as a religious and political identity – was just as much a new creation of the Reformation process as the various forms of Protestantism.
Here, the Brexit analogy may be useful after all. Something significant happened to me on June 24, 2016, the day the referendum result was announced. Before that I had been a kind of small “e” European, broadly content with the status quo I had known all my adult life, but with little desire to defend it publicly, or much understanding of how the EU’s institutions actually worked. I would occasionally become disquieted or annoyed by the antics of Eurosceptic agitators, but was confident that the powers that be, and the pragmatic good sense of the British people, would ultimately keep them in check. Then, almost overnight, I found that from being a lackadaisical supporter of the Establishment I had turned into a radical dissident, combative and angry – a “Remoaner”, a “Remainiac”, a disciple of the lost cause; in the eyes of some, no doubt, a traitor.
The parallels may strain a little, but Henry’s schism undoubtedly transformed Catholic identity in important ways, just as modern politics and opinion has been profoundly reshaped by the referendum. One of the paradoxes of late medieval British and Irish Catholicism was that it was simultaneously obediently orthodox and unambitiously insular. Bishops were formally appointed by popes, but nominated by kings with domestic and political motives. The religious orders expressed an ideal of internationalism, but the largest of them, the Benedictines, had relatively little contact with brethren overseas. The great symbol of international Catholic unity, the papacy, seems to have been respected. There is little evidence for hostility to the person or office of the pope. But there is equally little evidence of strong emotional attachment.
Among ordinary priests and layfolk, there was considerable disquiet about Henry VIII’s actions (especially in regard to Catherine of Aragon), but did English people (or Welsh or Irish people) perceive repudiation of the pope as a profoundly spiritual question, an issue that touched on their core identity as Catholic Christians? The most credible answer is that a great many did not yet know, as they had never previously been asked the question.
Twenty years later, during Marian heresy proceedings against him, Nicholas Ridley was told to believe in the Real Presence, because 40 years earlier all “were of one opinion” about the Mass. Ridley riposted that 40 years ago “all held that the Bishop of Rome was supreme head of the Universal Church”. The queen’s secretary, Sir John Bourne, leapt in to say that “was but a positive law … Tush, it was not counted an article of our faith” – a minimising analysis, sceptical of the papacy’s divine institution, and recognising only its utilitarian value for Church governance. Very likely, this perception was widely shared before the break with Rome.
It seems to have been the view of Sir Thomas More. In later years, More’s Italian friend, Antonio Buonvisi, recalled a discussion from before the break with Rome. He asked what More thought of papal primacy, and the answer was that “it was not a matter of so great moment and importance, but rather … invented of men for a political order”. But More was soon having second thoughts: the growing threat of heresy made him realise the pope’s position was that which “holdeth up all”. It was an opinion he held to until Henry VIII chopped his head off for it.
The executions of More and Fisher had a profound impact on opinion across Europe. Henry’s kinsman, Reginald Pole, a churchman then resident in Italy, responded with a treatise, Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione (In Defence of the Unity of the Church), savaging the king’s actions and demanding he repent.
Like More, Pole originally saw the papacy as a mere instrument of governance rather than a direct ordinance of Christ. But Henry VIII’s violence and malice turned him into an ardent papalist. Both he and More can be regarded as late medieval Catholic humanists who – through a kind of conversion process – transformed themselves into Reformation-era Roman Catholics.
This happened not despite, but because of, the Brexiteering of Henry VIII. Many Catholics, of course, conformed and complied, and some (like Bishop Stephen Gardiner) became vocal advocates of the royal supremacy – rather like some former Conservative Party Remainers who are now fully subscribed to “the will of the people”. But it was soon becoming clear that a significant body of Catholic opinion had been fortified in its rejection of Henry VIII’s claims – radicalised, we might say. The executions of More and Fisher, and of the Carthusian priors who bravely refused to recognise the royal supremacy, provided an emergent cause with its inspirational martyrs.
Equally significant was Henry’s decision in 1534 to impose an oath on all adult males, swearing assent to the Boleyn marriage. It seemed a conspicuous success: hardly any laymen and only a handful of clergy refused to swear. But subsequent investigations revealed that many had sworn reluctantly or equivocally; for years the government found itself worrying about disloyalty and secret dissent.
The formal, symbolic nature of the oath-swearing also had the inevitable, if inadvertent, effect of forcing people to reflect on the issues and where they stood on them. As late medieval English Catholicism began to fragment, it facilitated the emergence of a new form of dissident identity, explicitly looking to Europe for spiritual and perhaps political leadership.
It soon also became clear that oaths were not necessarily reliable instruments of obedience. In June 1534, a serious rebellion broke out in Ireland, led by the charismatic “Silken Thomas” Fitzgerald, Earl of Offaly. Medieval rebels usually stressed loyalty to the crown, but the break with Rome introduced an ideological dimension to longstanding problems of governance in Henry’s other kingdom.
Offaly placed Ireland under the suzerainty of the Holy See, and, in a backhanded tribute to royal policy, required followers to swear oaths of allegiance to the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and himself.
Two years later, oaths were a prominent feature of the rebellion in the north of England known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Unlike the Irish rebels, the “pilgrims” upheld the convention of attacking wicked councillors, rather than the king himself. But there was more pro-papal sentiment in the Pilgrimage than historians are sometimes prepared to allow: bills expressing support for the pope appeared on church doors across Yorkshire. In 1533-4, protest against the break with Rome was relatively muted because to many ordinary people it was not yet clear what this change would mean. Three years on – after the dissolution of monasteries and waves of heretical preaching about purgatory, images and saints – it had begun to seem that communion with Rome might, after all, be the most reliable guarantor of true faith and traditional ways.
What we are in fact talking about is the birth of Roman Catholicism in its recognisably modern forms. Exile was another essential midwife of this process. A couple of hundred Catholics departed to the continent in the reign of Henry VIII, and more followed in response to the Protestant reforms of Edward VI. In the reign of Mary, returning exiles did much to shape restored Catholic Churches in both England and Ireland. Mary’s archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, was one, as was her archbishop of Armagh, George Dowdall.
The accession of Elizabeth in November 1558 prompted a new and larger wave of Catholic exile. It was one that in time became thoroughly institutionalised, in the establishment of English, Irish and Scots colleges, training priests for missionary purposes, as English and Irish Catholicism began to be both defined and sustained by its relationship to a wider European Church.
Historians of England and Wales have tended to regard Catholicism in the so-called “post-Reformation” period as an interesting if marginal religious sub-culture. Yet this is to overlook an explosive political fact: to the end of the 16th century, and indeed to the end of the 17th and beyond, both adherents and opponents regarded Catholicism’s official restoration as a real possibility.
Like the Brexiteers of our own day, early modern Protestants lived in constant fear of their great achievement being overturned, by a combination of sinister transnational forces and fifth columnists at home. And, just like some modern Brexiteers, Tudor Protestants themselves might be keen internationalists after their own fashion, looking to make common cause with whoever else in Europe shared their hatred of the Antichrist of Rome – or Brussels.
Far from neatly severing the religious and cultural threads connecting the Tudor kingdoms with European Christendom, the Reformation in significant ways tightened and strengthened them, and the very act of political separation – the schism – irretrievably internationalised the religious scene in these islands.
Professor Peter Marshall teaches history at the University of Warwick. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Irish Jesuit quarterly Studies (studiesirishreview.ie)
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