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Changing Historical Perspectives on the English Reformation: The Last Fifty Years*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2016

Diarmaid MacCulloch*
St Cross College, Oxford


In 1971 and early 1972, as a final-year Cambridge undergraduate, I turned to the study of the English Reformation, under the able supervision of Felicity Heal, while attending the lectures of a wonderfully rackety and quirkily learned Fellow of Selwyn College, the late and much lamented patron of the Cambridge Footlights, Harry Porter. The course was entitled ‘Thought and Religion in England 1500 to 1650’, and it was fairly cutting-edge by the standards of its day: a genuine effort to reach across the divide then standard between the history and divinity faculties. It also tried to integrate England with mainland Europe – what in those days, we would routinely call with sublime and literal insularity ‘the Continent’.

Part II: Changing Perspectives on Church History
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2013

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I gave an earlier version of this article at a colloquium on 30 April 2011 to honour Dr Felicity Heal on her retirement. In view of her central place in Reformation studies in the last half-century, it has not been necessary to remove very many of the original references to Felicity, and I am happy to celebrate her ongoing career with this present augmented version.


1 I will not repeat my sarcasm on this usage of ‘Continent’: see MacCulloch, D., Laven, M. and Duffy, E., ‘Recent Trends in the Study of Christianity in Sixteenth-Century Europe’, RQ 59 (2006), 697731, at 697–8.Google Scholar

2 Rupp, E. G., The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (London, 1953)Google Scholar; idem, Religion in England 1688–1791, OHCC (Oxford, 1985).

3 For one fatal lapse on Strype’s part, see my ‘Foxes, Firebrands and Forgery: Robert Ware’s Pollution of Reformation history’, HistJ 54 (2011), 307–46. On Williams, whose scholarship has been in my view underrated, see Williams, B., ed., The Work of Archbishop John Williams, Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics 14 (Appleford, 1980)Google Scholar; for another healthy revision of Williams’s reputation, see Hampton, S., ‘The Manuscript Sermons of Archbishop John Williams’, JEH 62 (2011), 70725.Google Scholar

4 On Victorian Evangelicals and culture, see Rosman, D., Evangelicals and Culture (London, 1984).Google Scholar

5 Milton, A., Laudian and Royalist Polemic in 17th-century England: The Career and Writings of Peter Heylyn (Manchester, 2007).Google Scholar A fine overview is provided by Nocldes, P., ‘A Disputed Legacy: Anglican Historiographies of the Reformation from the Era of the Caroline Divines to that of the Oxford Movement’, BJRL 83 (2001), 12167.Google Scholar

6 For examples (in which I must confess to having a hand), compare successive entries across editions of ODCC, s.vv. ‘Browne, Robert’ (no longer ‘clearly mentally unstable’); ‘Real Presence’ (now without a mendacious attribution of the doctrine to Hugh Latimer); ‘Stubbs, John’ (no longer a ‘fanatic’).

7 Butterfield, H., The Wing Interpretation of History (London, 1931).Google Scholar An enlightening portrait of Butterfield is Bentley, M., The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science and Cod (Cambridge, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Dugmore, C., The Mass and the English Reformers (London, 1958).Google Scholar To be fair to Dugmore, in the journal which he himself edited, he published a polite but distinctly sceptical review of his work by that acute ecclesiastical historian, Norman Sykes: JEH 10 (1959), 246–8.

9 Davies, H., Worship and Theology in England, 1: From Cranmer to Hooker, 1534–1603 (Princeton, NJ, 1970), 54.Google Scholar

10 Davies, From Cranmer to Hooker, 440, 236.

11 Ibid. 34.

12 Davies, H., Worship and Theology in England, 2: From Andrewes to Baxter and Fox, 1603–1690 (Princeton, NJ, 1975), 159.Google Scholar

13 There are of course honourable exceptions in Germany, and one particular witness of this, arguably pioneering in its concern to reach over divides, is a volume of essays (to which I contributed): Wendebourg, D., ed., Sister Reformations I Schwesterreformationen. The Reformation in Germany and in England – Die Reformation in Deutschland und in England (Tübingen, 2010).Google Scholar

14 Hughes, P., The Reformation in England, 3 vols (London, 1950-4).Google Scholar

15 Duffy, E., The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992), 52463 Google Scholar; idem, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven, CT, 2009).

16 Knowles, D., The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols (Cambridge, 1948, 1955, 1959).Google Scholar

17 Ibid. 3: 464; cf. ibid. 460: ‘With the exception of the Carthusians, the Bridgettines and the Observant Franciscans, the religious life in England was humanly speaking easier and less spiritually stimulating in 1530 than it had been a century earlier.’

18 Clark, J. G., ‘The Culture of English Monasticism’, in idem, ed., The Culture of English Monasticism (Woodbridge, 2007), 118.Google Scholar

19 See C. Brooke’s delicate and engaged meditation on Knowles’s career, ‘Dom David Knowles and his Vocation as a Monastic Historian’, Downside Review 110 (1992), 209–25.

20 For an incisive analysis of one example of this tendency in ARCIC documents, see Maltby, J., ‘Anglicanism, the Reformation and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s Agreed Statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ ’, Theology 110 (2007), 1719.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Brewer, J. S. et al., eds, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509–47, 21 vols and 2 vols addenda (London, 1862-1932).Google Scholar

22 Rowse, A. L. Tudor Cornwall (London, 1941)Google Scholar; Trevelyan’s remark in his Sunday Times review of Rowse’s England under Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (London, 1950) is quoted in Finberg, H. P. R., The Local Historian and his Theme, Leicester University Department of English Local History Occasional Papers 1 (Leicester, 1952), 8.Google Scholar

23 That was certainly Sir John Neale’s attitude to such subjects as prosopography, on which so much of his work on Parliament was based: that was left to women, whom he would not allow to progress beyond the degree of MA. On this, see Collinson, P., The History of a History Man: Or, the Twentieth Century viewed from a Safe Distance (Woodbridge, 2011), 78.Google Scholar At least Neale put Collinson on the road to his study of puritanism: ibid. 77–8.

24 Dickens, A. G., The English Reformation (London, 1964).Google Scholar

25 Collinson, P., The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London, 1967).Google Scholar

26 Collinson, History of a History Man, 5–37.

27 Haigh, C., Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (Cambridge, 1975).Google Scholar

28 Haigh, C., ed., The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 I am grateful to Felicity Heal for this reminiscence: the year appears to have been 1974, in anticipation of the 1976 colloquium.

30 Scarisbrick, J. J., The Reformation and the English People (Oxford, 1983).Google Scholar

31 Haigh, C., ‘The English Reformation: A Premature Birth, a Difficult Labour and a Sickly Child’, HistJ 33 (1990), 44959 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, an extended review article of key texts over the previous few years. Haigh’s latest work might be said to celebrate the effectiveness of the Reformation: Haigh, C., The Plain Man’s Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation England (Oxford, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Brooks, P. N., Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of the Eucharist (London, 1965; rev. edn, Houndmills, 1992).Google Scholar For my critical remarks about the terminology which Brooks used to characterize the change, see MacCulloch, D., Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, CT, 1996), 1823, 392.Google Scholar

33 Lake, P., Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge, 1983).Google Scholar

34 MacCulloch, D., ‘The Importance of Jan Laski in the English Reformation’, in Strohm, C., ed., Johannes a Lasco: Polnischer Baron, Humanist und ettropäischer Reformator. Beiträge zum internationalen Symposium vom 14.-17. Oktober 1999 in der Johannes a Lasco Bibliothek Emden, Spätmittelalter und Reformation n.s. 14 (Tübingen, 2000), 32545 Google Scholar; idem, ‘Peter Martyr Vermigli and Thomas Cranmer’, in Campi, E. et al., eds, Peter Martyr Vermigli: Humanism, Republicanism, Reformation / Petrus Martyr: Humanismus, Republikanismus, Reformation, Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance 365 (Geneva, 2002), 173202 Google Scholar; idem, ‘Heinrich Bullinger and the English-speaking World’, in Opitz, P. and Campi, E., eds, Heinrich Bullinger (1504?-1575): Leben, Denken, Wirkung, Zürcher Beiträge zur Reformationsgeschichte 24 (Zürich, 2006), 891934.Google Scholar

35 To appreciate one fine example of the usefulness of juxtaposing a deep understanding of the English Reformation with literature, see Womersley, D., Divinity and State (Oxford, 2010).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Ryrie, A., ‘The Strange Death of Lutheran England’, JEH 53 (2002), 6492 Google Scholar; idem, The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation (Cambridge, 2003).

37 Murdock, G., Calvinism on the Frontier 1600–1660: International Calvinism and the Reformed Church in Hungary and Transylvania (Oxford, 2000), 65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The title of the book might be said to be its least happy feature, since Murdock is describing something much wider than ‘Calvinism’.

38 Spinks, Bryan D., Two Faces of Elizabethan Anglican Theology. Sacraments and Salvation in the Thought of William Perkins and Richard Hooker (Lanham, MD, 1999)Google Scholar; see also Patterson, W. B., ‘William Perkins as Apologist for the Church of England’, JEH 57 (2006), 25269.Google Scholar On Walton, see Martin, J., Walton’s Lives: Conformist Commemorations and the Rise of Biography (Oxford, 2001).Google Scholar

39 See Maltby, J., Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar; Fincham, K. and Taylor, S., ‘Vital Statistics: Episcopal Ordination and Ordinands in England, 1646–60’, EHR 126 (2011), 31944.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The database is accessible online at <>.

40 Heal, F., Reformation in Britain and Ireland, OHCC (Oxford, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar I can testify that my attendance in 2000 at Felicity Heal’s preliminary seminar paper laying out how she was proposing to structure this book impelled me to give up a similar writing project, which I felt would simply be duplicating the excellent prospectus which she presented.

41 On the ‘Atlantic Isles’, see MacCulloch, Diarmaid, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London, 2009), 1314.Google Scholar

42 On Wales, we await the published work of Katharine Olson, and so are still dependent on Williams, G., Wales and the Reformation (Cardiff, 1997).Google Scholar On the Pale in its relationship to the rest of Ireland, see Lennon, C., The Lords of Dublin in the Age of the Reformation (Dublin, 1989)Google Scholar; Jefferies, H. A., The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformation (Dublin, 2010)Google Scholar; Murray, J., Enforcing the English Reformation in Ireland: Clerical Resistance and Political Conflict in the Diocese of Dublin, 1534–1590 (Cambridge, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43 See esp. Spicer, A., Calvinist Churches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2007)Google Scholar; Walsham, A., The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44 See a very suggestive little discussion: Biebrach, R., ‘Conspicuous by their Absence: Rethinking Explanations for the Lack of Brasses in Medieval Wales’, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society 18 (2009), 3642.Google Scholar

45 Aston, M., ‘Public Worship and Iconoclasm’, in Gaimster, D. and Gilchrist, R., eds, The Archaeology of Reformation 1480–1580 (Leeds, 2003), 928, at 16–17.Google Scholar

46 Everson, P. and Stocker, D., ‘The Archaeology of Vice-regality: Charles Brandon’s Brief Rule in Lincolnshire’, ibid. 14558.Google Scholar

47 Oakey, N., ‘Fixtures or Fittings? Can surviving Pre-Reformation Ecclesiastical Material Culture be used as a Barometer of Contemporary Attitudes to the Reformation in England?’, ibid. 5872.Google Scholar This ideological destruction with a ‘Catholic’ agenda is of course widely paralleled in the Counter-Reformation rearrangement of churches across Europe: see Tingle, E. C., ‘The Catholic Reformation and the Parish: The Church of Saint Thégonnec (Finistère, France) 1550–1700’, ibid. 4457.Google Scholar

48 Heal, Reformation in Britain and Ireland, 478.

49 For some of the ways in which they achieved that, see Green, I., The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c.1530–1740 (Oxford, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Watt, T., Cheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar; Leaver, R. A., ‘Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes’: English and Dutch Metrical Psalms from Coverdale to Utenhove, 1536–1566 (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar; Dixon, L., ‘Richard Greenham and the Calvinist Construction of God’, JEH 61 (2010), 72945.Google Scholar