The Reformations of the 1530s and thereafter were the most significant extrinsic shock experienced by English society between the Black Death and the Civil Wars of the 1640s. The magnitude of the shock has never been in doubt. What is now clear, however, is the extent to which it was genuinely extrinsic. England's religious life until the late 1520s was remarkably stable. Naturally there were points of stress, and when the earthquake came, they were where the cracks first appeared. Yet they did not cause it. This crisis came on England unawares, and it came in two distinct forms: a political and an intellectual assault, often but not always in alliance. Between them, they remade English society. This chapter will survey how they did so, and how the English responded to, adapted to and resisted the new world in which they found themselves.
Pre-Reformation English religion has been a playground for modern prejudices. It is easily caricatured either as a swamp of superstitious corruption or as a bucolic paradise of communal faith. We do not need to accept either view to recognise that, in its own terms, it was working fairly well. By European standards, the English Church was unusually well disciplined and well led. Its sacramental, pastoral and practical service to its people was generally adequate. There were frictions over predictable matters of land, money and law, but they did not coalesce into the sort of more widespread anticlerical prejudice that was common in contemporary Germany, Scotland or elsewhere. Instead, the Church drew on – and replenished – a deep well of legitimacy and affection. The signs of this cycle of loyalty can be seen in the consistent support that the living and the dying of all classes provided for all manner of local ecclesiastical services, whether in money, in kind or in effort.
It is hard to gauge the balance among love for this establishment, contented conformity to it, disgruntled compliance with it and alienated withdrawal from it. Clearly, however, open dissent was rare. Since the expulsion of the English Jews in 1291, England had been religiously uniform in law, and nearly so in fact. A few foreign Jews apparently found a discreet home in London at times. There were isolated sceptics, scoffers and freethinkers.