A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.
Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.
His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:
Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.
In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.
A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.
Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:
To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”
Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:
It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.
This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.
But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.
I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.
Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:
…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.
And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?
When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:
To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…
[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”
This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!
It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that
“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”
To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:
Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.
So much for Edward VI.
As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.
He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.
These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.
Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:
Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.
We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:
According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.
The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:
In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”
And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:
The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.
In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.
With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.
Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:
Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!
And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.
The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.
This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.
At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:
I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.