Thanks to Rorate Caeli for tweeting this absolute gem of a story by Dominic Selwood at his blog on the UK Telegraph. It is a frank, interesting and (for a blog post) remarkably in-depth review of the English Protestant Revolution and the propaganda machine that killed England's memory of the true events.
Read it, and learn not only what really happened in that period of English history, but also see if you can spot any similarities to a more recent, top-down repression of the religion of the people. I can't help but post a few excerpts here, but please take the time to read it all. You won't be sorry you did.
How a Protestant spin machine hid the truth about the English Reformation
...Even now, the historical English disdain for all things Catholic is often regarded as irrefutable and objective fact. Otherwise why would we have been taught it for four and a half centuries? And anyway, the English are quite clearly not an emotional race like some of our continental cousins. We like our churches bright and clean and practical and full of common sense. For this reason, we are brought up to believe that Catholicism is just fundamentally, well … un-English.
...what emerges is a very different picture to the one we were taught in school.
It seems that in 1533, the year of Henry’s break from Rome, traditional Catholicism was the religion of the vast majority of the country. And in most places it was absolutely thriving.
It is true that English religion in the early 1500s was not especially studious or erudite. The people did not spend hours a day in biblical studies, contemplation, and moralising in the manner of the more intense European reformers. But England had a nationally cohesive spirituality that was alive and exuberant, with a distinctly community feel.
The first thing to go under the reformers’ axe was the cult of saints. The ancient robed and flower-garlanded effigies were smashed up and carted off. Stone and alabaster were ground up. Wood was burned. In addition to the dramatic loss of these cherished protector figures, the parishes were also deprived of around 40 to 50 saints’ “holy days” (holidays) a year, when no servile work was allowed from noon the previous day. This was a dramatic change to the rhythms of life the country had known for centuries. The reformers were keenly aware this would boost economic activity, and welcomed the increase in output it would bring.
The next biggest change was the abolition of purgatory. The reformers ridiculed the cult of the dead (“purgatorye ys pissed owte” one memorably wrote). But these age-old rites of death and the afterlife provided a unique framework that late medieval English people embraced to cope with death. When the reformers ripped out grave stones and brasses inviting prayers for the departed, when they burned the local bede-rolls remembering the dead of the parish, and when they sledge-hammered the chantry altars where relatives were daily prayed for, they did something even more profound than the vandalism. They stole the dead from the daily lives of their communities, rendering the deceased suddenly invisible to those long used to honouring and remembering their departed relatives and friends. Whether or not intentional, this was an attack on people’s memories.
Given the intensity of people’s attachment to early 16th-century popular religion, the stark Tudor reforms were met with incomprehension, outrage, and sometimes passionate violence.
The men sent to smash up the churches knew this grassroots anger all too well. There are innumerable records of the hostility and violence they faced from distraught parishioners trying to protect churches and graves.
Once the bussed-in workmen had inevitably triumphed, and the heat of confrontation had worn off, people were left bereft:
On the feast of the Assumption 1537 Thomas Emans, a Worcester serving-man, entered the despoiled shrine of Our Lady of Worcester, recited a Paternoster and an Ave, kissed the feet of the image, from which jewels, coat, and shoes had been taken away, and declared bitterly for all to hear, “Lady, art thou stripped now? I have seen the day that as clean men hath been stripped at a pair of gallows as were they that stripped thee.” He told the people that, though her ornaments were gone, “the similitude of this is no worse to pray unto, having a recourse to her above, then it was before.” (from Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars)
The conclusion of this modern grassroots scholarship is that bulldozing the Catholic Church off the face of medieval England was not a “bottom up” revolution in which Henry merely acquiesced to his people’s wishes by throwing off a widely hated foreign domination. To the contrary, it looks increasingly like Henry and his circle imposed the Reformation “top down”, unleashing 100 years of deep anger and alienation that was only overcome by sustained politicking and ruthless force. Politics and economics have always fitted together snugly, and it was no different in Henry’s day. By spreading some of the lands and wealth stolen from the monasteries, Henry was able to create a firm coterie of influential landholders who had a financial interest in seeing the reforms through.
Like King Philip IV of France two centuries earlier surveying the wealth of the Templars, the temptation for Henry was just too much to resist.
The only problem was that although Cromwell’s plan suited Henry and his circle (who would all get very rich off the scheme), there was the small matter of the English people.
To change a country’s religion lock, stock, and barrel was no easy task. In the end, it took Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. The strategy was fairly predictable for a medieval monarchy, and again, it has striking similarities with how Philip IV took out the Templars. Cromwell’s plan only needed three steps: outlaw everything to do with Catholicism; denigrate and malign it at every opportunity in official pronouncements and sermons; and execute anyone who objects.
The Tudor violence meted out to enforce the break with Rome was extreme, designed to deter by shock. For instance, one of Henry’s earliest victims was Sister Elizabeth Barton, a Benedictine nun. When she criticised Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn, he had her executed, and her head spiked on London Bridge — the first and only woman ever to have suffered this posthumous barbarity.
Henry and his inner circle of politicians and radical clerics put to death hundreds of dissenters, pour encourager les autres. None of these people were plotting to kill him or destabilise his rule. Their “treason” was to oppose the destruction of their religion or the despoiling of their property. The brutal strangulation, emasculation, disembowelling, beheading, and quartering they endured as traitors was hideous, as was the total absence of any form of due process or justice.
The evidence shows that it actually took the Tudors around 45 years to eradicate all memory of this country’s Catholic past.
In the process of all the destruction, it was not just traditional day-to-day spiritual life, the free medical and social care provided by the monasteries, and a country full of creative thought and art that were obliterated. The reformers hacked out and discarded an entire slice of England’s history, alienating the English from an especially vibrant part of their own amazing past.