Current Trends in the History of the English Reformation: A Review Article

Edward Manger

There has been much ink spilt in the past two decades upon the issue of the English Reformation and its place in history. Historians working in the field have devoted a considerable amount of time recounting the developments that have emerged in the historiography. Particularly helpful examples are the essays: “The English Reformation after Revisionism” by Eamon Duffy[1] and “Modern Historians on the English Reformation” by Diarmaid MacCulloch in his collection All things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy.[2] They, amongst others, have charted the rise and fall of the popular narrative of the English Reformation articulated primarily by A. G. Dickens in his magisterial tome The English Reformation.[3] This volume under-girds the still pervasive idea that the English Reformation was in some ways inevitable, and largely complete by the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. Dickens painted a picture of the medieval Church of England as being corrupt and decadent, ripe to fall into the hands of an anti-clerical population just waiting for an opportunity to devour it. This image was largely effaced by the work of revisionist historians, such as Christopher Heigh[4] and Eamon Duffy,[5] who argued that there was nothing inevitable about the English Reformation. In their theses, the church in England prior to the Reformation was far from the edge of collapse, but rather a vibrant and lively institution that contributed to social cohesion and the fabric of everyday life. Central to their view is that the Catholic reign of Mary I was more than a hiatus in the glorious march towards England’s natural protestant destiny, and that one could still be talking of reformations well into the seventeenth century. More recently, historians such as Peter Marshall[6] have trodden a careful path between the two extremes, showing that there is truth in both positions, and that the real watchwords for the English Reformation are complexity and multiplicity. It would be instructive in this, the five hundredth anniversary year of the Reformation, to look at the current state of historical thought on the English Reformation, a series of events that would define the practice of Christianity in the English-speaking world down to this very day. I shall attempt this by examining two books published in recent years and two books published this year among the slew of titles seeking to benefit from increased interest in the subject.

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The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I: Reformation and Identity, c.1520–1662, edited by Anthony Milton. London: Oxford University Press, 2017, 544 pages, $135.00.

This is the first volume of four charting the history of the various ecclesiastical bodies that developed out of the Church of England and the latter Anglican communion. The dates of this first volume are indicative of the contemporary trend for long-perspective views on the Reformation. It is divided into twenty-five chapters thematically addressing issues relating to the evolution of Anglicanism from the reign of Henry VIII up until the Great Ejection of 1662. Understandably, the book opens with a discussion of the problematic nature of the very word “Anglicanism.” The book seeks to peel away layers of preconceptions and imposed narratives that have accumulated around this word. An argument is advanced that many groups that are seen as distinct from “Anglicans,” such as Reformed Presbyterians and Puritans, were solidly within the mainstream Church of England throughout this period. The term Anglican is a later development that most non-specialists will associate with the concept of a via media, a middle path, between Geneva and Rome. This myth is dispelled in this volume, as the first four chapters helpfully illuminate through a chronological account of the period. The notion of “compromising” with or in any way seeking to chart a middle path with Rome on one side was anathema to both Evangelicals of the Henrician Reformation and the Elizabethan settlement. On the other hand, a distaste for Geneva was indeed held by a number in the upper echelons of society, but this was for fear of the public unrest that might result from a more “democratic” church constitution, not for its rigorous ascetic visual tastes, Calvinistic soteriology, or adherence to the Word of God as the basis for reforming the church. These were all principles accepted to a varying degree by the vast majority within the Church of England.

A highlight of this volume is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s essay on the international nature of the English Reformation, reflecting an emphasis prevalent in the recent literature: the interconnectedness of the Reformations across Europe. England was far from “isolated” or a unique case in the broader Reformation, but constantly interacted with the most influential thinkers in the Reformed world. The influence of Peter Martyr and Martyn Bucer is well documented, but the connections go deeper and further. As the Marian exiles rose through the ranks of Episcopal theologians, they had direct contact with the likes of Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger, regularly communicated with bishops, and sided with them against those who would later be called “Puritans” over issues of conformity, such as the vestments controversy of the 1560s.

The other stand out chapters are by Chad Van Dixhorn and Ann Hughes who helpfully place the Westminster Assembly and the Cromwellian church within the broader chronology of the Church of England. Far from constituting a break with what had gone before by attempting to establish a “new” church, both were contained within the existing national church. All participants (other than the Scottish commissioners) in the Westminster Assembly were ordained members of the Church of England who were seeking to reform that institution, not break away from it or end it. As such, the Westminster Assembly and Cromwellian church can be seen as part of Anglicanism in a way that Presbyterians and modern Anglicans have often overlooked. The restoration of the monarchy and the events of 1662 whitewashed much of what was achieved during the 1640s and 1650s and effectively forced that period out of the mainstream Anglican narrative.

Also helpful are Peter Lake’s and Peter MacCulloch’s complementary chapters on what has been called “avant-garde conformity,” which was the embryonic manifestation of what would later become the Arminian movement of the Laudian period. This avant-garde conformity is most famously characterized by Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker. This article goes some way to helping us move past the stereotyped image of crypto-papists attempting to pervert the course of true Reformation, or heroic defenders of beauty in worship against Puritan iconoclasts. Instead, we must see them as nuanced as any of their contemporaries, committed to the Word of God and the cause of the Reformation.

This volume is highly to be praised, it is replete with the most recent scholarship and rigorous research by some of the most able and impressive historians working in the field today. For anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the terrain of the current debates surrounding the English Reformation, this can not be too highly recommended.

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Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, by Eamon Duffy. London: Bloomsbury, 2017, 448 pages, $48.00.

Eamon Duffy substantially redefined the way historians discussed the English Reformation with his treatment of popular religion in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580.[7] He argued persuasively for the vital and dynamic reality of English Catholicism prior to the Reformation and the near success of the Catholic Church under Mary I. All subsequent historians have had to reckon with this thesis, and many owe a debt of gratitude to Duffy for this insight. It has been challenged and modified, yet not completely overturned.

This volume is a collection of the essays published by Duffy over the past forty years, having been updated and corrected where necessary. It is insightful to see the thought of this important historian over an extended time period, and recurrent themes begin to emerge. Duffy is himself a Catholic, and the largest section of this volume comprises a set of essays relating to the experience of English Catholics during and after Elizabeth’s reign. In these, the reader is treated to an insight into a world that is often left out of narratives of the English Reformation, where Catholics are seen as either evil opponents of the gospel, or agent-less victims of cruel religious oppression. The truth is that they were neither. Duffy investigates the establishment of the English college at Rheims for the training of English priests, and the infighting of Jesuits and Jansenists in their approach taken to the re-evangelization, as they saw it, of England. These essays go a long way to humanizing the Catholic population, showing they were not a faceless, homogeneous mass of seditious traitors. In reality they had their own internal debates and acted with real agency, making decisions to conform or resist and strategized as to how they might most effectively reach their countrymen who had turned away from the sources of authority that had been for so long the keystone of English society.

The first three essays in this volume are a reassessment of the work and life of Thomas More (1478–1535). There is an inevitable amount of overlap and slight repetition, which is hard to avoid in three separate essays on one man. The main thrust of the argument in all three is to re-cast More as a committed humanist in line with Erasmus and move away from the popular image of him as the arch villain of Henry’s reign, most recently popularized by Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Alongside this central aim Duffy also establishes More’s credentials as a systematic and sophisticated thinker and apologist for the traditional faith against Evangelicals during the reign of Henry VIII.

The third section of the book is composed of essays concerning the later Reformation, again adding weight to the view of the Reformation as a long multiplicity of events and developments rather than one or two single large shifts. One particularly interesting chapter examines Richard Baxter’s ministry as a model of the Reformed ministry, arguing that his methods were not unique and indeed can be seen as constituting the pinnacle of a legitimate tradition of ministry that existed within the English church, even if it was ultimately overlooked following the Great Ejection. The other chapters in this section address the long Reformation and the debates that continued past 1662 and 1688 over the nature of the Protestant church in England, religious tolerance, and the place of Catholicism within that dynamic. Thus, he extends the Reformation further than most text books or single volumes will usually attempt to do. This volume is a worthy read for those interested in exploring some overlooked aspects of the English Reformation and a worthwhile antidote to accounts that can easily fall into Protestant triumphalism.

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Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525–1590, by Karl Gunther. London: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 296 pages, $29.99, paper.

Originally published in 2014, but republished in paperback this year, Karl Gunther has sought to revise our current understanding of the English Reformation by reappraising the development of the radical element within it. He contends that historians have seen radicalism as a phenomenon that emerged late during the reign of Elizabeth I. He endeavors to put together a compelling case over the course of the book that the roots of this movement go back further than has traditionally been appreciated. He contends that from very early in the English Reformation there was a spectrum of voices calling for a complete overhaul of the theology and ecclesiology of the church in England in the most definitive terms.

It is a well-written, well-researched book, full of fascinating insights. One must concede that Gunther is almost certainly correct that at least some historians have overlooked the range of revolutionary and extreme opinions that were circulated in the first half of the sixteenth century. However, he does not clearly show that this is currently a widespread trend amongst recent scholarship. Thus, he overstates his case and as a result can not be said to have significantly changed our understanding of the landscape of the English Reformation as he claims to be doing. A more accurate description of the effect on this book is that it causes a subtle reorientation of emphasis. The first chapter of the book is devoted to works published during the Henrician Reformation. He examines texts that, interestingly for readers of Ordained Servant, show that there were calls for the establishment of a system of church government that included the eradication of Episcopacy and the equality of ministers even at this early stage. He does not argue that there was a simple, straight line joining these writings to the latter Presbyterian controversies of the second half of the sixteenth century, but that they informed and encouraged latter thinkers who did not emerge from a vacuum but drew upon these earlier publications.

Gunther then moves onto the experience of the Marian exiles with a discussion of texts relating to Nicodemism. This was a term coined to describe those who were Protestants but conformed to the Catholic Church reinstated by Mary I, rather than face persecution. Those who had fled to the continent were scathing about these Nicodemites, denying, outright, the possibility of communion with Catholics. They wrote in the harshest terms against the outward conformity of those who remained in England, equating association with Catholics with a denial of Christ himself. Gunther also offers a re-examination of the controversy that arose amongst the exile community in Frankfurt over the use of vestments and the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer. This he sees as a precursor to the vestarian conflict and debates surrounding conformity in the 1560s and onwards. The men who took part in these debates came back to England under Elizabeth’s reign and rose to positions of prominent influence; for example, William Wittigham, who translated the Geneva Bible and was one of the main protagonists of the controversy in Frankfurt, became Dean of Durham. These chapters adequately show that the Puritans, who were to emerge as a prominent party within the church in the later sixteenth century, were not a late development or new party espousing novel ideas. They were part of a continuity of thought and practice within the church from the Edwardian church and Marian exile.

The flaw in Gunther's book is one of ambition rather than one of argument or sources. He is correct that radical voices were present and active in the English Reformation, however, he does not fully demonstrate how prominent or powerful they were early on, or that many of today’s historians would disagree with this. For example, his treatment of texts published during the reign of Henry VIII would have benefited from establishing that they had a wide readership or broad influence, or that previous historians had neglected them as sources. Overall this book fits into the contemporary historical preoccupation with adding complexity and nuance. It adds another piece to the historical puzzle of the English Reformation and reminds us to appreciate the diversity of thought and ideas within it, not just accept the dominant narratives we have inherited. However, Gunther’s narrative is itself perhaps less radical than the subjects of his study.

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Richard Bancroft and Elizabethan Anti-Puritanism by Patrick Collinson. London: Cambridge University Press 2013, 252 pages, $29.99, paper.

Patrick Collinson had a career that spanned over half a century, during which he became the foremost historian of Puritanism. This was the book he was working on when he passed away in 2011. As such, it forms an important contribution to the history of the Puritan movement.

The book opens with Collinson's assertion that it is “rather less and much more than a biography of Richard Bancroft” (1), and he is right. It is not a straight forward biography of a primate of the Church of England, as was Collinson’s masterly treatment of Bancroft’s predecessor Edmund Grindal.[8] The book ends just as Bancroft is raised to the primacy as Archbishop of Canterbury, and does not focus on the life or inner-workings of the man, but is comprised of a series of vignettes of Bancroft’s interactions with Puritanism.

Bancroft was, even before his elevation to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, at the center of the life of the Church as Bishop of London from 1559 to 1570 and acting as the chaplain to Archbishop Whitgift. The previous archbishops, Parker, Grindal, and Whitgift, had all been soteriologically Calvinist and staunchly Protestant, yet all had faced controversy over the conformity of ministers within the Church; over vestments; over the prayer books; and over the practice of preaching and prophesying conventicles, the latter of which had effectively ended Grindal’s archbishopric. Bancroft is a significant divergence from this trajectory, less adamantly Calvinistic and more certainly anti-Puritan. Collinson traces this development in his character over the events and controversies of the latter sixteenth century.

Collinson deals with the Marprelate Tracts, a series of tracts written under a pseudonym that argued vehemently and satirically against the Episcopal government of the church. They advocated for the establishment of a Presbyterian system of ecclesiastical government modelled upon Geneva. These tracts, which had widespread support among Puritan-minded clergy, caused a stir in the Church which precipitated the eruption of a pamphleteering war. Bancroft was one of the foremost opponents of the tracts and their philosophy of church government. Yet this was the first attempt, or at least first significant attempt, at articulating a divine right form of Presbyterian government in England, i.e., that it was not just the best, most pragmatic, or even closest to the early church, but that it was discernibly ordained by God in the Scriptures. Until this point, no, or very few, Protestants had been arguing that Episcopacy was divinely ordained either. It was only in response to this attack from the Puritans that a defense along these lines was formulated by supporters of the status quo. Collinson argues that it is not clear, however, in all the opposition given by Bancroft, that he was convinced in his mind that Episcopacy was divinely ordained.

For Bancroft the issue was at its central point one of conformity and obedience, in this he stood in the line of Bullinger, Cramner, Latimer, and Ridley, those who had become unassailable through their status as martyrs. This is seen in Collinson’s discussion of the Hampton Court Conference, where in 1604 Puritan ministers met with bishops to dispute a list of contentions in front of the new King James I. Bancroft was infuriated with the trifling nature of some of the Puritans concerns, even to the extent of irritating the King with his opposition. It is a fascinating point in the history of the Church in England, a moment where things could have gone in a variety of ways. Bancroft is largely responsible for the way in which events did play out, against the Puritan interest.

Written in Collinson's engaging prose and full of insights accumulated over a lifetime of study, this book is absorbing in its focus on the interplay of two factions within a church. As with the other titles I have reviewed above, the aim was to add depth and to deconstruct the simple narratives that surround characters and events in the English Reformation. Collinson achieves this by fleshing out Bancroft and his opponents, the Puritans, so the reader gains an appreciation for the views and issues at the center of either side of the contemporary debates. This is a fitting final volume for one of the truly great historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The four books I have reviewed in this article differ in many ways: in aim, style, layout, and length. However, they also have similarities: each one seeks to move away from overtly praising the Reformation or being critical of it as have historians of past years. Discussion of theology does not take center stage in any of these books, and the relative merits or demerits of various doctrines are not examined. Instead, all these books are informed by current historical mores, the desire to advance past simple narratives and repetitions of familiar stories with typecast heroes and villains. As such they look to overturn and re-examine past Reformation histories, to seek the overlooked and unappreciated aspects of an event, a movement, or a person, or even groups of people. The express purpose is always to give a more fully rounded and deeper understanding of the incredibly fraught and complex forces that bought around such a dramatic shift in society. In doing so, the modern historians reveal their distaste for the dominant historiographies that have emerged to reinforce certain groups within the contemporary church, whether it be Evangelical, broad church, or Anglo-Catholic. Instead of seeing a strand that leads from the early sixteenth century to any of these groups as the “rightful” inheritors of the Church in England, these histories show that there were multiple voices and parties within the church from the very first days of Reformation theology being consumed within the shores of England. With each vying for power and containing its own inconstancies and idiosyncrasies, it was by no means clear who would emerge victorious. The identity of the Reformed church in England was still being shaped and undergoing change well into the seventeenth century and beyond, making the Reformation difficult to date. The debates remain as hotly contended as they have ever been; and, although historians may agree on these very broad points, there is still much disagreement and there are areas that are benefiting from fresh appraisals, new research, and brand-new study. In this Reformation year, the history of the English Reformation is as vital and fascinating as it has ever been.


[1] Eamon Duffy, “The English Reformation After Revisionism,” Renaissance Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2006): 720–31.

[2] Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 2nd ed. (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991).

[4] See especially Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (London: Clarendon, 1993).

[5] See especially Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[6] Particularly the recent Peter Marshall, Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[7] Duffy, Stripping of the Altars.

[8] Patrick Collinson, Archbishop Grindal 1519–1583: The Struggle for a Reformed Church (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979).

Edward G. Manger is a member of Shem Creek Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Charleston, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, October 2017.

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