Transcript: 418. Diarmaid MacCulloch on the British Reformations

A leading expert on the history of the Reformation joins us to explain the very different stories of England and Scotland in the 16th century.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: Today's episode will be an interview about the reformations in England and Scotland with Diarmaid McCulloch, who is Emeritus Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford... I guess that many people, when they think about the reformations in England and Scotland, or at least the reformation in England, suppose that it happened because, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce and the Pope wouldn't let him, but presumably it is a little bit more complicated than that. So what kind of reformation did Henry actually want? 

DM: Henry wanted a reformation of which he was the head. And in no sense should you think of that as a Protestant reformation. Henry wasn't a Protestant, he was Henry. And as you say, the quarrel was about whether he could marry a second wife or in his eyes, a first wife. And the problem was that the Pope would not allow that. So in the end, he broke with Rome. Now that could be thought of as a reformation, but other kings had done something rather similar. What turned it into a reformation were the driving forces of other people, particularly his new chief minister, a man called Thomas Cromwell, and also the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Henry had appointed to get this annulment of his first marriage, Thomas Cranmer. So between them, they discreetly pushed forward something you really can call a reformation in the 1530's. And that took off with its own momentum, quite apart from the king, who remained utterly unpredictable - a curious mix up of Catholicism and humanism, you might say, very little Protestantism. 

PA: And in fact, at the beginning, he was actually quite opposed to Luther, right? 

DM: Yes, Luther and Henry VIII did not get on at all, because Henry VIII, before he quarreled with the Pope, defended traditional Catholicism really rather effectively. Luther was furious and wrote a furious reply. The king hated that. So they never had much of a relationship. Other figures who became Lutherans did appeal to Henry, the great Philip Melanchthon, for instance, whom Henry tried to get to England. But the English Reformation really never went down a Lutheran path. Its roots were going to be elsewhere. 

PA: The way you just described that, it sounds like a fairly top-down phenomenon. So you've got the king, you've got the archbishop, and so on. But presumably, what they're doing is interacting in some way with more bottom-up forces, like sentiment for reformation in the country at large? 3.05

DM: Yes, England was unique in that it had a powerful movement against the official church for a century and a half before the Protestant Reformation, it is called "Lollardy", and it emerged here in Oxford (where I taught) in the late 14th century with an Oxford don called John Wycliffe. And this movement called Lollardy was suppressed by the official church in the late 15th century, but never eliminated. And so there was a movement within the country of dissent against the official church. And so the official Reformation, which emerged falteringly during the 1530's, could interact with this other force. 

PA: And was Henry, would you say, capitalizing on that sentiment in the country at large? 

DM: No, I don't think so at all. What he was capitalizing was the powerful sense of loyalty to the monarchy in England. England was an unusually centralized kingdom in the Middle Ages, right back to the Anglo-Saxon period. So the monarchy had developed a powerful ethos of independence and self-assertion, and asserted itself against Rome very frequently. So in one sense, the anti-papal rhetoric you got with Henry VIII was just recapitulating what certain English kings had done to suit their convenience in previous centuries. 

PA: Speaking of anti-papal rhetoric, you already mentioned the name of Thomas Cranmer, who actually came to the conclusion that the pope was the Antichrist. What was the basis of that, and what did he think would be a suitable reconfiguration of religious authority in a situation where the pope was, to put it mildly, not a figure whom one should be following? 

DM: I think at the center of Cranmer's thought, as it emerged in the early 1530's, was something which we find extremely difficult to understand now, which was that the king was God's representative on earth. And Cranmer had entered the king's service as a Cambridge academic who'd been employed to produce a historical theological case for the king's annulment. And gradually it seems that during the course of that, he became convinced that the king was head of the church. And if so, the pope was not, and the pope was claiming to be head of the church. Hence, he must be Antichrist. It is quite a simple piece of logic, really. 

PA: Yeah, just a syllogism. 

DM: Right. 

PA: And so he thought that the king could effectively just replace the pope as the arbiter of religious acceptability? Is that right? 

DM: That's how it worked. And in fact, Henry really wasn't going to alter the church in any respect except replace the pope with himself. And the powers of the archbishop of Canterbury would go on being the same under the king as they had been under the pope. 

PA: I see. So this is why you say that in a sense it wasn't so much a reformation as just kind of revolution within Catholic Christianity. Is that right? 

DM: Yeah. Doctrinally, it need not have changed at all. And in very important respects, Henry did not change it. I mean, he burnt Protestants who believed differently about the Eucharist to himself and went on burning Protestants right to the end of his life. He also beheaded, hanged, drawn, and quartered Catholics. But this sort of murderous ecumenism certainly didn't amount to Protestantism. 

PA: Yeah, this is what counts as middle way politics in the period, I guess! 

DM: It's a dark sort of middle way. And Henry was very proud of being in the middle and got quite emotional about it. He felt that that was his role as father of his people to steer between the two extremes which had emerged in the 1520's. 

PA: If we think then about a document that comes out of this period, like say the Book of Common Prayer, which is obviously a pretty central text that represents what was happening in Christianity in this period in England - does that not in some sense stand for some kind of reformation of Christian doctrine or at least practice? 7.05

DM: Certainly it does. And the Book of Common Prayer was a product of the next reign, Henry's son, boy king Edward VI. By then, things have decisively moved in English politics towards the group who were convinced Protestants. So we've got Cromwell, we've got Cranmer, leading noblemen who were in alliance with them. They were the people who were steering the regime of Edward VI. And they produced two versions of liturgy which was revolutionary in that it was in the language of the people, English. And there was one stage in 1549 which tried to pretend to be conservative, and the reason for that was that the country as a whole was not convinced by Protestantism yet. And lots of members of the nobility and people among the bishops were not convinced, so you've got to keep them on board. But this 1549 book was very soon replaced, three years later in fact, in 1552, by a Book of Common Prayer which is in most respects the same book which the Church of England still uses and which has therefore influenced all the liturgies right across the world in what has come to be called the Anglican Communion. 

PA: And what are the features of this book that make it a Protestant document as opposed to a Catholic document? 8.30

DM: You look at the form of what Cranmer called the Holy Communion, which had been called the Mass, Eucharist, if you like. And what you're looking at there is an emphatically Protestant Eucharist and also an emphatically, let's use a technical term, Reformed Eucharist, in other words, not Lutheran. The great divide in the Reformation across Europe had already happened by the time that this service was devised by Cranmer and his fellow bishops in 1552. And already Lutheranism had retreated from his thoughts. 

Now the important thing to grasp about that is the nature of the bread and wine used in the service. The old Catholic view is that these become the body and blood of Christ. And that is Luther's view too. The explanation of how they become the body and blood of Christ is, of course, a different one from that of the popes. But it's basically rather the same. The pope and Luther agreed on what happened in the Eucharist. Now the Reformed tradition (Switzerland, South Germany, and throughout Europe eventually) denied that - bread and wine are taken in the service and they remain bread and wine at the end of it. They have been put to a symbolic use, a metaphorical use, if you like. They have become in that sense the body and blood of Christ. So that's a complicated way of explaining that the English Eucharistic service is doing what Reformed theologians were doing across Europe. 

PA: Yeah, so really, in a way, for us, it is a kind of convenient marker of whether a certain strand of Protestantism is lining up with Lutheran or Reformed Protestantism? 10.15

DM: It's an absolute litmus test. And in fact, the English book, as conceived by Cranmer in 1552, has a really significant detail at the end. It's what you might call a stage instruction or technically a rubric. And that's what you do with bread and wine left over at the end of the service. And what does this rubric say? It says that "the curate shall have it to his own use". What that means is that the presiding minister can take it home for his tea. Now you don't do that to the body and blood of Christ, but you can do it to bread and wine. That's really saying that bread and wine is bread and wine. 

PA: Right, just like any other bread and wine. 

DM: Absolutely. 

PA: What about, for example, the increasingly widespread reading of the Bible also in English translation? Is that a really striking feature of the Reformation in England at this period? 

DM: Striking and unique in the sense that the Bible had been banned in England before the Reformation. That's absolutely unique. It's not true of anywhere else in Europe. And it's a result of that earlier Lollard rebellion against the authority of the church, because the Lollards had made a point of translating the Bible into what was then Middle English. That's in the 1380's. And the church had banned that translation, and they banned any translation not authorized by the church into English, and no translation had been authorized. 11.40

So one of the most essential features of the Reformation in the 1530's in England was to get an English Bible authorized. And Cromwell and Cranmer between them persuaded the king, charmed the king into doing this, a policy which didn't really appeal to him at all. And so that's the achievement which made what happened in England into a Protestant Reformation, the essential feature. You need a Bible in a language "understanded of the people", which is Cranmer's phrase, and read by the people. 

PA: And to what extent did that then get even out of the control of these church authorities? I mean, people like Cranmer and Cranmer, because it certainly sounds like things went further than Henry intended, to put it mildly. To what extent were actual lay people involved in reshaping Christianity during this period? 

DM: Well, one thing about the English Reformation, which goes right back into the 1530's, is that every important stage of it was authorized by the English Parliament. That's one of the reasons why the English Parliament, very unusually in Europe, survived the 16th century. Everywhere had parliaments in the Middle Ages, later on very many of them atrophied, just fell into decline. Not England, because both under Henry and Edward and Elizabeth, and paradoxically also under Catholic Queen Mary, the Parliament authorized things. And that means representatives of the people within the kingdom - all right, the landowners and the nobility and the bishops. But still, this is a representative body. So in that sense, the English Reformation was achieved by the consent of the nation. It is not democratic, but it's not just imposed by proclamation from the monarchy either. 

PA: It seems like a very diffuse way of forming what counts as religious orthodoxy, because you have, okay, the Pope's now out of the picture, right? But you've got the monarch, so either the king or the queen in this period, and you've got the parliaments, and then you've got church authorities like the Archbishop of Canterbury, say. And so they're all presumably jockeying for influence and decision-making power, is that right? 

DM: That's absolutely right. Yes, it's complex. And at no stage was there a sort of council of the church which decided doctrine. There were traditional church bodies, the convocations, which had to assent to all this. And they did sort of do the detailed stuff, but they weren't making the decisions. It is the king in parliament which matters. 

PA: Maybe we can shift our focus now to the north and to Scotland. So that's why we talk about reformations in what is now Britain, because the situation in Scotland is very different from what's going on in England. And the key figure here, I guess, would be John Knox, right? 

DM: That's right. 

PA: And again, I guess, so obviously there's a lot we could say about John Knox, but maybe one thought that I at least have about him is that he represents a more radical idea of what the reformation could or should be than what we've just discussed in England, is that right? 

DM: That's right. It's a very much more radical reformation. It's very different from England's reformation. And in the 20th century, we talk without thinking about "Britain". Britain did not exist in the 16th century. There are two kingdoms with different monarchs, England and Scotland. So you're looking at Scotland. You're looking at this powerful personality, John Knox, who was seized by enthusiasm for the city of Geneva in the 1550's. He was in exile, spent time in Geneva. And so as his powerful personality came to play on the situation in Scotland, as the old church disintegrated, the future of the reformation there would be very much in a Genevan mould. And perhaps even more importantly, would be in spite of the Scottish monarchy, unlike the English reformation, where the monarchy is central. Now, here it was done against the will of the then monarch, who was Mary, Queen of Scots. And John Knox led a rebellion against the monarchy, not exactly a popular rebellion, though there were riots by mobs against the old church. It's a rebellion of the landowners and the nobility of Scotland against a Catholic monarchy. And that gave the Scottish reformation from then on a very different character from that of England. At every stage, it was achieved in spite of the monarch, often against the monarch's wishes. And the end result was a church like that of Geneva, eventually without bishops. And that remains true of the established Church of Scotland to the present day. So it's a very different feel from what happened in England. 

PA: And what would have inspired these landowners to follow Knox against their own queen? 

DM: The mysterious side of the Scottish reformation is where this dynamic came from. Scotland had been affected by what was happening in mainland Europe during the 1520's, 1530's, and often in a rather Lutheran way. But then the monarchy cracked down on reformation in Scotland in the 1540's. And there's a time of what you might think of silence through the 40's and 50's. Some people were getting burnt at the stake, but by and large, nothing much happened until a great explosion in 1559, when suddenly popular riots destroyed churches and monasteries in central Scotland. John Knox emerged from exile as a figure. And this is, I think, an example where the power of one personality is hugely important, and the power of the two weapons of reformed Protestant Christianity. These two weapons are the sermon, but above all, the psalm, the psalm sung, 150 psalms of David sung in the manner of Geneva. That is, popular tunes, metrical versions, so that people can learn these very quickly. They were as popular and as devastating and aggressive as football chants. And these are for crowds to take up a revolution. And that's the center of the Scottish Reformation. 

PA: Wow, that is really amazing. So the revolutionary power of pop music! 

DM: Indeed. 

PA: In the 16th century. So actually, that means that Knox illustrates something that we might see as a more general feature of what we should not call British Reformation - so English and Scottish Reformation or reformations - which is this connection to what has been going on in the continent. So you just said that Knox was very inspired by what was happening in Geneva. And he's not the only figure who moved back and forth between Europe and England and Scotland. So to what extent should we think of the reformations in these countries as just being a kind of importation of what was going on on the continent? 

DM: Yeah, they're marginal echoes of something which happened in mainland Europe. The islands which make up the archipelago - which are now often called the British Isles - are on the edge of Europe. They are not that important - Kingdom of England is second ranked country, Kingdom of Scotland third rank, you might think. And they are reacting to something which was happening in central Europe, on northern Germany, Switzerland, etc. Really at no stage can you say that either the English or the Scots thought of anything original in the English Reformation. They added some thoughts, you might say, so that there is an interesting discussion in the later 16th century about how you use the great idea of covenant. And there's a covenant theology which did actually go back and influence Reformed thought in mainland Europe. But that is pretty marginal in compared with the great ideas of Zwingli or Calvin or Luther. 19.50

PA: But there is a debate about what I guess people usually think of as the kind of most central philosophical issue of the Reformation, which is free will and predestination. There's certainly a debate about that in England and Scotland. 

DM: Yeah

PA: Do the, what we might call the British figures in this period, not add anything to that debate that we haven't already seen in mainland Europe? 

DM: Not much in the 16th century. Virtually all of them were predestinarians. But that's because they're Reformed Protestants. Right at the end of the 16th century, some interesting things did begin to happen, particularly in the University of Cambridge. And there you begin to get a set of first academics and then of course the clergy who they are training, who go out of the church, who are beginning to reassert the idea of free will. And there were furious arguments in the University of Cambridge in the 1590's that we really moved on decades about this matter. But by and large, those are the outsiders. Those are the rebels. It took until the early 17th century before that sort of person was leading the Church of England. And in Scotland, they're even more marginalized. And that's really a debate within Reformed Protestantism. It's got one sort of eye cast over its shoulder towards the Lutherans. But really, it is a debate between Reformed Protestants and rebel Reformed Protestants. It goes on to a very distinctive English story in the end. But that is what you might call another story, it is not the story of the English Reformation. 

PA: It is interesting that, I mean, from a philosophical point of view, the predeterminist or sort of fatalist interpretation of the theory of grace seems very difficult, philosophically speaking. It has all these implications for moral responsibility and so on. So it seems kind of strange intuitively that that would have become the kind of default most popular view. 

DM: You mean the determinist point of view? 

PA: Yeah. 

DM: Well, it's not because virtually all Western Christian theology is based on Augustine of Hippo. It's all looking back to what Augustine had struggled towards in the fourth and fifth centuries, and that's a very, very hardline determinist point of view. Predestination is the jargon that theologians use about that. And when the Reformation came along, both sides, Catholic and Protestants, were really arguing in Augustine's terms. You could say the whole Reformation is an argument in the mind of Augustine. And therefore, it's very difficult to get away from the notions of determinism, predestination. You've got to do some hard, original thinking. Erasmus, in his time, had given such thoughts. And so you get Erasmus as the inspirer of some of those who rebelled against Augustinian orthodoxy. But the general thrust, really, eventually in Catholicism as well as Protestantism, was towards determinism. 

PA: And do you think that that was a widespread belief, even among the laity? So you went out into the countryside and started asking people what they thought about their salvation. Do you think they would have said, well, it's all in God's hands? 

DM: Well, yes, they probably would, because it's all part of a package, which is to say, yes, it's in God's hands, and I am probably one of the elect. And you can attach that to other ideas very common in Reformed Protestantism, particularly the idea of an elect people, a chosen people. England is like Israel had been in the ancient times. And that's really quite empowering. It's a powerful thought. It's a comforting thought. And so they're coming from a different place to the place that many of us would be today, that we're much more interested in our individual determination, our dignity. Those things weren't priorities for most people in the 16th century. 

PA: That's really interesting what you just said there, that predestination might actually be a comforting thought, because God has sort of already selected me to be among the elect. So I'm going to heaven, because I think we have a tendency to assume that they lived in terror of the possibility that they weren't among the elect, and that if that were the case, there was nothing they could do about it. 

DM: There were lots of tensions like that. Self-examination is a characteristic of this sort of Reformed Protestantism. Am I really elect? The English actually did do something distinctive at the end of the 16th century. They invented the Confessional Diary, which so many of us keep, and they did it precisely to examine their day-to-day conduct. Am I really elect or not? So the first diaries of the sort now common are Puritan diaries, the English form of Reformed Protestantism, the Puritanism. That's really a symptom of the fact there are anxieties within this. But then we need to think of the comfort it gives you to feel that God is supporting you, that you don't need to bother too much. God gives power. God will sustain you if you behave as you should do as one of God's chosen people. And all the time, they're listening to the Old Testament. It's the story of the chosen people. And the chosen people get things wrong, but they get there in the end. 

PA: And this is something that a wider audience in England and Scotland would have understood how - through the sermons and even the football chants that you mentioned earlier? 

DM: Yeah, their music in church was entirely the 150 psalms, nothing else. And from the pulpit, they would be getting this message from people trained in England, in Oxford and Cambridge, in Scotland, in its four universities. These are highly literate societies, particularly Scotland, where the Reformation very much valued education. And the outcrop of that is across the Atlantic in the colonies established particularly by the English in New England, which was probably in its day in the 1620's and 30's, the most literate society on earth. They valued education. And you need to understand Augustinian Protestantism, because it's a complicated system. And it's based on a complicated book - the Bible. We underestimate the extent to which people bought into the system. Even those who didn't have much formal literacy were not stupid. It's simply they didn't have the technology of reading and writing at their fingertips, but they could understand it. 

PA: So actually, this must be one of the first cases in history where something that can legitimately be called a philosophical position, because it's obviously a theological view as well, but it's also a philosophical view about the nature of free will, the nature of moral responsibility becomes explicitly embraced by a very large number of people on the grounds of something like an intellectual rationale. 

DM: I guess that's so. And there is always a tension in Reformation Protestantism, whether Lutheran or Reformed, between hierarchy and the feeling that we are all part of the chosen people. And it's a tension which they did not resolve. But particularly in the Scottish Reformation, it is remarkable that powerful figures, members of the nobility, were under discipline alongside everybody else from the new Reformed church, and would often submit to that discipline with surprising meekness. 

PA: Actually, if I could just ask you one last question before we end, and moving our attention now back up to the higher echelons of society. What was the impact of these ideas about determinism or predestination on the conception of rulership? Because if I, as a humble Christian, am determined to do what I will do and predestined to receive grace or not, then you might assume that all the more so, the king is already chosen by God from eternity to be the king or the queen to be the queen. And I guess that must have been part of the rationale for Henry's proclaiming himself as having the right to say what is and is not religious orthodoxy. 

DM: Yeah, there are always tensions within this system. Is the monarch simply God's representative on earth, or does God's will manifest itself through, in England's case, the crown in parliament, in which case there's a sort of bottom-up feeling about it. And the tension is there in the Bible. In the New Testament, you could go for a text in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, very popular in the 16th century - obey the monarch, obey the powers that are ordained by God. That might be a starting point. But there is another text in the New Testament in the Book of Acts - fear God, honor the emperor, honor the king. And that is interestingly ambiguous, because which element of that twofold command are you going to listen to? Fear God, do what God wants, or the monarch? And that actually destroyed the Kingdom of England in the 17th century. This tension between a wider view of authority, a view embodied in the kingdom as a whole, or the wishes of the monarch. And the English got as far as cutting off the head of their king over that debate in 1649. 

PA: And that, of course, is something we'll get to eventually, but not soon, because we're going to be looking more closely at some of the figures and ideas of the reformations in England and Scotland over the coming episodes.


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