Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Question from Abigail - Opinions on the causes of the Reformation

Hi all,
I have always had a vast fascination with Henry VIII and his thoughts behind his actions. Having done a large factual piece on the English Reformation. I am fully aware that there are a number of reason for English reform which are all valid and all evidently played a part in the English Reformation. I would just like to get some feedback as to why in your opinion the reformation occurred? I myself believe that it was Henry's desire to be remembered. In the words of Erasmus "Our King does not desire gold or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality." and the only way he could secure this was through a Tudor dynasty and the birth of a son.


shtove said...

Tricky question.

You have to looke at the economics. My guess is the Reformation had similar elements to the crisis we see in Europe (and US/China) today.

What led events? The introduction to Europe of bullion from south America through Iberia, plus the imbalance between north and south Europe in production and consumption.

Put it another way: south Europe was consuming and paying for that consumption through bullion exports + debt; north Europe was producing and extending credit so south Europe could consume its produce. The cheap money from south America flowed into north Europe and caused inflation, but that didn't help the debtors.

It got to the point where south Europe couldn't pay its debt and decided to make north Europe "eat it" - there were sales of indulgences, but mostly it was through Spanish taxation of the Netherlands. North Europe said, Nein!

Cue decades of war, with the north resisting Spanish military might into the 1640s. Spain (and France) declared bankruptcy several times in that period. The solution eventually came through France.

Meanwhile Henry 8 used the opportunity to redistribute wealth to supporters of his state.

Phew - that covers 150 years and doesn't do justice to the religious controversy. But our narrative history of Kings & Queens definitely doesn't do justice to real human motivation.

We seem to give far too much credence to the notion that individual leaders actually lead events, when the opposite is the case.

Useful article here - Lutheran survey of the literature and ideas:

I may be accused of recency bias. In response I say: nothing new under the sun!

Laura said...

In my opinion, the driving force of Henry's reformation was his need for a male heir. Considering that in his younger days Henry had been name Defender of the Faith, and his vociferous repudiation of anything Luther had to say, I think it's clear that theology had little to do with his reformation. In fact, by the end of his life, the church was still basically a Catholic church in dogma and in ritual, the only real difference was the supremacy issue. If Katherine of Aragon had borne him a male heir, there would have been no reformation in Henry's time. In fact, there would have been no divorce, either, or even an attempt to set Katherine aside. However much he loved Anne, he'd never have done anything to endanger the succession had there been a male heir.

The later reformations of Edward VI and Elizabeth I were motivated by theology and corruption within the church and social unrest, but Henry's Reformation is a different matter entirely.

shtove said...

I disagree with Laura. The reference to social unrest means everything, I think - but it's a juicy debate.

My starting point: the main outcome of the English reformation was the redistribution of the wealth of the monasteries.

The reforms following Erasmus & Luther etc are a fountain of knowledge and enlightenment, but in England, at least, you follow the money to find the cause. The dynastic stuff and theological justification come afterward.

I don't doubt that the uncertainty of the Tudor succession caused the cruelty at Henry's court, but the real violence had already occurred throughout the country in the dissolution of the monasteries. It set the scene. That violence continued in two ways:

1. Henry's heir, Edward VI, adopted a mercantilist policy: England became a creditor nation, running a trade surplus and protecting its own industry through aggressive tariffs on imports. That has nothing to do with Erasmus, but everything to do with hostility to Catholic debtor nations. And does anyone believe the boy king adopted this as his own considered policy? He was ruled by committee, and the committe members were beneficiaries of monastic wealth.

2. There was another wave of wealth confiscation, when the common lands were enclosed in England and Wales, and Ireland was reconquered. Ireland was where the English exported the consequences of their reformation - result: endless violence.

It's also worth considering the idea of "eius regio cuius religio" - an after-the-fact justification that dominated European politics from the mid-16thC, probably until Napoleon in the late 18thC. Henry VIII provided a crude forerunner of that idea, but the English were able to follow their own course and extinguish the choice in the Great Revolution of 1688.

Also - the reformation was actually violently suppressed in England: what's the difference between Calvinists and Jansenists?

In sum: Henry VIII could choose his wives, but his circumstances chose him.

Laura said...

shtowe, I certainly think that the later reformations of Edward's and Elizabeth's reigns had a lot to do with social unrest, but I don't think it can be counted as a factor in Henry's reformation. I think the Pope's refusal to give Henry what he wanted was really the motivating factor. I think Cromwell managed to convince him to destroy the abbeys and monasteries with the financial benefits, but the break with Rome, for Henry, was mainly motivated by the need for a legitimate male heir.

Lara Eakins said...

Posting this for PhD Historian, who was having trouble commenting:

I have to agree with Laura: Regarding the Reformation of the English Church specifically during the reign of Henry VIII, the principle impetus was Henry's desire for a male heir. Economics had almost nothing to do with inspiring the Henrician Reformation (though certainly there were economic consequences). Had Katherine of Aragon delivered a healthy male child and had that child lived, Henry's need for a divorce would not have arisen, and he almost certainly never would have sought one. Thus Henry would have had no legal quarrel with Rome over a divorce, and would not have been compelled to enact the Royal Supremacy. The English Church would very probably have remained loyal to Roman Papal governance. Absent the Royal Supremacy, Henry would have been virtually powerless to dissolve the monasteries. To satisfy his financial needs, he almost certainly would have done what his seventeenth-century successors James I and Charles I did: seek inventive new extra-legal ways to generate revenue for the Crown.
But because Henry wanted a male heir, he needed a divorce. In order to obtain that divorce, he was compelled to separate from Roman Papal church governance. That separation allowed certain reformist elements within England to assert themselves more readily, but their efforts were not very far-reaching during Henry's lifetime. The English Church, as Laura very correctly noted, remained essentially Roman Catholic in doctrine and ritual practice until after Henry's death early in 1547. It remained to his heir Edward to allow the reformist elements greater sway, leading to the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549.
The larger national and international economy had little or nothing to do with sparking the reformation of the English Church. And the notion that Henry VIII used the reformation as an excuse to "redistribute wealth to his supporters" is simply not true. The concept of redistribution of wealth and any idea of equality of wealth are entirely modern Marxist ones, and hinge on primacy of the working class (the "proletariat"). No such egalitarian concept existed in the sixteenth century. Henry's dissolution of the monasteries was never intended to "redistribute" wealth, and was certainly not intended to benefit the working class "proletariat". Indeed, the dissolution of the monasteries was so opposed by the general population that it led directly to the Pilgrimage of Grace. Neither was the dissolution intended as some kind of one-sided enrichment of Henry's supporters. Yes, a handful of individuals were given small amounts of former monastic lands and assets, but always as "in kind" compensation for debts owed by the Crown to those recipients. In effect, the Crown reduced its financial liabilities through those few transactions. Far, far more commonly, the Crown sold the lands and assets, inadvertently facilitating the rise of a new class of landowners called the "gentry", or men who had amassed some wealth through labor (as lawyers, merchants, bureaucratic administrators) but who wanted to affect the appearance of non-working "gentlemen" by owning land. But the bottom line is that the dissolution of the monasteries involved one entity, the Crown, seizing the assets of another entity, the Church, solely for the Crown's gain. The Crown "won", the Church lost. And the Crown did not "redistribute" the gains freely, but instead profited greatly by selling, for cash money, those gains.

shtove said...


My main argument is that the tipping point of the Aragon divorce was inevitable not because of dynastic opportunism or theological conviction, but because of economic necessity.

England was a well administered state and its progress didn't depend on the flip of a coin.

In response to PhD, I suppose the gentry thesis is a form of "trickle down" economic theory. That's not so convincing these days, is it?

The redistribution I'm talking about was from one elite to another. In my view the old elite took its social responsibility far more seriously than its successor, and overall the subjects of the crown suffered by the redistribution - Ireland is the main example.

My guess is we're seeing a similar redistribution today, with the bailout of bank creditors & bondholders standing in for the dissolution of the monasteries.

Interesting point about the marxist analysis - that's why it's a juicy debate.

I get back to the point about creditors & debtors, an economic balance that is tipped by lobbying & PR - in Tudor terms, patronage & faction.

Amy said...

There was a pamphlet given to Henry by Anne Boelyn, passed on to her by Cromwell, given to him by Cranmer. Shoot, I can't remember the name of it exactly, but "Princes" was in the title. It gave Henry the idea that kings themselves were divinely appointed and therefore had the same relationship with God that the Pope did. Henry used this notion, which he very likely honestly believe to be true (he didn't see it as a convenient excuse, in other words) to ignore the papal edict and dismiss Catherine of Aragon on grounds of cosanguinity and marry Anne.