A Reformation from Above

‘‘Nobody can tell me absolutely that that’s the way it was because they don’t know. It’s all guesswork.” Jonathan Rhys Meyers on recreating the Henrician Reformation in The Tudors.

Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) from ‘The Tudors’.

A Reformation from Above

In 2007 The Tudors  was aired on Showtime and the historical drama quickly gained international applause. The show aimed at retelling the infamous reign of King Henry VIII and the beginning of the English Reformation. And yet while the show was littered with historical inaccuracies, it importantly weighed into an ongoing historical debate as to whether the Henrician Reformation was a top down or bottom up reformation. The show argued, through the central plotline of the dealings within the court of Henry VIII, that the Henrician Reformation was enacted and controlled from the top down. This decision by the writers and directors to reflect this historical analysis is significant as it captivates audiences and educates the wider public. So as Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) proclaims in the opening credits of The Tudors let’s “go back to the beginning” and find where this debate originates from and what history has revealed.

Henry VIII (1540). A distinctly more robust man than ‘The Tudors’ depicts.

In 1531 Thomas Cromwell wrote an urgent letter to an English merchant warning him to immediately cut ties with the Protestant William Tyndale. Cromwell and evangelicals in court had persuaded the king to receive Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament but after reading Tyndale’s views Cromwell writes that the king was enraged. Yet by 1534 Henry VIII would enact radical reform and usher in Protestant laws, divorce Queen Katherine, marry the Protestant Anne Boleyn, controversially split from the Catholic Church and reside as the “supreme head of the Church of England”. And it is in these revolutionary acts that The Tudors centres itself and aims to answer the question of who brought about the reformation. However for The Tudors to achieve this they had to consult historians and review the top down versus bottom up debate.

Bottom Up

The bottom up argument to the Henrician Reformation first surfaced when A.G. Dickens published his groundbreaking text, The English Reformation in 1964. Dickens sought to prove, through his unprecedented research into the lower classes of England, that it was the laity and common people who demanded reform. Dickens argued that Protestantism had been swelling in England for centuries due to Lollard support and that by the 1530s popular Protestant theology from the Lutheran Reformation forced Henry VIII to make changes.

Top Down

The top down argument came after historians reviewed Dickens’s The English Reformation and contrasted his claims with letters, propaganda pamphlets and documents written at the time of Henry’s reign. What I found to be the most significant argument against the bottom up theory came in the statistic that, during Henry VIII’s  reign, seventy per cent of men and ninety per cent of women in England were illiterate.[1]  This statistic is significant for if the English people were calling for reform they would need to read and understand Protestant theology as it was not taught in churches until enforced from above. The Protestant English Bible, which Archbishop Cranmer and Chancellor Cromwell circulated throughout the realm, was slow in converting people as they could not read and had strong ties to the Catholic Church. This top down reform would then be recorded as Cromwell implemented widespread educational changes and forced clergy to teach the English Bible. The bottom up theory is also called into question when The Pilgrimmage of Grace, which The Tudors devotes a number of episodes to, is reviewed. The Pilgrimmage was a series of protests where up to 20,000 common people from the north protested against Chancellor Cromwell’s closing of monasteries and religious houses. The Pilgrimmage calls into question both the common people’s beliefs and what they desired, as it was a protest supporting the Catholic Church’s presence and standing within rural England.

The top down argument ends as the The Tudors does by examining the conservative court faction which won over the favour of the king following the beheading of Chancellor Cromwell in 1540. After Cromwell’s fall from grace the conservative faction passed the Act of Six Articles which repealed Protestant laws and beliefs and re-established conservative Catholic laws. The reformation was now on life-support and would fall to its knees and await the succession of Henry’s son in 1547.

The Impact On the Twenty-First Century

Few would think that an academic debate amongst historians would become anything more than a dry and dreary page turner. Yet it is this debate which has allowed television shows and novels, such as The Tudors (2007-2010) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolfhall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012) to be created and enjoyed. The top down versus bottom up debate surrounding the Henrician Reformation continues to inspire and captivate, whether it’s through a historian’s pen or a director’s script.

Hilary Mantel accepting the 2012 Man Booker Prize for her new novel ‘Bring Up The Bodies’.

Futher Reading

Cromwell, Thomas. Thomas Cromwell on Church and Commonwealth:
Selected Letters, 1523-1540.
Edited by Arthur J. Slavin. New York: Harper

Torchbooks, 1969.

Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. Second Edition. London: BT Batsford, 1989.

Elton, G.R. Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558.
London: Edward Arnold, 1977.

Haigh, Christopher. The English Reformation Revised.
Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990.

Scarisbrick, J.J. The Reformation and the English People.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

[1] Christopher Haigh, The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990),213.

3 comments on “A Reformation from Above

  1. maddielb says:

    Unless one was there at the time, one cannot be absolutely certain of all the circumstances surrounding a particular event. It is clear that there are a great deal of sources which support to the top down theory, but no so many to support the bottom up theory. Are there any other historians/sources which support a bottom up religious reformation?

    As you note, most historians have questioned the bottom up theory because of the lack of illiteracy within the lower classes – did A.G. Dickens have anything to say for/against this in his text?

    A well written article. The links to the Youtube clip/IMDB allowed for further follow up and to visualise what was being written about. The use of headings allowed for the easy separation/distinction between the two theories.
    Well done.

    • I absolutely agree. I grinned when I first read Meyers’s quote. It is not in a Hollywood script where he will find primary sources! I suppose he’s defending his show and its… creative… retelling of the history.

      There are a lot more historians who lean towards a top down reformation but what is interesting is to also debate what kind of top down reformation was it. I found from the primary sources I read that it was a slow and shaky top down reformation – whereas many top down historians have said that it was fast and methodical. So this is such a complex topic that historians from the same camp even debate.
      The key bottom up historian is A.G. Dickens. Despite my disagreement with him he is a leading historian in the English Reformation and his writings are very good. There are other historians who argue the bottom up theory and John Foxe would be the oldest as he lived in the 16th century. It is in Foxe that Dickens finds a real mate, but it is worth pointing out that I think Foxe was a protestant who really wanted to glorify the protestant effort. After Foxe there are a number of others who will draw similarities to Dickens but no one did the research which Dickens did (the most frustrating thing though is that Dickens doesn’t say where the research was found or anything, he just uses quotes and what not!).

      Yes, Dickens certainly had a lot to say about his text, ‘The English Reformation’ which was first published in 1964. He wrote a revised second edition which came out in 1989 and in which he defended his argument. The key issues I have with Dickens is that he uses one or two examples of lower classmen who wanted protestant reform and then claims whole towns or areas wanted it and supported the Lollard movement… he clutches and can’t show proof. But Dickens does have a long list of published texts, his second edition of ‘The English Reformation’ is probably the best to check out though.

      Thanks very much for your feedback and questions! 😀

  2. Kate Fullagar says:

    the guesswork quote is gold.

    well done, cameron.

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