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