A message from Father Nick 97

Pilgrimage of grace banner

In the furore over BREXIT, it was striking to see how both sides understood the issue. For one side, this was an assertion of national sovereignty comparable to the English Reformation. Professor David Starkey and Nigel Farage among others spoke approvingly of Henry VIII as being the first Brexiteer. Even Ian Duncan Smith, a Catholic, invoked the English Reformation as a model to be followed.

Nothing, of course, is quite so simple. English Reformers too were following European Protestant scholarship. But such comparisons remind us of the way that myths can grow. Thomas Cromwell, himself imbued with European Protestantism, set out to cultivate a sense of Englishness defined by its opposition to Rome. In this understanding, Rome and its rituals had been a source of oppression for honest English men and women, who were already protestant by nature. Now those same men and women could at last be both Christian and free.

Some such idea is still held by many today, but Eamon Duffy in his book The Stripping of the Altars shows its essential untruth. Rather than being an instrument of oppression, the rituals of Catholic faith had supported a much-loved way of life. It was their enforced removal that caused most resentment among British people.

That resentment took many forms, from simple complaint to outright rebellion. In 1536 -7, the so-called “Pilgrimage of Grace” ignited the North of England and came very close to toppling Henry VIII from his throne. Tens of thousands rose in opposition to the new religious policy. They detested Thomas Cromwell and were furious at his suppression of the monasteries. Led by Robert Aske, a lawyer, they took as their standard the banner of Christ’s five wounds, a popular Catholic devotion.

Faced by a show of real strength, Henry was forced to come to terms with the rebels, offering them pardon and inviting Aske to discuss with him the people’s grievances. Aske was even persuaded to spend Christmas with the king at Greenwich palace, where he blamed “a tyrant named Cromwell” for the changes which had so upset his people. Henry pretended to agree, but soon broke his word. Aske’s protection was removed. He was brought before Cromwell for examination, and he and his fellow leaders were hanged, drawn and quartered. The victory was Cromwell’s.

And Cromwell got to tell the story. His version of Englishness came to prevail. This is what Edwin Jones calls the “Great Myth”, and its basis is simple. Cromwell’s assertion of England’s “true” (protestant) nature became a foundation on which later historians continued to build without examining its historical accuracy. As Jones points out, not until John Lingard (1771-1851) did a historian emerge in England who was prepared and able to examine the Reformation in a wider context. Lingard’s stated principle was to take nothing on credit from previous writers but to go back to the original sources, from which he would write the history of his country’s past. “My object,” he said, “is truth; and in the pursuit of truth I have made it a religious duty to consult the original historians.

This took him to previously unused manuscripts and to unexplored European archives, greatly expanding his sources of information. Quintessentially English, John Lingard marks a turning-point in the reading of British history.

He is better known to us as the writer of Hail Queen of Heaven.