Learning from the Early English Reformation 1531-1606

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                               6 August 2019

The Transfiguration


“From these few representative instances [of “the propaganda of falsehood”], Catholics may perhaps better appreciate the very great handicap from which Protestants suffer when they come to consider the story of the Reformation in England. The surprise is not that so few come to the facts of it but that so many have had the pertinacity to unearth the truth, embedded under centuries-hard layers of propaganda, and, in finding it, have found also the courage to admit they have been cozened.” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), page 31—my emphasis added).


“That [14th and 15th century variegated heretical] dualism…, in one form or another, may be described as the heresy against which the Church has had to struggle from its foundation until today [1957]. The essence of dualism, however the emphasis varies, is a denial of the reality of the Incarnation. By asserting the inherent wickedness of ‘matter,’ of ‘the flesh,’ it continues to separate what Christ united….It denies the first premiss of Christianity—that God became Flesh….It has flourished as the eternal and subtle enemy of the central Christian truth, with which no compromise is possible.” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), pages 32-33—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added).


The legend [about Catholics as “rebellious, treacherous hypocrites with alien sympathies”—quoting the Elizabethan Act of 1593] still persists [as of 1957], for in spite of its demonstrable and demonstrated falsity, it is to this day repeated, taught, and officially insisted on in non-Catholic schools and universities. And it will die only when sufficient numbers of people come to realize what, in cold fact, the Reformation in England was—the imposition of a foreign religion to justify an economic revolution, set in motion by the lust of a bad Catholic king [“a simple conflict between loyalty and lust—and loyalty lost” (42)] who made himself and his successors the Spiritual Heads of a new State Church [“an Erastian State” (46)].” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), pages 104-105—my emphasis added).


After just receiving an initial invitation to an upcoming autumn conference in Europe concerning “The French Revolution, 230 Years Later—A Critical Review,” I could not but wonder what my limited abilities could contribute to such a two-day gathering.

Although my French is very weak and incomplete, I first thought of presenting a few things on the French historian Augustin Cochin (d. 1916) and his seminal insights about the French Revolution and the influential power of certain forms of conflicting oligarchies.

For, Cochin’s writings have been found very worthwhile by such varied and deeply reflective men as François Furet, Arnaud de Lassus, James Burnham, and Igor Shafarevich. Cochin even understood what Léon de Poncins has called “civil wars within the revolution” and hence amongst its conflicting and contending oligarchs: concurrently engaged in both the “fast path” and “the slow path” of the revolution.

However, a prominent French traditional Catholic scholar and author—my beloved mentor Arnaud de Lassus—freshly provides for us, I think, a more fitting and much more manageable consideration. For, he himself belatedly came to see the importance of the earlier sixteenth-and-seventeenth century English Revolution, and especially its religious and political influence upon the French Revolution. For example, he once memorably said to me modestly and quietly in his home—just after he had finished reading Hugh Ross Williamson’s short and lucid 1957 book, The Beginning of the English Reformation1—that he had regrettably never, until then, realized just how important the English Revolution was in history, even for the better understanding of the French Revolution. He therefore inspired me to re-read, at least twice, my own 1957 copy of H.R. Williamson’s book. Each time I read it, I was gratefully to learn more and more about true history, instead of the specious “propaganda of falsehood.”

If I could now do so, as well, I would send a copy of that book to all of the conference attendees so that they might attentively read this incisive and fair-minded English-language book, and accomplish the reading before the fall conference itself begins. The progressive analogies and proportions of Williamson’s text will be a helpful searchlight to grasp the roots and purposes of the policies and methods and permanent targets of the incipient and maturing French Revolution. Williamson’s book would become for us a more convincingly formative and understandable work of research, one that is timely as well as timeless.

By considering the concrete life span of a seventy-five-year old man (1531-1606) with all of its tumultuous (and tragic) changes, Williamson again and again helps us to see and feel the scale and proportion of the losses to the Catholic faithful in England. His vivid supporting evidence and stories even frequently shake the heart. We again wonder about the mysteries of the Permissive Will of God Triune and Incarnate.

Given his fairness and integrity, Williamson (himself a Catholic) presents the weaknesses and corresponding vulnerability of the Tudor Catholics. For example, he says early in the book:

Thus, in England, the Protestant triumph was made possible by the failure of Tudor Catholics to fulfil their faith. Three sentences will serve as [an] epitome. Saint John Fisher said to his fellow bishops: “The fort is betrayed even of them which should have defended it.” Saint Thomas More described the English priests as “a weak clergy lacking grace constantly to stand to their learning.” And for the [Catholic] laity the Duke of Bedford may be spokesman when he [sacrilegiously] refused to return the plundered property of the Church but threw his Rosary into the fire saying that, much as he loved it, he loved his “sweet Abbey of Woburn” more.

The Reformation in England was made possible by the existence of fear, weakness and self-seeking in the very places, where, above all, one might have expected courage, strength and loyalty. No estimate of it which denies or minimizes this can pretend to accuracy. (6—my emphasis added)

From another perspective, Williamson also shows us a later passage about the reaction and public witness of the Tudor Catholics, in general:

So the prologue [to the deeper revolution] ended. The breach with Rome was effected….The lack of effective opposition to it—as was mentioned at the beginning of this essay—was due to the cowardice, self-interest and blindness of the Catholic hierarchy, clergy, and laity, in whose defense it can only be said that the issues, as presented to them, were technical rather than religious. “Religion,” in the sense in which the term is popularly used, was not in question, though, with [the artful heretic and prose master Thomas] Cranmer in command, the new Continental doctrines were soon to be brought in to buttress the new English Church the king [Henry VIII] had created and to justify the revolution now about to begin. (46-47—my emphasis added)

At this point it will be helpful to consider that, “doctrinally speaking” (37), there were “two distinct streams of heresy” (37), namely:

The older [stream], associated with the “Anabaptists,” attacked the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (the Unitarians and the Quakers are the most logical of the “Anabaptists” of today) and was abhorrent equally to Catholicism and to “orthodox” Protestantism. The second [stream of heresy], embodying “advanced” Continental speculations, professed to keep the main Christian doctrines, but so interpreted them as to destroy their true meaning, and specifically denied beliefs, such as the invocation of saints and the existence of purgatory, which resulted in practices of piety and charity inconvenient to secular policy [and power!]. But the crucial issue of the Reformation in England was something apart from these. From the beginning it was and to this day for Anglicans [in 1957] it has remained the [Erastian] State’s jurisdiction over the Church in spiritual mattersthe substitution of the monarch for the Pope. (37—my emphasis added).

However, it had once been known and accepted in pre-Reformation England that “no temporal act can make a temporal man have spiritual jurisdiction.” (12) (We face such disputed matters today, as well, also the permanent difficulty about mixed and overlapping jurisdictions—“the Mixta.”)

Moreover, traditionally and abidingly it has been so that we give “a central position in the Christian faith to what is sometimes known as the Great Prayer of the Church, though more usually referred to as the Canon of the Mass.” (19—my emphasis added)

Williamson also shows us that the “The Great Pillage [of the Church institutions and property] …continued methodically and ruthlessly [the looting and plundering] from the winter of 1537 to the spring of 1540.” (55) Earlier, in 1535, the loyal uprising of the Pilgrimage of Grace took place, but it was met with destructive force, as foreign mercenaries were also later again to be regularly employed, as happened in 1549 against those who resisted the sudden infliction of Thomas Cranmer’s doctrinally skewed new Prayer Book, which was widely imposed on 9 June 1549—on Whitsunday:

The royal forces, five thousand strong, with a core of fifteen hundred mercenaries, veteran Italian infantry and German cavalry, finally defeated them [the uprisen peasants and others] outside of Exeter. “The killing was indiscriminate; 4000 were shot down or ridden down or hanged before the men of Devon would accept, without enthusiasm, the exquisite prose of Cranmer.” (69—my emphasis added) (These latter-quoted and slightly ironic, understated words were those of Hilaire Belloc himself, who also wrote an honorably fair-minded, lengthy book on Cranmer.)

During the brief reign (beginning in July of 1553) of Queen Mary Tudor (d. November of 1558), a well organized and financed migration to Continental Europe started in mid-1553:

The movement was financed by Protestant bankers and merchants, of whom forty eventually took part in the exodus, while in London, as early as the December of 1553, there was a directing committee of twenty-six persons of wealth and influence known as “Sustainers.” In charge of the [strategic] scheme abroad was [William] Cecil’s brother-in-law [and many others besides, including Protestant bishops!]. (78)

In so many ways—which we do not have space and faculties to consider now—the faithful Catholic Queen Regnant, Mary Tudor, was a truly tragic figure, even in her choice of close advisors when she was often so isolated herself. Williamson forcefully confirms that point when “the situation was beyond retrieving” (84), as he saw it:

The varied human vileness” is not too strong a description of Mary’s councillors. Several of them had been the very men who, in her father’s [Henry VIII’s] day, had trimmed their sails to his policies; of the laymen, nearly all had made fortunes out of the dissolution of the monasteries; even Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor, the best and most honest of them, had been an opponent of More and Fisher and had publicly upheld the supremacy of the State over the Church. (84—my emphasis added)


After the death of Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I’s reign then began, when she was only twenty-five, and she was to reign for forty-five years (1558-1603). She had a continuity of policy and of competent advisors (such as William Cecil and his son Robert) and she had much help from them in order to safeguard her own rule into the early seventeenth century.

If we were to have the sufficient qualities to do so, we should next promptly take a closer look at the continuation of the English Reformation into the ongoing Revolution throughout the entire seventeenth century, at least up to the effective deposition of the last Catholic (and Stuart ) King, James II, as part of the purported “Glorious Revolution.”

In this troubled seventeenth century we would certainly find even more influences upon what would become the secular-naturalistic Enlightenment and the acts of the French Revolution. We would thereby learn much more about overt and veiled oligarchies and the often unaccountable, but well organized, “money power.” As Arnaud de Lassus taught me, there were even keen conflicts in France between the financiers of the Girondins and the financiers of the Jacobins—an instance and example of those “civil wars within the Revolution.” Here, too, I have so much more to learn.

As we come to the end of our current reflections—and as we make a few further recommendations—we shall again recall the framework of seventy-five years (1531-1603) which Hugh Ross Williamson “took as defining the period of the Reformation—from the first guarded Oath of Supremacy in 1531 to the [quite specifically anti-Catholic] penal legislation imposing a sacramental test in 1606.” (95) This period ended three years after Elizabeth I’s grim, fearsome, and still haunting death.

But the English Revolution itself was to continue into, and throughout, the seventeenth century and afterwards. Scholars of the French Revolution will still find that further studies of the English Reformation and the complementary, ongoing English Revolution will provide a proportionate enhancement of our larger historical and theological understanding. (Montesquieu and Voltaire themselves seem likely and largely to have learned much from their English studies, experiences and time in England, although I do not yet know their specific personal and intellectual associations while receptively accepting British hospitality.)

Our own further research should certainly include our attentive reading of the French historian, Augustin Cochin, who as a young man was killed on the battlefield in World War I, in 1916. His writings, many of them posthumously published, show his deep and strategic understanding of small and well-organized philosophic groups (or societies). This matter constitutes part of his larger understanding of both open and concealed oligarchies, especially those who help to subvert the Catholic Faith and the traditional Catholic Church, especially the sacrificing, sacramental priesthood.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1957). This very small book contains 103 pages of text, and then 7 pages of endnotes-references. The main contents are presented in three major sections: Introduction; The Course of the Revolution; and Epilogue: The Half-Century of Settlement. The Introduction (pp. 3-47) is subdivided, as follows: What It [The Reformation] Was; Why It is Misunderstood; The Existence of Heresy; and The Crucial Issue. Further page references to this book will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

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