The story of the Reformation needs reforming

For five centuries England has been in denial about the role of Roman Catholicism in shaping it. The coin in your pocket declares the monarch to be Defender of the Faith. Since 1558 that has meant the Protestant faith, but Henry VIII actually got the title from the Pope for defending Catholicism against Luther. Henry eventually broke with Rome because the Pope refused him a divorce, and along with the papacy went saints, pilgrimage, the monastic life, eventually even the Mass itself – the pillars of medieval Christianity.

To explain that revolution, the Protestant reformers told a story. Henry had rejected not the Catholic Church, but a corrupt pseudo-Christianity which had led the world astray. John Foxe embodied this story unforgettably in his Book of Martyrs, subsidised by the Elizabethan government as propaganda against Catholicism at home and abroad. For Foxe, Queen Elizabeth was her country’s saviour, and the Reformation itself the climax of an age-old struggle between God, represented by the monarch, and the devil, represented by the Pope.


Eamon Duffy is a good historian; I’ve got a couple of his books. STRIPPING OF THE ALTARS is particularly good.

But he passes over a point or two with respect to Henry VIII and the title, here. The title of Defensor Fidei was given to Henry by Leo X, for reasons more complex than merely the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum), as suggested. An interesting story that I’ve posted here more than once.

And the title the British monarch bears today, the same words, Defensor Fidei, are not actually the same title that Leo gave to Hank. Pope Paul III revoked that after Henry’s break. Parliament put it back, Mary took it off, Elizabeth restored it and this went on for a while, through the Protectorate and the Restoration. The title now attached to the Throne (it was not even originally hereditary, when Leo presented it to Henry) is there by fiat of the British Parliament.

History is complex, and interesting. Especially complex.


There is probably more political intrigue involved in the Reformation. Greed for wealth and power and land is almost always a factor between noblemen. Those were hard times and princes and noblemen were wealing and dealing. And from the knowledge of money, it corrupts. I wish someone would show how this influenced the Reformation.

Just a thought.

History is always written by the winner.

4 centuries it remains to be seen who is the winner;)

Haven’t read the book, but you might want to check out “How the Reformation Happened” by Hilaire Belloc. The author died in 1953, and was a stauch Catholic.

I was surprised but the history as told by the Children of the Reformation, Protestant who had nothing to Protest about but who must justify their ancestors’ decisions.
Never heard so much deturpation of history and so much insult to the RCC as hearing history as told by the Children of Reformation.
It seems they live in another world where scientific history does not count and you may invent whatever reason you feel like good to justify the Reformation that that reason is true. Insult based on the Bible like calling the RCC the “whore of Babylon” is a christian insult I never thought.

On the other hand, they seem to hate Henry VIII in silence but still the Queen is the head of the Anglican Church and God knows, Camilla Parker-Bowles will have a high seat. … . I do not envy the Children of Reformation having to undo such a mess of 30 thousand Churches…

I will if I can find it.


IMHO one of the most unfortunate things to occur in the spread and development of Christianity was when the Pope became, not only a spiritual leader but a temporal one.
This occurred during the waning days of the old Roman Empire and wound up embroiling the papacy in all sorts of “less than holy” situations…
This was just as true at the time of the reformation - and you are completely right in saying that there was a lot of politics involved…and on both sides…


Another book by Belloc was Charaters of the Reformation, which profiled the key people involved. A very good read.

Or one could read the pertinent sections of volumes 3 and 4 of his A HISTORY OF ENGLAND. Or his books on Elizabeth, Wolsey or Cranmer. Or other stuff. If all one wants is Belloc’s take on the period.


The article appears to communicate the idea that Catholics haven’t had a fair chance to write England’s history, though the author dearly wishes that can change. The closing lines are especially telling.

The tetrarchy was especially key, particularly when the tetrarchs were moved from central locations to places closer to the frontier of the Empire. It created a political power vacuum in the city of Rome, and guess who filled it.

During the Reformation, it’s not at all surprising to see the same sorts of messiness on both sides. Same people, same places, everyone even had the same religion initially. Let’s not forget that the Reformers all started out as Catholics living in Catholic countries, and many held onto a fairly realistic hope of some type of reconciliation nearly a century after the fact. It took some time for the real drift and polarization to happen.

Good to see this truth finally being outed.

The level of vitriol and hate on the comments section on the newspaper’s website are depressingly unsurprising.

Did you grow up under the English education system? Under the National Curriculum, at least when I and many people younger than me went through, we cover the Tudors as a ‘topic’ in primary school, and then cover them again at least once in History lessons in secondary school.

When I did the Tudors in a Catholic primary school, the teacher (bless her) ensured that we learnt things like priest holes, and the Pilgrimage of Grace, and stories of congregations trying to preserve their churches from iconoclasts, and secret Masses, and so on. The narrative was very much that a small elite were imposing a change on the population, with force, and that the changes had little to do with what the main population actually believed at the time.

When we got to that bit in the History curriculum at my secondary school (not Catholic), the textbook seemed to be going with the narrative that ‘the people’ had been pushing for change, and that Henry VIII whole divorce thing just conveniently aligned with changes that everyone wanted anyway. It very briefly touched on priest holes (in that they exist), but none of the rest of it. Lots of Bloody Mary, Edward VI seemed to be less sickly and young with Protestant advisers in this account, and Hooray Elizabeth I for navigating a peaceful middle way (no mention of additional martyrs). Lots of stuff about corrupt monasteries, but to be fair we also learnt that Henry VIII was selling them off because he needed money, and that doing so removed a vital piece of support for many poor.

And my history teacher did have the grace to look embarrased by the account in the text book, at times, and gave me decent marks for my somewhat scathing essays. But it doesn’t change that if I had been relying on those lessons for my knowledge of the period, I would have got only that old-fashioned “Hooray for the Church of England” account. We also seemed to cover a topic in RS (Religious Studies) that I can only think was secretly headed “Why the Irish are pissed off with England”, which covered a certain amount of stuff mysteriously absent from our History lessons.

To this day, if you visit many ruined abbeys and monasteries, you will find the little information boards put up next to them tell you that the monasteries were corrupt and people complained, and so Henry VIiI kindly shut them down.

All history is a kind of storytelling, and there will always be a bias, but it does seem off that the standard narrative told in this country still has so many remnants from the days when Catholics were the default enemy, that it skips mentioning several quite important things (if you never learn about the recusants and the smuggling and martyring of priests, several later events make less sense), that it is so rigidly Whiggish, and that it is often told in a way that exaggerates and demonises a faith held by 10% of the pupils.

Well history with spin isn’t new revelation, actually its common and we should expect it.

TAN books reprinted in in farily recent memory, so it is either still available new or should be readily available used.

I’d like to note that it is NOT just history in England that is tainted by the Black Legend version of catholicism, it is history in the entire English speaking world!

I went to catholic schools through 8th grade, then public thereafter and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how thoroughly false my impression was of the nature and character of the Spanish conquistadors versus the English colonizers. The impression English speakers everywhere are given are that the Spanish were brutal and genocidal whereas the English had their conflicts with the natives, but generally preferred trade and peaceful settlement to war.

Historians may largely still mouth that line, but the facts on the ground say otherwise. I’ve lived in the USA my entire life and can’t say I’ve personally met more than a dozen people with noticeable Native American features (not counting trips to reservation areas). When I went on a mission trip to Bolivia, it didn’t take long to realize that the natives there are still the vast majority of the country! They mostly still even speak their pre-spanish languages. Pre-Columbus, both North and South America had large native populations across the entire continent. In South America, they may have been exploited, but they are still there. In North America, they were systematically hunted almost to extinction by the English, and then their rebellious offspring country (that would be us). But the catholic Spanish were homocidal maniacs and the protestant English peaceful settlers. Right… :rolleyes:

The Black Legend is alive and well. I suspect history in English speaking countries is filled with distortions and deceptions like this one.

The winner of course is the Roman Catholic Church.
With 30 thousand Protestant Church, you hardly see the winner in the crowd.
Moreover, let’s forget the winner. There are facts:
*]Henry the VIII was not monogamous.
*]He became the Head of Anglicanism.
*]Calvin preached such and such
*]Luther nailed so many thesis on the door of a Church.

and so on.

Those are facts. In History, I like facts. The conclusions of the Author I can read but it remains his conclusions. I like History made of facts from which I can take my conclusion.

I like facts in history too. And there are lots of them to like.


I was lucky enough to learn a more honest form of history. My AP European History teacher in high school was a devout Irish Catholic and he used some of the examples you did and largely dispelled the “Black Legend” for what it was, exaggerated propaganda. For the Tudor period we learned about the priest-holes, the pilgrimage of grace, how the reformation in England was top-down and not bottom-up, etc.

All the Catholics in the class loved him, but many of the Fundamentalists (and yes they were fundamentalists) eventually dropped the class, most during the Reformation unit since he focused on Protestant atrocities and abuses and not just Catholic ones. In fact now that I think about it by the end of the semester that class was about 90% Catholic in a town that only has about a 1% Catholic population.

Overall it was a nice change since I had grown up with the “Protestantism the Liberator of the People” narrative being fed to me in school.

Hi JustaServant,
As an Anglican, I haven’t forgotten our Catholic roots. Anglo Catholics in the Anglican Communion are often sternly criticized by more “Reformed” Anglicans for our close connection to Catholicism. I discovered this quite unexpectedly on an Anglican Forum I’ve been involved with lately.


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