Occasionally a book will come along and shake up everything you have always believed. You harbor false assumptions, because you were taught them and encouraged to believe them, and in you they remain unexamined. Once in a great while if you are lucky and — importantly! — you continue to read books, one of them will slip through your transom and run amok uprooting countless things you securely believed. William Cobbett’s book, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, is such a book for me. I have briefly recounted the life of Mr. Cobbett here in preparation if you don’t know of him. I found his book to be earth-shattering, upending even how I interpret our situation today, and how I greet the morning’s news each day now. What happened during that long, painful process we call the Protestant Reformation was a nasty, mean, cruel business. Evil won. It absolutely did, and this victory persists until this day. We are all much the worse for it.
Set aside the book’s extremely boring title! It is enough to make you pass over it as you peruse through a stack of books. I was turned to it via recommendation, and never would have thought to consider it otherwise. The text is no sober, boring plod through a history. To the contrary, Mr. Cobbett writes in pulpit stemwinder style. However, his style is also reminiscent of the Latinate style more common to 18th century British writers than from 1824, when Cobbett wrote the book. He was a grammarian after all, and these elaborate grammars might be a little challenging to modern readers faced with 400 or more pages of them. But you will get used to it once you get the hang of it! Anyway, Cobbett remains always engaging with the reader, and very often quite comic and entertaining, so this is extremely rewarding.
To Cobbett, the Reformation was a lengthy process that unfolded over hundreds of years. There was not one Protestant Reformation affecting England, there were five. The first was that of King Henry VIII, the next that of Queen Elizabeth, followed by the one we know as the Glorious Revolution, and then the American Revolution, terminating at last in the French Revolution. Cobbett’s view is decidedly English, considering very little of what went on upon the Continent. He covers many episodes mainly in France, and the Spanish Armada, and a few other episodes. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the like do make appearances, but as for the view of things from the Continent? Cobbett leaves that to the continentals.
I have joked elsewhere on forums that what really began the Protestant Revolution was Henry VIII’s girl troubles. Like all good jokes there’s more truth to that than it ought to warrant. Sadly, it is the case! The Protestant Revolution in England really did begin with King Henry VIII’s girl troubles and no other basis for his actions existed whatsoever, despite what anybody might say to the contrary. At that time Britons were everywhere Catholic, as they had been for the previous nine hundred years, and there was little impetus to abandon that anywhere. The king himself had authored a book defending the faith against Martin Luther to wild acclaim and even achieving the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope. Ah, but there was the girl trouble! And the trouble was that King Henry wanted to divorce his 43-year-old wife whom the people adored, Queen Catharine, to marry her 20something hand maid, Anne Boleyn — who was, btw, king’s own illegitimate daughter via an affair. And everybody had problems with that but most of all the pope, who would not sign off on it. And so, from these sordid beginnings, was lit the flame that became the Protestant Revolution. And how differently did the Protestants from the Catholics arrive on the islands? On orders from the pope the Catholics first came to England on boats with a mission to evangelize the island through preaching and living by example, while the Protestants got in the house like girl troubles! Fast forward three hundred years to find these very same Catholics to be a singularly persecuted and maligned minority.
Cobbett traces this incredible saga of a determined and rapacious elite who have undertaken a sustained project that is against the will and the best interests of their own people. And chillingly the elites won. The people are left much impoverished, left bickering and set upon each other, while the moral and social foundation, one that had sustained their fathers and mothers for nearly one thousand years, lies undermined and reviled. That is crushing to consider! Aren’t the good guys always supposed to win out in the end? Doesn’t the cocksure confidence we hear proclaimed always from our evangelicals that “God will always win!” apply at least to religion itself? For in the business of the Protestant Reformation, as William Cobbett reveals undeniability, the evil ones prevailed. Cobbett paints shocking portraits of all the major players. Everybody knows that Henry the Wife Killer was always a problem, and boy was he ever, but he’s not more tyrannical than just about every other player involved (including non-regents!). You will see the ugly side of Queen Elizabeth, for example, and it is not a pretty sight. Much of what Cobbett reveals is simply not covered, glossed, or unmentioned altogether in the standard educations of today.
For example, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was made the Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry the Wife Killer and immediately emerged as a lying scoundrel and monster almost without parallel in human history. He conducted a reign of terror for thirty years under three regents until Queen Mary mercifully gave him a taste of his own medicine and burned him at the stake for his shocking litany of crimes. At first Cranmer burned Protestants at the stake. Then for a time he bundled them in twos, Catholic and Protestant in one hurdle on their way to perish together the flames. And then at last only Catholics. Yet Wikipedia finds this to say: “Both sides [Protestant and Catholic] can agree in seeing Cranmer as a committed scholar whose life showed the strengths and weaknesses of a very human and often under-appreciated reformer.” O can we? What? You see, this is what we face: people drawing smiley-faces on indefensible evil. Well I guess you could say that at any given point in his long career, there wasn’t anybody Cranmer wouldn’t consign to the flames, as long as it advantaged Cranmer. So there is a sort of an equanimity to be found! This is what we are dealing with and continue to deal with. The victors write the histories and they do tend to absolve their side.
Of course we must always put things in context. If it is possible in the first place to lead an unblemished life, how much harder is that to do as king, or queen, or president? Or as some kind of attendant in these realms? Jesus Himself observed about the eyes of needles and camels, making the point perhaps that the crush of worldly concerns and delights, all those things that money and power carry with them, weigh against the prospects of living a just life. What else could explain this wild assortment of scoundrels that we have here surrounding this Protestant Reformation? Everybody has heard about Queen Mary, aka “Bloody Mary”, the Catholic daughter of King Henry the Wife Killer who sought to undo the damage her father’s evil had done. Mary burned 200+ knaves alive at the stake in the fabled Fires of Smithfield, providing the rationale behind the sobriquet of Bloody Mary. Would that any of the fiends in the Reformation’s Dramatis Personae had executed so few! But no, Mary is called Bloody Mary while her half-sister and successor, Queen Elizabeth I, is called “Good Queen Bess.” Cobbett marvels, as I do, about how he was taught as a boy about the mighty deeds and heroic goodness of Good Queen Bess and the dark ignominy of Bloody Mary, when all that melts away the very moment the first light of inspection shines on it. For Queen Elizabeth was a wicked monster, and Mary shed the least blood of any regent from her era. If I had to face any of the foul demons from the catalogue of female monsters and I had my pick, I’d pick Grendel’s Mother over that evil Queen Bess. Pick an opponent with some honor!
Inversions like this everywhere were the order of the day in the Reformation, and staggering hypocrisies. Cobbett’s take on the Glorious Revolution has to be the most shocking inversion he chronicles. Here we have a rightful English king, James II, the last Catholic king of England, who was dethroned and run out of England as William and Mary, who were Dutch Protestants, were installed on the throne. Now, what was this business all along about the true danger of the papacy? A Catholic, you see, is a man of divided loyalties and therefore suspect, because where is his allegiance? Is it to the pope or to his country? Why, at any moment the papists might run off a rightful English king and … install a Dutchman??? The engineers of the Glorious Revolution indeed had a mighty problem on their hands, so they ginned up a war to fix it, a war upon France since that is where King James fled. Didn’t matter who won, it only mattered to have the war. It was used for internal English purposes. This was pure manipulation by the elites, and it sealed the deal destroying the English monarchy (James is not only the last Catholic king England has ever had, he is also the last from a royal English line). Worse, and critically, the war was also the excuse to introduce usury finance and the Bank of England. At last, the fait accompli!
Cobbett is incisive about the psychology of a gnawing problem. How to explain the extreme prejudice that persists against Catholics? He observed that in his day you might be a Methodist or a Presbyterian, or a Quaker, or even a Jew who is not a Christian by any name, and face scant to no persecution. English Catholics were carved out for a special, particular animus, why? His brilliant insight is that the Catholics were the ones the crown robbed outright, and that is your explanation. If you rob a man and he knows you did, you have a big problem in him. You could beg forgiveness, but this would acknowledge your crimes. You could restore what you have taken, but this also acknowledges your crimes. Or you could just keep him beaten and powerless in submission and maybe even destroy him — and that is what happened.
Cobbett frequently references a concept that sounds a bit alien to us, that of “natural leadership”. He spends very little time explaining the particulars of it, it was a topic that he had written about at length elsewhere (I’m told). It was also not uniquely his idea. John Adams, for example, wrote of it as did many others from that era. I don’t know where the natural leadership idea came from, or where to look for exposition on it. It’s a concept that seems a piece with the natural rights discussions we find stemming from Descartes, Rousseau, Locke, et al., but a topic that’s fallen out of purview and fashion. The concept revolves around the question of who is going to represent and advance the interests of a group of people. I guess Modern Man, Evolved! thinks he has that figured out and the answer is whomever he elects to Congress or Parliament or whatnot. So the matter is simply a settled one and therefore not considered much anymore. Cobbett, who was a member of Parliament for a time, did not think the matter was “in the Done Bucket”. He used to rail against the absenteeship of lords on the basis that this deprived the locals of their natural leadership, a necessary function for the health of the community. To Cobbett one of the greatest tragedies of the Reformation was that it deprived the people of a large measure of their natural leadership. Not only did it remove the functions of the clergy and the church from the lands, but it also quite often established absentee lords in their stead.
Before the Reformation, every county in England had churches, monasteries, and abbeys, church hospitals, chapels, schools. Each one of these institutions had lands by which a considerable number of the people lived as tenants. The church made a good landlord, her rents were low and they were also stable. A new abbot did not come with fears that a new lord naturally brought! A maxim of the day was, “It’s better to be governed by the bishop’s crosier than the monarch’s scepter!” Furthermore, if you had a need or an issue the abbot or the priest was on-hand and accessible. And critically, the great majority of the funds that the church did collect were spent locally. The church provided schools for the children, care for the sick, aid for the poor. The crown and the nobles did none of this! You sent your payments off you lord and your never saw benefits, meanwhile the church was investing in your parish. Never in England at any time were you more than five miles away from help, from sanctuary, from a meal or from shelter. England did not have her infamous Poor Laws and her workhouses before the Reformation. No need existed! She was also more populous.
Look at that picture above, it is the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in York. This was one of the grandest abbeys on the isle. Thomas Cromwell, a monster of King Henry the Wife Killer, dissolved that abbey, robbed it, and blew it to smithereens with gunpowder. I don’t know who came into possession of the remains, it may have been Cromwell himself or some other droogie of the king. But whoever it was that took possession probably raised rents as an absentee landlord and never even came to know the people, for that was the pattern. The monks were beggared; church, hospital and schoolrooms blown up — and the books and records! That abbey possessed 750 or so manuscripts carefully guarded through the ages by the monks. Only 35 of them remain, the rest disappearing and unknown to us. And the local records also lost. One function of the monasteries and abbeys was as a repository of local registers. Births, deaths, real estate transactions, taxes — records of names and events in the lives of a people. Blown to smithereens! This was the pattern all over the land. This was the Reformation, folks.
It was a money grab, foremost, an outright robbery that impoverished the people and enriched the nobles who joined with the corrupt monarchs. Oh, but what about the theology? The theses on the door, and the indulgences, the idolatries, the no less than five sola’s (explain to me why there are five SOLAs, btw?) and whatever else? Well why indeed did nobody notice that while the learned doctors were arguing about where to put the altar, that the king was making off with it? Welcome to 16th century PsyOps. It was the money, honey.
England made her deal with the Devil. She got her usury-backed modern finance to fund her bloody British Empire. And that is the worst thing that ever happened to her people, maybe to all the people of the West as a whole.