The Myth of the English Reformation

The ambiguous nature of the Reformation settlement in England has often taxed historians. Diarmaid MacCulloch casts a critical eye over the evidence for a 16th-century half-way house between Catholic and Protestant.

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke, National Portrait GalleryThe myth of the English Reformation is that it did not happen, or that it happened by accident rather than design, or that it was half-hearted and sought a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism; and the point at issue is the identity of the Church of England. The myth was created in two stages, first in the middle years of the seventeenth century, and then from the third decade of the nineteenth century – in either case, by a, 'High Church' party within the Church: first, the Laudians or Arminians, later the Tractarians or Anglo-Catholics. These parties largely consisted of clergy, with the particular motive of emphasising the structural Catholic continuity of the Church over the break of the Reformation, in order to claim that the true representative of the Catholic Church within the borders of England and Wales was not the minority loyal to the Bishop of Rome, but the Church as by law established in 1559 and 1662. The nineteenth century growth of Anglo-Catholicism amounted to nothing less than an ideological revolution in the Church of England, which involved radically reinterpreting its history.

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