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Religious Change and the Laity in England

Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke look at the ways ordinary people responded to  religious changes within their places of worship from the Reformation to the Restoration.

According to one very influential modern view of the Reformation era, the heart was ripped out of English popular religion by the measures introduced under Edward VI (r.1547-53) and Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603), when altars and images were destroyed and the Catholic mass was abolished. This is Eamon Duffy’s argument in his famous book The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the findings of which have been broadly endorsed by Christopher Haigh and Ronald Hutton among others; in their view the Reformation was imposed from above on an unwilling people. Another group of historians, led by John Morrill, also claim that when some eighty years later altars were restored under Charles I (r.1625-49) and Archbishop Laud (in office from 1633-45) the move was equally unpopular.

What is the explanation for this seeming contradiction? Was it simply that with the passage of time parishioners had been won over to the new Protestant forms of worship? Or do we require a more sophisticated model of religious change? Instead of Reformation imposed from above or in response to pressure from below, perhaps we should think about the authorities and parishioners actively collaborating either to push for change or to reverse it. Historians have increasingly focused on the laity in the parishes in this respect. But how do we best recover their varied experiences?

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