Classic History Books

The History of England by A. E. Pollard

VIII and Elizabeth were bent on destroying the medieval discord between the Catholic church and the
national state. Catholicity had broken down in the state with the decline of the empire, and was fast

breaking down in the church; nationalism had triumphed in the state, and was now to triumph in the


In this respect the Reformation was the greatest achievement of the national state, which emerged from
the struggle with no rival for its omnicompetent authority. Its despotism was the predominant

characteristic of the century, for the national state successfully rid itself of the checks imposed, on the

one hand by the Catholic church, and on the other by the feudal franchises. But the supremacy was not

exclusively royal; parliament was the partner and accomplice of the crown. It was the weapon which the

Tudors employed to pass Acts of Attainder against feudal magnates and Acts of Supremacy against the

church; and men complained that despotic authority had merely been transferred from the pope to the

king, and infallibility from the church to parliament. "Parliament," wrote an Elizabethan statesman,

"establisheth forms of religion...."

But while Englishmen on the whole were pretty well agreed that foreign jurisdiction was to be
eliminated, and that Englishmen were to be organized in one body, secular and spiritual, which might be

called indifferently a state-church or a church-state, there was much more difference of opinion with

regard to its theological complexion. It might be Catholic or it might be Protestant in doctrine; and it was

far more difficult to solve this religious problem than to effect the severance from Rome. There were,

indeed, many currents in the stream, some of them cross-currents, some political, some religious, but all

mingling imperceptibly with one another. The revolt of the nation against a foreign authority is the most

easily distinguished of these tendencies; another is the revolt of the laity against the clerical specialist.

The church, it must be remembered, was often regarded as consisting not of the whole body of the

faithful, but simply of the clergy, who continued to claim a monopoly of its privileges after they had

ceased to enjoy a monopoly of its intelligence and virtue. The Renaissance had been a new birth of

secular learning, not a revival of clerical learning. Others besides the clergy could now read and write

and understand; town chronicles took the place of monastic chronicles, secular poets of divines; and a

middle class that was growing in wealth and intelligence grew also as impatient of clerical as it had done

of military specialists. The essential feature of the reformed services was that they were compiled in the

common tongue and not in the Latin of ecclesiastical experts, that a Book of Common Prayer

was used, that congregational psalm-singing replaced the sacerdotal solo, and a communion was

substituted for a priestly miracle. Religious service was to be something rendered by the people

themselves, and not performed for their benefit by the priest.

Individual participation and private judgment in religion were indeed the essence of Protestantism, which
was largely the religious aspect of the revolt of the individual against the collectivism of the Middle

Ages. The control exercised by the church had, however, been less the expression of the general will than

the discipline by authority of masses too illiterate to think for themselves. Attendance at public worship

would necessarily be their only form of devotion. But the general emancipation of servile classes and

spread of intelligence by the Renaissance had led to a demand for vernacular versions of the Scriptures

and to a great deal of private and family religious exercise, without which there could have been no

Protestant Reformation. Lollardy, which was a violent outburst of this domestic piety, was never

completely suppressed; and it flamed out afresh when once political reasons, which had led the

Lancastrians to support the church, induced the Tudors to attack it.

Most spiritual of all the factors in the Reformation was the slow and partial emancipation of men's minds


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