In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Reformation

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Collections of Papers
  • Bibliography
  • Journals and Serials
  • Historiography
  • Edward VI
  • Elizabethan Puritans
  • Catholic Survival After 1558
  • Reform and the Clergy
  • Women and Reform
  • Local and Regional Studies
  • Popular Religion

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Renaissance and Reformation English Reformation
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0012


Fifteenth-century England was solidly Catholic, 17th-century England predominantly Protestant: the difference between them constituted the English Reformation. Scholarly opinion is divided about the nature of the changes that happened in the 16th century, the rate at which they occurred in town and country and from region to region, and whether they came about because of a series of political decisions imposed “from above” by the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I or as the expression of popular religious fervor welling up “from below.” Henry’s reign (1509–1547) witnessed the formal break with Rome, the declaration of royal supremacy over the church in England, and the plundering of the nation’s monastic wealth, but official promotion of more overt expressions of Protestantism had to wait for the brief reign of Edward VI (1547–1553). Mary I (reigned 1553–1558) reversed the policies of her father and brother, thereby placing England at the forefront of Catholic attempts to stem the Protestant tide. The long reign of Elizabeth (1558–1603) witnessed the emergence of an Anglican via media between the Catholic and Puritan extremes on the English ecclesiastical spectrum.

General Overviews

The modern historiography of the English Reformation opened with Dickens 1964, which emphasizes the rapid success of Protestantism. For a studiously uncontroversial survey of the entire period, see Cross 1976. It was to the work of A. G. Dickens that Scarisbrick 1984 provided a polemical response, emphasizing continuity and religious conservatism over the desire for change and innovation. For more detailed information on the period up to 1558, Brigden 1989 is invaluable. MacCulloch 1990 is a reliable introductory work, but only for the period between the death of Henry VIIII in 1547 and that of Elizabeth I in 1603. After the initial assault made by Scarisbrick 1984, together Duffy 1992 and Haigh 1993 delivered the coup de grace that finally finished Dickens’s reign as the master of English Reformation studies. In the process, Duffy in particular effectively re-Catholicized the history of 16th-century England, countering the Protestant triumphalism with which it had previously been associated.

  • Brigden, Susan. London and the Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    The political importance of London and the quantity of records generated by its citizens makes Brigden’s acclaimed study invaluable for coverage of the reigns of Henry, Edward, and Mary. It is particularly important for her analysis of the first generation of English Protestants.

  • Cross, Claire. Church and People, 1450–1660: The Triumph of the Laity in the English Church. London: Fontana, 1976.

    A textbook that captures the historiographical moment before the revisionist flood, when the triumph of the laity still meant the triumph of Protestantism, and when the English Reformation was still seen as a “naked act of state” imposed from above, rather than a convoluted interaction between governors and governed.

  • Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. London: Batsford, 1964.

    This account of the English Reformation as a combination of religious change imposed “from above” and enthusiastic popular acceptance of Protestantism by the death of Edward VI in 1558 was accepted as the definitive interpretation of the subject by a generation of readers. Second edition published in 1989.

  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Duffy’s monumental study draws upon a wealth of texts and images to describe the rich and vibrant nature of English Catholicism on the eve of the Reformation, followed by the “deep and traumatic cultural hiatus” of the Reformation. For a while it effectively sealed the debate on the English Reformation and established the new orthodoxy.

  • Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    The revisionist textbook account of the English Reformation and a clear endorsement of the Scarisbrick line, albeit pointedly free from any perceived confessional baggage. Haigh concludes that the Reformations—in the plural—did not have as great an impact on English society as historians had previously maintained.

  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Later Reformation in England, 1547–1603. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

    MacCulloch’s earlier work consists of regional studies of 16th-century Suffolk, but here he surveys the Edwardian, Marian, and Elizabethan reforms and reflects on the chronology of the Reformation in England.

  • Pettegree, Andrew. Foreign Protestant Communities in Sixteenth Century London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Pettegree charts the arrival of Protestant refugees from France and the Spanish Netherlands, their impact on the English economy, and their encouragement of more radical reform among their somewhat lukewarm English brethren.

  • Scarisbrick, J. J. The Reformation and the English People. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

    The 1982 Ford Lectures in book form. As the first substantial assault on Dickens it proved to be distinctly controversial. The provocation is apparent in Scarisbrick’s opening paragraph: “On the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came.”

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