'Brexit recycles the defiant spirit of the Reformation', wrote Giles Fraser in the Guardian
on 5 May 2016. Tim Stanley used the same parallel in The Daily Telegraph
on 24 July 2016, opining that – although the split with Rome was largely a disaster, the Reformation offered a lesson for Brexit in its stimulation of community and the emancipation of the English imagination. Roy Hattersley, plugging his new book on Catholics in the Guardian
on 3 March 2017, has also pointed out the parallels, arguing that the Reformation 'should have been a warning to Remainers'.
The controversial Victorian historian of the English Reformation, James Anthony Froude, would have no doubt perceived the same parallel - if he had been transported by a time machine to 2016. For the arguments of Brexiteers are curiously similar to those promoted by Froude in his magisterial History of England (1850-70), a work which celebrated the English Reformation as the crowning achievement of the national narrative. British Protestant historiography since the sixteenth century had, of course, long identified the religious revolution with the formation of national identity. Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), better known as the Book of Martyrs, clearly represented the English as the latter day chosen people of God: it became the defining narrative of the Reformation for the next four hundred years. Nevertheless, it was rare for a Victorian historian to endorse the Reformation project quite so emphatically – or rather the agent of that transformation, Henry VIII. Most nineteenth-century Protestant historians piously declared that the Reformation was a case of God providentially bringing good out of an evil deed: Henry was a bad and immoral man, greedy and lustful, but the consequences of his actions were ultimately beneficial for his people. Such apologists clearly felt that they had to separate the King's dubious record as a husband who had abandoned his blameless wife, and his equally unappealing greed for the riches of the church, from the triumph of the reformed faith over 'superstitious' and 'tyrannical' Catholicism.
Froude, however, did not abandon Henry as a lost cause (and equally – interestingly - he is not entirely blind to the less positive consequences of the Reformation). For Froude, Henry VIII is a daring and original politician, who is not only honestly convinced of the illegality of his first marriage and rightly concerned about his lack of a male heir – he also really believed that he was emancipating his country from the yoke of foreign Roman interference, incidentally developing parliamentary sovereignty. For Froude, the Reformation is all about national self-determination, a perspective which many more historically-informed Brexiteers, wedded to the idea of restoring national sovereignty, no doubt share. Hence the amount of wordage devoted to a succession of parliamentary acts in the 1530s which gradually destroyed any hold which the Pope had on England, its people, or its clergy. EU regulations and payments to the EU have assumed the same symbolic significance in the Brexiteer imagination that, for instance, first fruits did in the mind of Froude.
Hence, too, Froude's unusually unsympathetic portrait of Catherine of Aragon, who had the temerity to appeal to the papal court for judgement on the issue of her divorce, rather than accepting the verdict of an (inevitably compliant) English one. Brexiteers' objections to appeals by British citizens over the heads of British judges to European courts of justice seem decidedly similar. Froude also has the same lack of sympathy for the plight of foreigners who have made their life in Britain as, sadly, do many Brexiteers: once Henry has divorced Catherine, Froude sees the queen – who had lived in England for nearly thirty at that point, married two English princes, and was the mother to the heir to the throne – as a foreigner who owes the English state no allegiance and can expect nothing from it. 'Castilian scum, go home!' seems to be the unsaid subtext.
For Froude, the Reformation emancipates the English people from the thought-tyranny of the Roman church, and allows a period of social, cultural and economic flourishing in the Elizabethan period. Obviously, Shakespeare and all that, but Froude's biggest soft spot is for Elizabethan seamen, such as Francis Drake, and their daring ventures which laid the foundations of the British empire. If he were alive now, he would no doubt be endorsing the Brexiteers' arguments that leaving the EU will usher in an age of free trade, renewed enterprise, national prosperity, and international prestige and power.
However, most modern historians would challenge Froude's reading of the Reformation. In reality, Henry was merely using parliament as a tool to secure his revised and essentially absolutist version of the Tudor state: no parliamentary sovereignty here. He had no objections to Catholicism per se
either, merely to the pope's refusal to grant him a divorce: if the divorce had been granted, undoubtedly the Defender of the Faith would have remained in the Catholic church. Henry's many acts of parliament in the 1530s were not about emancipating his oppressed people from their Roman chains, so much as preventing rebellions - and it is difficult to argue that the English people enthusiastically endorsed the Henrician Reformation, given the number of rebellions which did indeed take place. Henry clearly had quite a lot of his own Remainers to deal with in risings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace. This is something even Froude acknowledges: he explains Henry's increasingly paranoid severity in terms of the level of opposition he encountered, and admits that – had universal suffrage existed in the sixteenth century - the Reformation would never have happened. In the short term, the Reformation was built on and reinforced the increasingly absolutist and bureaucratic Tudor state: the counterbalance to the power of the king which the medieval church had provided was gone. And those Elizabeth free-trading seadogs, those entrepreneurial pioneers, most of them were in fact – pirates, when all is said and done. The origins of most empires are pretty unedifying to contemplate, and the British Empire is no exception here.
Froude's version of the Reformation served to reinforce late Victorian nationalistic, imperialist, and even racialist politics: a salutary lesson for those who would like to see the Reformation as an historical precedent for Brexit, a successful earlier dismissal of an interfering Continental power. In fact, his brand of militant British Protestant triumphalism could be seen as a direct ideological precursor for the rhetoric of more extremist pro-Brexit and alt-right politics. Both rely heavily on a view of Britain (or, to be strictly accurate, England) as possessed of some manifest destiny of distinction and difference, rather than as part of the historical development of Continental Europe - or indeed of the broader global community, except in terms of trade and empire.
It is worth remembering Froude's Reformation narrative of national triumphalism came under increasing challenge from his fellow historians in the later nineteenth century, who critiqued its polemic simplifications. And it is also worth recalling that Froude himself was partially responding to a work of history which had quietly but devastatingly destabilised the Protestant narrative in the early nineteenth century: the Catholic John Lingard's History of England
(1819-30). Drawing on Continental archives inaccessible to most English historians, Lingard had produced a balanced and critical account of the English Reformation – a cosmopolitan and Enlightenment text - which exposed how woefully decontextualized and distorted this Anglocentric version of the English Reformation (and English history as a whole) was. In other words, by viewing the history of the British Isles as part of the broader Continental narrative and stressing common experiences and broader historical developments, Lingard restored to the English historical narrative a greater (and a less anachronistic) understanding of the Reformation. Surely Lingard, despite a distinct sense of English Catholic identity and with a preference for conciliar rather than papal governance of his church, would have voted Remain?
Professor Rosemary Mitchell was Director of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies and Associate Editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture. Her research interests focus on Victorian historical cultures and how the Victorians appropriated the past to explore and address contemporary political, social, religious and cultural issues.