The Reformation is one of those very rare events which may legitimately be described as seminal. Whether it was, as has often been claimed, the engine which drove the commercial and industrial revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is debatable, even dubious. It may or may not have been responsible for the spirit of intellectual enquiry which began in the sixteenth century – I favour the spread of knowledge through the invention of printing. What is not in doubt is the fillip it gave to the development of Europe’s kingdoms and principalities becoming political islands unto themselves. After Luther and Calvin the ideal of a European unity called Christendom was done. The Protestant parts of Europe were faced with the forces of the Counter-Reformation. Princes and peoples were forced to decide where they stood. The map of modern Europe began to take shape.
Read a general history of the Reformation and England will probably play a small role. This is a mistake for one very potent reason: England was the most important kingdom to go Protestant. Had she not embraced the Protestant cause, it is dubious whether the Reformation would have succeeded. Spain and France, the two most powerful continental kingdoms stayed loyal to the Catholic Church and wielded the Counter Reformation’s sword with enthusiasm and energy. The Emperor remained Catholic. Apart from England, the Protestant cause was alive only in the Netherlands, where it was ominously threatened by the Spanish, sundry German states all of which were too small to be of account on their own and in Scandinavia, peopled by few and on the periphery of Europe.
England preserved the Protestant Reformation firstly by simply being an important European power which was Protestant. While England was Protestant, the Catholic world knew that Protestantism was seriously alive. This knowledge also gave heart to continental Protestants. England’s second contribution was practical: in the vitally important years of the sixteenth century she gave aid in men and money to the fledgling Protestant States of the continent, particularly to the Netherlands, an irony which will not be lost on those with a knowledge of English/Dutch relations in the next century. Her third and last contribution was the American colonies. Protestantism was given a refuge across the sea. No longer could popes and Catholic monarchs dream of expunging the heresy by simply cleansing Europe.
Why did England turn so easily to Protestantism? The answer is threefold: John Wyclif, anti-clericism and a long history of Royal resistance to papal authority.
Wyclif and his followers actually embraced the theological and practical foundations of the Reformation in the second half of the fourteenth century, one hundred and fifty odd years before Luther pinned his theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. Wyclif questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the authority of the pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a bible in English and either he or his followers, the Lollards, produced a complete translation before the end of the fourteenth century. Lollardy was officially suppressed early in the next century, but their ideas lingered, both here and abroad.
Wyclif’s ideas had very wide appeal. This owed more to a deep-rooted English anti-clericism, than any theological niceties. (The English have never been a deeply religious race). Add in the long history of English kings resisting Papal meddling in the affairs of England and the mistrust of foreigners natural to the average Englishman, stir the mixture and one can readily see that when the Reformation came England was culturally predisposed to accept it.