Michael Wood’s history of the British Reformation

Michael Wood did a wonderful series The Story of Britain – A People’s History. It is done from the point of view of ordinary people, a ground up view of British history.  It begins with Roman Britain and goes up to modern times. I only watched the parts through the 18th Century. Instead of cheesy historical reenactments, he has the descendents of those involved, or at least the current inhabitants of the historic locations, read the words of their forebears. For Wood succeeded in finding the letters and diaries of ordinary Britains going back to Roman times. It is very effective and illuminating. And it brings history to life far more than any reenactment.

So why was I so disappointed with his treatment of the British Reformation? Because he buys into the traditional top down view of the Henrician Reformation, rather than my view, Henry successfully co-opting a popular movement.

Wood does pay tribute to Wycliffe and his poor Lollard priests. And Wood quotes Ball’s most famous sermon “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was than the gentleman?” Wood goes on to observe that Lollardy was never entirely suppressed. But he does not convey how Lollardy flowed into the 16th Century Reformation.

Tyndale saw a Lollard priest burn at the stake as an adolescent. He describes it most movingly and it clearly made an impression upon him. So here is one direct link from Lollards to Tyndale. Later, after Oxford, Tyndale was tutor to a Lollard family of weavers. Lollardy and the cloth trade were closely linked. Lollard strongholds, or should I say remaining Lollard networks, were the early areas of Protestant activism. It would have been nice to have a glimpse of those weavers who befriended Tyndale. It also would have been nice to have a sense of those involved in the smuggling Tyndale’s bible into England. Was London the only port of entry? Or were there others? And how were the bibles reassembled in London? And once they were reassembled, how were the distributed? It would be nice to know all that. I am thinking something a little more scholarly than Tony Robinson doing a Worst Jobs of the Reformation series, although that would be a start.

What Wood does do is give us a view of what it was like to be on the business end of Reformation politics. First Henry, then Edward VI’s hard-line Reformation, complete with the smashing of statues and white washing of paintings, then Bloody Mary, and finally Elizabeth. It cannot have been pleasant to have been whipsawed by all that, and Woods gives us a sense of that.

Wood talks about the Prayer Book rebellion in Cornwall. It seems that the Cornish spoke in Cornish (a Gaelic language) and prayed in Latin, and so had no use for an English prayer-book. And here we see the truly nasty side of Cranmer’s Reformation. If spreading the Word of God was your first concern, you would translate both the bible and the prayer-book into Cornish, Welsh, and Irish. But of course if you were to do such a thing, in addition to spreading the Reformation, you would also be reinforcing and strengthening those cultures. When Luther translated the Bible into German he not only spread the word of God, he strengthened the idea of a German identity. Likewise Tyndale with the English Bible. The last thing an Archbishop of Canterbury would want is strengthened Cornish, Welsh, and Irish identities. When service to the Lord clashed with the needs of cultural chauvinism, service to the Lord was never going to prevail.

What is really needed is a history of the British Reformation going from Wycliffe to the King James Bible. And we need a ground up view, not just of the leaders, but the host of individuals who made it happen.

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