University of Portsmouth's History Blog

History is not always written by the winners

Dr Katy Gibbons is Senior Lecturer in History, and specialises in the religious and cultural history of 16th century England and Europe. She teaches amongst other units, a Special Subject ‘Conflict, Conspiracy, Consensus? Religious Identities in the Reign of Elizabeth I’, which covers some of the themes addressed in the article below. The article for this blog accompanies a publication in the international journal Etudes Episteme.

2017 has seen a range of events to mark the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (http://www.reformation500.uk/). Celebrations have been conducted in ways that deliberately avoid confessionalised interpretations of the past, including efforts at mutual dialogue between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37827736), and a wealth of historical scholarship, from new biographies of Luther to studies of the ways in which he has been remembered and celebrated.

But how did contemporaries and near contemporaries make sense of the dramatic times they witnessed? It is a commonly accepted aphorism that History is told by the winners, but what of those who were not part of the triumphant side in the Reformation? In the English context, the Reformation meant a series of dramatic shifts imposed from the top, the direction of which changed with each successive monarch in the 16th century. Having gained a papal title ‘Defender of the Faith’ for his attacks on Luther, Henry VIII then repudiated papal authority and claimed the royal supremacy for the Church of England. There was more decisive Protestant change under Edward VI, then a return to Pope and Catholic practice under Mary. With the accession of Elizabeth, Mary’s reign proved to be a brief exception in what has often been presented as a story of Protestant triumph, which became enshrined in ‘official’ Protestant history writing.

But what of those subjects of the English Crown who remained Catholic? By constructing their own version of the recent past and its consequences for their own time, they offered a counter to the Protestant story. In doing so, they wrote history, and contemporary history, that was highly controversial. They aimed to tell the story of the Reformation whilst trying to explain the situation they found themselves in: how had a Catholic country come to break a centuries-long connection to the international Church? In seeking to explain this, they laid the blame firmly at the feet of their own monarchs.

Intellectuals including Reginald Pole (later Cardinal Pole and architect of much of the Catholic Reformation under Mary I) and the exiled Elizabethan priest Nicholas Sander wrote from the relative safety of Catholic Europe, with the opportunities it offered to engage with an international community of readers. They employed the language of condemnation and moral judgement in explaining why Catholicism lost and Protestantism seemingly won in England – apparently, because they hoped the situation was reversible. Perhaps most notorious was the work of Nicholas Sander, who set out to write a history of the English Schism from the reign of Henry VIII until the present day (later sections were completed by a number of contributors after his death). His published work De Origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani (The Origins and Growth of the English Schism), first published in 1585, stated in print what had long been a rumour: that Anne Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry was viewed as invalid by Catholics, was not only his mistress but also his daughter, the product of Henry’s earlier relationship with Anne’s mother. This formed a key part of the explanation for how Protestantism had gained the upper hand in English politics – the growth of Protestantism was explained as the product and consequence of an inherently corrupt and illegitimate ruling dynasty.

Recent scholars have observed how important history-writing was in the 16th century for a number of different groups struggling to assert their presence and identity. The Catholic writers were no exception here. For writers like Sander, this was not just ivory-tower material, to be debated and discussed within the confines of a learned circle. These were urgent issues concerning life and death, and the fate of souls, which had to be fought for. The history writing of this losing side in the English Reformation was polemically embarrassing for the Tudor regime, but was also a call to arms, a way to rally the Catholic community to bring about the intended re-Catholicisation of England.

To read more, you can find the full article here.

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