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500 years since Martin Luther launched his momentous campaign against papal teaching on indulgences.

The Tablet - 23 Sept, 2017 - Mon, Oct 9th 2017

The way we were: In 1517 England we were not aware of the storm that would follow Luther's declaretion.

The way we were: in 1517 England, there was barely a hint of the storm that would follow Luther's campaign against indulgences

On 31 October a special service at Westminster Abbey will commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. The Dean of Westminster is to preside and Archbishop Justin Welby will give the address. It will be 500 years since Martin Luther launched his momentous campaign against papal teaching on indulgences.

Most likely, Luther did not nail 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517, but he did, on the eve of the Feast of All Saints, send them to the Archbishop of Mainz, along with a strongly worded letter of protest – the catalyst for a crisis in the Holy Roman Empire, and a permanent schism in the Western Church. Like 1066, 1789 or 1914, the year 1517 is an iconic date, a veritable hinge of history.

In Germany, October 2017 marks the culmination of an entire “Luther decade” of events and commemorations. But in what sense, if any, is this really an anniversary for the English? A joint statement on the Reformation by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, posted on the Church of England’s website, is scrupulously – almost comically – even-handed in its dual emphasis on celebration and repentance, its alternating enum­erations of the “great blessings” and “lasting damage” caused by the Reformation.

At the Westminster service, a new anthem by a Danish composer, Bent Sørensen, will be performed, and representatives of the Lutheran churches in the United Kingdom will be guests of honour. The impression is of a party thrown generously for a friend, rather than a birthday bash of one’s own.

The relationship of the sixteenth-century English Reformation to the movement that Luther initiated has, from that day to this, been a bone of historical contention. Anglo-Catholics are apt to assert continuity over rupture, a Church of England faithfully serving its people before and after the temporary crisis of the Reformation. Nonconformists have often been less likely to claim kinship with Luther than with the Lollards, those late-medieval dissidents disdaining pilgrimages and the Mass.

In which year did the English Reformation actually start? It is genuinely hard to say, and impossible even to place a precise date on when Henry VIII’s “break with Rome” took effect. It was complete by 1536, although the most crucial parliamentary legislation was passed in 1533, and Henry’s attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had begun a half-dozen years before that. A more spiritual reading of events might point to the earnest reformism of “evangelical” priests and lay people, foremost among them William Tyndale, whose English translation of the New Testament was printed in 1525-6.

But whenever the English Reformation might be thought to have begun, it was certainly not in 1517. The 95 Theses were known about in England by 1518: Erasmus sent a copy to Thomas More in March of that year. Luther’s works were on sale in an Oxford bookshop in 1520 and were burned by Cardinal Wolsey in 1521. A small handful of English “Lutherans” were investigated in the 1520s, but there was no surge of enthusiasm.

Piety and patriotism regarded the new ideas as a suspicious foreign import, and respectable opinion took its cue from the king himself. In 1521, Henry castigated Luther in a printed Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a publication for which he did at least some of the work and took all of the credit, earning himself the papal title, “Defender of the Faith”.

In the mid-1530s, Henry VIII changed his mind about the faith that he was supposed to be defending: he declared himself Supreme Head of the Church, denounced the Pope as a tyrannous usurper, dissolved the monasteries, and allowed at least some reforms of doctrine and worship. It was once believed that in all this he was cheered on by a populace weary of ecclesiastical corruption and superstition. However, for a generation and more, persuasive “revisionist” scholarship on the English Reformation has insisted that the late-medieval Church was doing a good job; that the break with Rome was widely unpopular; and that Protestantism advanced only slowly and uncertainly, and with the armed authority of the government at its back.

If the English Reformation was an “act of state”, driven through in the 1530s as a consequence of the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce, then 1517 must seem an almost irrelevant date. At first glance, it is difficult to point to anything of very much note or significance taking place in that year. The spring saw a nasty outbreak of xenophobic violence against immigrant workers in London, as well as, more happily, the foundation of a new college (Corpus Christi) in Oxford. The year also saw the first appointment of a lecturer in Greek at Cambridge. The successful candidate had just turned down a job offer at a second-rate German university … Wittenberg. These were signs of vitality, not stagnation, in Catholic intellectual life.

In October 1517, the main issue of public concern was not the indulgence for the building of St Peter’s in Rome (which was being publicised in England in a low-key way), but a recurrence of the mysterious, deadly disease known as “the sweat”. For 31 October itself, there seems to be only one dated document in the state papers: a report from one of Cardinal Wolsey’s agents about French machinations to recover the town of Tournai, which Henry VIII had captured during an otherwise inglorious military campaign of 1513.

It all looks like political and ecclesiastical business as usual. Tournai, however, was a straw in the wind. After its capture, Henry wanted Wolsey to be formally recognised as its bishop, and thought he had Pope Leo X on side. When the king found out in 1516 that the Pope was secretly negotiating to restore the diocese to its former French incumbent, he reacted with uncontrolled fury, accusing Leo of trying to rob him of his “superiority, regal pre-eminence, jurisdiction and authority” and hinting darkly about measures he might be forced to take. Only a year before this, a heated row about the exemption of clergy from the jurisdiction of secular courts had ended with Henry forcing Wolsey to seek pardon on his knees, and a royal declaration that “kings of England in time past have never had any superior but God alone”.

Like most of his subjects, the king of England was a properly pious Catholic Christian, but he was notably impatient with the pretensions of priests. A fortnight before the Augustinian friar, Luther, sat down to petition the Archbishop of Mainz, another friar, a Spanish Hieronymite, arrived at the English court. Reportedly, he had succeeded in miraculously stilling a tempest at sea.

There was an interview with the king, from which Henry emerged remarking sarcastically that he “esteems him more as a friar than a saint”. The relayer of this gossip was the royal secretary, Richard Pace, friend of the inter- national scholarly superstar Erasmus, who was scornful of the old-fashioned, miracle-hawking piety the Spanish friar represented.

In 1517, Erasmus was basking in praise for his Greek edition of the New Testament, with accompanying Latin translation and theologically daring notes. Published the previous year, to a large extent it was prepared during a protracted stay in England. Erasmus would later indignantly refute the accusation that “he laid the egg and Luther hatched it”. Other English friends included John Fisher and Thomas More, who would lay down their lives for the unity of the Church in 1535. But in 1516-17, Erasmus’s New Testament was an inspiration to Catholics seeking a clearer, simpler version of their faith, and, for some, a staging post en route to “radicalisation”. William Tyndale was an avid admirer.

Another occurrence of the autumn of 1517 was that Queen Catherine miscarried. It had happened before, and there would surely be other opportunities for the son and heir that Henry wanted so desperately, as a token of dynastic security and as confirmation of divine favour. In fact, a stillborn child the next year was the sad outcome of the queen’s final pregnancy.

The revisionist historians are not wrong: England in 1517 was a generally satisfied Catholic nation, and the Reformation here was very far from inevitable. Yet, with the perspicuity of hindsight, it is possible to perceive some emergent preconditions: political resentments on the part of the king, genuine longings for spiritual renewal among educated clerics and lay folk, and the ticking time bomb of a dynastic crisis.

Understandably, public memory of the past is obsessed with anniversaries, and anniversaries invariably need “events”: Luther striding purposefully to the church door, hammer in hand. They do not always assist with identifying the grievances, frustrations and potential for social conflict present even within periods of apparent contentment and stability. Those of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have just lived through the unpredicted political convulsions of 2016 should be particularly well placed to appreciate this.

Peter Marshall is the author of 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation, and Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, both published in 2017.

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