This essay reconsiders one aspect of Christopher Haigh’s influential article ‘Anticlericalismand the English Reformation’. The article argued that anticlericalism in early 16th-centuryEngland had been exaggerated, mislabelled and (in effect) invented as a scholarly construct.Dr Haigh proceeded to dismantle the foundations of anticlericalism in literature, in litigation,and in legislation. Evidence of anticlericalism in parliament, he maintained, wasdiscontinuous, opportunistic and unrepresentative. This essay suggests, however, that Haigh’sclaim makes insufficient allowance for the scarcity of the sources, underestimates the degreeof continuity before and after 1529, and fails to take into account the inherently publiccharacter of parliamentary petitioning. It proposes instead that the challenging of theChurch’s wealth, the criticizing of clerical abuses, and the questioning of ecclesiasticaljurisdiction recurred in early Tudor parliaments, and that the significance of such thwartedattempts at legislative reform crossed sessions and became cumulative.
Keywords: anticlericalism; the Reformation Parliament; probate; mortuary payments;pluralism; disendowment; lollardy; hospitals; almshouses; convocationIn 1983 Christopher Haigh presented a compelling assault on the established narrative of theReformation.1 A revisionist tour de force, ‘Anticlericalism and the English Reformation’denied that widespread resentment of the Church and the clergy in the early 16th centuryplayed any part in this religious revolution. Existing accounts, Dr Haigh argued, had lumped 2together indiscriminately a mass of different sources: denunciations of clerical excess inliterature, criticisms of the church courts, and legislation by the Reformation Parliament.
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Bydisaggregating and depreciating this material, Haigh sought to abolish the concept ofanticlericalism – at least before the break with Rome, for in a startling inversion he concludedthat anticlericalism, rather than being a cause of the Reformation, was a consequence. Hisargument, however, was based on a questionable assumption: that if anticlericalism did notcause the Reformation, then the concept played no part in explaining the process of religiouschange. While accepting Haigh’s first contention, subsequent contributors have rehabilitatedanticlericalism as a catch-all label for a set of attitudes, behaviours, and discourses.2PeterMarshall has explained anticlericalism as the reaction to the unstable clerical compound ofexalted station and mundane fallibility.3Ethan Shagan has suggested how from the 1530sgovernment policy and the evangelical message energised this latent and reactive, broad ifnot deeply held, sensibility. The case for post-Reformation anticlericalism, Professor Shaganadded, is open to the same evidential objection that Haigh had brought for the earlier period.
4George Bernard, while accepting that anticlericalism ‘in no way made the reformationinevitable’, has insisted that ‘nonetheless it was important’.5This essay therefore starts from the premise that anticlericalism was neither a causenor a consequence of the Reformation, but a catalyst. While other analyses have rangedbroadly over the subject, drawing on a range of sources, this essay is concerned only withone, hitherto neglected, dimension of Haigh’s case: the role of parliament. Haigh made twocriticisms of the legislative evidence for anticlericalism.
First, he advanced a ‘political’account of the Reformation Parliament.6The laws of 1529 concerning mortuaries, pluralismand probate and the manoeuvrings of 1532 around the ‘Supplication against the Ordinaries’did not voice widely felt grievances. Rather, he maintained, these complaints originated withthe crown’s attempts to pressurise the Church into granting the king’s divorce, and they drew 3support from a narrow range of special interests – especially common lawyers and Londoners– that were, however, over-represented in the Commons.7 Haigh’s second point followednaturally from his belief that the anticlericalism of the Reformation Parliament wascontingent, opportunistic and unrepresentative.
In the absence of royal sponsorship, criticismof the Church in earlier parliaments was, he claimed, rare, transient and hardly deserving ofthe importance it had been accorded.