The kingdom of England in the seventeenth century provides a striking example of religion moulding politics and polities – creatively or destructively. In 1603, to some surprise from apprehensive observers within and without, there was little political or military fuss involved in joining the Crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland in one Scotsman, James Stewart (his new subjects in England have always preferred the spelling Stuart). Dynastic logic now finally embraced all the islands of the three Atlantic kingdoms, from Shetland to St Helier, Southwold to Sligo. James travelled south to London with forty years of experience as King of Scots; now James I of England and Ireland as well as VI of Scotland, he made a decent fist of governing a country that regarded him as a rather disconcerting foreigner, and he was energetic in consolidating his power in his other two kingdoms. Yet less than two decades from his death in 1625, a functioning and prosperous Jacobean England suffered spectacular disintegration in Church and State. In 1649 James’s son Charles I lost three thrones and his own head, while his grandson James II lost those thrones again in 1688-91. After 1714 the Stuart royal family was consigned to permanent exile, since its surviving members were uncompromising Roman Catholics considered unfit to rule Protestant nations. Religious passion had now trumped dynastic loyalty.
This complex story has proved tricky to turn into a tidy national myth, involving as it does an awkward turnaround in royal fortunes. A midpoint in the turmoil was the triumphant Restoration to the throne of Charles II in 1660 (though naturally he dated his reign from the death of his father eleven years before). Bishops, cathedrals, Prayer Book: all returned to the Church of England in his wake. Heroic simplification in the national memory presents the English Civil Wars as fought between King and Parliament, although in reality Charles I had kept his own Parliament at Oxford till he was fought to a standstill. The Westminster Parliament’s quarrelling internal Protestant factions have been elided in the myth into a single body of ‘Puritans’, whose leader Oliver Cromwell failed to find a way of making Parliaments work, leading eventually to the Restoration. Yet simplification can only go so far. The expulsion of Charles II’s Catholic brother James II left ambiguities in the national Protestant narrative. Parliament now repeatedly asserted itself to prevent arbitrary monarchy, leaving Oliver in the story both as regicide and in some way as champion of the people – hence his statue still standing in front of the Houses of Parliament, once deeply controversial but so far a non-participant in the Culture Wars. 1066 and All That’s authoritative marshalling of how to misremember English history was particularly acute in nailing the logical difficulties of the Civil War, ranging Royalist ‘Cavaliers’, ‘Wrong but Wromantic’, against Cromwellian or Parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’, ‘Right but Repulsive’.
Already even the narrative myth reveals more religious complication than a simple clash of Protestant and Roman Catholic religious faith, since most Cavaliers were as Protestant as the Roundheads. The two English civil wars between 1642 and 1648 primarily involved Protestant Christians fighting each other to determine the future of their national Protestant church. These English conflicts were embedded in further civil wars in Scotland and Ireland, so historians now describe the period 1638 to 1660 as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; those other theatres of war added different confessional mixes between Catholics and various varieties of Protestant. Taking them all together, countless premature deaths over twenty years can be blamed squarely on murderous religious passions.
Religion also determined an eventual constitutional union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1707, constituted by Acts of their respective Parliaments. This was a political deal between the Protestant elites of the two kingdoms, with the defence of Protestantism against an international Roman Catholic threat as the main incentive. This vital religious component in the origin of the present-day United Kingdom is now generally overlooked: as we argue about Brexit and the survival of the Union, religion is hardly ever discussed, whereas to begin with, it was the most important impulse. That is why outsiders to Northern Ireland find the apparently negative Protestant passions that animate the Democratic Unionist Party so bizarre and baffling. The DUP are almost the last people for whom that past history matters – though for them, alas, it matters a great deal.
Because of all this, political scientists need some sure historical guides to Reformation and Counter-Reformation in seventeenth-century Britain and beyond, to get behind the version of the period that satisfied imperial and mostly Protestant Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If only it were as simple as grasping a binary difference between Catholics and Protestants; that will not explain why a Protestant military commander, Oliver Cromwell, went to the trouble of putting a Protestant monarch, Charles I, on trial for his life. The normal practice for getting rid of unwanted kings was by uncomplicated private murder, rather than by the considered public fate that Charles suffered: a guilty verdict and sentence of death by beheading in front of his own Banqueting House in 1649 – and Charles’s death had already been prefigured in 1645 by the execution of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles’s serenity at the last left him as a martyr in the eyes of the post-Restoration Church of England, with a number of church buildings being dedicated to him in the fashion of a saint. That was despite the fact that in the reality of defeat, Charles had been prepared to negotiate away episcopal government and all in the Church that went with it.
Cromwell, Charles and his unfortunate Archbishop alike proclaimed their anxiety to defend England’s Protestant faith, the King going so far as to advertise this commitment on his coinage (albeit in Latin). That suggests the need to sort out what each of them meant by Protestantism. The complications extend further, as is clear from a further beheading for treason in 1651. The victim was a ‘Presbyterian’ minister, Christopher Love, executed because his disgust at the ‘Independent’ dominance of Cromwell’s regime had led him to intrigue with the exiled Stuart royal family against the Republic established on Charles I’s death. Presbyterian and Independent theories of how the Church should organise itself could thus confront each other beyond their common detestation of Church government by bishops such as Laud. Strong disagreements about the way to run a Protestant Church might be injurious to your health.
One needs to have a sense of the traditional story of the period in order to appreciate the value of Milton’s work in remoulding it. His analysis is intricate, but refreshing and authoritative. He is not alone among historians of early modern British religion in his balanced reassessment, but his particular purpose here is to cut a path through thickets of intellectual history to expound the evolving arguments about how to create a national Church both truly Protestant and properly reformed – competing ecclesiologies, in the jargon of the church history trade. The conversations that Milton analyses seem arcane now, but they shaped the form of the monarchical state that created the most extensive (if comparatively short-lived) territorial empire in world history. Few are better qualified: Milton laid the groundwork for his present study of the later English Reformation in his equally monumental Catholic and Reformed: the Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant thought, 1600-1640 (1995). He edited the first volume in The Oxford History of Anglicanism (2017), whose team of essayists, myself included, survey a period with the same endpoint as the present book, in 1662.
What makes 1662 so special a date? It has always been seen as a turning-point in the story of English Protestantism, marking a moment when legislation enforced the use of a particular form of set worship for the Church of England: the Book of Common Prayer, revised from its successive Tudor forms. The ‘BCP’ remained unchallenged and legally unchallengeable in the established Church down to the twentieth century. It had taken only two years from the restoration of the Stuart monarchy for bishops and Prayer Book to be restored: a swift and decisive turnaround from their legal oblivion in 1660. The imposition of the BCP across the realm led immediately to around two thousand of the Church’s most conscientious clergy leaving their positions within the national system, sacrificing home and guaranteed income, and subsequently ministering to further thousands of laypeople who also found it impossible to stomach the new settlement. Such ‘Dissenters’ suffered legal penalties draconian at first and not entirely removed until the nineteenth century.
The ‘Great Ejection’ of 1662 gave a unique character not simply to England’s religious observance but also to its political structure. England was a Protestant polity, self-consciously excluding Roman Catholics from positions of power, but it could not speak with a single voice. Along the established Protestant Church, various ‘Dissenting’ Protestant denominations vigorously asserted their place in national life after 1662, developing their own cultures and critiques of the establishment in Church and State. That divided national Protestant culture in a fashion only paralleled elsewhere in western Europe by the United Provinces of the Netherlands. During the nineteenth century, the political role of Protestant Dissent grew especially important with the successive expansion of the franchise for parliamentary elections, and it was only in the twentieth century that England’s fundamental social and political divide between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’ faded in importance. For both confessional blocs in English life, the date 1662 kept a special significance. For Church of England folk (who in the nineteenth century increasingly embraced a distinctive new self-description as ‘Anglicans’), it signified the thankful memory of a formal liturgy re-established, the consolidation of unchallenged government by bishops as preserved by the Tudor dynasty, and the chance to restore decency and dignity to a rich heritage of church buildings. For Dissenters, it marked the proud memory of unjust suffering bravely overcome, and the beginnings of new corporate identities.
Both Anglicans and Dissenters created denominational tunnel histories on this basis, which took little notice of what was happening in the other tunnel after 1662, and which also unfolded contrasting narratives of the preceding Tudor period. The years of English Reformation from the 1520s to the 1660s formed an undeniably complex tale however told, but with appropriate intellectual effort they could be simplified in order to march forward comprehensibly to that crucial moment in 1662. Anglicans framed their version of the story with much mood-music around inevitability. Henry VIII and his three children as successor-monarchs all had very different religious agendas, but with splendid subtlety, Elizabeth I finally created an ecclesiastical settlement in 1559 almost predestined to please the majority of her subjects with its moderation and balance: Protestant but episcopal, Reformed but decently ceremonial.
Dissenters injected a flavour of constant strife into telling the same story. From the outset, clear-eyed Protestants had seen the inadequacy of the Church that Elizabeth crafted in 1559: incomplete in its godly Reformation compared with any Protestant Church in mainland Europe or even over the border in Scotland. These sturdy folk were the ‘Puritans’, who also figured in the Anglican narrative, but as a marginal nuisance rather than as heroes. Either way, the Puritans’ indefatigable noises of godly disapproval often led them to suffer official persecution, even execution. In the struggles of the 1640s, the Puritans had nearly succeeded in remedying the Church’s faults, but with baffling rapidity between 1660 and 1662, all the good was undone, and those with a conscience had to make their own way forward in national life. Puritans become Dissenters.
The very title of Milton’s book proclaims a revisionist agenda, since historians have rarely used the term ‘Second Reformation’ in relation to England. It is borrowed from the history of Reformation elsewhere, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire, where it signifies a move in many imperial territories from a first Reformation in the mould of Martin Luther, to a more thoroughgoing transformation of territorial Churches, inspired by Protestant Reformers in southern Europe: Zwingli, Bullinger and Calvin especially. Milton’s disruptive purpose is to make us look again at the Anglican and Dissenting historiography that I have outlined. We need to discern a story of Civil Wars and Interregnum that does not simply describe a deplorable hiccup in the life of the Church of England, smoothly remedied after the Caroline Restoration in 1662. The Restoration Church in itself represented a second Reformation, changing the nature of the Church as it had existed between 1559 and 1642, and it was only the last phase in a series of attempted Reformations, here carefully delineated.
The structure Milton adopts for the book helpfully embodies his project of redefinition by presenting the evolution chronologically through a series of proposals and ecclesiological frameworks, each of which would have determined a different long-term outcome had any one of them succeeded. Milton’s descriptive titles heading the chapters are likely to become a standard taxonomy for the whole period; he is scrupulous in avoiding anachronistic terms like ‘Anglican’, and none of his titles involve the word ‘Puritan’ either. He focuses on those Protestants who sought a national Church, not the more radical ‘separatist’ minority who regarded any confusion between secular and ecclesiastical power as corrupting the Church’s purity. Such radicals ranged from Baptists and the separatists later known as ‘Congregationalists’, through to ‘Quakers’ (or ‘Society of Friends’), plus groups that soon faded, such as Ranters or Fifth Monarchy Men. The radicals have often stolen the limelight in accounts of the Civil War and Interregnum decades, but Milton points out that right through this period, most Protestant Christians still sought to build a Church for the whole nation. It was the form of that Church on which they disagreed.
Milton’s introductory chapter is a masterly analysis of ‘An Unresolved Reformation’ created in the Tudor period, which was far more untidy than the notion of an ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ implies. In a whole range of ways – the exercise of authority, liturgy, doctrine and legal system – there was debateable ground and unfinished business, which even those who conformed gladly to the Church, let alone Puritans, saw as needing resolution. One set of solutions was proposed and in the 1630s briefly enforced by a group of clergy around Archbishop Laud, backed by King Charles. This was in Milton’s taxonomy a ‘Laudian Reformation’. In pushing forward greater ceremonial, extensive refurnishing of churches and a greater place for clergy in secular government, the programme represented determined innovation, including a newly sceptical and negative attitude to the past Protestantism of the official English Reformation. Not surprisingly, many throughout the nation concluded that such a Reformation was really a capitulation to the great enemy, Roman Catholicism. Opposition to it included most of the lay political elite and even some bishops.
King Charles and the Laudian party were even more ill-advised in their effort to impose this new Reformation in his other kingdom of Scotland. That provoked not merely discontent but revolution, which quickly overthrew the Scottish episcopate. Episcopacy was replaced with a pure presbyterian system of decision-making dependent on an ascending hierarchy of ‘presbyteries’ of ministers and leading laymen; such a structure had previously managed to co-exist untidily in the Church of Scotland with the remaining power of the Scottish bishops. Now well-motivated Scottish armies easily defeated distinctly unenthusiastic English troops sent to quell their revolt, yet the Laudians bone-headedly pressed on with their programme, turning it into a set of ‘Canons’ for the Church of England which passed into ecclesiastical legislation in 1640, even as the King’s authority drained away and a deeply hostile Westminster Parliament showed itself determined to set a new direction in the national Church.
Accordingly, a phase of Reformation proposals occupied the years 1640-42, as Parliament sought to rein in the King and create a new ecclesiastical settlement. It took place against a brooding background of Scots Presbyterian military occupation in north-east England, but those involved in discussions, many of them aristocratic and episcopal critics of Laud and his programme, were concerned to find an English solution to English problems. This is one of the most interesting and original sections of Milton’s study: he describes an ‘Abortive Reformation’ where the central agent of possible change was a committee of the House of Lords presided over by John Williams Archbishop of York, chief enemy of Laud on the episcopal bench. The important feature of this period is that the King, now running out of options, agreed to accept the results: not simply a reversal of Laudian innovations, but a very considerable reframing of the whole church, featuring a ‘reduced’ and reformed episcopacy. As Milton observes, on the outbreak of war in England in 1642, both king and parliament were ‘theoretically committed to the abortive reformation’ (p. 143), yet Charles’s provoking of war changed everything.
The proposed plan of Reformation was aborted partly because the Westminster Parliament confronting the King now needed the Scots army’s military muscle, but also because of increasing radicalisation in London and in Parliament itself. Over three years, bishops were ejected from the seats in the House of Lords that they had kept in the Tudor Reformations, Williams’s committee vanished, the Elizabethan Prayer Book was outlawed, and a new and much greater assembly of clergy convened at Westminster, dominated by those now convinced that the new national Church must be Presbyterian in structure. The Westminster Assembly’s work included a new doctrinal statement and a greatly simplified guide to public worship. The deliberations continued against the background of war, in which the only card that the King could play through increasing defeat on the ground was the fact of his kingship. It seemed that any settlement would need to take into consideration not only Charles’s own ostensible support for the Williams-era reforms but his likely leanings to the high-flying Laudian group among royalist clergy. So these were years of ‘Reformation by Negotiation’, whose work would be remembered in fresh negotiations in 1660. In the areas controlled by the Westminster Parliament, there was also a ‘Westminster Reformation’ that turned the conclusions of the Assembly into practical action.
All this was disrupted by the military success of Oliver Cromwell, who deeply distrusted the sort of strict Presbyterian settlement that the combination of Assembly, Presbyterian Parliamentary sympathisers and Scots allies promoted. Cromwell supported a much looser framework for the national Church in ‘Independency’, and crucially he and his supporters in the army leadership proposed a drastic solution to the problem of the King that also swept aside the more hesitant Presbyterians in Parliament. The setting-up of a Republic or ‘Commonwealth’ after Charles’s execution led to a period even more confused than of 1640-42; Milton observes (p. 333) of the years 1648 to 1653 that ‘there can have been few five-year periods when such an extraordinary array of ecclesiastical models and reforms … were seriously contemplated by prominent adherents of all the main strains of thought in English religion’. When in 1653 Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector, with rather shaky backing from a newly-formed Parliament, a ‘Cromwellian’ Church for England continued to exist, even if the subsequent Church of England has ignored the fact. It had minimal direction from the top, in effect subsiding into a vast federation of the thousands of parishes of which the pre-War Church was composed, but the fact remains that the great majority of the population went on attending their parish churches and acquiescing in whatever worship they found inside the doors. The Cromwellian Church subsisted on a myriad of local decisions, looking back to the Westminster Assembly and even reflecting some of the discreet modifications that pre-Civil War localities may have made to the Elizabethan Settlement: ‘survival, redeployment and adaptation [from the] pre-1650s national church’ (p. 378). By comparison, those who consciously excluded themselves were minority movements: Protestant radicals, Royalist episcopalians or outright Roman Catholics.
Milton is illuminating in discussing the defeated episcopalian Royalism that unexpectedly triumphed in the Restoration of 1660. Historians have ceased to apply the label ‘Anglican’ to the Church of England before 1640 – it’s about time that the rest of the world caught up with this reclassification, including some insufficiently-educated Anglican bishops. Increasingly we have come to see the prehistory of Anglicanism more precisely in Interregnum episcopalian survival, and Milton reinforces and refines that insight. Its spectrum embraced both those who venerated Archbishop Laud as a martyr and those who regarded his tinkering with the pre-War Church as disastrous. Significantly for the future, the experience of losing their presiding monarch led some episcopalians to realise that church government by bishops need not have any necessary connection with a secular state – let alone the Stuart dynasty. Milton, remarkably, finds that one of the fiercest custodians of Laud’s memory, his former chaplain and hagiographer Peter Heylyn, was prepared to negotiate for an episcopal future Church with Oliver Cromwell, and even thought of dedicating one of his books to the Lord Protector. A Church with episcopal succession had its own integrity and identity, just as it had done before the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great allied with the bishops of his day, back in the fourth century. That was an important strand of Anglican thought for the future, when circumstances would deprive first the Scottish Episcopal Church and then the Anglican dioceses in the thirteen American colonies of any connection to the British Crown.
Thus Milton brings his taxonomy of Reformations into the Restoration of Charles II, preceded and accompanied by a welter of proposed solutions to the future of the Church during the disintegration of the English Republic in 1659-60: ‘failed Reformations’. Many such proposals returned to the new settlement that had seemed to be in place in 1642, but all was again swept aside by the confrontational determination of a group of well-placed clergy to create a tightly-bounded episcopally-governed Church with little tolerance of dissent. The puzzle of this can partly be solved by noting the unexpected strength of Charles II’s support for the intransigent episcopalians, and by a great surprise in recent discoveries by Kenneth Fincham and Stephen Taylor: the number of new clergy in the Interregnum, around 2500, who quietly sought out the diminishing number of expelled bishops to be ordained at their hands (K. Fincham and S. Taylor, ‘Vital Statistics: Episcopal Ordination and Ordinands in England, 1646-60’, English Historical Review 126, 2011, 319-44).
There is another factor that has been hiding in plain sight with little note of its significance. After 1660 the nobility and gentry of England meekly surrendered back to the Church of England all the confiscated cathedral and episcopal estates that they had bought from Interregnum regimes, with no compensation package such as would be awarded British slaveowners after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Evidently the failure of every alternative mode of reforming the Church combined with the failure of all the constitutional experiments of the 1650s, to produce an unwonted meekness in the English governing class. One theme fostered by Interregnum royalists after the destruction of war and confiscation of Church lands was the wickedness of sacrilege; these worries about sacrilege seem to have struck a chord with those fearful of further chaos in Church and Kingdom. So cathedrals were lovingly and expensively refurbished (and in the case of Lichfield, rebuilt from ruins): organs built, choirs reconstituted, all for the sober but dignified musical performance of the new Book of Common Prayer.
Nevertheless, Milton comments (p. 506) that ‘the identity of the present and the historic Church of England would continue to be as much a matter of contestation in the later decades of the seventeenth century as it had been in the earlier ones’. One more round of reforms was mooted after the Revolution of 1688-9, leading not to a more comprehensive national Church as many hoped, but a greater toleration for Protestant Dissent – a move from a Church embracing the Protestant nation to an ecclesiastical establishment reluctantly putting up with parallel rival bodies. A further ecclesiastical untidiness has remained till the present day: the final expulsion of bishops from the Church of Scotland in 1690 in favour of Presbyterianism. Hence two established Churches built on two different principles of Church government remained in place north and south of the border even after the Act of Union in 1707; indeed acceptance of the anomaly was essential to secure the assent of the Scottish Parliament. In England the accession of William and Mary in 1689 triggered a parallel expulsion of those Anglican clergy, bishops and their flocks who would not swear formal allegiance to the new joint monarch, out of principled loyalty to the Stuart dynasty. The resulting two small ‘Non-Juring’ bodies, of which the Scots version persists to the present day as the Scottish Episcopal Church, were the first institutional expression of that necessary future version of Anglicanism, capable of existing anywhere in the world without any formal relationship to the British Crown.
Cambridge University Press has produced a handsome book for Milton, but not without faults. There is no gathered bibliography: that is perhaps understandable given how large the book already is, together with the intricacy of the printed and manuscript primary sources on which Milton bases his analysis. Less forgiveable is the low quality of analysis in the index, which will not aid those coming fresh to the subject.
About the Author
Diarmaid MacCulloch, DD, FBA, FRHistS, FSA, Emeritus Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, and prize-winning author, has written extensively on the sixteenth century and beyond it. His History of Christianity: the first three thousand years (Penguin/Allen Lane) and the BBC TV series based on it first appeared in 2009; the book won the Cundill Prize, the world’s largest prize for history, in 2010. His three-part TV series for BBC2, How God made the English, aired in March 2012, and his BBC2 series, Sex and the Church, aired in early 2015. He has written Silence: a Christian History (2013) and his collected essays on the Reformation appeared as All Things New: Writings on the Reformation in 2016. His Thomas Cromwell: a Life appeared in 2018. He was knighted in the UK New Year’s Honours List of 2012.