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Response to Review no. 88

I would like to thank Professor Burgess for his very detailed review of my book; and for the generous comments he makes about its general character and contribution to historical understanding. I address myself now to his criticisms. It may be helpful to the reader if I try to do this in the order he has adopted.


Professor Burgesss first reservation is concerning the proper weight which he thinks ought to be given to Henry VIIIs assertion that the rights due to him were granted by the law of God, as opposed to historical precedents.

This assertion comes from a man who had conspicuously defended the Catholic Faith in his attack on Luthers position. He had abhorred heresy and had remained a committed Catholic until he failed to get the Papacy to grant him a divorce. Even afterwards he showed no respect for the Reformers other beliefs. I can give little weight to his assertion that his rights came from the law of God. This seems to be an expedient used by Henry, taken from the political theology adopted by Cromwell as part of his propaganda campaign in the early 1530s. Cromwell had borrowed it from the exiled Tyndales work The Obedience of a Christian Man (1527), which proposed the new and politically convenient teaching that the king represented Gods word and obedience to him was doing Gods will. It was vitally important to Henry, of course, that this was not seen as a new and revolutionary concept thought up by himself, but rather something which had been accepted always in Englands pristine past until the medieval usurpations of the Papacy. In combining headship of Church and State, the new claim destroyed the balance between the powers of Church and State and made Henrys position unique in Catholic Europe. He became the most absolute state ruler in western Europe.

The second and major reservation is that I portray the change from the claims advanced in the 1530s to the wider assertion of English national identity as sudden and immediate. Of course, no sea change of this sort in a nations history can be completely sudden and immediate. My chapter on Building the Official Version of English history, traces the evolution of this great change from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. It was certainly founded however, in the 1530s when the seminal ideas of English imperial independence and state control of the Church were implanted in English law and enforced by intense state propaganda together with rigorous persecution of those who did not conform with complete obedience.

I think that some confusion has arisen in the use of the word isolationist. This is a matter of perspective. I agree that there was a strand of English evangelical Protestantism which extended in fact from the Protestant exiles during the 1520s, through to the high-point of their influence during the Commonwealth period. These were, in a sense, internationalist in outlook, as I tried to portray (pp. 53-55). They believed in a universal elect People, though this never had a direct effect on English policy or on the mass of English people. Even during the Interregnum, the greatest conflict with outsiders was with the Protestant Dutch (1652-54). Though Milton wrote his sonnet in support of the Protestant Vaudois (1657), no practical help was sent to them from England.

This strand of Protestantism had shown, in the influential John Foxe especially, a belief in a universal, mystical or invisible Elect people. This later narrowed into a belief in the existence of an elect Nation (pace Joseph Meade); and finally into the exposition by Milton (Of Reformation, 1641, Animadversis, 1642) and others, of the dynamic belief that England was the Elect Nation. It was a supremely attractive, seductive and inspiring notion, when added to the xenophobic nationalism, originating in the 1530s. It became sufficiently all-embracing to grip the mind and imagination of the mass of English people. They now read the immensely powerful propaganda of Foxes Book of Martyrs (1563) supported by the government who saw its potential in uniting the nation in the light of this new belief. The message of this book reached, in one way or another, the mass of English People (pp. 49-59). This was the interpretation of Englands past, present and future within a Protestant apocalyptic framework, which was the massive contribution of a narrow strand of Puritanism to the English people as a whole.

Even Henry VIIIs proud boast in the Reformation statutes, of Englands imperial status from the time of its origins, was to resound more loudly, when combined with the newly-discovered elect nation status conferred by the protestant, apocalyptic apologists. These ideas were buttressed in the eighteenth century by a series of successful wars against Catholic peoples of the continent, leading to the expansion of the English (or now British) empire abroad. Already from the time of the Reformation, a policy of internal colonisation had commenced with the 1536 Act of Union with Wales (see page 35). This was continued with the annexation of Ireland (1540) and Scotland (1707). These ideas affected English thinking, at a conscious or more subliminal level, up to the mid-twentieth century.

The English Reformation was essentially an act of state which produced a national church, erastian in character. This was the foundation established by the statutes of the 1530s. The national-erastian dualism of thought dominated the mass of English protestantism. It was to be reinforced by later events, especially the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. The international strand in English Puritanism served only in the end to increase and enhance this English nationalism (including the English (or British) identity.

I accept that the insularity of English Common Law pre-dated the ndependence as an Empire in its own right and the liberation from foreign usurption and interference, are among the clearest notes sounded in the preambles to the Henrician Statutes of 1530-36. The very word papist, as opposed to other abusive words such as heretic, was designed to indicate that Catholics were traitors, owing allegiance to a foreign potentate against the interests of their own nation. And in traitorous disloyalty to their own king.

This meant that the rest of Catholic Europe which remained under the spiritual authority of the Papacy, was also anti-Christ in character, and therefore alien. Anti-foreign feeling was cemented by the Marian persecution which was judged, mistakenly, to have followed from Marys Spanish marriage. John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs (1563) succeeded in identifying Catholicism, for English people, as synonymous with foreign interference, brutal religious persecution and anti-Christ. The Elizabethan bishop, John Alymer, declared confidently that God is English (p.56). The development of the idea of England as the elect nation simply increased the prejudice against foreigners who were, ipso facto, inferiors as well as aliens.

It was, of course, indisputable that England was geographically very close to the continent. It was impossible physically for all contact to be cut off, especially where considerations of political or economic self-interest were involved. There was, for example, involvement by English soldiers in Holland and by English sailors on the high seas against Spain, in Elizabeths reign. Later there were commercial and colonial wars with continental countries Protestant as well as Catholic. Such contact in the main served only to boost English insularity of thought and outlook; as did the extension of the English (British) Empire at home and abroad. Such activity was interpreted as extending the beneficial sphere of English control and interest. Nor did the other forms of sporadic political, economic or cultural contact which happened during the intervals of peace, affect significantly this deep-seated English outlook (notes on pp. 272-73, 281).

Professor Burgess says that I have ignored the continuity between medieval and modern history. One of the greatest elements of continuity was precisely that fundamental assumption of thought that the Church makes the community; and therefore there could be only one Church (or religion) in any community. This assumption was at the heart of much of the domestic conflict in English politics and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The national-erastian framework of the Revolution of 1530-36 meant that conformity was now to contribute strongly to the development of English nationalism and a new, more absolute form of monarchy, rather than to the old dual allegiance to the universal Church and the king of England. The intolerable elements in the new community were now to be the minority strands of Puritan heretics and Catholic papists/traitors. The mass of English people became conformists to the new national Church in the radically new community of Tudor England.

My reference to the isolation of England from 1533 to 1973 was concerned with the important matter of English law. English people were isolated legally from the outside world during this period. There was no appeal in law to any court outside England after the Act of Restraint of Appeals (1533), until England joined the European Economic Community four centuries later. Indeed, only now, in the late 1990s are we beginning to experience the real and important effects of European law again in Britain.

My description of the irrational element in xenophobic anti-popery is well substantiated. Patrick Collinson has referred to No-Popery: the mythology of a Protestant nation; D.Loades writes of the part played by xenophobia in English anti-Popery, in his work on Mary Tudors reign; W.T. MacCaffray writing of Elizabeths reign, noticed the deep anti-Catholic prejudice, as much a xeno as Cromwell and Tyndale was tempting Henry VIII into the break with Rome, by offering him a way of getting the divorce. He believed that he had to do what he could to stop this. More, like all men, had his weaknesses, but there was no doubting his exceptional nobility. Dean Swift, one of the greatest of English satirists and a non-Catholic, described More as the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced (p. 277 note 45). The non-Catholic Lord Chancellor, Sir James Mackintosh wrote: No such culprit as More had stood at any European bar for a thousand years: the condemnation of Socrates is the only parallel in history (ibid). I have no doubt as to where More would stand on the issue of toleration in todays pluralist society; but he saw himself then as having the responsibility of trying to save Christian unity. He wanted to keep the essential Christian values and as a renaissance man build upon them to create a better society. He was quite willing to die for this, proclaiming to the end his genuine desire to be the Kings good servant, but Gods first, He died completely without rancour or bitterness.

In this world there will be ever discord and variety of opinions I trust so we too are now at variance in this world and differ in our opinions, may be one in heart and mind for ever in the world to come. In this hope I pray God to preserve you all, and especially my lord the King and so deign always to send him faithful counselors

Professor Burgess would have me include the various apologetical writings against the Reformation by English Catholic exiles and recusant priests. On reflection, I think I should have included Robert Parsons Answere to Coke (1606) and I thank him for bringing up this point. I stated that this view of the past had been lost, meaning that society in general and English scholars in particular had lost it. Committed Catholics would not have lost it, but they had no opportunity of expressing their views in English society until and during the brief reign of James II.

I nowhere condemn the poor historical scholarship of English protestants. On the contrary I state in my preface, that when I write of historians who got it wrong, I am not making a personal criticism of them. One has to see them in their historical context, accept what they were able to contribute and recognise that they worked within the constraints of their own time and place (p. xiii). It is still necessary, however, to explain why these historians failed to understand the world of medieval England and the true nature of the Reformation, because of the effects of this misunderstanding on contemporary society. I even try to explain (without condoning) why Burnett was capable of forging a document of Luther, changing it to serve his own ideological interests (p.77). There is a vital difference between describing the weaknesses of the historiography of a particular period, and condemning the people concerned.

I do not, by any means, imagine that medieval Catholicism was perfect in a sanitised past. I would not like to have lived at that time; nor indeed to have lived my whole life before Vatican II. I state: The medieval world had all the shortcomings and failings associated with a cross-section of any human society (p. 25). But I argue that it was in pursuit, however, of a vision of a communal ideal for Europe as a partnership of peoples, sharing the same sense of identity and having a common set of fundamental values.

I accept the statement that there were various strands in English Protestantism and I have written about them (especially in chapter II). But the truth lies in perspective and I am pointing to the establishment of the Great Myth which has dominated the collective memory of the mass of English people. It remains true that the Anglican Church represented the national erastian establishment which was founded in the 1530s. It remained the centre of religious life for the mass of English people for the next fourreformed church of England. But Maitlands work had also been met with a storm of opposition in England.

I believe, like Professor Burgess, that interpretation plays a vital part in the activity of being a historian; and this was certainly so in Lingards work. My criticism (and his) is of theorising and generalising along philosophical lines in a manner which is quite detached from facts and dates. This is where historical writing ceases to be truly historical, in whatever age it is taking place. Hume provides a good example of this practice, and of the general attitude to historiography in the age of enlightenment and reason. Why this should have happened is a valid and illuminating theme of inquiry into that particular age (pp. 149-157), without necessitating any particular condemnation of Hume. He was exhibiting an attitude to the past which was taken up by most of his contemporaries; and his History, significantly, was the most popular in England for a century. Similarly Lord Macaulay saw history primarily as a branch of literature. He was an exceedingly good writer; but in my view, not a great historian. (pp.218-220).

Professor Burgess thinks that I have no sympathy or understanding for Hume or the humanist tradition of historical writing which was inclined to view the historians job as one of eloquent writing not antiquarian research. He sees my description of the way in which Protestant-Whig historians failed to understand the nature of the medieval period, and consequently of the Reformation as simply a failure on my part to appreciate them contextually, in their own period; or my failure to realise that they were seeking other truths moral, political or philosophical. My reply is that I find such figures enormously interesting precisely because they do tell us more about their own period than about the past. But good historical writing happens, in any age, when the writer is concerned with seeking and portraying historical truth (the truth about what happened in the past). I take this to be a constant, not a relative factor. So Bede on the seventh century produced a better historical work than Hume did in the eighteenth. Bede has been described as the master of a living art, and his History belongs to the small class of books which transcend all but the most fundamental conditions of time and place (D.C. Douglas). Indeed modern historians still regard Bede as a first-class source for his period, whereas few if any would place Hume in that category. Similarly good literature, poetry, or good science is identified ultimately against the standard criterion of whether it is seeking and telling the truth about these separate areas of human experience. In historiography, interpretation is an essential tool for understanding the truth about the past; but it can only be properly used when the narrative (of facts and dates) has been established on a sound basis of research in the first place. If this has not been done, then the interpretation loses its rationale.

Professor Burgess dislikes my saying that a historian of the past has something right or wrong, thinking that thereby I am being Whiggish myself. I tried to anticipate this charge in my preface, by explaining that in describing the weaknesses of the Whiggish view of progress, I am not denying progress itself (pp. xiv-xv). I do not believe, as the Whig historians did, that the winners in any conflict are always right because they lead to the future. But undoubtedly, historical writing has advanced in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding. It is possible, too, to stipulate a constant factor in ones definition of historiography: the intention of discovering and expressing the truth about what happened in the past. It is important, then, to be able to explain why one generation or people (early modern) was not able to achieve a proper understanding of a previous one (the medieval) whereas an even later generation (todays scholars) is able to do so. Many factors historical as well as historio forms, though in some countries still punished with civil disabilities, is nowhere liable to the penalties of death.

Lingard did nothing blithely. He knew well that the folk memory, relayed by the Great Myth was certainly not an extinct force. It was well capable of molding behaviour and attitudes in his own time. The very perceptive contemporary Anglican clergyman, Sydney Smith said that a major reason for anti-Catholic clamour was the popular belief that the Catholics alone have been persecutors, spread about by men who love party better than truth (p. 174). Lingard had personal memories of the Gordon Riots (1780) which led to the killing of about three hundred innocent people after the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 (p.235). So it was important for him to establish the truth of what happened in the past.

The Lingard correspondence, especially that between him and Bishop Poynter (p.170), reveals his good practical sense and wise political judgment (ibid). These qualities were of importance in guiding the strategy for Catholic emancipation (1829). It was Lingard, for example, who drew up the petition presented to the House of Lords in 1825 on this question. Lingard, after all, had rejected the offer of two bishoprics, the presidency of Maynooth, and the Rectorship of the English College in Rome. A future leader of the Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Wiseman, wrote of him:

It will never be known till his life is really written, and his correspondence published, how great a share he had in the direction of our ecclesiastical affairs in England, and how truly he was almost the oracle which our bishops consulted in matters of intricate and delicate importance (p.304 note 17)

Yes, I do think that Imperial Britain was isolationist, xenophobic anti-Catholic and nationalist (p.58). Indeed, it was a combination of these elements which helped to sustain the self-identity of the British as they emerged after 1707, still dominated by England. Professor Burgess says that I have failed to consider this imperial strand in the English historiographical tradition; but this is one of the themes of my chapter on the elect Nation (also pp. 162-163, 218-219, 225). It led, in a semi-secularised form, to the remark of Cecil Rhodes, the patron of Kipling: we are the first race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race. The Victorians still believed in the moral validity of British rule. Palmerstons stance stood for that of his age: I may say without any vain glorious boast that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation. Out task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations (though trade was the dominating factor in Britains imperial policy).

I do not think that the legacy of Empire, or Commonwealth, would provide an appropriate basis for Englands primary role in the new millennium. Such an approach would be out of kilter with contemporary developments in World history and would not be of relevance to the modern world or to Englands position in it. The idea has too much of the old Great Myth attached to it.

My vision of Englishness in the prologue to my book is associated with English life as it was in the first millennium. I certainly do not believe that this can be transplanted into modern English life; but it reflected the fact that during the first millennium, England was very much part of Europe. My introduction (pp. 23-30) and Epilogue are concerned with my vision for English life in the next millennium. This vision is not, I hope, narrowly English, because it sees England very much as part of Europe and the wider world; but my book is about The English Nation.

It seems that the single core of Professor Burgesss discontent with my book is in his belief that I am arguing that we should return to the politics of the medieval period because I believe in exact historical parallels. It may be helpful, then, to make it clear that I am not arguin defined and protected by a pattern of legal rights. Somehow, however improbably, the European mix had turned out to be one which could nourish a dynamic rather than a static future.

I believe that this will be also true for the next millennium, if we continue to base our civilisation on Christian values.


Professor Burgess here returns to the main themes of his review: that I am using history for political purposes; that I assume that history repeats itself; and that I do not examine the dissimilarities between the modern and the medieval world.

I hope that I have been able to answer these criticisms.

I would like to thank the University of London, Institute of Historical Research, for this opportunity of placing my reply alongside Professor Burgesss review of my book. This new development is much to be applauded by historical scholars.