England’s Second Reformation
The Battle for the Church of England 1625-1662
Cambridge University Press, 2021 (ISBN: 9781107196452, 528pp, £31.99)
This book is a thriller on an epic scale. The intensity of change to English religious life in the generation surveyed was second only to that a century earlier, 1533-1559. That earlier series of dispensations, the Tudor Reformation, unfairly eclipses Milton’s period when the term ‘reformation’ comes to mind. As the author ably shows however, both the idea and the term ‘reformation’ were very much on the agenda in mid-seventeenth century Britain.
This is not narrative history, but it retains many of the virtues of that medium by adopting a roughly chronological path through the period. Milton thus begins by describing the contradictions and disintegration of the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ (noting in passing the polemic quality of such a term at all). He then sets out the nefarious machinations of the Laudian party, unashamedly describing it as such and so retaining Laud himself as the key thinker, author, and architect of this derogation. Milton notes how Laudians framed themselves as defenders of the church against the glosses of Puritan opponents, drawing on Jacobean, Elizabethan, Henrician, and Patristic settlements (though, significantly, relatively sparsely on scriptural authority itself, as the Puritans did).
The little-considered ‘abortive reformation’ is then considered – the period after the calling in 1640 of the Long Parliament when Laud’s policies were effectively opposed and the King entertained various compromise proposals. A kaleidoscopic range of such compromises appeared on the table from either the royal or parliamentary side through the 1640s, though against wildly varying political backdrops. Other authors have more exhaustively pored over the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly and Milton rightly refrains from replicating such intensity here, though nonetheless giving a very good sense of features such as the tension with Parliament’s authority, the partnership with the City of London, and the care exercised in reviewing the first 16 of the 39 Articles before the necessity of an alliance with the Scots obliged the assembly to initiate an entirely novel confessional document.
While the implementation of parliament’s decisions, such as the introduction of directory worship and the abolition of episcopacy in 1646 are followed, Milton also charts thought and argument about the status and future of the national church from disenfranchised quarters, especially the royalists. Traditional sentiment remained strong following parliamentary victory, protesting vigorously over the excision of festivals and liturgy, and was only inflamed by the seizure of control in 1653 by the army with its own radical leanings.
Milton has marshalled a dazzling array of primary sources to fuel his analysis, using letters, pamphlets, tracts, parliamentary reports, treatises, declarations, and printed sermons. He is frequently able to nuance or correct earlier historians and does so with a very even hand. The prefatory matter critiquing various false assumptions generated about the period, especially that the Church of England somehow ceased to exist and then miraculously reappeared in 1660, is superb.
Although reference is regularly made to actual ‘on the ground’ changes (one chapter even being so-named), the main focus of the text is intellectual history. To the extent that so much of the era was defined by religious affiliation, it thus constitutes a very workable introduction to mid-seventeenth century English thought in general. The only criticism worth levelling is that this does at turns serve to render passages of the book slightly abstract where they might benefit from more reference to the contemporary religious landscape as it stood.
It is striking how many of the themes at issue do continue to be debated in today’s church. The language and circumstances may have evolved, but matters such as modes of baptism, the appropriate amount of formal liturgy, the apparel of church ministers, and the use of pictures and symbols continue to be significant and contentious. As such, any clergy or well-informed laity will benefit greatly from the deeper understanding of how such matters have been treated that this spectacular volume affords.
Edward Keene, Little Shelford