This essay reconsiders one aspect of Christopher Haigh’s influential article ‘Anticlericalism and the English Reformation’

This essay reconsiders one aspect of Christopher Haigh’s influential article ‘Anticlericalism
and the English Reformation’. The article argued that anticlericalism in early 16th-century
England 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, was
discontinuous, opportunistic and unrepresentative. This essay suggests, however, that Haigh’s
claim makes insufficient allowance for the scarcity of the sources, underestimates the degree
of continuity before and after 1529, and fails to take into account the inherently public
character of parliamentary petitioning. It proposes instead that the challenging of the
Church’s wealth, the criticizing of clerical abuses, and the questioning of ecclesiastical
jurisdiction recurred in early Tudor parliaments, and that the significance of such thwarted
attempts at legislative reform crossed sessions and became cumulative.
Keywords: anticlericalism; the Reformation Parliament; probate; mortuary payments;
pluralism; disendowment; lollardy; hospitals; almshouses; convocation
In 1983 Christopher Haigh presented a compelling assault on the established narrative of the
Reformation.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 century
played any part in this religious revolution. Existing accounts, Dr Haigh argued, had lumped
together indiscriminately a mass of different sources: denunciations of clerical excess in
literature, criticisms of the church courts, and legislation by the Reformation Parliament. By
disaggregating and depreciating this material, Haigh sought to abolish the concept of
anticlericalism – at least before the break with Rome, for in a startling inversion he concluded
that anticlericalism, rather than being a cause of the Reformation, was a consequence. His
argument, however, was based on a questionable assumption: that if anticlericalism did not
cause the Reformation, then the concept played no part in explaining the process of religious
change. While accepting Haigh’s first contention, subsequent contributors have rehabilitated
anticlericalism as a catch-all label for a set of attitudes, behaviours, and discourses.2
Marshall has explained anticlericalism as the reaction to the unstable clerical compound of
exalted station and mundane fallibility.3
Ethan Shagan has suggested how from the 1530s
government policy and the evangelical message energised this latent and reactive, broad if
not deeply held, sensibility. The case for post-Reformation anticlericalism, Professor Shagan
added, is open to the same evidential objection that Haigh had brought for the earlier period.4
George Bernard, while accepting that anticlericalism ‘in no way made the reformation
inevitable’, has insisted that ‘nonetheless it was important’.5
This essay therefore starts from the premise that anticlericalism was neither a cause
nor a consequence of the Reformation, but a catalyst. While other analyses have ranged
broadly over the subject, drawing on a range of sources, this essay is concerned only with
one, hitherto neglected, dimension of Haigh’s case: the role of parliament. Haigh made two
criticisms of the legislative evidence for anticlericalism. First, he advanced a ‘political’
account of the Reformation Parliament.6
The laws of 1529 concerning mortuaries, pluralism
and probate and the manoeuvrings of 1532 around the ‘Supplication against the Ordinaries’
did not voice widely felt grievances. Rather, he maintained, these complaints originated with
the crown’s attempts to pressurise the Church into granting the king’s divorce, and they drew
support 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 followed
naturally from his belief that the anticlericalism of the Reformation Parliament was
contingent, opportunistic and unrepresentative. In the absence of royal sponsorship, criticism
of the Church in earlier parliaments was, he claimed, rare, transient and hardly deserving of
the importance it had been accorded.