Was the English Reformation the Original Brexit?


There are several similarities between the 16th century Reformation and the present-day Brexit. The main one seems to be that we British don’t like being told what to do by an organisation that isn’t even based in our country i.e. 16th century Pope in Rome and 21st century European Union in Brussels. As an island, we are separated from mainland Europe by the Channel, and have different concerns to the mainland. It seems prophetic that the British parliament will activate article 50 this year, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The main difference between the Reformation and Brexit is that the Reformation in England happened on the whim of Henry VIII because he wanted a divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. However, Brexit was voted for by the British people in a democratic election. However, both seem to have ignited similar battles between the people – Catholic vs. Protestant in the 16th century and Leave vs. Remain in the 21st century.

It has been suggested that there is more Euro scepticism in countries where Protestantism prevailed rather than the more traditional Catholic countries.[i] Fraser claims that Catholicism embodies a belief of holding things together, hence possibly the centrality of the EU in traditionally Catholic countries. On the other hand, Protestant countries still tend to see the EU as an offshoot of the powerful Holy Roman Empire. The centralisation of power is something that Martin Luther challenged, and something that is still argued today with the side-lining of local government ideas in favour of ideas from Westminster.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

The 1534 Act of Supremacy took away the power of the Pope over England, and established the king (or queen) as Head of the Church of England. This act also repealed foreign laws and foreign authority, which was an important argument for Brexit.[ii] The Reformation has lasted nearly 500 years, so it seems absurd that we still allow countries without any claim to Britain to make our laws and decide what we should and shouldn’t do. Surely this should be for the British people to decide and not bureaucrats in Brussels? England didn’t stop being European after the Reformation, just as we won’t stop being European with Brexit – there are still alliances and trade agreements to be made, just as at any other time.[iii] We still remain European, even if not in Europe, and it doesn’t seem to be doing the likes of Norway and Switzerland much harm.

Theo Hobson renounces Niall Ferguson’s view that England would have been better to remain with Rome in the 16th century, as the Reformation actually paved the way for a stronger England, and Britain. In this case, the Reformation is a point in Brexit’s favour.[iv] Imagine what could have happened without the Reformation – England could have become involved in the religious wars as in France and Germany, with events like the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. We should be grateful that, at this point, England was a stable state under Elizabeth I. In this way it seems that the Reformation did England good, so why can’t Brexit do the same? Probably it is still too early to tell what the full consequences will be.

It can be suggested that England leans toward liberty while Catholic Europe prefers tyranny – sometimes Napoleon and Hitler are cited as examples.[v] This doesn’t seem logical as, it could be argued; Henry VIII has also been seen as a tyrant (Do I Think Henry VIII Deserves his Reputation as a Tyrant?). He did kill two of his wives, and several of his closest friends and ministers like Cromwell. It’s not just Catholic countries that can produce tyrants and murderers, so this seems more like a fantasy.

Hobson believes that Brexit is fuelled by a hope of new national unity and purpose, but he doesn’t believe that it is actually available.[vi] In the end, only time will tell. Giles Fraser sums the argument up in the best way: “Brexit perfectly recycles this defiant spirit of the Reformation”.[vii] The Reformation demonstrates that the consequences of Brexit will not be properly felt for a good few years to come, and only then will be properly be able to answer this question.

[i] Giles Fraser, “Brexit Recycles the Defiant Spirit of the Reformation”, The Guardian, 5 May 2016 [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/05/brexit-recycles-the-defiant-spirit-of-the-reformation]

[ii] Daryl Worthington, “Can a Brexit Precedent be Found in Henry VIII’s Reformation?”, New Historian, 3 October 2016 [http://www.newhistorian.com/can-brexit-precedent-found-henry-viiis-reformation/7332/]

[iii] Tim Stanley, “The Reformation Offers a Good Lesson for Brexit”, The Telegraph, 24 July 2016 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/24/the-reformation-offers-a-good-lesson-for-brexit/]

[iv] Theo Hobson, “Are there any Useful Parallels between the EU Referendum and Religious History?”, Spectator, 25 February 2016 [http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/02/are-there-any-useful-parallels-between-the-eu-referendum-and-religious-history/]

[v] Tim Stanley, “The Reformation Offers a Good Lesson for Brexit”, The Telegraph, 24 July 2016 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/24/the-reformation-offers-a-good-lesson-for-brexit/]

[vi] Theo Hobson, “Are there any Useful Parallels between the EU Referendum and Religious History?”, Spectator, 25 February 2016 [http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/02/are-there-any-useful-parallels-between-the-eu-referendum-and-religious-history/]

[vii] Giles Fraser, “Brexit Recycles the Defiant Spirit of the Reformation”, The Guardian,  5 May 2016 [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/05/brexit-recycles-the-defiant-spirit-of-the-reformation]

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