Opinion

Brexit and the Reformation: Fallout

Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Catholic Church only marked the beginning of the Reformation. So too does Boris Johnson’s deal merely mark the beginning of Brexit. 

Comparisons between Brexit and the Reformation have been made before. But the lessons we can learn from contrasting these two events do not lie in their respective splits from Europe (the Holy Roman Empire and the EU respectively), but in the legacies they left. The Reformation was a process which took half a century to fully play out, tainted politics with religious and ideological fault lines that quite literally lasted centuries, and fractured the ‘United kingdoms’ — England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Now that we have officially left the EU, Brexit is likely to do the same in all three ways. 

Brexit and the Reformation: a long transition period?

On 1st January 2021 we officially left the European Union. Nearly five centuries ago in 1532 Henry VIII removed England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales from the grip of Rome, the Catholic Church and Europe’s Christendom. Like Brexit today, this was a superficially ‘hard’ Reformation: the 1534 Act of Supremacy cut all ties to the Holy Roman Empire, the Dissolution of the Monasteries shattered both the physical and psychological presence of the Catholic Church, and the imposition of an English Prayerbook marked a shift towards Protestant doctrine. Similarly, Boris Johnson has stripped the UK (though Northern Ireland to a lesser degree) of membership to the Customs Union and the Single Market.

When we look closer, though,  it becomes clear that neither the break from Rome in the 16th century nor our break from the EU now are immediate or definitive. The Brexit deal struck by Johnson last week does not cover all of Britain’s trade, nor does it entirely remove us from the constraints of the EU. On the surface, the deal means no tariffs or quotas. But this relies upon the assumption that we do not veer from the ‘level playing field’: the idea that neither side should have any significant advantage in labour, environmental and state aid. In essence, then, the very thing which Brexiteers voted for — the ability to make new, more advantageous trade deals both within and outside of the EU  — is a fallacy. Or in other words, the deal may have been struck but our future relationship with Europe is yet to be decided. Similarly, although the Henrician break from Rome was instantaneous, the political and religious Reformation which followed took decades to play out. Therefore, some historians, including Christopher Haigh, have convincingly proposed that there was not simply one Reformation in the 16th century but multiple reformations. Different stances on religious doctrine were taken by different monarchs, from Henry to Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. In the same way, although we have had our first Brexit, there will have to be many more negotiations and Brexits before our new position in the world is definitive. 

For what England, Scotland and Ireland experienced was arguably not a ‘full’ Protestant Reformation in the same way that the Lutheran Reformation in Germany had been, which had been the first and most radical in Europe. In 1538 an English Bible was disseminated throughout every parish in England to be kept in each Church for public use. This translation of the bible from Latin — as it had been under Catholicism — to English was an essential element of evangelical and Protestant thought, the idea being that ‘common inhabitants’ should have access to the religious text. However, in 1543 Henry VIII subsequently passed the Act for the Advancement of True Religion. This banned bible reading for the ‘lower orders’, thereby undermining the very theological point of an English bible in the first place. For the remainder of the 16th century, many plural reformations occurred: the kingdoms oscillated backwards and forwards from radical to conservative — and even to Catholic under Mary I. 

Thus Henry VIII’s metaphorical ‘Brexit deal’ was struck in 1532, just as Johnson’s was on 1st January. But, as in the 16th century, there will be a far longer, more complex ‘transition period’ over the next few decades as Britain decides what role it will play in Europe and the world. The Reformations were messy and ambiguous; it is likely that our Brexits will be the same.

Political Fault Lines

Just as our respective European exits are not instantaneous, so are they both not driven by united consensus. Neither the Reformation nor Brexit were inevitable, or caused by a unanimous popular movement: both split the country down the middle. Despite historical caricatures which paint the Medieval Catholic Church as a corrupt, decaying institution, most people were actually content with the religious status quo. The historian Alec Ryrie succinctly argues that “The Church was not in danger in 1500. But it was not invulnerable either”. This idea that the Catholic Church was not in an existential crisis is not dissimilar to our position in the EU in the immediate years prior to the 2016 referendum. It wasn’t catastrophic, but neither was it ideal.

What is important about this ambivalence towards change, however, is that for both Brexit and the Reformation the dividing lines are not clear cut. The puritans might be analogous to today’s hard brexiteers; the mainstream Protestants to soft euro-sceptics; the Catholics to staunch remainers. However, beyond this are perpetual shades of grey: Calvinists, anti-Calvinists, Presbyterians and Arminians are all different factions of Protestantism, which formed in the 16th and 17th centuries. So too there are brexiteers who have changed their minds, remainers who want to get on with it and so on.

So, the centuries following the Reformation are infamously characterised by partisanship, scare-mongering, and binary political rhetoric. In the same vein, British 21st century politics may well not see an end to pro-Europe and anti-Europe battle lines. At this point in time the prospect of another debate on Europe might seem impossible — undesirable even. People probably felt exactly the same in 1973 when we joined the EU. However, the reality is that Britain reassessing its relationship with Europe in the next fifty years is highly plausible. And when this happens, the scars and political fault lines we thought were buried will reemerge.

Revival

This possibility of reevaluation leads to another notable parallel between Brexit and the Reformation. Throughout the 17th century, the fear of a return to Catholicism and European control haunted politics. There were various Catholic scares scattered throughout the period, with Charles I arguably the first, just as future Remainers might scare the present Brexit dream. Married to the Catholic Henrietta Maria, Charles embarked on a project to restore the physical majesty as well as the episcopal hierarchy of the Church. This provoked an immense backlash from those who feared that such policies were disconcertingly aligned with Catholic doctrine. In the end, Charles’s sympathy towards Catholicism played a major part in causing the Civil Wars of the 1640s. 

Such events would be analogous to, say, a future Prime Minister being avidly pro-Europe. The result would be — as it was in the 17th century — a redefining of major political battle lines which might otherwise have seemed faded and obsolete. 

Disunited Kingdoms

The most distinctive, and consequential, similarity between the post-Reformation and post-Brexit fallouts is the division of the kingdoms. In the 16th century, Ireland’s Reformation failed miserably. Unlike in Scotland, the successive Tudor governments failed to integrate Protestantism into Irish culture. A Gaelic Irish Prayerbook was not translated until the early 17th century, whereas it was translated into Gaelic Scottish as early as 1562. As a result, the English failed to convert the old Irish to Protestantism. But more significant was the failure to convert the Old English from Catholicism as well. In fact it was this failure of the religious Reformation in Ireland which caused centuries of Anglo-Irish conflict. The Irish rebellion in 1641 triggered anti-Catholic hysteria, which again resurged in the 1680s alongside fears of James II’s Catholicism. For centuries, Ireland became a point of leverage through which European powers posed a threat to Britain. In the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, for example, the closest Britain came to Napoleonic invasion was the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Ireland thus became a focal point for the English projection of its anti-European paranoia. Such fears are echoed by the heated debate over the Irish border which dominated the Brexit negotiations for years. 

So too might Scotland become the focal point for British projection of anti-European paranoia. In the most recent poll, 52% of Scots say that they would vote for independence — this is the sixteenth poll in a row to show a pro-independence result. The most prominent cause for the change in sentiment since the 2014 referendum is the fact that 62% of the Scottish population voted ‘remain’ in the Brexit referendum. Scottish independence is now no longer just about sovereignty; it is about Europe.

The truth is that leaving Europe divided the Kingdoms of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland in the 16th century. And it may well do again. 

The end beginning of Brexit

Comparing our post-Reformation and post-Brexit worlds is not just a ‘Smart Alec’ analogy which makes for a nice-sounding article — only in part. 

In fact, the comparison raises some fundamental points about Britain’s current position. Firstly, the political factions of Brexit have not faded with the deal. Instead they have been permanently marked in the sand, just as religious partisanship was following the break from Rome. Second, the potential for pro-Europe revival in the next few decades is more likely than we might think. And, even if it does not, what is important is that there will be ‘pro-European paranoia’ in 21st century just as there was Catholic hysteria in the 17th. Thirdly, as in the past, the question of Europe is likely to split the country and turn a United Britain into a disunited one. 

Most crucially, though, we must remember that just as the Succession Act of 1534 marked only the beginning of the Reformation — so too does Johnson’s deal only mark the beginning of Brexit. The fallout — Britain (or potentially not Britain) finding its place in the world — will be the true test of our 21st century reformation.