During the late Middle Ages, England experienced a lot of turbulent events and underwent numerous changes. Compared to the situation at the end of the twelfth century, when England had strong cultural and political ties to the Continent, by 1450, England had become a nation with a sense of separate identity. This sense of a separate identity was shaped by the wars between France and England in particular. Moreover, we can claim that, by 1450, England was emerging as a nation with proper language, literature, and architecture. The Church of England was also increasingly becoming an independent church with an English character. Though the Anglo-Saxon past, overshadowed by the Arthurian legends, was not the centre of attention during this period, it appears for instance in Matter of England Romances, one of them being the fifteenth-century version of the romance of Guy of Warwick which takes place under the reign of King Athelstan.
In fact, the concept of identity was complicated during this period and there were competing individual identities. The romance of Guy of Warwick primarily presents Guy as a perfect representation of a Christian knight, valiant, honourable, credible, faithful, and moderate. However, while being depicted as the most valiant knight in the world, emphasis is also placed on him being an Anglo-Saxon knight and on England as his “patria”. We can therefore assert that a sense of English identity and even superiority, supported by the glorious and heroic past of the English, is present in this work. Thus, the heroic Anglo-Saxon past might have served to strengthen the English identity and enhance the pride of belonging to the English nation.
4The Tudor Age (1485–1603)
The reign of the Tudor dynasty in England can be in many respects regarded as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. An absolute monarchy and a national Church were established. England defeated its main rival, Spain, and the foundations of its maritime supremacy were laid. However, under Henry VIII, the English Church passed under the control of the state. The Reformation, brought about by Henry VIII, was a major political and social change which had the appearance of a religious change (Nangonová 54–56). By its potential to justify the break with the Roman Church, the Anglo-Saxon past was to play an important role in the Reformation and the further development of English identity.
4.1England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Tudor Age
In the second half of the fifteenth century, England witnessed quarrels between its two most powerful families – the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Between 1461 and 1483, the country was ruled by the Yorkist king Edward IV. When he died, leaving as his heir a young boy, Edward’s youngest brother declared himself King Richard III. However, Richard made himself unpopular with both Lancastrians and Yorkists. When, in August 1485, Henry Tudor, the heir to the Lancastrian title, landed in Wales, he was joined by many discontent lords, both Lancastrians and Yorkists. When Henry Tudor and Richard III met on 22 August at Bosworth Field, half of Richard’s army changed sides. Richard was thus quickly defeated and Henry was crowned king on the very battlefield, becoming Henry VII and founding a new dynasty – the Tudors (McDowall 55).
Henry VII established the foundations of a wealthy nation state and a powerful new monarchy (McDowall 67). In 1486, he united the houses of York and Lancaster by marrying Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter. Though his reign was marked by rebellions of other pretenders to the throne, he aimed at peace, security and trade (Cannon and Griffiths 295).
When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1508, no one opposed his accession (Cannon and Griffiths 295). However, despite his efforts, he failed to secure an important position in European politics (McDowall 68). His unsuccessful wars and sumptuous court soon caused financial difficulties. In search of new financial resources, Henry realized how powerful and wealthy the Catholic Church in England was and how it limited his authority and deprived him of finances (McDowall 69). Nevertheless, there was also another cause for a conflict with the Catholic Church. As, by 1526, Henry‘s wife, Catherine of Aragon, had not been able to provide a son who survived infancy, Henry asked the Pope to allow him to divorce her. However, the Pope refused to do so (McDowall 69) and his refusal became the most important cause of the English Reformation (Pendrill 60).
Between 1529 and 1536, a number of Reformation statutes were enacted by Parliament. First, papal jurisdiction was abolished. Via the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals, Henry VIII, through Parliament, forbid appeals to Rome on the grounds that England was an empire governed by one supreme head and king “with plenary, whole and entire power” (Cannon and Griffiths 318). Then, Henry asserted his royal authority over the Church. The Act of Supremacy, passed in 1534, made Henry the supreme head of the Church of England (“Anglicana Ecclesia”) (Cannon and Griffiths 318). Therefore, even if there was a strong anticlerical sentiment in English society, the English Reformation was not a popular movement but an “act of state” (Kramer 66). In fact, as David Gordon Newcombe points out, contrary to the radical changes that had taken place on the continent, “it was only in throwing off the authority of the Pope that the Church of England bore any resemblance to the Protestant Churches on the continent. There were few doctrinal changes of any significance” (Newcombe 1).
England became a truly Protestant country only under the reign of Henry‘s son, Edward I (r. 1547–53). The Book of Common Prayer and the Confession of Faith of 1552 (in 42 articles) provided the theological basis of the Anglican Church (Kramer 68–69). Although Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII through Catherine of Aragon, attempted to bring England back to Catholicism, the Protestant national church was finally established by Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter through Anne Boleyn. It was Elizabeth who finally established the monarch as the supreme head of the English Church and undertook a revision of the prayer book (1559) and the Thirty-nine Articles (1563) (Kramer 69).
On the whole, the “Tudor revolution”, which took place between 1530 and 1580, was a period of a development of the “state”, the consolidation of Wales which became definitely part of England in 1453, the emergence of Britain as a naval power, an increase in foreign trade and a rise of English as a national language of literature and learning (Shrank 7–8). According to Hans Kohn, it was the Tudor period that “laid the foundations for the growth of English nationhood” (Kohn 74), and in particular the Elizabethan period, though it did not yet have the character of modern nationalism (Kohn 71).
However, it was the Reformation that, “by cutting some of the ties binding England to the common body of Catholic Christendom and by raising up new enemies to force Englishmen into a common purpose” (Levy 8), had the greatest influence on the construction of English national identity (Shrank 8). Moreover, thanks to the Reformation, the English viewed themselves as a nation specially chosen “to spread again the light of Christianity in a world from which faith and morals had practically disappeared” (Kennedy 1). It also contributed to a national pride (Kennedy 1).
In fact, while, during the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and its mythology tracing the origins of the Britons to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas of Troy, as well as the Arthurian legend, played an important role in England (Appiah 283), they were discredited by the popular classes in the 16th century. This was because they represented the mythologies taken up first by the ruling class in medieval England and subsequently by the Tudors and the Stuarts. In the sixteenth century, they were replaced by the legend of free Anglo-Saxon institutions (Hill 55–56).
As Fred Jacob Levy writes, “of all the ‘reformations’ of Europe, the English was, in terms of its justification, the most historical” (79). Since the Act in Restraint of Appeals, innovation was denied and new practices were justified by their historical antecedents (Levy 79). The reformers underlined the purity of the primitive Church, and intended to re-establish both its practices and theology (Newcombe 8). However, they did not agree on the time of the existence of the pure Church which, they believed, had been polluted by the false doctrines of the papacy and the Church of Rome (Newcombe 8).
For most of them, the Church of England was founded by an apostle, independent of Roman influence (Kidd 99–100). However, though English political identity at that time was becoming mainly Saxonist, “the ethnic association of the Church of England remained firmly tied to a myth of ancient British christianity” (Kidd 99). According to this myth, the pagan Anglo-Saxons drove the Britons into the mountains of Wales where the latter preserved their faith. The Anglo-Saxons were later evangelized by St. Augustine sent by the Pope Gregory the Great. The British Church survived untouched until the reign of Henry I when it was incorporated within the Anglo-Norman church. It was finally Henry VIII, of Welsh descent, who restored the church to its former autonomy and purity (Kidd 100–01). In some cases, the belief that the pure church of the Britons started to decay in the Anglo-Saxon period led even to anti-Saxon sentiment (Kidd 102–03). These two different identities coexisted until the seventeenth century which was marked by the rise of Gothicism (Kidd 101).
Nevertheless, while the church of the Britons “may not have been contaminated by Roman influences” (Kidd 106), there were few sources available about it that could provide a basis for ecclesiastical polemic. Therefore, other reformers (for instance John Foxe, Archbishops Parker and Ussher) turned their attention to a later period of English history (Kidd 106–07). According to them, the “pure church” was represented by the English Anglo-Saxon church (Hill 55; Horsman 9). It led in turn to the revival of interest in the Anglo-Saxon past (Hill 55). In fact, as Horsman argues, “the first enthusiastic English interest in Anglo-Saxon England was a product of the English Reformation” (10). It was only during the Reformation that Anglo-Saxon writings first drew public attention because they contained religious opinions that attacked some of the doctrines of the Roman Church that represented heresies at that time. The period before the Norman Conquest had a great importance for reformers because “the doctrine of transubstantiation had not yet been established, the clergy was not yet celibate, and the Scripture and services were in the vernacular” (Levy 117). Moreover, the Anglo-Saxons had translated the Scriptures into the vernacular. These facts were therefore powerful arguments for the reformers (Wright 2). In this chapter, I will analyze writings by one of the reformers belonging to the second group, Archbishop Matthew Parker.