The History of Parliament’s Annual Lecture 2014: Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch

On 5th November our annual lecture was delivered in Portcullis House by Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor MacCulloch has published widely on the Reformation, including a recent biography of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, not to mention featuring in many television and radio programmes. He lectured on ‘Parliament and the Reformation of Edward VI.’

Jan Laski
Jan Laski

Professor MacCulloch began with a letter written to Edward’s sister Elizabeth on her succession to the throne in 1558 by the Polish Evangelical reformer Jan Laski (known in Western Europe as Johannes Alasco). Laski had been a key figure in Edward’s reformation, but in his letter to Elizabeth he was critical about her brother. Edward’s religious changes were a work of ‘parliamentary theology’, and he urged Elizabeth not to make the same mistakes as her brother. Although the phrase ‘parliamentary theology’ was intended as an insult, it was an accurate comment on the whole English Reformation.

The reformation in England was unique because of the role of Parliament; major events such as the break from Rome (in the 1534 Act of Supremacy) were undertaken in legislation passed by the institution. MacCulloch argued that Parliament gave the sometimes unpopular and contentious religious changes a degree of authority and legitimacy, but by using Parliament in this way the Tudor governments, probably unintentionally, made Parliament itself more important. Parliament was at the centre of events and the final word on religion for both sides.

Professor MacCulloch discussed a number of ways that both Evangelicals (Protestant reformers – although the word ‘Protestant’ was not used at the time) and conservatives used Parliamentary legitimacy to justify their policies or to resist religious changes. For example, in the early years of Edward VI’s reign the conservative Bishop Edmund Bonner refused to follow royal decrees on religion because they would counteract the ‘6 Acts’ passed by Henry VIII’s last Parliament. Professor MacCulloch then detailed the work of Edward’s reformation and how major aspects of very controversial theology – such as the new communion service in Edward’s prayer books – could be decided by compromise in Parliament. MacCulloch stressed how Edward’s reformation was the product of the evangelical clergy (often influenced by debate abroad), the regime and political circumstances.

Edward’s reformation was cut short by his death in 1553 (and much reversed by his sister Mary’s reign). Professor MacCulloch concluded his lecture by noting that Elizabeth I did reject a return to ‘Parliamentary theology’ – she did not allow her Parliaments to debate her religious settlement of 1559 despite growing pressure to do so. As such the Church of England was left with an ‘ambiguous’ doctrine that shaped the rest of the Reformation in England.


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