Opinion | Wednesday, 1st November 2017

Brexit to Bonfire Night: why the Reformation still matters

Dr Rosamund Oates explains why the legacy of Martin Luther's 95 Theses is relevant 500 years on

Originally published on The Conversation.

by Dr Rosamund Oates, Senior Lecturer in History.

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther, a German monk, attacked the Catholic Church in a move that sparked the Protestant Reformation. The effects are still being felt in Britain today – from the celebrations of Bonfire Night to the powers that parliament have to deal with Brexit.

In parts of Europe Reformation Day commemorates the moment Martin Luther produced his 95 Theses that criticising the Catholic Church. As Luther and his followers developed their ideas, they created Protestant churches independent of the Pope in Rome.

Although almost 60% of people identified themselves as Christians in the 2011 census in Britain only 5% of the population regularly attend church. But the Reformation affected more than people’s religious lives. When Henry VIII used some of Luther’s ideas to break away from Rome, he created new powers that are still relevant today.

Henry VIII became interested in creating an independent church in England when the Pope refused Henry a divorce to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. In 1529, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell called parliament to pass legislation that transferred all the powers and wealth of the Pope and the Catholic Church into the hands of the King.

Over the next few years, as Henry dismantled the power of Catholicism, a new rhetoric of English independence emerged. In 1533, parliament argued that “this realm of England is an empire”, with no political or legal obligations to the European Church. Taxes that went to Rome now stayed in England, and Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church. His successors, Edward VI and Elizabeth I used many of those powers to make that church Protestant.

Brexit powers

The process of breaking with Rome also granted Henry VIII huge powers. In 1539 Henry effectively transferred these to himself with an act that allowed the King – without parliament – to amend or make new laws. This is the basis of the “Henry VIII powers” in the Brexit Repeal Act, which allow ministers to adopt European laws without parliamentary scrutiny.

The ripples of that power-grab from 1539 were felt in Westminster in August when Ministers were urged to put extra checks in place to limit “sweeping powers” included in the EU Withdrawal Bill. The bill aims to repeal the European Communities Act and convert EU law into UK law. It also enables the government to make changes further down the line without presenting new legislation to Parliament – known as “delegated powers”. Labour’s Hilary Benn, chairman of the Brexit select committee, suggested this could amount to “a blank legislative cheque”.

The Reformation did more than change our relationship with Europe and the Catholic Church – it changed how the English viewed themselves. In the conflicts of 16th-century Europe, religious identities were politically charged. Protestantism became part of the national identity, contrasted with Catholicism that the Elizabethans portrayed as dangerous and foreign.

Bonfire Night celebrations

When the Spanish Armada failed to invade in 1588, the English claimed they were saved by a Protestant wind. When Robert Catesby (played by Kit Harrington in Gunpowder) and Guy Fawkes failed to blow up parliament, once again it was argued that God was looking after the English. Celebrations on November 5 over the following decades celebrated God’s protection from foreign and treacherous Catholicism. As Gunpowder shows, the truth was far from this simple. But Bonfire Night became an indelible part of the national calendar.

Events are being held throughout Europe in 2017 to mark the 500-year anniversary. It is a national holiday in Germany, with concerts, pageants and church services planned. At Westminster Abbey, the Church of England is celebrating “the start of the Reformation” in a service that includes an act of reconciliation between Lutheran and Catholic Churches. The BBC is showing a range of programmes, including a documentary by David Starkey and a drama about Catholic plotters in Gunpowder.

Not only did the Reformation change English politics it changed the perception that the English had of themselves. While church attendance may have declined, we can see the legacy of the Reformation in many areas of our lives in 2017.

Dr Oates is academic advisor for the 'The Reformation' exhibition at the John Rylands Library, which runs until 4th March 2018. 

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