500th Anniversary Reformation Day Interview with Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kt FSA FRHistS FBA


Queenanneboleyn.com is thrilled to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day by sharing a recent online interview with world-renowned religious historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the church and fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford University, is an expert in the History of Christianity. A prolific researcher, teacher, lecturer, biographer and history writer, Professor Sir MacCulloch has been honored with the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Whitbread Biography Prize and the Duff Cooper Biography Prize for Thomas Cranmer, A Life; the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the British Academy Book Prize for Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490 – 1700; and, the 2010 Hessell-Tiltman Prize and Cundell Prize for A History of Christianity.

If Professor Sir MacCulloch looks familiar, you likely have enjoyed his teaching of religious history on television and radio in a variety of documentaries highlighting the life of Thomas Cromwell, the History of Christianity, how God made the English, and sex in the church. Though honored as a Knight Bachelor by Her Majesty the Queen in 2012 and elected a Fellow through the years of the Society of Antiquities of London, the Royal Historical Society, and the British Academy, Professor Sir MacCulloch is cherished most for his articulate, engaging, and down-to-earth teaching style that enthralls his peer historians, college students, and history buffs alike.

Beyond all aforementioned, Diarmaid MacCulloch is a frequent contributor to The Guardian. CLICK HERE for a listing of his book reviews and articles –> Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Guardian. To purchase one of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s brilliant books, CLICK HERE –> Books by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written extensively about the Tudor Period of English History. Given the expansive topics posed by the Protestant Reformation, Queenanneboleyn.com limited our questions to Professor Sir MacCulloch primarily to the reign of King Henry VIII. Enjoy!


Professor MacCulloch, do you believe that Martin Luther had any inclination whatsoever that watershed of events that would unfold as a result of his decision to nail his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (The 95 Theses) to the door of the Wittenburg Castle church? 

None at all.  This was a routine notice of a university disputation, or seminar as we might describe it.  He had announced a disputation on a completely different subject the month before.


Page from Assertio Septem Sacramentorum The Vatican Libraries.

History teaches us that King Henry VIII was named “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his arguments in opposition to Martin Luther in Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defense of the Seven Sacraments), ironically given later events defending the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. Is there any truth in your opinion that Sir Thomas More assisted Henry VIII with this book? Do you believe that the book illustrates an honest argument of Henry VIII’s religious views at the time of its publication? How devout of a Roman Catholic would you surmise Henry VIII was prior to his need to annul his first marriage in the hopes of securing a healthy male heir (and spare) to the throne (and thus continuation of the Tudor Dynasty)?

Yes, More discussed the book with the King, but the main work of research and argument for it was done by specialist theologians at Oxford and Cambridge.  The King, who was keenly interested in theology, then made what changes he thought appropriate and it was published under his name.  It represents his theology at the time, which was that of a devout son of the Western Church of the Latin Rite (what might now be thought of as Roman Catholicism, and certainly then called itself the Catholic Church).  He also fancied himself as a humanist, and therefore like most humanists, was looking for reform in the Church.  More advised him to tone down the reverence for the position of the Pope, which he thought excessive.


Medallion of Thomas More

King Henry VIII described as a “pig, a dolt, and a liar” by Martin Luther in response to the monarch’s Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a rather colorful theological debate then ensued between Sir Thomas More and Luther, and further Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale. While defending the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope, More labeled Luther “an ape”, “a drunkard”, and a “lousy little friar”, among other colorful insults. Beyond marginalizing the person addressed, what was the historical context and purpose of all the naming calling flying back and forth between theological debaters of the era?

It was simply the literary mode of argument at the time.  University debates were more formal than that, but combat was the name of the game.  The stakes were high: the future of the Western Church, which meant all Western society.  No wonder they lost their tempers.


This may seem like a trivial question, but More’s insult “lousy little friar” has me wondering. Was Martin Luther actually a monk, a friar, “monk-like” friar or a “friar-like” monk?

Austin Friars today, Austin Friars
(Photo by Eric in the Londonist Flickr pool.)

Luther was a friar, without qualification.  Anglophone historians should have been quick to spot this obvious truth, because the common name for Luther’s Order in the kingdom of England was ‘Austin Friars’.  Those familiar with the City of London will recognise the placename and the church rebuilt after the Blitz, which represents the site of the Austin Friars’ principal house in medieval England.  Monks predate friars, and their name comes for the Greek for ‘single’ or ‘solitary’, not because most monks were hermits living on their own, but because their communities were intended to withdraw from the everyday world to concentrate on prayer.  To achieve this, they would expect to be self-supporting, relying economically on their own landed estates, to minimise contact with disruptive secularity.  The movement which produced the friars in the late twelfth century represented a criticism of this expectation and of the separateness of the monastic way of life, which many felt led to laziness and self-indulgence.  These new reforming Orders of friars made sure that they would never be tempted to withdraw in the same way by the simple structural device of forbidding their communities to hold property.  Luther’s business in his friar’s vocation was to think, to preach, to argue, to listen to the miseries and anxieties of ordinary folk, and to rejoice with them when God’s good fortune was with them.  He was not primarily concerned with the monk’s characteristic mystical search for God beyond the boundaries of the everyday, and after a brief flirtation with the heritage of mystical Christian writing, he effectively sidelined such stuff.  Thus he bequeathed to Protestantism a lack of interest in contemplation, and a noise and bustle in worship, which remain besetting problems for Protestant spirituality.

Editor’s Note: In one of those “interesting twists of history”, Thomas Cromwell lived next door to ‘Austin Friars’ in London. In 1538, heavily in debt, the once magnificent London center of worship and religious education was turned over to the crown by Prior Thomas Hamond and his 12 remaining brothers, dissolved by their neighbor.


With all the written treatise, scripture translations, and theological debates going on, just how important was the printing press to the spread of the Reformation?

Printing hugely speeded up the ability to communicate ideas.  Luther had never written a book before the crisis of 1517, but discovered a brilliant new format to convey his message: short pamphlets in vigorous German, but also and crucially, fronted by what looked like deluxe title-pages.  This form of title-page was something new for a pamphlet: designed for immediate impact, with intricate decoration conveying its own visual messages, but framing a central compartment in which Luther’s name was prominently displayed, under a snappy headline with longer sub-title.  Only the most expensive books had enjoyed anything like this before.  Once Wittenberg imprints showed how well this device sold books, printers the length of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe) seized on the idea.  The reading public quickly came to expect such visual feasts, and then they read on in the pamphlet itself.


Apology of the Augsburg Confession

Smuggling “banned” theological writings and scripture translations were not only essential to spreading the Reformation to England but also was a dangerous business. While Sir Thomas More was chasing “heretics”, inquiring minds want to know just how involved in smuggling Evangelical works was Thomas Cromwell and his friend Stephen Vaughan? Do you believe these two men and others were walking on a razor’s edge?

Yes, they were.  It was important to keep below the radar.  The King could swing either way on matters in religion.  Cromwell and Vaughan were intimately involved in the London merchant world and could arrange matters there, or via lesser ports with fewer eyes on them, like Boston, where Cromwell had good contacts.


Speaking of Thomas Cromwell and Stephen Vaughan, do you think their attempts to bring William Tyndale back to England would have been life-saving had he agreed to their offers of safe passage?

I’m not sure that they specifically offered that.  He had work to do in Antwerp which he could not have done in England.  But if they could have saved him, they would.  Cromwell tried.


Historians debate Queen Anne Boleyn’s influence in sparking the English Reformation. Do you believe her influence was at all instrumental in introducing King Henry VIII to the notion of his ultimate supremacy over the clergy in his realm?

Hers was one of the most influential voices that he listened to, while they were still in love.


Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, by Gerlach Flicke

Thomas Cranmer – Was his surprising elevation to Archbishop of Canterbury simply a means for King Henry VIII to secure an annulment from Catherine of Aragon or did King Henry VIII see some giftedness in the man? How did this seemingly naive man survive the viper’s nest of King Henry VIII’s Court?

Cranmer was an instrument for getting what the King wanted, but in the years 1529-32 he had shown that he was an able diplomat and a decent scholar.  It was still a surprising appointment: a man with no pastoral experience outside the University.  It would not have happened if Cranmer had not received the patronage of the Boleyn family.  Cranmer survived by being loyal to the King and yet not sycophantic.  Henry valued both qualities if they balanced.


Inquiring further about Thomas Cranmer, do you believe Henry VIII knew about his wife Margarete? How did Cranmer, not particularly known for his political craftiness and the constant target of Conservatives, safeguard this woman?

That’s rather puzzling.  She probably lived in his most remote palace in Kent at Ford.  It’s likely that Henry did get to know about her, given the arrangements made in 1539 to allow her to go abroad without undue haste.


Thomas Cromwell
(Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger)

In the professional relationship between Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, the latter appears “the senior partner”. Was Cromwell appointed “Vicar General” and then later “Vicegerent in spirituals” due to Cranmer’s inability to supervise his clergy or did Henry VIII have some other driving reason?

Cromwell was the senior partner; Cranmer did not resent that.  The King needed an office with the new powers with a new title in order to get things done across traditional jurisdictions.


Just how critical was the brilliance of Thomas Cromwell in influencing the course of events of the Henrican Reformation? How important was Cromwell’s success in influencing Henry VIII’s decision to provide an English language Bible translation for authorized use in parish churches?

Cromwell’s drive was vital to pushing forward Reformation while he was alive.  Events floundered in either direction once he had gone.  The provision of an English Bible was crucial and irreversible and perhaps his most long-lasting achievement.


King Henry VIII
Artist: Lucas Horenbout

In 16th century Tudor Era England and Wales, religion was serious business. Unfortunately for the subjects of the realm, just what religion one was to adhere to changed with the theological whims of the reigning monarchs and was particularly confusing during the reign of King Henry VIII. Overstep the mark of the King’s ever-changing religious philosophies, and a person would very quickly become the victim of judicial murder. In the struggle for “the saving of souls” between Evangelicals and Conservatives, how did reformist Evangelicals ultimately win the upper hand? Is the answer as simple as their holding the King’s influence at the time of his death, or was something more complicated going on?

Henry seems to have thought that he could keep religious change at bay after his death despite having left evangelicals in most key positions.  That’s a form of arrogance.  The fact is that in his last years, ill and increasingly immobile, evangelicals were in the key positions near to hand.  And he crucially entrusted his son’s education to evangelicals.  The results were inevitable.


Professor MacCulloch, many browsers of Queenanneboleyn.com are excited about the impending completion of your biography of Thomas Cromwell. Can you tell us when you plan on releasing your research to the world? Do you have any other planned projects you would like to tell us about?

I hope to have the text completed in the next couple of months; so the book should be out in autumn 2018.  I might have a rest after that.


Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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