- Commonwealth and the English Reformation: Protestantism and the Politics of Religious Change in the Gloucester Vale, 1483-1560
From this case study of the middle-rank English city of Gloucester and its surroundings, Ben Lowe argues that it was a combination of prophetic message and social and economic conditions that caused leading men in both town and county to join and support the early Tudor Reformation. Rather than seeing the disruptive nature of religious change, the analysis suggests there was a growing momentum of reform from the 1530s through to King Edward VI's reign, only to be reversed under Queen Mary. Lowe takes issues with other recent interpretations of the Reformation that have emphasized extensive Catholic resistance to change, religious indifference among the laity, or the economic interest of leading Protestants. His account returns to an older multidimensional approach in the tradition of A.G. Dickens. In considerable measure it is persuasive. Early chapters examine the economic, political, and ecclesiastical state of Gloucester before the Reformation with serious municipal [End Page 788] conflict with the nine or so religious houses in and around the city, many in decay; by comparison, parish religious life was more vibrant but (an important point) selectively so. A further chapter looks at the rise of new gentry families from the late Middle Ages, some trained in the law and officiating for religious houses, others linked to Crown administration. Intermarrying and working closely together, they took their functions seriously as local agents of the Crown and as guardians of religious life. From the 1530s they consolidated their own position by becoming chief enforcers of royal religious policies. Both in city and shire the local elite tended to prop up the existing religious order until the Reformation gave them the opportunity to seize church property for themselves and to endow a range of schools and charities—a concrete local version of a Commonwealth program much talked about at the Henrician Court. Lowe emphasizes the broad coalition of city leaders, county gentry, and Court politicians and leading clergy that promoted these initiatives in Gloucestershire. All this was reversed under Mary but at the cost of alienating a large part of the ruling class in both city and county.
In the last part of the book Lowe argues that there were important parallels between the early Tudor reform movement and the early Stuart Puritan regime of the city, when acute economic and social problems and civic patronage of Puritan preachers and godly discipline turned Gloucester into a famous bastion of radical Protestantism. But this may be misleading. In the early-sixteenth century economic conditions in Gloucester (and the county) were relatively good (western cities did better than those in eastern England), and the acute pressures of large-scale poverty and immigration had yet to make much of an impact. Even more important, although Lowe shows in the early Tudor period city and landowners in close cooperation, by 1600 they were at daggers drawn over jurisdictional disputes. The early Stuart city on the hill was in part founded as a bastion against the shire. Overall, however, this is an interesting, well-written book that provides useful detailed material on both town and countryside. Hopefully, Lowe can be encouraged to write a comparative study of the English urban Reformation in the future.