William Cobbett on the Protestant Reformation

Whilst reading “Rural Rides” it is difficult not to notice that Cobbett has an obsession with religion or, rather, the evils of religion. He lays into Methodists, Quakers and the orthodox hierarchy with such (often justifiable) venom that you want to know exactly where he stands. Thankfully he has left us a marvelously colorful account of the Reformation which, it seems, is where everything went wrong.It’s a wonderful book and, for its time, pretty controversial stuff.

Catholics were, at the time of his writing, subject to laws which prevented them from holding positions of power and it was only after the “Catholic Emancipation Act” of 1829 that this situation was, in any way altered. I cannot help but think that this volume (written between 1824 and 1827) may have been a reason for its passing.

Cobbett rails against the idea that Catholicism was rooted in “Monkish Ignorance and Superstition” and points out that under Catholicism such things as Magna Carta came into fruition alongside many other products of intellectual endeavour. So if the religion that gave birth to them is wrong and superstitious, then should they not also be rejected as the products of Satan?

Monasteries themselves were centers of learning and the vow of celibacy ensured that all the tithes any monastery or Priest took from the community were pumped back directly into that community through the provision of good deeds and pastoral care (most notably through the foundation of Schools and Hospitals). Indeed, he continues, were Protestant priests to have kept that vow, their offspring and extended families would not fill all the parishes and sees and that there would also be no frequent calls for “collections for poor priests”. He also fires a well aimed arrow at Rev. Robert “stop procreating chavs, or face starvation” Malthus on this issue pointing out that its a shame that he does not follow his own advice.

Cobbett argues that the only real driving force for the reformation in England was the greed of the “notorious wife-killer” Henry Eight who saw it as a big chance to snatch up a huge quantity of land and monetary wealth and distribute it to his friends at court. He gives a profoundly negative account of the monarch and especially Thomas Cromwell at who’s eventual execution he does, what seems like, a gleeful little verbal jig. The founding of the Anglican church was down to hypocrisy, greed and a desire to plunder. It certainly, as Cobbett also mentions, had little to do with Martin Luther of whom King Henry was, it seems, highly critical and received some choice phrases back as well.

Its a great, easy to read, fun book which I am about halfway through now and the political aspects of it should not go unnoticed. However, it does need saying that portraying Catholicism in such a wholesome light is being less than honest about its own history. Various Popes executed various deeds that would put Henry in the shade and, in establishing  itself as the primal fount of Christian knowledge, it had to oppress and liquidate its rival in ways that were often just as grubby (as indeed would any ideology, religious or political, seeking access to the public mind). So Cobbett is being a little disingenuous here. But, it was for a good cause. After all Protestantism’s quick fragmentation into warring competing sects kind of made issues of heresy almost redundant through the amount of times these sects bandied it around at each other and there would, therefore, seem no good reason not to allow the Pope to join is as well.

Cobbett is a lively, colorful figure and, as I have said before, one who’s voice is becoming more relevant by the day.

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