Diarmaid MacCulloch
The Tudor Church Militant

These six years reshaped the culture which the union of the English, Scots and Irish crowns later exported to the rest of the world. They saw the first officially backed moves to turn English maritime strength to ventures of world exploration, as expeditions set off for Africa and Muscovy. They also began with a spirited attempt by the first Edwardian government to unite the whole British archipelago under one crown: different initiatives were undertaken in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which bore contrasting fruit. Somerset's regime invaded and devastated Scotland in order to secure the marriage of the boy Edward and the even younger Mary Queen of Scots, but it also sought to charm the people of Scotland into a union, using a newly coined rhetoric of British identity. The effort was inept and in the short term a spectacular failure, but it had a lasting effect. By 1603, a union of crowns seemed a natural outgrowth of the religious links set up in the Edwardian era, instead of the bizarre mismatch of ancient enemies which it would have been a century before. In Ireland, it was Edward's government which first planned the fatal policy of planting settlers from overseas in colonies, and Britain still struggles with the consequences of that scheme. In Wales, the first faltering efforts were made to establish a Welsh evangelical culture which began achieving notable results in the reign of Elizabeth, and which later became central to Welsh identity.

The English returned to the Edwardian evangelical adventure when, in 1558, Queen Mary's stomach cancer brought a very different religious experiment to a premature end. Now, under Queen Elizabeth, the kingdom began an uninterrupted journey into a Protestant national experience. Yet Edwardian government decisions moulded the church settlement restored in 1559, equally in liturgy, theological confession and church polity. Elizabeth I put Edwardian structures to rather different uses to those originally intended, but even so, the Church of England is the Church of Edward VI more than it likes to admit. Thomas Cranmer, that editorial genius, bequeathed Elizabeth the Book of Common Prayer, which (perhaps against her personal inclinations) she restored in its more radical version of 1552, virtually unaltered. This was the prose sequence (only slightly modified by revision in 1662) most regularly given public performances in England and Wales over the next three centuries. It was used more relentlessly even than particular passages of the Bible, and at least up to the Stuart Civil Wars of the 1640s, it was complemented by regular use of the official homilies pioneered in Edwardian England.

Unlike all other key books of the English Reformation down to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, one heard and spoke the Prayer Book and the homilies, rather than read them. They were experienced from an early age primarily through the ear, not through the eye, and so only the Bible heard in the household from infancy exceeded their influence in shaping the English language. For three centuries the Prayer Book was supplemented by another dramatic public performance, the singing of metrical psalms—the songs of King David turned into Tudor rhyming verse—which were first championed by the Edwardian Church, which were said to be particular favourites of the young King Edward and which were perhaps the single most effective weapon which the English Reformers possessed. In this universally performed theatre, the Edwardian Reformation lived on, in uneasy relationship to the more urbane impulse of a later Anglican tradition. If we neglect it or misunderstand it, we will miss a vital stage in the fashioning of a nation and a culture.

The dramas of the Edwardian Reformations were biblical in more senses than one. The rebuilt Church was evangelical in essence. The assignment for evangelicals was a treasure hunt for the evangelion, the good news to be found in the New Testament, and the excavators were impatient of the centuries of church experience which overlay it. Yet spokesmen for the Edwardian revolution were also drawn to the Old Testament, where they could view other kingdoms battling against great odds to hear the message of God. Henry VIII had already enjoyed posing as one or other of the two great success stories in Israelite politics, David and Solomon. However, in the turbulence of his son's revolution, other kings of Israel and Judah entered the stage, because they were more urgently scripted to act as warning or encouragement.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.