By Hannah Matis

Give anyone a time machine and a soupçon of conscience, and an ethical and moral dilemma will, predictably, present itself in due course: for example, let’s kill Hitler! This is, in fact, the premise of a Doctor Who episode from some years ago, and revealingly, the writers of the show had no particularly satisfying way of resolving either the moral or the logistical problems which resulted. But Nazis and Nazi-style fascism make enduringly popular source material for counterfactual history, a genre of what-if thought experiments that merge history with dystopian fiction, science fiction, and, increasingly with fantasy. Both Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, and HBO’s recent The Plot Against America, from the Philip Roth novel, invite us to replace American nostalgia for the 1950s with a more totalitarian vision of our recent past. In different ways, both shows target the seeming inevitability and moral complacency of American exceptionalism by asking, not how much, but how little it would have taken to change the course of the future we know.

An equally powerful moment for counterfactual speculation is the English Reformation. The seeming arbitrariness of the circumstances surrounding Henry VIII’s divorce practically invites one to wonder what might have happened differently — not least if Henry’s elder brother Arthur, Catherine of Aragon’s original intended, had lived to come to the throne. The stakes are rather higher than the propriety, or lack, of Henry VIII’s personal morality: for centuries, confessional history of the English Reformation presented the via media as the inevitable choice of a moderate English nation, which shuffled through sovereigns until it found an equally moderate Elizabeth to its liking. Protestant Northern Europe evolved into capitalist Northern Europe, an elect born to industrialization, progress, and empire; retrogressive Catholic Southern Europe clung to its picturesque medieval primitivism, often described in racialized terms. Counterfactual history disturbs the inevitability and implicit moral teleology of this particularly cozy national narrative, which Americans have by and large inherited; it reminds us how little it would have taken for many of our bedrock social and cultural assumptions to have taken a very different form, and in so doing, questions whether they deserve the unquestioning homage we so often render.

Recently, I have been greatly enjoying an ongoing series of online lectures by the Reformation historian Alec Ryrie, made available by Gresham College. Ryrie is perhaps the preeminent scholar of the next generation of Reformation historians after Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. A historian of Protestantism in general and Puritanism in particular, he has previously argued against the forbidding, joyless stereotype of the Puritan, examining the vivid emotional universe, even the particular kind of emotional training, encouraged in much Puritan teaching and doctrine, and argued for the central role that Puritans have played in creating the modern world we know, for better or for worse. Ryrie is also the author of a recent intellectual history of atheism, which provocatively examines the roots of the movement as a form of emotional reaction rather than as an extension of measured scholarly discourse. In other words, he has a historian’s contrarianism, born out of the conviction that, although the dead might be dead, we should not make them “dance to our tune.”


These lectures — four out of the six have been given to date — make the convincing argument that one can best understand the English Reformation not as one event but as the overlapping of six possible Reformations, each on a slightly different timeline and each of which, at individual moments, might be forgiven for thinking it would ultimately emerge triumphant. These are, respectively, what Ryrie terms the Catholic Reformation, the “Unwanted” Reformation of royal edict and popular resistance and unrest, the Tudor political reformation, the Protestant Reformation, the Anglican Reformation, and the Radical Reformation. His approach has the benefit of inclusivity — Ryrie is not trying at the outset to rule out or to prioritize one thread over the others — and his own interest in and knowledge of Puritan history ensures that the processes he examines don’t end with the death of Henry, Edward or Mary, but reach forward in time to the English Civil War. Ryrie is, not least, a wry and fluent storyteller.

I was particularly struck in the first three lectures by how much Ryrie focused on those moments in which history might have taken a very different course. This is a historical approach to the Reformation most poignantly popularized, perhaps, by Eamon Duffy, who has long argued that the success of the evangelicals was not a function of a decadent late medieval church but instead, built on the English church’s overall health and vitality. Duffy has long wondered what would have happened if Queen Mary’s reign had lasted longer than five years. As Ryrie points out, Mary came to the throne on a huge groundswell of public goodwill, in part fueled by guilt at what had happened to her mother and recognition of her legitimacy. What if Mary had lived longer, or her marriage had been better, or she had had the pregnancy she so desperately desired? What would have happened if the aristocratic reformer Reginald Pole had become, not Mary’s archbishop, but the first English pope since the twelfth century? He was close enough to the English throne, but he was even closer to becoming pope, only missing being elected by a single vote. What could Mary have done in cooperation with an English pope, and how could an English pope have secured popular English loyalty to the church even if Mary’s reign had been brief? What would have happened without the vitriolic hatred of Gian Pietro Carafa, Paul IV, who did in fact win the papal election and proceeded to make life miserable for both the queen and her archbishop, and for many others as well, Roman Jews not least? In the event, in a very strange historical coincidence, Pole died on the same day as Queen Mary in 1558. If he had not, Ryrie asks, what on earth would an Elizabethan Settlement have looked like with Reginald Pole, who was also, almost unbelievably, a potential claimant to the English throne, as Archbishop of Canterbury? King and Archbishop?

There is a definite air of the jeremiad in this particular brand of “Catholic counterfactual,” which Ryrie here softens and integrates with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s close study of monastic reform as it was envisioned by Cardinal Wolsey and then implemented, ironically, by the evangelical Thomas Cromwell. In this vision, even under Catholic control, change would have occurred. Monasteries might well have been gradually replaced with colleges, perhaps colleges of canons or priests, as in one of Wolsey’s prize foundations in Ipswich. In this view, a Catholic England would not have been an extension of the late medieval church but something more like Borromeo’s Milan, with a Tridentine emphasis on the parish and pastoral care. Ryrie isn’t responsible for extending historical fantasy out as far as this, but I can’t help wondering if a Catholic England could have meant a North America settled predominantly by Catholics from Québec to Virginia to South America, and therefore, not Catholic-paranoid and confessionally divided from the beginning. What might this have meant for the troubled history of relations between settlers and Native Americans? Would this have had a knock-on effect on the status of baptized African slaves, or their baptized children? I’m now well and truly launched on a Mission-inspired fever-dream of Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries recording native languages, armed with Bartolomé de las Casas on indigenous people’s rights… But more seriously, what would have changed, for better or for worse, in the European Enlightenment with a securely Catholic New World? What if the Puritans were relegated to the status of quaint idealists, or a minority party like the Shi’a?

Ryrie’s “Unwanted” and Tudor Reformations explore both the ambitions and the abiding fragility of the Tudor crown. After the Act of Supremacy, for example, Cranmer and Cromwell introduce a “revolutionary” policy of an oath of loyalty to the crown. Ryrie argues that this was both a sign of strength and weakness: on the one hand, it was considered necessary in the first place, but on the other, nearly everyone did in fact comply. However, it was an unprecedented act all the same, which, willy-nilly, confronted every citizen with his conscience; without meaning to, the Act of Supremacy created a kind of political consciousness in the English people. That Henry promptly turned on the queen to whom everyone had, however uncomfortably, just sworn an oath of loyalty rather underscored the arbitrariness of Henry’s personal whims, but the political cat was out of the bag. The 1536 followers of the Pilgrimage of Grace also swore oaths of loyalty, and might even have unseated Henry if the king had not kept, politically at least, a very cool head. Rebellion haunted each phase of the English Reformation; Elizabeth cautiously avoided provoking rebellion until she knew its strength, whereupon she could be as ruthless as Mary ever was. In this, Ryrie echoes a historian like Ethan Shagan, who argues for the Reformation as the exercise of political will attenuated long enough to outlast and outmaneuver short-term political uprising. In this environment, idealists tended to flame out and die; the compromisers won.

In a recent podcast, historian Dominic Sandbrook notes how often counterfactual history was deployed by Tory politicians of a generation ago, dreaming of aBritain independent of the control of Brussels — oh, the irony! — and suggests that particular brand of counterfactual history was an emotional response to the loss of empire. Sandbrook’s dialogue partner, Tom Holland (historian and writer, not Spiderman), has pointed out that history-making as we know it began with a counterfactual, with Herodotus speculating on what would have happened if the Athenians had not won the battle of Salamis. Holland points to the battle of Marathon in 490 BC as the crucial turning-point of world history; a world without Plato, or alternatively, a Persian-educated Plato, would have meant a very different philosophical and intellectual universe for both Christianity and Islam to inherit. I must admit, I would definitely read that novel.

To anyone haunted by the loss of a kind of Christian unity represented by the medieval church, however qualified, limited, and flawed in practice, counterfactual Reformation history is a tempting thought experiment, even if it doesn’t give adequate credit to why the evangelicals were able to establish a lasting Protestant Reformation. (Hint: the Protestant strategy also hinged on the parish and pastoral care.) Emotional though it undoubtedly is, counterfactual history does remind us of just how unpredictable the course of history remains. No rich or successful person, much less a religious denomination, wants to hear about how much their success hinged on a string of chance events rather than on God-given talent, even though it is usually true. But as we evaluate the Puritan legacy many in the Western world, and particularly in America, have inherited — from a kind of political and national predestination, to the exploitation of the environment, to salvation understood as a predominantly emotional experience, to the nature of Western capitalism — the role of random chance is important to remember. If we stand on an apex of history, it is an apex built on happenstance.

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is the associate dean for academic affairs and an associate professor of church history at the School of Theology at the University of the South at Sewanee.

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One Response

  1. C R SEITZ

    Nice job, Hannah. Thanks.

    There is also the reality of living counterfactuals within the present Catholic Church, depending on where one is. We find France a good example.


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