William Cobbett (1763-1835) had a long and adventurous life as soldier, fugitive, political prisoner, journalist, farmer on Long Island, N.Y., and finally MP. In the course of his life as a writer he started as a Tory supporter (in America) and became a Radical supporter (in England). He was always against the status quo and railed agaonst its many injustices; but though he was regarded as an ally by many who also opposed it he held constant to his own ideas. He never expressed these as a coherent philosophy for to him they were just common sense -- "the politics of every natural man", according to the historian A. J. P. Taylor. Nowadays he would be called a libertarian. Observing the corruption, widespread poverty and institutionalised injustice of England in the early 19th century he advanced his own solution:
And thus the prosperity and happiness of the people would be assured.
In support of these taxi-driver's ideas he set up a newspaper called the Political Register in which to publish his articles. His most famous work, Rural Rides, was published in it as a series of articles. So was this book.
The History of the Protestant Reformation was published in instalments from 1824 to 1826. At the time the cause of Catholic Emancipation was being hotly debated. Some of the more atrocious parts of the Penal Laws had been repealed, and enforcement of the rest was sporadic and rare, but Catholics were still prevented from being Members of Parliament, owning land, or practising certain professions, and it was still a crime to say or hear Mass or build a Catholic Church. Cobbett threw himself into this cause with characteristic gusto and this book was the result. His take on history is that
The Reformation was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood.
(Introduction, Par. 4)
All the current woes of England derived from these events. He contrasts a largely imaginary pre-Reformation land of peace and plenty with the all too real squalor and destitution of the rural poor in the 1820s and declares that Protestantism is the cause of the difference.
The book is written in a most lively and vehement style and is very entertaining; the buzzing of the bees in Cobbett's bonnet is quite wonderful. For example, his belief that the population of England was higher in the Middle Ages than in 1825 was an article of faith with him, and he reserves some of his best abuse for those historians who disagree. He also takes, or pretends to take, at face value the religious motives offered for the Anglo-French wars of the 18th century, which no-one with any sense believed even at the time.
Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829. It is unlikely that Cobbett had much influence on the Whig grandees who brought it about, but his ideas must have contributed to popular acceptance of the reforms. In 1780 a relaxation of the Penal Laws provoked the Gordon riots in which hundreds were killed and there was huge destruction of property. Nothing of the sort happened in 1829.
Cobbett's ideas found little favour with "respectable" historians then or for long afterwards, though popular with Catholic writers of the Chesterbelloc variety. In fact, Chesterton was a great admirer and wrote a biography of Cobbett. The Secret People, one of Chesterton's best-known poems, is very obviously derived from Cobbett. It is interesting, however, to note that one of Cobbett's theses -- that the Reformation in England had little popular support and was the product of a handful of fanatics backed by the awesome power of the Tudor Monarchy and supported by the greed of those who looted the monasteries and Churches -- is now increasingly being accepted by historians. See for example the TV series and book A History of Britain by Simon Schama, or the more specialised and detailed account The Stripping of The Altars by Eamon Duffy.
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