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The English Reformation: England’s First Brexit

Forget the tawdry historical yarn about Henry VIII and Anne Bolelyn; the 'divorce' was about fundamental nationalist principles.

First meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, 1835. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Last month, the political and cultural earthquake of 2016’s Brexit vote produced another powerful aftershock. Once again, pundits and prognosticators were shocked by the British people’s determination to assert their sovereignty by electing Boris Johnson as prime minister. They shouldn’t have been. Nor should the broader nationalist awakening that has since swept the Western world occasion the astonishment and angst that it has. This is nothing new.

Searching for analogues to explain this sudden preoccupation with national sovereignty, our intelligentsia have reached about as far back in history as our culture still seems able to remember, to the clash of Great Powers in the First World War and the clash of civilizations in the Second. But to understand the motivations driving the tectonic realignment of our politics today, and the long-awaited Brexit that now seems set to rapidly become reality, we must look a bit further back—to the original Brexit that helped birth what Yoram Hazony has called “the Protestant construction of the West” and the order of sovereign nation-states that anchored it.

In the spring of 1533, the Parliament of England, meeting in an extraordinary fifth consecutive annual session, passed a landmark piece of legislation that profoundly altered the course of the island-kingdom’s history: the Act in Restraint of Appeals. Striking a decisive blow against the Pope’s supremacy over a host of legal and fiscal matters across the European continent, the Act forbade any further judicial appeals beyond England to Rome, and asserted the supremacy of the Crown and Parliament in English law. 

But what prompted this bold declaration of independence? The standard history books have a ready answer: so that King Henry VIII could divorce the aging Queen Catherine of Aragon and marry the fetching young Anne Boleyn! This explanation may tickle our fancy for scandal, but it hardly suffices as an explanation of the most significant constitutional reform in English history, one which required the consent of Parliament and ultimately the support of a whole people. How did a divorce case lead a devout Catholic monarch and nation to renounce their allegiance to the supra-national authority of the Papacy and to chart their own national course, establishing the legal framework for church, Crown, and Parliament that would anchor the development of British and American institutions for the next five centuries? 

Whether we explain this original Brexit from the perspective of its capricious but charismatic monarch, his exasperated subjects, or his shrewd advisors, we find ourselves presented with the central elements of nationalism—national security, economic nationalism, and legal sovereignty—which together shed light on our own contemporary Brexit and the broader nationalist awakening it represents.

King Henry’s Dilemma: The Catalyst of the Original Brexit

Why was Henry VIII so hell-bent on divorcing his wife of two decades? Not because he was smitten with Anne Boleyn, although he certainly was. Anne may have played hard-to-get, but there were plenty of other willing maidens around court, and most monarchs of that time were expected to carry on a few discreet affairs. As A.G. Dickens notes, “He could have lived as licentiously as Charles V or Francis I without troubling about divorce and remarriage.” In fact, for Henry and many of his advisers, “nothing less than the fate of the nation hung in the balance” (105). 

The problem, you see, was that Catherine kept miscarrying (no less than five times in nine years, plus a son who lived for only seven weeks), and the only living child she had managed to produce was a girl, Mary. This was a situation apt to unsettle any father, but in 1520s England, it constituted a brewing political crisis. Henry VIII was only on the throne because his father, Henry VII, had been effectively the last man standing in 1485 after a thirty-year bloodbath of the English nobility known as the War of the Roses. This catastrophe had befallen England because of the lack of a clear male heir to the throne. If Henry could not produce one before his death, he expected civil war. Indeed, his situation was more perilous than that of his recent forefathers; England’s old enemy, France, had now fully recovered from the Hundred Years’ War and might jump at the opportunity for a comeuppance on a weakened and leaderless rival across the Channel. Worse still, there was a new geopolitical threat in the sixteenth century: the Hapsburgs.

By a remarkable series of marriages and early deaths, the young Hapsburg prince, Charles V, had united the crowns of Burgundy, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, and  concluded a marriage alliance with mighty Portugal. These last two also now boasted sprawling overseas empires and untold streams of wealth from the New World. Charles saw in these fortuitous circumstances a divine calling to be not just an emperor, but the Emperor, attesting the universal kingship of Christ through his own universal dominion over Christendom. To make matters worse for the beleaguered Henry, Catherine of Aragon was Charles’s aunt. Henry’s father, Henry VII, had originally engineered this strategic union, marrying his elder son Arthur to the Spanish princess in 1501. But when Arthur died childless a few months later, Henry was not about to let such a prize escape, and eventually had her marry Arthur’s brother Henry, crowned Henry VIII. 

Therein lay the seeds of the future crisis. Under normal circumstances Henry should never have been permitted to marry Catherine, since church law, following Leviticus 20:21, stipulated that no one must marry his brother’s wife. However, the Pope could always make special dispensations from these laws, when it suited his interests or his allies, and he happily cleared the way for the remarriage in 1509. But the more that Catherine’s miscarriages piled up, the more convinced Henry became that God was cursing him and his kingdom for his illicit marriage—after all, Leviticus 20:21 threatened that violators would be childless. 

The solution seemed fairly straightforward: convince the new Pope that his predecessor had erred and the marriage must be annulled. Although the medieval church never permitted outright divorce, annulments could be granted—and quite frequently were—if there were grounds for claiming that the marriage should never have happened in the first place. In Henry’s case, the request wasn’t even a stretch: Henry’s marriage was, according to the ordinary rules, invalid, and the curse on Catherine’s womb seemed to confirm that Pope Julius should never have sanctioned it. 

However, Catherine’s devoted nephew, the aforementioned universal emperor, saw things otherwise. And as his armies had just sacked Rome after his last disagreement with the papacy, Pope Clement VII reasoned that he’d be better off keeping Charles happy than the boisterous king of a little island on the edge of the map. 

Thus the Pope dithered, quibbled, and toyed with Henry’s diplomats for years, finally sending a special envoy to London to resolve the question, only to order the case back to Rome for resolution at a later date. This affront, in July 1529, was the match that lit the powder keg of English anti-clericalism and national pride. For Henry and many of his advisors, the Pope’s conduct of the annulment was not merely annoying: it was a showcase of the arbitrary and self-serving nature of papal authority, conclusive proof that no sovereign nation, charged with protecting the well-being of its people, should be subject to the whims of an unaccountable foreign bureaucracy. The experience was not unlike that in the American colonies after the enactment of the Intolerable Acts: a people who had thought of themselves as more or less self-governing, suddenly woke up to the fact that were at the mercy—judicially, politically, and economically—of authorities abroad whom they did not elect and could not influence. 

“Great and Inestimable Sums of Money”: The Economics of the Original Brexit

Of course, no monarch, however absolute, can radically change a nation’s direction without at least some popular support, and the early Tudor monarchy was anything but absolute. The original Brexit would probably have never taken place without the aid of a tidal wave of grievances against the Church, which bear striking similarities to grievances driving the Leave vote in 2016. Foremost among these, as so often in politics, were economic complaints. As J.R Tanner drily remarks, quoting A.F. Pollard, “the English Reformation began in a way particularly English—‘not with the enunciation of some new truth, but with an attack on clerical fees.’” The 1532 Act in Restraint of Annates was the first great salvo in England’s aggressive renegotiation of the terms of its union with the Roman Church. Ordering the immediate cessation of annual subsidies to the Papacy levied on English clergy (and thus, indirectly, on the English people as a whole), the Act constituted a declaration of independence from the pervasive fiscal power of the international bureaucracy of the Roman Church. As with the American Revolution a quarter of a millennium later and Brexit another 250 years on, burdensome taxes were at the forefront of the tidal wave of grievance. Just as the Leave ads in 2016 declared, “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead,” the Annates Act lamented “that great and inestimable sums of money be daily conveyed out of this realm to the impoverishment of the same.”

To be sure, the cynical historian might point out that the annual sums in question were not all that onerous (equal to about 5% of the Tudor government’s annual budget). Or you might note that the real economic problems facing English laity came from home-grown ecclesiastical fat cats, such as the fabulously rich Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and the land-rich monastic establishments. Certainly, you would wryly note that the very annates that were deemed “intolerable” in 1532 were voted as subsidies to the Crown by a new act of Parliament just two years later.

But these observations, like most critiques of economic nationalism, fundamentally miss the point. As anyone familiar with the slogan of the American Revolution should recognize, citizens throughout history do not treat all taxes equally, as the rationalist dictates of classical economics insist they should. Tempting as it may be to resort to a materialistic explanation of history, in which individuals and peoples care only about their pocketbooks, the fact is that disputes about taxes are rarely just about taxes. It matters a great deal who is doing the taxing. 

Over the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church, increasingly centered on the papacy in Rome, had developed an impressive and oppressive international system of wealth extraction: lower churchmen levied temporal rents on their extensive physical properties and spiritual rents for the various services they performed as gatekeepers of heaven and hell, and then remitted a sizable portion of these revenues to Rome via annates, fees, licenses, tributes, and bribes. Much of the income collected by the clergy did not go primarily toward the good old-fashioned business of parish ministry: preaching, comforting, caring for the poor, etc. Rather, it went to fund so-called “chantries,” where priests and monks would be handsomely compensated to say prayers for the souls of their benefactors, thus reducing their time in purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory had proved to be a financial bonanza for the Church, and especially the papacy, which claimed a global monopoly over the business as purgatory’s official gatekeeper. 

The proliferation of indulgences (purgatory reduction credits that could be sold for hard cash to the gullible poor) from the 13th century onward constituted the most brazen mechanism of wealth extraction yet, one that was to fuel the ire of the Protestant reformers, and also of temporal princes concerned about the more mundane matter of balance of trade. Indeed, few people recognize that Martin Luther probably would have ended up as one more heretic burned at the stake if not for the protection of Elector Frederick of Saxony, who couldn’t stand the way the indulgence trade siphoned off national income to his southern rivals and impoverished his people for dubious spiritual benefits.

Even where money was not actually flowing across national boundaries to the papal coffers, increasingly wealthy English churchmen could be seen as unpatriotic, as agents of a foreign power sapping the wealth of the nation. Cardinal Wolsey may have begun as the son of a butcher in Ipswich, but he owed his fantastic wealth to the impunity he enjoyed as the papal legate a latere in England, with an authority that trumped the elaborate constitutional structures of both the English church and state. It didn’t help that an increasing number of bishops and church authorities were foreigners, like the series of four Italian bishops of Worcester from 1497 to 1535. Likewise, the monasteries, which by the eve of the Reformation controlled one sixth of the land in England, and annual revenues far in excess of the Crown’s, were seen as potential bridgeheads of foreign influence and oppression. Many monasteries belonged to orders based on the Continent and reported directly to the international heads of their order. Besides, whatever their formal allegiance, the fact was that the monasteries seemed to be making precious little contribution to the needs of English society. 

Thomas Cromwell had gotten his start in Tudor government by shutting down moribund monasteries and redeploying their wealth to fund a new college in Oxford, and more and more English leaders shared his priorities. As Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter early in Henry VIII’s reign, put it, “Shall we build houses and provide livelihoods for a company of bussing monks, whose end and fall we ourselves may live to see? No, no: it is meet to provide for the increase of learning, and for such as by learning shall do good to Church and commonwealth.” Shortly after Henry’s death, the great Protestant humanist Martin Bucer was to dedicate his magnum opus On the Kingdom of Christ to King Edward VI, outlining a comprehensive program of civic and economic reform that would redirect the Church’s surplus wealth to poor relief and education. 

The economic nationalism at the heart of the English Reformation also explains why it was that Parliament could so vigorously protest the tyranny of the Pope’s financial demands, but so readily acquiesce to Henry’s own much more voracious demands through the 1530s and 1540s. We misunderstand the Henrician assault on clerical wealth if we see it as a merely a matter of greedy laymen eager to enlarge their own mansions. In fact, the aforementioned bus advertisement from 2016 captures the spirit of the 1530s remarkably: “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Today’s Brexit was not a reaction against taxation by laissez-faire privatizers, but a demand that the nation’s wealth should be spent by the nation on the nation’s public goods. Just so, the humanist reformers who sided with Henry’s nationalizing agenda saw no contradiction between restraining the payment of annates to Rome and redirecting them to the King. It was the duty of “faithful, loving, and obedient subjects…to provide not only for the public weal of their native country but also for the supportation, maintenance, and defence of the royal estate of their most dread, benign, and gracious Sovereign Lord…[who has] governed this his realm and maintained his people and subjects of the same in tranquility, peace, unity, quietness, and wealth.”

“To Exclude that Foreign Pretended Power, Jurisdiction, and Authority”: The Political Theory of the Original Brexit

But who were these humanist reformers, the real masterminds behind the original Brexit? And what drove them not merely to support Henry’s agenda, but to deploy their considerable legal and literary talents to advance it as far as possible, using the authority of Parliament and the power of the printing press? Three men in particular stand out from the crowded ranks of Tudor statesmen and apologists as the architects of the great transformation of the 1530s: Thomas Cromwell, the Parliamentary mastermind who rose to become Henry VIII’s chief advisor from 1531 until his sudden fall from grace in 1540; Thomas Cranmer, that paragon of prudence whose quiet but dutiful service to a fickle monarch ultimately positioned him to become the father of the English Protestant Church, and, through its Book of Common Prayer, one of the fathers of the modern English language; and Christopher St. German, an aging jurist whose encyclopedic grasp of the English common law, and long-simmering frustration with the Church’s evasion of it, led him to become the foremost legal theorist and public apologist for the rights of the English state and the sovereignty of Parliament. Only one of these men (Cranmer) was a friend and ally of the Boleyn family, and only the first two were closet Protestants, whose evangelical doctrine gave them even more reasons to despise the sweeping claims of the papal church. What they all shared in common was a commitment to English sovereignty.

In the tense medieval tug-of-war between popes and princes, this sovereignty was compromised in countless ways, some merely annoying, others an existential threat to the state. Addressing the House of Commons on May, 10, 1532, Henry declared: “Well-beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly; but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects—yea, and scarce our subjects. For all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope clean contrary to the oath they make to us, so that they seem his subjects and not ours.” This ambiguity was embodied in two longstanding loopholes in English law: the “benefit of the clergy” and the right of sanctuary, two practices by which, as H.A.L. Fisher puts it, ‘all over England the arm of justice was paralyzed.” According to the first, not only clergy, but any half-educated layman who could recite some phrases in Latin, could escape prosecution in civil courts and get off with a usually light penance in ecclesiastical court. According to the second, many churches were designated “sanctuaries” in which a criminal could seek refuge from the arm of the law indefinitely. It is no coincidence that one of the first orders of business in the Parliament of 1529 was a tightening of these loopholes, which were largely eliminated during the legal revolution of the next decade. 

More vexing even than the legal immunities that the Church enjoyed within England was the legal supremacy it claimed over England. Although most of the time conceding a certain autonomy to rulers in purely temporal matters, Rome claimed the authority to hear appeals and make final rulings on any matter with spiritual implications, which could encompass almost any matter of justice or international relations. If the Pope did not approve of a war or the succession claims of a ruler, he could excommunicate rulers or place entire nations under interdict—refusing the sacraments (and thereby salvation) to an entire populace until the king got in line or the people revolted. The Pope could even invite foreign powers to invade the nation of a recalcitrant ruler, as Pope Pius V was to do to England in 1570. Although these most sweeping powers were rarely invoked (and even more rarely successful), the immense body of the clergy and the monastic orders still constituted a vast “state within a state” in each of the realms of Europe, immune from civil justice, and of course military service.

The central thrust of the Henrician legislation was to nullify this supranational legal authority and establish the full and sole authority of English law over the whole English people. As the Acts in Restraint of Annates and Appeals were followed in short order by the Dispensations Act, the Act for the Submission of the Clergy, the Act of Supremacy, and the Act Against Papal Authority, the central theme, running through all the legislation and polemics of this period like a recurrent chorus, is the defense of English sovereignty: “the King’s Majesty, the Lords spiritual and temporal, and the Commons in this realm…were forced of necessity for the public weal of this realm to exclude that foreign pretended power, jurisdiction, and authority, used and usurped within this realm.” Protestants are prone to think that the English Reformation was fundamentally a protest against works righteousness; Roman Catholics will say that the real reason was that King Henry couldn’t keep his zipper up. Both are wrong. The original Brexit happened because a Christian nation, schooled in the wisdom of Aristotle that a polis must be self-sufficient and the teaching of Scripture that the civil magistrate is God’s minister for the temporal care of his people, and trained by long years in the art of self-government, declared their independence from the tyranny of an idealistic but self-serving bureaucratic super-state.

As great as the contributions of Cromwell, Cranmer, and St. German may have been, the real mastermind of the original Brexit, one might argue, was an Italian—an Italian physician living in Paris two centuries earlier, no less. Marsilius of Padua, despite authoring what was probably the most remarkable work of political theory to appear in the Middle Ages, the Defender of the Peace,owes much of the little fame he still enjoys to his work’s decisive role in underpinning the English Reformation. Cromwell oversaw its translation into English in 1535 and St. German drew heavily on its key theses. 

Dedicated to the theme of peace, and to investigating the causes of tranquility and intranquility in politics, the work takes a suddenly controversial turn at the end of its first main section, “Discourse I.” Italy, and all of Europe, Marsilius declares, are riven with discord because the popes have claimed a “plenitude of power”—supreme dominion over all matters spiritual and temporal—and this is “the singular cause…of intranquility or discord in a city or realm….And since this pernicious plague, which is so profoundly inimical to all human calm and happiness, could…infect all other realms of Christian faithful in this world, I judge it of the first necessity to repel it.”

The solution, argues Marsilius, is to recognize that the lofty claims made by the papacy about the nature of “spiritual power” are just elaborate obfuscations and mirages, like the claims on behalf of “pooled sovereignty” made by the apologists of the EU today. Sovereignty is sovereignty, and it cannot be shared. It can be limited by the claims of the King of Kings, but there exists no earthly mechanism for enacting the eschatological judgment that God will enact at the end of the age. God has established moral norms that ought to govern the conduct of nations, and even established a priesthood to proclaim these truths, but proclamation, Marsilius insisted, is not jurisdiction. Jurisdiction, the coercive power to enact and enforce laws, belongs of right only to the “universal body of the citizens” in each city, community, or nation, and this power must be both unified and comprehensive in each realm. The Pope can neither continue to exempt clergy from the authority of the laws on the basis that they are “spiritual persons” (there is nothing particularly “spiritual,” Marsilius acidly notes, about their ability to “borrow, deposit, buy, sell, strike, kill, steal, commit adultery, rape, betray, deceive,” etc.),  nor can he continue to claim a jurisdictional power within each realm that would compete with its own legislators, courts, and princes. 

This ringing defense of the temporal sovereignty (under God alone) of autonomous political communities was to earn Marsilius no less than 240 anathematizations for heresy, but an enduring legacy as an architect of the Protestant construction of the West. His core insights were to find their way into the famous preamble to the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals: “it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire…governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people…be bounden and owe next to God a natural and humble obedience; he being also institute[d] and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God with plenary, whole, and entire power, preeminence, authority, prerogative, and jurisdiction to render and yield justice and final determination to all…subjects within this his realm, in all causes, matters, debates, and contentions happening to occur, insurge, or begin with the limits thereof, without restraint or provocation to any foreign princes or potentates of the world.” Unfortunately, we are apt to misunderstand the most crucial words of this declaration, given that the term “empire” has now come to connote almost the precise opposite of what the Act here intends. It is not the proclamation of sprawling authority over other peoples and places, but rather, in the words of J.G. Tanner, “the nation-state contracting itself upon its insularity.” As A.G. Dickens summarizes, “By here calling England an ‘Empire’, Cromwell designated it a sovereign state, with a king who owed no submission to any other human ruler.” In short, the Act declares England to be a national state.

The Long Shadow of Thomas Cromwell

It is this proud legacy of England (and eventually Britain) as a national state that ultimately lies behind our modern-day Brexit as well. The parallels between the two are not far to seek. As in the sixteenth century, economic factors loomed large in the 2016 vote, as the EU was cast as a financial drain on English resources, already limited by EU-encouraged austerity policies. And as in the sixteenth century, it misses the point to insist that the actual cash flows were limited; the real point was that the national wealth must be subject to national self-determination, to be used in the interests of the nation, rather than flowing willy-nilly across European borders. As in the sixteenth century, today’s Brexit was also provoked by frustration with international legal authorities—in this case the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights that claimed supremacy over English law, reducing British courts to sub-sovereign status. And as in the original Brexit, nativism loomed large as a source of fear and grievance, but this was not—as so often represented, fundamentally a matter of racism. Rather, it was a legitimate concern for national security, as the nation was required to admit foreigners who owed religious allegiance to powers abroad. 

Most fundamentally, though, our modern-day Brexit, like Henry VIII’s, was a declaration of independence. It was, like Cromwell’s ringing preamble to the act, a statement of identity, a defense of the proposition that Britain is a people, a nation, with the right to chart its own destiny. It was a primal scream of protest at the dilution and erasure of that identity that had been perpetrated over previous decades, which had become too sweeping to ignore any longer. The failure of Henry’s divorce case had awakened him, and much of England with him, to the reality that England was less a state than a province of a European church-state. Voters in 2016 similarly asked themselves: was Britain a state, or a disempowered province within a European market-state? As Alastair Roberts wrote perceptively in the aftermath,

“The concern for sovereignty and democracy has been forefront in the minds of Leave voters, both arising from our capacity to say ‘we’. The border can never be an abstraction, but is the basic condition for the definition and differentiation of the nation in its particular existence. Where borders are compromised, our capacity to say ‘we’ is undermined along with them; the alienation of power over our borders has unsurprisingly been a galvanizing issue for Leave voters.

By contrast, there is no pronounced ‘we’ in the market state. Sovereignty only truly registers where there is a particular, differentiated ‘we’, whose differentiation and integrity must be asserted and defended…. Leave supporters have regarded the EU as a direct threat to the sovereignty of its member nations, as it denies them the right to determine their own borders and has steadily alienated power from them and their elected representatives, arrogating authority to its own bodies, unanswerable to the people, threatening their national integrity and self-determination.”

As Roberts goes on to note, Brexit was a vote for democracy, understood as the political power of a demos, not of deracinated individuals. 

This connection of nationalism and democracy is no coincidence, but runs right back through British history to the original Brexit and indeed our old friend Marsilius of Padua. For the imperialist, the medieval papalist, or the free-market technocrat, what matters is having the right rules, not the right rulers. Those who best understand what society requires should be equipped with power to enforce their rules as widely as possible—ideally, globally. If the citizens of particular communities protest that they have never consented to these rules, they must be patted on their head and told to trust their betters. Against this condescension, Marsilius had argued that law-making authority belongs to “the universal body of citizens” (albeit exercised through representatives, rather than directly), and his theory became reality in the English Reformation. To be sure, Henry VIII was no democrat, and probably would have preferred to establish his own autocracy in place of the Pope’s. Yet it is a matter of great historical significance that the original Brexit was accomplished by the power of Parliament. Although the House of Commons housed no commoners at this time, it did symbolically represent the will, power, and consensus of the entire nation, and Thomas Cromwell’s innovative use of it in the English Reformation changed the course of European history. 

Modern critics of the nation-state such as William Cavanaugh have done their best to link the emergence of early-modern nation states with absolutism, with an idolatrous vision of sovereignty that transferred holiness from Pope to monarch. And, to be sure, Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that “When, over the next 400 years, other European commonwealths evolved into something like nations, it was usually through an exercise of will by monarchs who felt little need of their medieval representative assemblies.” Such narratives, however, ignore at their peril the decisive counterexample of England. MacCulloch observes, “The intensive use of Parliament in the 1530s, a crucial moment in its consolidation and growth when many other such assemblies in Europe were atrophying, had implications not merely for the religious future of Tudor England, but for the shape of national history thereafter.” For all the bumptious and boisterous personality of Henry VIII, the original Brexit was crafted by common lawyers, zealous devotees of tradition and precedent, dedicated to the idea of the English people and the national will expressed through Parliament. As a result, the English Reformation survived and took deep root over the next 150 years despite a chaotic succession of monarchs with autocratic aspirations and diverse religious inclinations. The Church of England became a national church, and a nationally conservative church, fiercely maintaining its distinctiveness from Continental Protestants and Catholics, and its continuity with its ancient past. 

This concern for locally rooted, historically established ways of life, this concern for national sovereignty and uniqueness, this concern for the rule of law rather against arbitrary authority, has persisted in the English people for a half millennium, providing the yeast that leavened the American Revolution, the backbone that resisted Nazi imperialism, and the suspicion that the EU’s dream of “ever greater union” might prove to be a nightmare in which British identity was lost forever. The original Brexit, even more so than its modern counterpart, was messy and ugly, fraught with half-truths and rash deeds. There is no reason to eulogize either event as a battle of the saints against the antichrist; but neither can we dismiss these great historical movements as mere products of greed, arrogance, or xenophobia. Any nation that knows itself to be a people will fight back when it feels its identity slipping away, when it realizes it is no longer the master of its own destiny. It will fight to conserve its nationhood. 

This is what we are witnessing anew in the Western world today: a sentiment that runs much deeper than angst over austerity or fear of immigrants. Politicians, convinced of the righteousness of their cosmopolitan cause just as 16th-century Catholic bishops were, hope they can try the new nationalism for heresy and consign it to the flames. But the sense of nationhood kindled in the English Reformation has proved to be a flame that will never go out, and the new high priests of global governance ignore it at their peril.

Brad Littlejohn is a senior fellow for the Edmund Burke Foundation

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