2012 New History
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Drama and Propaganda of the English Reformation

Juo-yung Lee

Department of History, National Taipei University

The Reformation in England was a reformation from above, initiated by the government. As it did not stem from popular dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church, persuasion became of vital importance; the Tudor regime needed to tell its people why England must break with Rome. Apart from traditional written propaganda, there was a special propaganda device available in England: drama. Playing troupes patronized by the Tudor government traveled around the country to promote the new faith. In the polemical plays they presented, the Pope and Catholic clergy were described as devilish foreign powers, while King Henry, who established the Anglican Church, was portrayed as a firm defender of the true faith. Many scholars have suggested that drama was adopted by Henry VIII to promote Protestantism; however, detailed evidence was lacking due to the scantiness of dramatic records. This difficulty was recently solved by “The Records of Early English Drama,” a center located at University of Toronto, which has spent more than 30 years collecting records of English drama before 1642. We thus now have various records of performances and payments, which make a reconstruction of the dramatic propaganda of the English Reformation feasible.

Henry VIII was not as powerful as other European monarchs. However, he was clever enough to realize the strength of people; he broke with Rome, establishing his own Anglican Church through the support of the public. The actions taken by Henry VIII were dangerous; his regime survived these trials through the clever manipulation of his ministers. In spite of some regional resistance and some questions about the “real conversion” of the English populace, the Reformation in England was successful, for the King and his government survived. Henry’s success was certainly due in part to his policy of enforcement; however, the function of official propaganda was also important. Henry VIII, with the aid of Thomas Cromwell in particular, devoted much energy to persuade the English people. Apart from pamphlets, a more conventional way of persuasion, polemical drama, carried by itinerant troupes, was also employed. The official Reformation of Henry VIII could not have been achieved without successful propaganda. And anyone interested in the role of propaganda in promoting the Reformation shall not neglect the importance of dramatic propaganda.


Keywords: the English Reformation, propaganda, King Johan, John Bale, itinerant playing company