• Henry VIII's Reformation: a "first Brexit"?

    Was Brexit really unexpected and unprecedented?

    (written for a History seminar during my 1st year in the Master of English studies)


          On Thursday, 23rd June, 2016, a referendum was held in the United Kingdom, as to wether it should leave the European Union or remain part of it. 51,9% of the 33,5 million voters chose to “leave”. This outcome was quite unexpected to a lot of people. Newpapers throughout the world immediately published articles heading the words 'unexpected' or 'unprecedented'.

          And yet, one might wonder: was it really so unexpected? Is there really no precedent in British history? After all, Winston Churchill once said that Britain was “with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”, and this quotation was (mis)used1 by the Leave side during the campaign. This shows that already in 1930 – that is, before there ever was a 'European Union' – the British – or at least their future Prime Minister – did not feel entirely part of a united Europe. Where did – or does – this feeling come from? Perhaps one may find hints or clues to this British 'peculiarity' in its history, or even in its geography. Or perhaps, on the contrary, there are some historical patterns that repeat themselves throughout world history, regardless of area and time. In the first part of this essay, I shall endeavour to analyse British geography and ancient history in the light of Karl Wittfogel's theory of margins, and try to explain how Britain came to feel being both inside and outside of Europe.

          Henry VIII's Reformation: a "first Brexit"?This then leaves us with the question of a 'precedent'. It quite struck me that people found the Brexit unprecedented, while there had already been a huge breaking from the European centre in the 16th century, ie, the English Reformation under Henry VIII. This is also the opinion of Bilal Hafeez, from Nomura Bank, who wrote an article comparing the Brexit and the English Reformation in response to the numerous assertions that no precedent for Brexit could be found. This article was then used as a basis for similar articles by other newspapers, such as the Telegraph and the New-York Times. As I learnt since I was a child that we study History in order not to make the same mistakes again - or at least, to learn from the successes and failures of our ancestors - I thought that it might be interesting to look at Brexit while bearing in mind this "first Brexit". The second part of this essay will be dedicated to analysing this comparison, and trying to assess to what extend it may be relevant in order to understand the hows and the whys of the Brexit.



    1. Britain: in or out of Europe?

          1.1 Karl Wittfogel's theory of margins.

          1.2 Two examples of submarginal zones: Japan and Britain.

    2. Can History help us predict the consequences of the Brexit?

          2.1 The English Reformation: a first Brexit?

          2.2 Were the short and long term consequences of the English Reformation good or bad?

          2.3. The differences between the circumstances of the English Reformation and the Brexit.



    1. Britain: in or out of Europe?


    1.1 Karl Wittfogel's theory of margins.


          In 1957, German historian Karl Wittfogel (1896-1988) published Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, in which he explains the history of a certain number of areas in the world by the development of despotic states based on a strong administration. Wittfogel calls such societies “hydraulic societies”, because they developed in arid or semi-arid areas where massive irrigation works are necessary. This necessity thus forced the people to organise themselves and create a hierarchy enforcing the rules that are necessary for common survival through a strong administration, hence the creation of despotic states.

          As powerful states, those hydraulic societies naturally had a certain political and cultural influence on their neighbours. Wittfogel thus defines three zones of influence. The central zone is the despotic state itself, where its power is of course at its strongest. The marginal zone is composed of the bordering areas which are less arid. Finally, the submarginal zone is composed of the areas bordering the marginal zone. In terms of influence, the general rule is, the further away from the centre, the less influence a zone receives from it.

          Each zone has its own cultural characteristics. The central zone is characterised, at first, by a strong dynamism and important innovations, but when the Empire is fully developed, it tends to stiffen and to rest on its laurels. The marginal zone receives a strong influence from the centre, and has a tendency to stiffen even harder and to stick very strongly to the early rules and administration. The submarginal zone receives less influence from the centre, because it is located further away. Moreover, it receives its influence partially through the marginal zone. Therefore, the concepts received by the submarginal zone may have already been altered when incorporated in the marginal zone. This makes the submarginal zone freer from the centre and makes it more dynamic with time. The submarginal zone can then sometimes reverse the influence stream and become the dynamic central zone influencing directly its marginal zone – comsposed of the former marginal zone – and its submarginal zone – composed of the original central zone.

          Finally, Wittfogel shows that because of this new dynamism, the submarginal zones are very favourable to developing capitalism in a following historical period. 


    1.2 Two examples of submarginal zones: Japan and Britain.


          Wittfogel was a specialist of China – a central empire based on a huge administration of civil servants chosen through competitive exams. But once this administration was settled, it never really changed. This very antique system, choosing civil servants according to their understanding of Confucius corpora, was one of the reasons why China could not face Western nations as an equal in the 19th century and was forced into signing the Unequal Treaties2, thus losing part of its sovereignty to these Western countries. In this configuration, China was the central zone influencing Korea (marginal zone) and Japan (submarginal zone). And indeed, Korea has had a tendency to imitate the centre and to stiffen its model, developing a very pure form of neo-confucianism which is still the basis of the organisation of Korean society nowadays. On the contrary, as a submarginal zone, Japan had the ability of developing itself differently from the centre, and became, at the beginning of the 20th century, the dynamic central zone, first spreading its political system to its marginal zone (Korea and Manchuria) and its submarginal zone (China) during the Second World War, and then spreading its culture (mainly pop culture) and economic model as well in the second half of the 20th century.

          Wittfogel's theory of margins has recently been used by Japanese philosopher Karatani Kôjin (1941- )3 in order to determine what the specificity of Japan4 is, if such a thing exists, and where it comes from. Karatani thus shows that according to Wittfogel's system, Japan was geopolitically bound to develop an original system in Asia, but he also insists on the importance of Korea as a buffer zone between Japan and China, which had been greatly overlooked by 19th century Japanese philosophers. Indeed, as I have explained earlier, Korea, as the marginal zone, was the medium through which the Chinese influence reached Japan. Therefore, it is not the Chinese concepts that Japan received, but rather their Korean version, which was slightly different. This eventually enabled Japan to take some distance from the centre. Moreover, it so happens that Japan was never invaded by force. It was populated through several migrations from Korea, but those were never military invasions. And yet, the Chinese Empire tried many times to invade the island. But all their attempts were stopped by Korean armies. Those armies were of course not trying to protect Japan, they were only fighting not to be colonised themselves, and although they were generally colonised, their resistance always exhausted the Chinese armies so much that they never managed to invade Japan. Of course, Japan being an island also made those invasions harder. Indeed, huge storms drowned the Mongolian army twice as they were attempting to invade Japan5, although Karatani thinks that, again, most of the credit for this failure should be given to the Korean fighting spirit.

          Finally, according to Wittfogel submarginal zones are very favourable to the development of capitalism, and Japan was indeed the first Asian country to develop a capitalist economy. According to Karatani, this is due to the fact that Japan, being quite free from the influence from the centre, was able to develop a feudal society, which was then the basis of a capitalist society.

          In this seemingly infinite cycle, one might add that Japan has lost a big part of its economic power at the end of the 20th century, and that the centre seems to be shifting back to China. Nevertheless, globalisation makes things more complicated than in the past, with the emergence of Korea as a new economic and cultural power in Asia.


          In the light of this example of Wittfogel's theory of margins, from antique history up to nowadays, it is possible to analyse Europe with the same tools. In terms of hydraulic societies, Wittfogel defines the Persian Empire as a central zone, with Cyprus as a marginal zone and Greece – and later the Roman Empire – as a submarginal zone. Of course, Greece and the Roman Empire did not develop as hydraulic societies as such, not being arid areas, but the Roman Empire, as a submarginal zone of the Persian Empire, was eventually free to become the dynamic zone of a new area, with continental Europe (eventually part of the Roman Empire) as a marginal zone, and Britain as a submarginal zone. Of course, Britain being an island makes the comparison with Japan even more relevant, even though it did not prevent Britain from being invaded – but as we have seen earlier, according to Karatani, Japan being an island did not really prevent it from being invaded either.

          Britain was invaded by the Romans. Therefore, it received a direct influence from the centre to some extent. But not all of Britain was conquered, and the Northern part of the island was less influenced, keeping its culture and its languages more easily6. Then, Britain was invaded several times again: first by the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes, all coming from Northern submarginal of the Roman Empire, and then by the Vikings, also coming from the North of Europe. This enabled Britain not to be influenced too directly, at first, by what had replaced the Roman administration: christianism. Indeed, all these invaders came from the North of Europe with very close languages and cultures, and the fact that the Vikings came from this cultural sphere probably helped them integrate the British society. Finally, the last invasion of Britain took place in 1066. The invaders came from France, but more specifically, from Normandy, a dukedom which had been created for Viking tribes to settle in the kingdom of France and stop raiding French cities. The Norman invasion completed the christianisation of the British territory, both in terms of religion and culture, but it is worth noting that this final christianisation was achieved through descendants from Vikings and not directly from the centre.

          After a long period of time, as a submarginal zone, Britain eventually became the new dynamic centre of a new area of influence, the British Empire. Britain was also the place of birth of capitalism and the area of origin of the industrial revolution. And in more recent history, one of its margins, the United States of America, has then developed as a new political and cultural centre, although globalisation makes this theory more and more difficult to apply.


          What I have endeavoured to demonstrate in this first part, is how the specific geopolitical and historical characteristics of Britain may help explain why and how Britain is “with Europe, but […] not of it.” It is indeed part of the sphere of influence of the Roman Empire, and then the Catholic Church, but it did not always receive their influence through direct ways, and being far away from the centre and isolated by water helped it receive and keep other types of influences as well. And it is worth noting that both Japan and Britain seem to be seen as cultural exceptions or curiosities in their respective zones nowadays. Indeed, both were important places of origin of the 20th century global pop culture (eg: the Beatles, mangas, video games...) but tend to be regarded as nations perfectly combining present culture and past tradition (eg: the shinto temples and ceremonies, the Japanese traditional costumes such as kimonos, the fact that such anti-monarchy people as the French tourists can wait hours to see the Queen in Buckingham Palace...).



    2. Can History help us predict the consequences of the Brexit?


          If Britain's ability to think itself with but not of Europe partially comes from the fact that it received less influence from the catholic centre, it is very interesting to note that Britain actually did break from the centre in the 16th century, and this English Reformation reminds us very much of the Brexit. Indeed, long before the Brexit campaign began, several critics had already drawn this comparison, such as Adrian Papst, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, who wrote in the Guardian in 2009 “[In the process of the English Reformation] England ceased to be part of a huge, medieval, cross-channel European empire and instead became an independent sovereign nation-state, free from 'the authority of any foreign potentate' – above all the Pope. If you ever wondered about the origins of English euroskepticism, look no further than the Protestant Revolution”. Quite similarily, David Starkey, a Cambridge historian, wrote in 2012 “England's semidetached relashionship with continental Europe is neither new nor an aberration. Instead, it is deeply rooted in the political development of the past 500 years.”

          Can then a comparison of these two major political events help us enlight the circumstances and the outcome of present-day Brexit? 


    2.1 The English Reformation: a first Brexit?


          On 30th October, 1534, Henry VIII passed the Acts of Supremacy, thus becoming “supreme head in earth of the Church of England”, and thus repealing any “usage, custom, foreing laws, foreing authority”.

          Of course, the king's main motivation was that he wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, arguing that she had failed to produce a male heir who could inherit the crown of England, although what he really wanted was to marry young and attractive Ann Boleyn (perhaps also hoping that she would produce an heir). The Pope denied the king this right for several reasons. Indeed, whereas Henry's main argument was that marrying his brother's widow was “blighted in the eyes of God”, the Pope retorted that he had issued a special dispensation for the marriage to happen, and Canon Law forbade making an exception to an exception. But the real reason was that Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, whose Empire bordered the Papal States and who was a Champion of the Catholic Church against the rise of Protestantism, and the Pope did not want to offend this powerful neighbour and ally.

          At first sight, these circumstances may not seem very relevant in a comparison with the Brexit, but if one looks at the general picture rather than at the particulars, the similarities become much clearer. Indeed, the English Reformation was actually the result of the will of indivudual people – the king and the Pope – driven by personal interests – marrying Ann Boleyn and not displeasing the Emperor – and disguised in more acceptable reasons, reasons linked with the good of the nation – producing an heir – or morality – respecting Canon Law. Well, several critics have compared this situation with the Brexit being caused by the will, either of David Cameron, who tried to establish his autority over his own political party, or of Boris Johnson, who thus hoped to become Prime Minister in a post-referendum time. As a matter of fact, both failed, since the outcome of the Brexit was the opposite of Cameron's expectations, and Boris Johnson did not gain political importance after the referendum. To complete the comparison, it is worth noting that Henry VIII eventually had his new wife beheaded and that although she was the mother to Elizabeth I, she failed to produce a male heir.

          But the king's divorce was not the only reason for the '16th century Brexit'. Indeed, Church law was under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore, the Pope, and Church taxes were paid directly to Rome. This was of course echoed in the Brexit campaign by the complaints about the United Kingdom contributions to the European Union budget.

          Moreover, the English Reformation happened in a context of what could be compared to present-day euroskepticism towards the Catholic Church. Indeed, the many flaws of the Church – such as nepotism, usury and bribery – had been exposed by Martin Luther in his Ninety Five Theses in 1517, causing a growing discontent towards the Church and its hierarchy throughout Northern Europe.

          Therefore, the stakes of the English Reformation were not only the king's ability to divorce, but the question of sovereignty. As he broke from the Catholic Church, king Henry VIII refused to recognise the Pope as a higher authority. He declared himself the supreme authority in England, and thus took back all judiciary powers and became the recipicient of Church taxes. To put it in a nutshell, he took his sovereignty back.


    2.2 Were the short and long term consequences of the English Reformation good or bad?


          Critics disagree about the consequences of the English Reformation on the English economy. According to Nomura, the Reformation was followed by a century of economic stagnation in a context of almost permanent conflict which led to the the English Civil War (1642-1651), which greatly destabilised the politics of the country since it led to the beheading of king Charles I. Indeed, although the taxes stopped going to Rome and the king introduced the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, resulting in around one third of the country – Church land – being seized by the crown and sold to the wealthy in order to support the king's finances, the GDP per capita did not move for around one century. It even dropped during the Civil War.

    Henry VIII's Reformation: a "first Brexit"?

          The confiscation of Church property had another effect. Indeed, monasteries were the primary source of support for the poor. Many of them were forced to move to the cities in order not to starve. This was a big change in the demographics of the time. For instance, the population of London increased more than fourfold in less than a century. This was at first a bad consequence of the Reformation, but it eventually turned out to be a good thing, since London was then to become the largest city in the world, largest port city in Europe, and first metropole in the world.

          And indeed, it can be argued that the English Reformation had very good consequences on the English economy, but it took more than a century, some even say two, to be effective.

          The bright side to the English Reformation was that it freed England from the domination of the Catholic Church. And this happened at a very crucial period. Indeed, America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and European countries were now sending exploring parties throughout the world. But the close ties between the Pope and the Roman emperor led to a series of papal bulls allocating most new territories as a “mare clausum” to the Spanish empire in perpetuity. England, now free from those rules, was able to colonise the new worlds, both in the West and the East, until the constitution of the British Empire “on which the sun never sets”. On the other hand, the emperor, wanting to restore the authority of the Catholic Church throughout Europe, forced a war on England and Holland and ended up bankrupt and broken. Moreover, according to German sociologist Max Weber, the industrial revolution, which started in England, was led by the Puritan work ethic of the English people, an ethic which was built in opposition to the corruption of the Catholic Church in the 16th century.


    2.3. The differences between the circumstances of the English Reformation and the Brexit.


          The first big difference that comes to mind is that Henry VIII got a lot of money because of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. And even with this extra cash, the GDP per capita did not increase in the next hundred years. In the case of the Brexit, far less money is bound to be available. Indeed, the huge number used by the Leave campaign – “we send the EU £350 million a week” – did not take into account the money that the European Union sends back to the United Kingdom7. Moreover, the Brexit will not give the British government new buildings and lands that it can sell in order to make more cash, and depending on the conditions on which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it might have to pay around the same amount of money in order to access the common market. Bearing in mind the numbers from the 16th century, one might then wonder what will become of the GDP per capita without extra money to support the economy.

          Another difference concerns immigration. Indeed, the English Reformation caused an influx of refugee Protestants and Hugenots, coming from Catholic countries – such as France – where they were persecuted, and those people thus brought their labour and skills to the country. Since gaining back the control of the borders was one of the main arguments of the Leave campaign, Brexiteers are unlikely to want to support the change in their economy by massive immigration.

          There is also the question of how the European bureaucracy will be replaced. When Henry VIII became head of the Church of England, he took controll of the judiciary hierarchy which was formerly ruled by the Pope. He could therefore enforce whatever change he thought fit through this hierarchy. But the European bureaucracy does not lie in the United Kingdom and yet, it has a vast influence on every day life in the United Kingdom because of section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972. Section 2(1) provides that European Union law has effect in the United Kingdom and must be followed by the courts. Section 2(2) gives wide powers to ministers to amend United Kingdom laws to make it consistent with the requirements of the European Union law. Section 2(1) was of course criticised by the Brexiteers who wanted British law to be made by British government and Parliament. Section 2(2) was also the target of their criticism, being called a “Henry VIII provision”, since it gave more power to the executive, over the legislative. Naturally, section 2 is supposed to be repealed by the Great Repeal Bill. But this means that all British legislations must be reviewed in order to change all the parts refering to the European Union. And this will be a tremendously huge work. Which is why it has been argued that section 2(2) should not be repealed, and should instead be extended to give ministers more power to amend United Kingdom law. Indeed, Parliament would not be able to deal with all these legislations by primary legislation, and the ministries will probably have to deal with them on their own. Which means that this could lead to the opposite of what the Brexiteers wanted – more power to the people. Moreover, in order to cope with this huge amount of extra work, Whitehall will probably have to hire massively civil servants, and one might wonder to what extend this will affect its finances, and if they will be able to find enough people who are competent to deal with those sensible questions.

          The last difference between the English Reformation that I would like to bring to light is rather a positive one – for the time being. It deals with the willingness to go on of the governing party. Indeed, it was Henry VIII who first wanted to reform the English Church, and this was continued by his son, Edward VI, who had a more theological approach and tried to impose Protestantism on England. But the next monarch was queen Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who was a Catholic. Naturally, she tried to reunite England and Rome and repealed much of the Reformation legislation, but Rome did not think her effort sufficient. She was then followed by Elizabeth I who returned the country to Protestantism. It can then be argued that the dissension between Henry VIII's successors did not help the Reformation go smoothly and may have had an effect on the economic stagnation of the country. Back to the present, new Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have reflected upon this question, and although she was not on the Leave side and tried to warn economic players about the risks of leaving the European Union, as the leader of the Brexit nation, she is now embracing the Brexit and its consequences as best as she can.




          In this essay, I have shown that in order to understand present-day events, it is sometimes necessary to go back quite far away in time. Thus, it seems that Britain's geopolitical history somehow predetermined it to taking a habit of beaking from the central European authority and that this has already happened at least once in the past. Of course, the circumstances of those two events vary greatly, but studying long-ago history may help us gain some insight as to what choice to make in the future, or how to deal with a present situation. Critics do not all agree as to wether the consequences of the English Reformation were good or bad, but what they all agree about, is that it took a very long time for those consequences to come into effect. And this will also probably be true about the Brexit.



    If you can read French and are interested in the geopolitical determination of the "Japanese specificity", check out the article I wrote for a seminar of my Master of Japanese studies here.




    KARATANI, Kôjin, “Nihonseishinbunseki.saikô” (Psychoanalysis of Japan), Bungakukai, nov.1997, pp. 158 to 177.

    KARATANI Kôjin, Sekaishi no kôzô (The structure of world history), Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, 2010.

    WITTFOGEL, Karl, Le despotisme oriental : étude comparative du pouvoir total, Les Editions de minuit, Paris, 1964.











    (all consulted last on 30th December 2016).



    1The full quote used by the Leave campain was “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” But those are actually two seperate quotations of Winston Churchill. The first part, about Europe and Britain, dates from 1930, whereas the last part, about Europe and the open sea, dates from 1944. The Leave campaign then stitched the two in a Tweet and said it dated from a speech to Parliament on 11th May 1953.

    2不平等條約 bù píngděng tiáoyuē in Mandarin.

    3柄谷 行人. I will use the Japanese tradition here, naming the surname before the first name.

    4The 'specificity of Japan' was the central topic of specific Japanese studies throughout the 19th century, called 日本人論 nihonjinron, discussions about the Japanese”.

    5Hence the origins of the word kamikaze 神風 divine wind”, also read shinpû.

    6This situation can be compared to the situation of the Ainu, a people from the North of Japan.

    7Taking that into account, the United Kingdom sends approximately £190 million a week.


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