You Gotta Know These British Reform Movements

Here is a list of ten religious, social, and political movements that have in some way challenged the British government and mainstream British society. All of these movements originated in England, but many were also active in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. High school quiz bowl players may find that many of these movements come up most often as clues in questions asking about the leaders or institutions that they opposed.

  • Lollards (late 14th century) This group agitated for the reform of Western Christianity and was given the derogatory name “Lollards.” The Lollards followed the example of John Wycliffe, a theologian whose criticism of the Church got him fired from his position at the University of Oxford in 1381. Wycliffe is best known today for being one of the first to translate the Bible into English (the first of his translations came out in 1382 and circulated widely). He and the Lollards also challenged the privileged status of the clergy, calling at various times for a lay clergy, an end to clerical celibacy, the end of confession to priests, and a ban on priests holding temporal offices. The Lollards were driven underground, especially after the suppression of a 1414 uprising by Sir John Oldcastle, but their ideas presaged many of those later adopted during the English Reformation. In the wake of Oldcastle’s Rebellion, Wycliffe was posthumously declared a heretic at the 1415 Council of Constance, after which his corpse was exhumed and posthumously beheaded.
  • Puritans (16th and 17th centuries) The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who tried to push the English Reformation further by “purifying” the Church of England of any remaining Roman Catholic influences. The word “Puritan” is applied inconsistently to groups espousing a variety of different religious positions; today, it often refers to somebody who is opposed to seeking pleasure. When studying 17th-century England, it is important to note the distinction between “separatist” Puritans who wanted to break away from the Church of England and “non-separatist” Puritans who wanted to reform the church while remaining members of it. The Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were separatists; the main group of colonists who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony under John Winthrop were non-separatists. After the English Civil War, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Puritans enjoyed a brief period of power in England, during which time they closed theaters, limited sports, and instituted harsh penalties for breaking the Sabbath.
  • Levellers and Diggers (mid-17th century) During the English Civil War, the opponents of the monarchy included holders of a wide range of political beliefs. Those politicians and soldiers who wanted to extend suffrage and establish equality before the law were known as Levellers, a pejorative term probably referring to the fact that they wanted all people to live on a common level. Some radicals, inspired by the Book of Acts, went even further in attempting to establish egalitarianism in the English countryside by trying to farm on common land. Because they dug up this land, they became known as Diggers (the Diggers preferred to call themselves the “True Levellers”). The Levellers, who were less radical than the Diggers, had considerably more influence on English politics. Several Leveller leaders were invited to debate the main leaders of the New Model Army during the 1647 Putney Debates about the formation of a new English constitution. In the end, both the Levellers and the Diggers were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton.
  • Luddites (early 19th century) As the Industrial Revolution accelerated in the early 19th century, many skilled textile workers were replaced by unskilled laborers who could use newly invented machines. The most vocal opponents of textile mechanization were known as Luddites, a term said to have derived from the surname of a youth named Ned Ludd who broke two stocking frames in 1779. Between 1811 and 1813, organized groups of Luddites clashed with the British military at mills in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. In response, Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made industrial sabotage a capital crime. While the Luddites were suppressed relatively quickly, the perpetrators of the Swing Riots in Kent in 1830 employed similar tactics by demolishing threshing machines to protest the mechanization of agriculture. Today, the term “Luddite” refers more generally to anybody who is uncomfortable with technology.
  • Chartists (19th century) Another working-class reform movement in industrial England was the Chartist movement, so named because it advocated the adoption of the People’s Charter of 1838. The Charter was written by six members of Parliament and six workers. It called for the democratization of the political system by instituting universal suffrage, secret ballots, the abolition of property qualifications to stand for election, salaries for members of Parliament, constituencies of equal size, and annual parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement inspired several mass rallies, peaking in size in 1848 as the rest of Europe was swept up in revolution. The Chartist movement did not directly inspire any political reforms, but Parliament gradually granted five of the six demands of the Charter (the demand for annual elections was the only one never implemented).
  • Anti-Corn Law League (early-mid 19th century) From 1838 to 1846, the leading organization agitating for repeal of the Corn Laws was the Anti-Corn Law League. The Corn Laws were a series of laws that imposed tariffs on imported grain (“corn” was at that time a generic term for types of grain that require grinding, including wheat), which kept grain prices high to benefit English landowners. The founders of the Anti-Corn Law League, Richard Cobden and John Bright, argued that importing grain would lower food prices for workers and thus stimulate the British economy. The Corn Laws were eventually repealed in 1846 under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel, a decision hastened by the start of the Irish Potato Famine the previous year. The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in an era of support for free trade that continues to this day. Another legacy of opposition to the Corn Laws was the founding of the weekly publication The Economist in 1843 to promote repeal of trade restrictions.
  • Reform League(mid-late 19th century) A variety of organizations, including the Reform League, sprung up in 1865 to promote universal suffrage in the United Kingdom. Universal suffrage had been one of the demands of the Chartist Movement, but Parliament had not enacted it. The Reform League staged mass meetings to influence parliamentary proceedings, including a rally in Hyde Park in 1866 that forced the resignation of Spencer Walpole as Home Secretary. The Reform League’s platform was eventually in 1867, during Benjamin Disraeli’s prime ministry. The Second Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised urban working-class males in England and Wales (further bills enfranchised Scotland and Ireland the following year).
  • Fabian Society (1884–present) One of the most influential intellectual communities in British history was the Fabian Society, an organization founded in 1884 to promote the gradual adoption of socialism. The society was named for the Roman general Fabius Maximus, who avoided fighting pitched battles against Hannibal and instead won a gradual war of attrition. The Fabian Society pressed for progressive economic measures that went far beyond the platform of the Liberal Party, including a minimum wage and universal health care. Prominent members of the Fabian Society included George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Ramsay MacDonald, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In 1900, many members of the Fabian Society founded the Labour Party, a socialist rival to the two major parties, which eventually came to power in 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald. Today, the Fabian Society continues to exist as a left-wing think tank.
  • Suffragettes (early 20th century) In the early 20th century, many different groups began to clamor for voting rights to be extended to women. The most militant advocates for women’s suffrage became known as Suffragettes. This term is especially associated with Emmeline Pankhurst and her organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union. In the 1910s, many Suffragettes adopted militant tactics to draw attention to their cause, including Emily Davison’s protest at the Epsom Derby in 1913 when she was trampled and killed by the King’s horse, a slashing attack by Mary Richardson on Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1914, and the 1914 bombing of the Coronation Chair inside Westminster Abbey. Many Suffragettes who were arrested went on hunger strikes, leading the government of Herbert Asquith to pass the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed hunger strikers to be released and subsequently re-arrested. In 1918, Parliament finally extended voting rights to women over the age of thirty who met property qualifications.
  • National Union of Mineworkers (late 20th century) This list would not be complete without some mention of the organizations that opposed the conservative economic measures imposed by the government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. One conflict that deserves particular attention is the strike led by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 and 1985 under the leadership of Arthur Scargill. The entire British coal industry had been nationalized by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1947. In 1984, the Thatcher government announced a plan to close 20 coal mining pits as a way of reducing government subsidies to the mines, which precipitated a strike. By March 1985, the Thatcher government had outlasted the strikers, effectively breaking the power of one of Britain’s most powerful unions. The British coal industry was privatized in 1994. Today, most of Britain’s coal is imported, and the former mining areas have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

International Context

This list has focused on reform movements that originated in England, but it is important to note that most of these movements had legacies that spread to other countries. John Wycliffe and the Lollards inspired Jan Hus, a Czech religious reformer who was burned at the stake after he was also condemned at the Council of Constance. Groups of separatist and non-separatist Puritans were the first British colonists in New England. Many Luddite and Chartist leaders were punished with “transportation” to Australia. Gold miners rebelling at Australia’s Eureka Stockade in 1854 even drew up a list of demands inspired directly by the English Chartist movement. The free trade ideals espoused by the opponents of the Corn Laws influenced many economists in the United States and other economically developed countries who continue to advocate free trade. The women’s suffrage movement in the United States happened contemporaneously with that in the United Kingdom, and many leaders of both movements corresponded frequently. Most notably, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Women’s Party and the author of the Equal Rights Amendment, joined several WSPU protests while living in Birmingham.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Kyle Haddad-Fonda.

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