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 Some of the more atrocious parts of the Penal Laws had been repealed, and enforcement of the rest was sporadic and rare, but Catholics were still prevented from being Members of Parliament, owning land, or practising certain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 1820’s 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.