Peter Marshall's Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation
Yale University Press, 2017
In keeping with the often intricate twists and turns of the whole subject, this new history of the English Reformation is a wide ranging and at times labyrinthine tome which weighs in at close on six hundred pages of text. Not, however, that this should deter those who aren’t particularly well versed in the vagaries of the Tudor religious landscape. Although Peter Marshall’s book is a formidable scholarly achievement, the judicious momentum which he applies to his exposition of the heterogeneous aspects of England’s break with Rome —couched in a lucid, accessible prose style throughout— means that those readers with the requisite stamina will find that Heretics and Believers gives them an insightful and comprehensive appreciation of how this momentous period of upheaval in the nation’s history transformed the lives of our ancestors and shaped the society that we live in.
Whenever it comes to histories of religious conflict, there is a perennial school of thought which says that theological disagreements are merely a smokescreen obscuring more deep-seated social, economic, and political dissension. Whilst not dismissing this viewpoint out of hand, Marshall roundly asserts that “the conflicts of the Reformation were principally about religion,” whilst also making the important point that religion was anything but a “disconnected phenomenon, separable from other spheres of value and meaning in which sixteenth century people lived their lives.” Religion was, in fact, “woven inextricably into the fabric of virtually all the other artificial abstractions [which make up the] messy interplay of collective human existence.” Given our contemporary experience of the traumatic events which can arise from religious conflict, a world in which our Catholic and Protestant ancestors readily and regularly put their lives and the lives of others on the line for what they believed in does not seem that remote. This is not to suggest, as Marshall points out, that the English Reformation was ever as straightforward as a sustained face-off between two different creeds. As this book shows, it was substantially more complicated than that, as was its effect on the English polity as a whole.
The term ‘Reformation’ itself is worthy of scrutiny for a number of reasons. The so-called ‘pre-Reformation’ period was very far from being a static, settled world of universally shared religious beliefs, not least because the urge to reform its doctrines and practices has been an ever-present facet of the Christian faith since its earliest history. Equally, it is important to remember that, as Marshall has it, “‘The Reformation’ is itself an abstraction —a later attempt to make sense out of a pattern of events whose unfolding mostly seemed fitful and strange to the people living through them.” Prior to these “fitful and strange” times, in the years before Henry VIII changed the nation’s whole religious and constitutional environment, what sustained the majority of people in their spiritual journeys through this life was the Church and the sacraments that it bestowed from birth onwards. Objects, rituals and the spaces in which they were experienced were all sacramental in that they allowed people to encounter, in the words of St Augustine, “invisible grace” through “visible form,” a concept epitomised in the eucharistic transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during Mass. However, observance of sacramental verities does not imply theological consensus amongst the pre-Reformation faithful. Indeed, Marshall describes late mediaeval Catholicism as “alarmingly unregulated” in the way that its various precepts were observed in practice but, at the same time, “not a structure collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions,” displaying as it did “extraordinary devotional agility.” As the years to come would prove, however, that same devotional agility contained within it an “almost imperceptible, but nonetheless real spiritual fragility.”
Marshall presents a detailed examination of the individuals and groups whose religious radicalism prospered in the shade of this growing spiritual fragility, to the point where, by the late 1520s —when the King’s desire for an annulment of his first marriage was starting to bring the country’s future relationship with Rome into question— various evangelical reformers were already pursuing their own idiosyncratic agendas and, in some cases, using the propaganda opportunities presented by the printing press to covertly good effect. Henry VIII’s personal journey from Defender of the Faith, a title bestowed on him by Pope Leo X following publication of the monarch’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther in 1521, to his installation as Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England following the 1534 Act of Supremacy, is described in terms of his skittish mood swings, dynastic ambitions and pragmatically mixed motives. Much space is given over to how important protagonists such as Erasmus, More, Cranmer, Wolsey (and a host of nobles on either side of the growing religious divide) played their part in the minefield of changing allegiances which characterised the Henrician court, with the king at its fulcrum surveying them all with a mercurial wilfulness which might at any moment be trained on even his most intimate Councillors, often with fatal consequences.
Inevitably, Henry VIII is a dominant presence in the first half of Marshall’s book, not because the monarch’s every move is followed and deliberated on, but because his was the fitful personality which, with a change of heart or regal temper tantrum, set so many events in chain which led to factional strife. Throughout Heretics and Believers there is a seemingly endless roll-call of those caught up in this strife, who either consciously sought martyrdom for their religious principles or simply refused to recant their beliefs even in the certain knowledge that, as a consequence, theirs would be a gruesome and often protracted death. In so many cases, the equanimity with which these people accepted their fate is remarkable —high or low born, prominent or obscure alike. For every Thomas More dying as “the King’s good servant, and God’s first,” or old Archbishop Fisher preparing for his beheading with a composed and dignified mien, there were many, many others, less well known, who proved equally courageous.
Those who opposed Henry’s reforms were not simply a collection of disparate recalcitrants who spoke up when the rest of their peers hadn’t the courage to do so. There were, throughout the reigns of Henry VIII and his children, several instances of organised opposition to acts of doctrinal revisionism which attracted varying degrees of mass support. Marshall is particularly enlightening on the Pilgrimage of Grace, the popular rising, led by one Robert Aske, which began in Yorkshire in 1536 and attracted several thousand adherents intent on countermanding the dissolution of the monasteries and generally resisting those ‘heretics,’ such as Thomas Cromwell, who were “subverting the commonwealth [and] the good ordering of society.” Far from the Pilgrimage being an isolated but ultimately insignificant diversion on the journey towards national religious reformation, it was recognised by the government “for what it was: armed rebellion on an unprecedented, unmanageable scale.” Indeed, it is perhaps an indication of how alarmed the king and government were by the magnitude of this revolt that, once it had been suppressed, the retribution was “swift and thorough.” As such, the Pilgrimage of Grace was significant not only because it clearly showed that there was widespread opposition to Henry’s religious policies, but also because its ultimate failure led to those advocates of the old order who had seen the Pilgrimage as an opportunity to return the country to its pre-Reformation ways being soundly disabused of that chimera.
By the time of his death in January 1547, Henry VIII’s programme of reform which had as its ostensibly central aims “unity, obedience and the refurbishment of ancient truths” had managed to starkly disunite his people, and even encouraged several of them to question the whole concept of obedience to their monarch, along with the legitimacy of the “ancient truths” which underpinned his regal status. This new spirit of enquiry encouraged many to take responsibility for arriving at a personal understanding of religious truth. These “new Christianities,” as Marshall refers to them, crystallised throughout the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, who would both deal with the more vociferous of their theologically troublesome subjects with similar severity.
Edward grew up a fervent Protestant during his formative years under the aegis of the Duke of Somerset, and later the Earl of Warwick. Much to the approval of the pharisaical young king, whom the Puritan martyrologist John Foxe would later call “the godly imp,” Thomas Cranmer introduced a number of radical reforming measures which succeeded in divesting England of its Catholic past in order to transform it into a constitutionally Protestant country. However, this did not succeed in finally putting paid to the disputatious unrest first stirred up in Henry VIII’s day. Indeed, throughout Edward’s reign debate raged between those who thought that reform had gone far enough and those who lobbied for ever more zealous anti-Catholic measures, a controversy which the creation and dissemination of The Book of Common Prayer under Cranmer’s editorship attempted—but ultimately failed — to resolve.
In early 1553, when the fifteen-year-old Edward knew that he was dying, he drafted plans for his succession which included disqualifying his two sisters from succeeding to the throne, an act which seems to have been driven more by his fears of what religious reversions Mary would institute rather than Elizabeth’s inclinations on the same subject. Edward died on the 6th of July, and into the breach, give or take the nine days’ wonder that was Lady Jane Grey, stepped Mary I.
That the threat of a return to Catholicism, which Mary’s accession augured, didn’t immediately instigate a religious civil war is indicative of the uncertainty with which the nation had assimilated its Protestant status. Added to this, Mary further allayed any fears about an overnight return to papal obeisance by making it clear that she was more interested in promulgating “the rightness of her claim rather than the truth of her religion.” As Marshall puts it, one of Mary’s early charm offensives saw her proclaim that “subjects should live together in quiet and charity ‘leaving those new found devilish names of papist or heretic.’” Everyone was, in effect, all in it together. At the same time Mary made it quite clear that she would be attending Mass and that those of her subjects who were so disposed should do likewise. For several months a popular counter-revolution against the royal endorsement of a revived Catholicism saw the Queen at odds with factions of her government and the clergy alike. Although civil order was maintained after a fashion, it was a bewildering time for those who had been bombarded for years with messages about the Pope as Anti-Christ to find that he was now officially no such thing. Slowly but surely, however, via a combination of legislation and regal caution, the old faith began to tighten its grip, albeit at a glacial pace compared to Rome’s hopes and expectations. However, by 1555, many of those who would not affirm the spiritual supremacy of the Pope were being burned to death in public. As in the days of the Catholic Martyrs, some of the most galvanising (and possibly apocryphal) last words and deeds from their Protestant counterparts were provided by the senior clergy. These included Bishop Latimer’s rousing instruction to his fellow sufferer Bishop Ridley as the flames were being kindled around them to “be of good comfort…We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out,” and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, thrusting that hand first into the flames with which he had signed a recantation of his Protestant beliefs.
By 1558, whilst Mary lay dying, the English people had been “party to, and participants in, an unrelenting series of arguments, concocted in print and pulpit, and continued in homes and taverns, about what God’s laws actually were.” All this had the effect of shaking to the core “any residual assumptions that kings, Parliaments or bishops could automatically be relied upon to implement them correctly.” With Elizabeth I’s accession, the new monarch’s gradualist approach to once more establishing the Church of England’s independence from Rome seems, by and large, to have calmed the atmosphere of restive religious dissent in most quarters. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity which were the chief components of the so-called Elizabethan Settlement saw the monarch become Supreme Governor of the Church in England, along with the establishment of a form of worship which is still followed in the Anglican church today. Not that, despite Elizabeth’s impressive ability to exercise moderation and pragmatism when called for, antagonistic factions didn’t occasionally rise to challenge her authority. One of the most notable instances of this was the 1569 Revolt of the Northern Earls, which saw a group of Catholic nobles —led by the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland— unsuccessfully attempt to install Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. Added to this, recusancy and the quest to discover priest holes in secluded manor houses across the country meant that the threat of Popish insurgency was an ongoing concern.
Although (as the book comes to a close in the years around 1590) Elizabeth I’s reign is the last that Marshall considers, he acknowledges that “there is no obvious point at which the English Reformation ‘ends’ and no one around at the time thought to officially declare one.” That being said, it does seem a suitable place to halt given that, by then, a “broad-based Protestantism” had been established as the nation’s majority faith.
With a work of this length and scope, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer amount of human traffic which passes through its pages. In Marshall’s telling the English Reformation is an intricate tapestry of religious and social upheaval. Despite its grand narrative status, the book manages to provide a multi-faceted account of the many individuals who, in a myriad of diverse ways, were affected by the religious upheavals of their day. Marshall’s account of this seemingly well-worn topic never seems stale or perfunctory. There is a sense of real people being affected by real issues, the distant hubbub of which can still just about be heard in the pages of this insightful and immersive book.--Mark Jones