Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall - review by Lucy Wooding

Lucy Wooding

Ringing the Changes

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation


Yale University Press 652pp £30 order from our bookshop

Historical disputation over the causes and consequences of the English Reformation has been so heated during the last few decades that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the convolutions of claim and counterclaim. With pleasing dispatch Peter Marshall’s compelling new history of England’s Reformation sweeps all the historians down into the footnotes and just tells the story as he sees it. The picture is not a stately architectural drawing, sharply delineating light and shade, but a many-shaded mosaic, each small piece an individual account of doubt or devotion, idealism or compromise. This is the human story within the grand narrative, written with fluidity and warmth, its scholarship providing a firm foundation without being intrusive, its analysis thoughtful, not polemical.

This does not mean that Marshall stands aloof from historical debate. On the contrary, this book puts forward, courteously and with gentle touches of humour, some very firm convictions about the Reformation. He has no time, for example, for the view that, despite the innovations of official policy, the religion of the English people was marked more by continuity than conversion. Marshall’s Reformation is a ‘volcanic eruption of change’ which left a lot of issues unresolved. Even more importantly, he regards the religious convictions of the people involved – the ‘heretics and believers’ of the title – as crucial to the story. Religion was not, in his view, a cloak for political ambition, social tension or economic motivation but a force in its own right, to be taken seriously.

Marshall is also charting, quietly but inescapably, less the birth of a Protestant nation than the death of Catholic England. One indication of this is that the book halts in the 1590s. For those who see the Reformation as predominantly about the crafting of English Protestantism, this might seem a strange place to stop – the moment when popular Protestantism was becoming firmly entrenched within society and the ramifications of internal Protestant divisions were beginning to work themselves out. For those who see the Reformation in terms of the destruction of the medieval Catholic Church, however, the 1590s is a more plausible place to stop. The great panoply of medieval religion, in all its confidence and diversity, had been torn apart and the phenomenon of recusant Catholicism was already in place, the most lasting example of a newly fledged ‘culture of dissembling and concealment’. It was all over bar the shouting.

Still, this book is an investigation, not a lament. The depiction of religious life in the closing years of the 15th and the first two decades of the 16th centuries is intricate and satisfying, but Marshall describes the close interweaving of religion and parish life without sentimentality. The symbiotic relationship of Church and community was frequently lacking in harmony: ‘“Community” … was not a state of cosy togetherness. Hell has always been other people.’ But the Church possessed tried and tested strategies for achieving reconciliation, if not consensus, and in any case Marshall sees religion as inextricable from ‘the messy interplay of collective human existence’. Those who dissented were no less part of the social fabric. Marshall’s landscape is peopled by a number of energetic Lollards, England’s proto-Protestants, and although he acknowledges that nonconformity at times might be something constructed by the persecuting authorities, he is keen to stress that ‘heretics’ were often people who had made conscious choices: they ‘understood that they were going against accepted opinion; they thought they knew better than their neighbours, their curate, their bishop, even the Pope’.

Henry VIII also thought he knew better than almost everyone else, and his conscience was one of many that moved the Reformation forward. It was in the early years of his reign that some of the fissures in the medieval Church became fractures. The lasting legacy of the Reformation was this culture of division, in which conceptions of faith itself were irretrievably altered. This book begins by describing a time when Lollards might be priests or church wardens, or could state that there was no miracle in the Eucharist while still charitably conceding that it was ‘done in a mind to call people together’. It ends in a different world, where the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion could say on the scaffold to the minister beside him, ‘you and I, we are not of one religion’.

The price of this transformation was high, and perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is its awareness of the human cost of religious change. As Marshall observes in the preface, ‘there are a lot of names in this book’; his Reformation is not a sociopolitical transformation but something that happened to ordinary people, often as a result of their own agency. Some were torn apart by affairs of state. William Warham was the archbishop of Canterbury brave enough to register his formal opposition to Henry VIII’s undermining of the power of the papacy and the independence of the Church. But Warham was also human enough to waver at the last and submit to his king; dying shortly afterwards, he was buried as near as possible to the place where Thomas Becket, whose defiance he could not quite emulate, had been killed. At the other end of the social scale, in Hughenden in Buckinghamshire in 1521, one Lollard censured another for burning his own books, including a gospel book; his friend replied, ‘he had rather burn his books, than that his books should burn him’. Marshall’s Reformation is made up of thousands of stricken consciences, thousands of men and women striving to get it right.

A quarter of a century ago, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars helped bring about a sea change in attitudes towards the Reformation. It demonstrated the great strengths of late medieval popular faith and posited the arresting idea that the 16th century saw not the welcome advance of religious reform but the systematic destruction of a cherished way of life. Heretics and Believers is a worthy successor to Duffy’s book and the fruit of the animated debates that it helped to provoke. Its canvas is broader, its judgements more cautious, and yet for Marshall too the work of Reformation was also a work of destruction. The chief focus of his study is the lived experience of the people who had to endure these upheavals.

Yet Marshall finds more besides – more that was positive in this experience. He sees the Reformation as ‘a long collective argument about what was truly involved in the imitation of Christ’ that helped bring about new dimensions in religious experience. It changed the definition of ‘religion’ itself, from a neutral description of devotional life to a term signifying the fraught and challenging act of crafting both public identity and private conscience. It made the English more self-conscious and more self-critical, and taught them, painfully, what it was to live with difference. Thus, for Marshall, debates about the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of Protestantism or Catholicism are missing the point: ‘The real significance of the English Reformation … lies not in the achievement, but in the struggle itself.’ Simultaneous creativity and destruction, tolerance and persecution, zealotry and compassion produced a society that had no option but to face its own divisions and strive, however haplessly, to overcome them.

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