James Kelly considers a series of essays suggesting that the English Reformation was an act of tyranny, not liberation
History is written by the winners, and Eamon Duffy, the University of Cambridge’s professor of the history of Christianity, argues that this has led to a skewed view of the Reformation.
Duffy’s previous works, including The Stripping of the Altars, have questioned the notion that everybody was eagerly awaiting Henry VIII’s break from Rome. In this wide-ranging collection of self-contained essays, written in an easy, fluid style, he is even more provocative.
The overall message is that there was nothing inevitable about the permanence of the English Reformation. He explores how the material culture of medieval England, right up to Henry’s marital wranglings, displayed little sign of flagging Catholic belief. Indeed, communities were investing in their church buildings even after the official Reformation had begun. For Duffy, the smashing of statues and white-washing of walls meant “the disappearance of the most important single focus for corporate artistic patronage and devotional investment in the local communities of England”. Simply, Duffy suggests this was not ‘liberation from foreign tyranny’ but cultural vandalism.
Looked at from a non-Anglo-centric view, Henry does appear to be a tyrant, demanding rights over freedom of conscience that would be shocking today. Duffy places John Fisher, the only Catholic cardinal to be martyred, as a victim of this repression: Fisher died because he stood against the claims of the secular authority for sovereignty even over conscience. It was a case of absolute power verses integrity.
Duffy also adds his voice to recent reappraisals of the reign of Mary I, exploring the imaginative efforts of the Marian restoration of Catholicism.
What will no doubt grab the headlines are Duffy’s thoughts on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. Catholicism maintained a strong influence under Elizabeth and James VI and I, including visual reminders such as spoiled monastic buildings. Duffy argues that a person’s attitude towards these ruins was a touchstone of loyalty to or disaffection with the Elizabeth settlement. When Shakespeare wrote of “Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang” in Sonnet 73, he was passing such a judgment. For Duffy, “its phrasing decisively aligns Shakespeare against the Reformation”.
This is a fine book and required reading for anyone with an interest in England’s early Reformation years. Duffy shares the period’s iconoclasm, smashing a lot of widely held untruths that persist about the early modern period.
James Kelly is research fellow at the Queen Mary, University of London School of History