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Starkey on the Reformation

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, David Starkey tells Rob Attar why the tumultuous fallout from 1517 has striking – and often chilling – echoes in the present day

Historian David Starkey.
Published: November 1, 2017 at 12:16 pm
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This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


The first figures to flicker across the screen in David Starkey’s new history of the Reformation are not Martin Luther, John Calvin or even Henry VIII. They are members of Isis. We see clips of masked men brandishing daggers, while prisoners await a violent death. Above them a stark monologue is delivered: “We live in an age of religious extremism. An age of terror and violent slaughter.” This is the Reformation story as it’s surely never been told before.

While the hook for the documentary is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the focus for Starkey is very much on the present. Modern parallels are a constant theme across the hour-long programme and are repeatedly brought to the surface during our discussion in Starkey’s north London home. The comparison with Isis is a deliberate one and helps to stress a point that the historian feels has for too long been ignored: the European Reformation was a horribly violent and destructive episode.

“In that opening we used some of the nastier moments of the Isis tapes: all those horrible methods of public execution – burning alive, disembowelling and whatever. Well I’m afraid we did them all 500 years ago,” Starkey says. “I think that what people have done is deliberately disinfect the Reformation. It was bloodily violent and it led very quickly to the German peasant revolt [an armed challenge to the power of nobles and landlords, fought from 1524–25] and then the Münster rebellion [when a Christian sect, the Anabaptists, briefly established a government in Münster]. The rebels were the equivalents of Isis – complete loons and monstrously violent – and the suppression was even more hideously violent than that. It all then led, in little more than a century, to the Thirty Years’ War [between Protestant and Catholic states] which was, man-for-man, the most violently bloody war that Europe had ever known.”

And this was a situation that was also repeated far closer to home. Starkey: “Here in England, where the violence was state directed, you get a level of destruction that makes what Isis did in Palmyra look like a child’s picnic. Hundreds of monasteries – including buildings on the same scale as Westminster Abbey or York Minster – are demolished and stripped of their treasures.”

A c1532 painting of Martin Luther. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
A c1532 painting of Martin Luther. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Luther’s molten fury

The theme of violence continues when Starkey reflects on Luther, the man who ignited the fire of religious reform in 1517. “He was a man of perpetually barely-suppressed violence and it was his disgust at what he found the Roman church was doing that powered it. Lots of people – such as Erasmus and Thomas More – were disgusted but with Luther it was like a blast furnace. There was something molten about the fury and the concentrated force.”

But for Luther to succeed where previous reformers had failed, the circumstances also had to be right. Firstly his words had to fall on fertile ground, which they did thanks to the wealth and perceived corruption of the early modern Catholic church, particularly the selling of indulgences, or as Starkey describes it, “the sale of paradise”. The contrast between the opulence of the Vatican and the poverty of many ordinary Germans was key to Luther’s appeal. “We forget,” says Starkey, “that Michelangelo is the exact contemporary of Luther. In Italy you have these works of extravagant beauty paid out of illegitimately wrung pennies from German peasants.”

The other crucial element in Luther’s success was a technological one: the printing press. Though this was an invention that had already been in existence for several decades by 1517, Luther’s use of it was still genuinely radical. “They were trying to reproduce manuscripts but they couldn’t do that because they didn’t have the technology. It was Luther who rescued printing because what he came up with looked just like The Sun. One of the moments of absolute revelation for me was when I got to see facsimiles of great Lutheran works such as The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. I knew about the contents of them but I had assumed they were books. And yet these things looked like cheap pamphlets.

“What Luther was able to do was take huge ideas and reduce them to an extraordinarily simple core of argument, vividly expressed, in the native language and with exactly what a good journalist includes: lots of stories, a bit of dirt, some gossip and excitement. This was wonderful for the printers; it was easy to produce and sold like hot cakes. With printing Luther broke out from the academic convention, turning him from a marginal figure, a quarrelsome friar, into the focus of German politics. Within 10 years, half of Germany was Lutheran.”

To Starkey, Luther is undoubtedly one of history’s ‘great men’, but a terrible one too. “One of the things I try to bring out in the film is the complete dualism of the fact that high and noble motives are involved while unspeakably horrible things are done. We have this comparison running throughout with Isis because this is a work of passionate destruction. For Luther, the entire apparatus of medieval faith, the whole structure of the Catholic church and the patterns of Catholic belief and ceremony are filthy and idolatrous. He believes, as Isis do, in the idea of the second commandment: thou shalt have no graven images. And he also of course invokes violent German nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It’s not pretty.”

The cover of a pamphlet of Martin Luther's 1520 tract 'To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation'. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
The cover of a pamphlet of Martin Luther's 1520 tract 'To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation'. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The first Brexit

The other great figure to bestride Starkey’s Reformation story is Henry VIII, a man whom he has spent several decades writing about. The king was initially a passionate opponent of Luther, establishing himself as a leading defender of the papacy. Yet, famously, Henry’s thwarted attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn led him to make a dramatic volte-face with huge consequences for England and its relationship with Europe. Starkey repeatedly draws parallels between the English Reformation and the great issue dominating modern British politics. It was, he believes, “the first Brexit”.

Yet unlike the EU referendum, there was no popular mandate for splitting from Rome. “This was totally top down. The king assumed an extraordinary power over the church; he was making the church royal. And it is this royal supremacy that then becomes the dynamic of religious change in England,” Starkey explains. “We’ve tended to look at this the other way around. There is this democratic myth in history where we really want to believe things are all about popularity. Particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, historians were determined to find that the Reformation was popular, which resulted in significant acts of self-deception. It’s all part of our national Protestant myth. I think we are now much more aware than we were of the destructiveness and unpopularity of the English Reformation.”

Starkey, though, does not wish to deny what he sees as “the nobility and ambition” of much of the Reformation, notably William Tyndale’s desire to translate the Bible into English and provide “the gospel in the language that the ploughboy could understand”. Indeed, the impact on the English language is one of the most profound legacies that Starkey identifies. “The Reformation powers English as a language and a literature. It turns us into the land of Shakespeare, taking a language that had been marginal and giving it ability and aspiration.” This was an important part of a period of reidentification for England, which, having become a pariah after the split from Rome, began to define itself against Europe.

“It’s almost difficult to stop the parallels with Brexit,” says Starkey. “The Reformation took the country out of the international enterprise of the Catholic church, which it had been at the heart of for 1,000 years. England was absolutely at the centre of European Christendom. We were not simply part of a cross-channel ecclesiastical structure, but often a political structure as well, and Henry ruptured all of that.”

Even with these parallels, Starkey is cautious of drawing lessons from this period to inform the current discourse. He does, however, believe there are morals available, especially in Henry’s ability to achieve dramatic transformations with relative ease. “I wonder whether we have powerfully underestimated Henry VIII as a political operator,” he says. “Let’s just take the case of Henry in 1529 and his failed attempt to get a divorce from Rome, a policy in which he had invested the whole of his public reputation at home and abroad, vast amounts of money and his personal happiness. It all suddenly collapsed. In other words, it’s a bit like our waking up and finding out that we’ve voted for Brexit – and look at the mess we’ve made in terms of policy since then! But what does Henry do? He pauses. He sets up a think-tank. He reforms the royal library. He gets researchers going. He thinks. And it’s only once he’s come up with a satisfactory strategy that he tries to act. That’s quite a contrast.

“We’ve been taught to regard the king as tempestuous, babyish, self-indulgent – Donald Trump-like. Well there were aspects of Henry like that but when it came to the pursuit of a strategic goal, I think it would have been difficult to have operated more impressively. The reason it took so long is because he had to come up with acceptable reasons for the divorce and Henry’s headship of the church and then get it through parliament. You see it’s exactly the same as with Brexit. He had to get an extraordinary thing through a fractious, difficult and divided assembly and so he gave himself time. From the day in which Henry and Anne pledged to marry to that event actually taking place took just short of six years.”

Damaged monuments at Palmyra. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
Damaged monuments at Palmyra. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainties in the dustbin

For Henry’s subjects it was a confusing and dangerous time, as England swung from one form of Christianity to another. “Profound certainties suddenly went into the dustbin and there were these acts of public destruction of the things that had been the most precious. Relics, saints’ statues and miracle-working statues of Christ that people had fallen down and worshipped were publicly exhibited and made objects of ridicule. In that sense and so many others, the 16th century was very much like our own. There were these astonishing reversals and undermining of values and attempts to impose new ones. It all centred on what it was to be a Christian, which was the absolutely key question at a time when most people really did believe there was an afterlife.

“The image in the church was not of the nice, cuddly Jeremy Corbyn-Christ. It was Christ Pantocrator, the awe-inspiring, terrifying judge with those eyes looking down at you, a few of the saved on one side and the legion of the damned on the other. People were profoundly aware of all this but suddenly they were told that everything they were doing to be saved was going to make them damned and they had to do something completely different.”

This goes to the heart of what is perhaps Starkey’s key reformation message: the power of religion. “I am an atheist and not a doubting one but we have become contemptuous of the force of religion. We should remember that we who are atheists in a society that is casual about religion are in the minority. Most people now and most human beings throughout history have believed, and we must recognise the power of this thing, especially if we don’t like it.”

And ultimately Starkey accepts that there is plenty people might not like in his documentary. Peppered with allusions to 21st-century tensions, this is history that’s supposed to be uncomfortable. “With so much history on television, even when it’s about nasty, violent things, there’s a kind of fairy-tale bedtime story aspect about the whole thing. ‘It’s a long way away dear child, it’s not going to hurt you. We’ve got over all that, haven’t we? There’s nothing to worry about.’ Well I don’t believe that, and hence the wish to disturb.”

King Henry VIII. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
King Henry VIII. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

David Starkey is a historian and broadcaster who specialises in the Tudor era. He is currently working on the second volume of his Henry VIII biography


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