Heretics and Believers

A History of the English Reformation

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Peter H. Marshall
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     672 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is a good year to be talking about the Reformation. With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s provocative act—the writing and circulation of the ninety-five theses—commemorations and retrospectives abound in academia and beyond. Publishers have taken note as well: there are several new mass market biographies of Luther out this year, and a handful of recent studies, such as Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale University Press, 2016), have offered fresh readings of the continental European reformations. But it is high time for the English reformations to get a solid reassessment. The reformations in England, which take a rather different shape than those in continental Europe, are necessarily engaged only in a limited way in many recent studies. Thankfully, in the past year two important books have sought to remedy this neglect: first, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and its Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2016) (which is mainly but not exclusively focused on the English contexts); and now Peter Marshall’s magisterial overview of the protracted struggles for religious reform and political power in sixteenth-century England.

While sensitive to the centrality of theological issues in the English Reformations, Marshall’s study emphasizes the imbrication of political, theological, and economic concerns in the period. Unlike many other studies of the Reformation, Marshall’s account ends before 1600 and opens with a long look at the dynamics of late-medieval religious culture and spirituality. It features a huge cast of intriguing characters, attending both to the rises and falls of those in power and to the ordinary people whose lives, communities, faith, and relation to authority were radically transformed by the shifting visions of reform. The picture that ultimately emerges from Marshall’s compelling book is of the Reformation as like an earthquake, preceded by tremors and followed by decades of aftershocks.

Beginning with these late-medieval tremors and concluding with the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign, the book’s structure is roughly chronological. The four chapters of the book’s first part, “Reformations before Reformation,” offer a sweeping introduction to the piety and practices of Christianity in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England with an eye toward the rumblings of reform. Acknowledging that late medieval devotion was neither a homogenous nor a tranquil thing, Marshall focuses on lay piety, incarnational devotion, the emergence of humanism, and the relationships between religious and secular authority, showing that while wholesale reformation was by no means inevitable, one can find its roots in late-medieval religious, philosophical, and political developments. The book’s second section, “Separations,” explores how the challenges and divisions foreshadowed by these developments came to fruition in the 1520s and 1530s, the years immediately following Luther’s challenge to ecclesiastical authority and the period sometimes called the “Henrician Reformation.” From humanism, to early English Lutheran converts, to Tyndale’s efforts to translate the New Testament, the early decades of the century were marked by growing concern about heresy, both native and imported. In these chapters, Marshall charts the movements of people and books between England and the continent, as religious exiles began to flee England and as books were smuggled in. He also emphasizes the extent to which this was a period of rapid changes and novelties, including the Act of Supremacy, dissolution of the monasteries, and the resistance to these changes.

The book’s third section, “New Christianities,” explores how the diversities in religion, practice, and belief that resulted from the catalytic changes of the 1530s gradually began to solidify into a national Protestant identity. This section moves through the end of Henry’s reign to the reigns of Edward I and Mary I, as it explores the moving line between heresy and orthodoxy, the jockeying for power of evangelicals and conservatives, court politics, and arrests and accusations of treason and heresy, fresh waves of iconoclasm, legislation for a new book of common prayer, and continued rebellions. The final section of the book, “Unattainable Prizes,” focuses on the reign of Elizabeth, beginning with the attempts at an orderly, non-disruptive transition from Mary’s Catholic nation back to a version of Henry’s Protestant one. Across the section’s four chapters, Marshall explores Elizabeth’s shrewd politicking and her management and circumventing of parliament, showing how if Elizabeth’s initial caution seemed to offer a subtle negotiation of conservative and radical religious camps, Elizabethan attempts to chart a “middle way” were no less fraught, coercive, or violent than Henry VIII’s. The book concludes before the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

As the book repeatedly, if usually subtly, reminds its readers, the English Reformation should not be characterized as period of a peaceful transition, nor as a time of progressive improvement of English church and state. Indeed, as Marshall moves through nearly two centuries of religious and political conflict and change, the reader is left with a sense of just how fraught and bloody the long process of reformation was in England. Marshall rejects a positive narrative of secularization and modernization and warns against judging the outcomes and effects of the Reformation by modern standards. And he emphasizes that reform was always double-sided: even as it led to division and persecution, it also opened up new paths for average people and a new ownership of and responsibility for faith. In his brief postscript, Marshall reflects on the larger significance of the English Reformation, suggesting that it “lies not in the achievement, but in the struggle itself. Though never anything like an exercise in proto-democracy, the Reformation was nonetheless, from first to last, a vibrant national conversation, about issues of uttermost importance, and one from which few voices were ever entirely excluded” (578). Marshall’s book allows us to hear those diverse voices and positions anew, to better place them within the larger conversation, and to better understand how one of the major effects of the Reformation was to make possible this plurality of voices. Like the other recent histories of the Reformation, this is a very long book, but its lively style makes it eminently readable. It is a significant achievement, notable not only for its depth and breadth but also for its sheer liveliness and flair, as Marshall masterfully guides his reader through this period of profound cultural change and transformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

B. Shannon Gayk is Director of the Medieval Studies Institute and Associate Professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick, winner of the Harold J. Grimm Prize for Reformation History, and author of numerous books, including The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. He lives in Leamington Spa.


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