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Five Women of the English Reformation
Paul F. M. Zahl
Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001.
$18.00, 120 pages, ISBN 0-8028-3825-1.

Sandra Petree
Northwestern Oklahoma State University


Paul F. M. Zahl, author of The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, The Protestant Face of Anglicism, and A Short Systematic Theology, is dean of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. Since he is a theologian, readers should not be surprised to discover that his rhetoric is sermonic in this short and interesting treatise whose premise and purpose is to demonstrate that religious convictions formed a powerful common bond between five important female historical figures. Mr. Zahl is clearly not objective in his presentation, but he makes no pretense of being so, and his passion for his subject lends a kind of warmth to the book that can, for some, be highly appealing.

Zahl points out in the introduction that of the five women discussed, "the common reader" will probably recognize only the names of Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth. It seems to me that many will also know Jane Grey. But Anne Askew, Katherine Parr, and Catherine Willoughby may be new introductions except to historians. These are fascinating women, and even though this compact book provides only a very brief look into their lives and history, it's a look well worth taking.

Chapter One deals with Anne Boleyn (1507-1536), second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I. Beheaded at 29, Anne was queen for only three years. History recognizes her as instrumental in the Reformation; she engineered the eradication of monasteries and the appropriation of monastery lands and wealth (Zahl says to use for aid to the poor)—acts which also elicited considerable antagonism from some of the nobles. Boleyn was patron to writers and publishers of Reformation tracts, and she used her influence to gain the appointment of a number of Protestant clerics. Her main failing was actually her inability to produce a male heir for the throne, but she was accused of adultery and collusion, and when someone, perhaps Thomas Cromwell, manipulated Henry and engineered the trials, she was beheaded. All of this is common knowledge; what Five Women of the Reformation contributes to the textual dialogue about Anne Boleyn is an assertion that her motivation for these acts was primarily religious instead of political.

Unfortunately, evidence for support of Boleyn's religious zeal is scanty; in fact, of all of the five women Zahl discusses, the case for non-political motivation is least convincing in the chapter on Boleyn. She left no letters, journals or diaries as evidentiary support, and while she answered negatively to all charges against her at trial, there is apparently no assertion of religious conviction beyond her simple denial. Zahl writes, "But what was really in her mind? How did she really regard her husband? What did she say to Cranmer the day before she died—in an appointment that lasted two hours?… There is no way to know. Of her theology, however, of her specific commitments in Christianity, we know a good deal."

What he knows, though, is deduced by Zahl from his study of three books that Anne Boleyn owned: a 1534 edition of William Tyndale's New Testament; a French Bible, also printed in 1534, which Zahl identifies as Reformed; and an English translation of a French commentary on Ecclesiastes. Proof of Boleyn's religious convictions as more important to her than personal or political concerns is surmised from Zahl's exegesis of those texts, not from anything Boleyn herself said or wrote. It is her political clout, derived from her brief marriage to Henry, which serves as her primary contribution to the Reformation.

If it's hard to prove Anne Boleyn's religious motivation, it's overwhelmingly easy to prove Anne Askew's (1521-1546), subject of Chapter 2. Lady-in-waiting to Katharine Parr, who was Henry VIII's sixth and last wife, Anne Askew renounced her marriage for her religion, and when tortured on the rack, she refused to provide the names of other Reformers. After her torture she was burned at the stake, still refusing to recant. The difference in proofs of religious zeal between Boleyn and Askew is great. In addition to her testimony by physical endurance, Askew also wrote a text called Examinations, which describes the questions posed to her, and her detailed responses, during interrogation at her trial. An excerpt from Examinations is included as an appendix to Five Women of the English Reformation.

One of the interesting things Zahl does as part of his dialogue with regards to these women is a division of Reformation ideals into "phases." He writes, "The first phase of Reformation theology was justification by grace through faith rediscovered. The second phase was the implications of justification by faith for the Mass, the Mass being the central action and transaction of medieval Catholicism. The third phase of the English Reformation was the focus on election and predestination." Anne Askew, among others, was burned primarily because she denied the idea of transubstantiation, placing her in Zahl's second phase. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew was not politically powerful, but the fierce incision of her intellectual responses to her interrogators, combined with her astounding physical endurance, made her, according to Zahl, "the heavy artillery of the group."

Chapter 3 focuses on Katharine Parr (1514-1548), who is perhaps least known among Henry VIII's six wives. She was neither particularly politically powerful nor intellectually intimidating, but she was quick-witted, and, according to Zahl, her social savvy and willingness to assume whatever role was required for successful manipulation of particular circumstances saved both her own neck and the entire Protestant movement in England. She was Henry's last wife. As Henry neared death, powerful figures whose intent was to restore Catholicism as the state religion watched for an opportunity to try to win Henry back. This meant dethroning Katharine, who was Protestant and quite influential with Henry. An attempt to persuade Henry that Katharine was a heretic was foiled when a piece of paper containing information of the plot was discovered and handed to Katharine. At first almost consumed by fear, she quickly rallied herself and went in to Henry's chambers, where she assumed the conciliatory role of subservient and loving, dependent wife. She begged his forgiveness for any past irritations or offenses and convinced him of her absolute love and loyalty. He believed her, the plot was foiled, Protestantism survived, and Katharine saw the king buried with Protestantism still in place, after which she moved quietly on to a different life. Like Anne Askew, Katharine left personally written textual evidence of her religious conviction: she wrote a book and a collection of prayers and meditations, which, according to Zahl, prove her piety.

Next in the book is a passionate discussion of Jane Grey (1537-1554), who, when only a child of sixteen, was placed on the English throne by her ambitious father-in-law. She "reigned" for nine days before forces in support of her Catholic cousin Mary Tudor engineered her removal. Political circumstances eventually necessitated Jane's death, and she was beheaded, at age seventeen, on February 12, 1554. Her specific contribution to the Protestant cause seems chiefly to have been her martyrdom, but she had been a child prodigy, fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek (she could read a little Hebrew as well), and she was articulate and convincing about her religious convictions in remaining textual evidence, which includes a few letters, the written record of her examination before the court, and a short speech which she delivered on the platform at her execution. While the rhetoric of the time was always inundated with religious references, making it difficult to determine real piety as opposed to courtly convention, Jane may well have been motivated by true religious zeal. Zahl firmly believes this to be the case.

The last chapter deals with Catherine Willoughby (1520-1580), who was a relative of Jane Grey, and "one of Katharine Parr's inner circle." Willoughby's primary claim to fame seems to have been escaping Catholic England during Mary Tudor's reign and establishing residence, with her husband and a baby daughter, in the Netherlands, then Germany, and finally in then-Protestant Poland, where the family lived as exiles. In 1559, after Mary's death, they returned to England. Textual evidence of her religious convictions comes from three letters, but Zahl admits that Willoughby's "theology grew superficial towards the end," and he states flatly that she would have been a more important example of piety had she not lived so long.

The book's conclusion reaffirms Zahl's personal conviction of his thesis, and is followed by an epilogue written by his wife which is designed to provide "a contemporary woman's perspective." Zahl's personal passion for his subject is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the introduction, when he writes, "I am a systematic theologian by training and a parish minister by profession. I am neither a professional historian nor an academic teacher. But a theologian working in parish ministry can aspire to insight regarding these women of the English Reformation. Why? Because I believe I understand these women from the inside out." He believes that he has a specific insight into the workings of their minds because he shares, at least in part, their theology.

The central thread of Zahl's premise in Five Women of the English Reformation is that it was religion, not politics nor personal survival, which motivated them and which also tied them together as important figures in the English transformation from Catholicism to Protestantism. There is no question that Mr. Zahl is convinced of his thesis. The question is whether he presents a sufficiently compelling case to convince his readers. As a theologian, he employs the rhetoric of the sermon, with proofs based on faith and spiritual intuition. This is a far remove from academic rhetoric, with proofs drawn from objective documentation. Zahl does include as appendices the transcripts of actual letters and depositions to, by, or about the Five Women of the English Reformation.


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