Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Heretics and Believers

A History of the English Reformation


Peter Marshall


New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017

Hardcover. xix+652 p. ISBN 978-0300170627. £30 (Paperback: £16.99)


Reviewed by Jean-Pierre Moreau

Université Paris 3, Sorbonne-Nouvelle






No reader of this book will be taken by surprise. Before opening it, he knows he is going to be treated to a peculiar view of the English Reformation. In the subtitle, the indefinite article, A History…, announces a personal (impertinent?) point of view .The title’s antithetical terms speak volumes for the author’s options but if one wonders who he has in mind (in a 16th-century Protestant lampoon, Catholics would have been the “heretics’) the picture on the jacket dispels any ideological cloud: the true believers are on Thomas More’s side. The choice of Holbein’s painting – More’s household at Chelsea – for the cover image places the greatest lay opponent to Henry VIII at the forefront of the ensuing study, hence a predictable picture of the English Reformation close to what More thought of the events he witnessed and to what he would have thought of their sequel after his death: a disaster, the source of an irremediable religious disruption which caused havoc in the fabric of a previously united society.

We should recognise that the defence of this thesis is carried out in a remarkably learned assessment. From beginning to end, we are provided with a stunning wealth of information drawn from an exceptional command of all available historical material, both primary and secondary documents ranging from national, international (Spanish, Venetian) archives to local church wardens’ accounts and personal diaries, from five centuries of learned dissertations, essays and surveys to all recent articles in specialised journals.

The assessment is embodied in a ‘grand récit’, a comprehensive panorama of epoch-making years in British history. Such a detailed, chronological account of political and religious events was sneered at by the Annales school of historians which considered it a moth-eaten genre and out of fashion. Yet this is – largely – what we have here: an overarching grand narrative, the minute rehearsing of a multitude of facts, a cross-examination of all the main decisions made by the different governments, the ups and downs of attempts at Reformation, partial Reformation, pseudo-Reformation, Counter Reformation, missed Reformation, etc. These are not the terms used by Marshall but they express his feelings about what he considers an ill-fated, haphazard occurrence of happenings and crises throughout the 16th century.

Even so, these 600 or so pages go beyond the grand récit. First of all they are particularly well written, a notable asset. Many sections of the book begin with an apparently trivial but graphically described event (‘On Sunday 9 September 1515, the parishioners of Louth…’ [14]), a literary device, among many others, which gives concrete life to what could have remained a cold, academic exercise, before drawing attention to the general significance of the initial vignette or anecdote (the story of Rose Hickman for example [384-385]). In no few ways is the narrative thus brightened up: meticulous choice of words, of formulas, of images, colourful metaphors, several of them maritime, a Shakespearian clin d’oeil ((‘To Protestants… the advent of… Mary [Stuart] was the stuff of nightmares’ [455]), an occasional pun (‘Jane [Grey] was only sixteen. But minority rule suited Northumberland’ [357]), even a sort of cliffhanger to finish a chapter (p. 243 and more dramatically p. 482: ‘On the evening of 16 May 1568, a party of weary travellers disembarked from a fishing boat at Workington in Cumberland, on the southern coast of the Solway Firth. Among them was the Queen of Scots, a refugee from her own land, and a harbinger of trouble, tragedy and treason’).

But this formal care for elegance is no a mere aesthetic asset meant to emulate popular stories or Walter Scott novels. Nor is inventiveness a simple pedagogical tool to make abstract conclusions more palatable. They are part and parcel of a deliberate rapprochement between history and literature, a deep-seated trend in 21st-century historical writing which, besides being steeped in immense erudition, pays the greatest amount of attention to style just as Diarmaid McCulloch (with a very different outlook) has repeatedly shown. And this blurring of borderlines is itself derived from a more general approach: cultural studies that Marshall turns to (his) advantage. He is familiar with Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and, beyond Greenblatt, with the need to tap different fields of knowledge, in particular the social sciences: sociology (to study the state of the clergy at the beginning of the 16th century and then under Elizabeth with some appropriate statistics) or anthropology (idea of death, cult of the dead).

In line with cultural studies, the stress is put on the evolution of the country’s popular culture (hence the numerous anecdotes at parish level): how ordinary citizens reacted to political authorities’ decisions. The notions of ‘fashioning’ and ‘identity’ loom large even though the first one is not explicitly mentioned. ‘Fashioning’, as defined by Greenblatt, stresses the role of lay or religious institutions in the moulding of individual attitudes, in shaping general modes of thought and behaviour. Marshall uses this methodological concept to record how, in his view, people’s minds and lives were affected and the previous identity of the country within ‘the fraternity of Catholic nations’ [570] was deeply impaired then irretrievably lost. Such is, outlined here in a sketchy way, his circumstantial assessment of the English Reformation: a helpless landslide from a happy, united society under the benevolent ascendency of the Church at the beginning of the century towards a cacophonous pandemonium at the end, the collapse of ‘the rhythms and patterns of local religious life’, the opening of a Pandora’s box making it easy for sects and sectarianism to thrive.

If such a perspective is not new – from the very beginning, all Catholic accounts have harped on this very conclusion – Marshall’s is different because he takes his stand at a special historiographical moment. He dissociates himself from ‘previous generations of Reformation historians’ (Postscript [574]), and more explicitly from A.G. Dickens, ironically criticised in note 2 of the same Postscript [629]. They regularly appear, unnamed but easily identifiable, either under a general designation of their craft [415] or, more specifically, as ‘some historians’ [8, 25, 112], ‘modern historians’ [142, 240], ‘modern critics’ [20], ‘modern commentators’ [143], misled by a ‘conventional wisdom’ [442] responsible for ‘anachronistic ways of thinking’ [18] and ‘later myth-making’ [31]. A not too laudatory adjunct sometimes adds to the satire: ‘tidy-minded national and constitutional historians’ [67], or simply ‘tidy-minded historians’ [531].

The last fifty years have witnessed an ever-growing harvest of interpretative essays traditionally divided into three periods. During the first one, a double though divergent outlook figured prominently in all text-books, inspired by A.G. Dickens on the one hand and by G.R. Elton on the other. Dickens’s 1964 The English Reformation (second edition, 1984) stressed the unpopularity and moral decline of the clergy, correlated to a rise of anticlericalism which paved the way towards Protestantism. This religious climate made things easier for Henry VIII’s break with Rome to be smoothly accepted by both the élites and the rest of the population. Elton’s largely political and institutional approach described the changes as imposed by the crown under the decisive influence of Thomas Cromwell; the constitutional revolution induced a rapidly successful religious one and at the end of Edward VI’s reign ‘England was almost certainly nearer to being a Protestant country than to anything else’ (Reform and Reformation : England, 1509-1558, 1977 : 371).

In the 1980s and 1990s, these views came under a revisionist attack. One of its first protagonists, Christopher Haigh, coined the expressions ‘slow’ or ‘rapid’ Revolution ‘from below’ (Dickens) or ‘from above’ (Elton). The new trend, rapidly endorsed and then led by Eamon Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars : Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, published in 1992) challenged the ideas of a long-term, deep-seated discontent with the clergy and of an easily acquired acceptance of such radical measures as the dissolution of the monasteries or the different versions of the official spiritual doctrine.

The 21st century has seen the coming out of a third category of historians labelled ‘post-revisionists’ but not fundamentally different from ‘simple’ revisionists. They certainly go beyond Haigh’s catchwords (slow, rapid, from above, from below) and refine previous analyses but the drift of their argument still relies on roughly the same premises: continuity with the medieval period, vigour of traditional piety, unsuspected scale of resistance to royal commands, in particular at popular level. Nor do they forget to inveigh against the supposed shortcomings of Dickens and Elton and, more generally, of a liberal, progressive and nationalistic perspective. The stress is put on the complexity of the English Reformation, on the different rhythms of change according to time and place. Peter Marshall certainly belongs to the revisionist / post-revisionist fellowship unless we want to invent a post-post-revisionist phase. No doubt Duffy is a constant (and acknowledged) inspiration to him as testified by the numerous references in the footnotes even if he takes care not to follow his mentor too closely: ‘recent assessments of the Reformation in England, emphasizing a general cultural and doctrinal satisfaction with the late medieval Church, have paid too little attention to tensions and rivalries surrounding its legal and constitutional position’ [67]. Marshall’s distinctive touch lies in his awareness of the pluridimensional contours of the problem, what he calls ‘a pluridirectional process’. But, if he is by no means the only historian plying the seminal route of cultural studies (See Susan Wabuda or Alexandra Walsham), this is completed by an unswerving poring upon ‘the ecstatic or agonizing experience of change’ [575]. From the accumulation of individual experiences, from pastoral zeal or resistance in the parishes, Marshall concludes that governmental decisions or doctrinal injunctions led to the creation of a distinct, Protestant, mainly Calvinist identity in the country as a whole (not under Edward VI, as Elton affirmed, but at the end of the century). This creation was erratic, fortuitous and, to his mind, highly deplorable.

While he avails himself of multiple, diverse, individualised testimonies and therefore tends to set up a nuanced evaluation of change, the book’s title announces a head-on collision between two irreconcilable antagonistic terms, a simplified, undiscriminating polarity. This is not a modern echo of computer science binary language but a return to old biblical categories – heretics are the sons of Satan, believers, the salt of the earth: a replay of the eternal enmity between sheep and goats. As Matthew’s gospel tells us, the sheep will go to paradise and know a glorious eternal life whereas the goats will end in hell and eternal fire (Mat, 25, 31-46), so will the believers, so will the heretics. Nothing new under the sun.

Heretics, ‘quite right[ly]’ defined by ‘orthodox churchmen’ ‘as people who chose their own opinions above the traditions and teachings of the Church’ [99], appear under a different guise according to periods and places. Yet, although birds of varied feathers (Lollards, Lutherans, Calvinists or less precisely ‘evangelicals’, ‘sacramentarians’, ‘the godly’, etc.), all of them have made, in accordance with etymology, the purely malignant choice of going the wrong way. No redeeming features can change their fate; Bilney’s ascetism, his devotion to the cause of prisoners, to support of the sick [143], his apparently (but only apparently) ‘unimpeachable qualifications’ [143] as priest and preacher proved of absolutely no use: heretic he was and so did he remain unless he recanted.

If Catholics were ’martyred’, like the prior of the London Charterhouse [306] and many others (cf. the title of chapter 6, ‘Martyrs and Matrimony’ or ‘the Catholic Church’s glorious catalogue of martyrs down the ages’ [158], if several of them are ‘holy martyrs’ [430] and Campion ‘a saintly martyr’ [536]), the tone changes when their opponents are concerned. The death sentence passed on heretics is entirely deserved and stolidly recorded: ‘He/she was burnt (or burnt at the stake) at... (place) on …(date)’. Even with Bilney, whose case is more complex, we are just told that after his second trial he was ‘burned […] outside the city walls of Norwich on 19 August 1531’ [188]. Apart from ‘poignant cases’ of ‘conscience-stricken gospellers…sealing their own fate’ [408] and from Cranmer, quite exceptionally praised as ‘the flower of Protestant martyrdom’ [542], no undue authorial emotion is betrayed, especially for those who relapsed [103, 188, etc.] In all cases, ‘the symbolism of judicial burning was a terrible yet just punishment for the worst of imaginable crimes’ [393]. Thomas More’s statement ‘the burning of heretics […] is lawful, necessary and well done’ (Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529), is quoted page 158 as simply ‘grim’ and when the author of Utopia became chancellor of England, his policies which included ‘at least six Englishmen…burnt as heretics’ [186] are said to ‘secur[e] results’ [187]).

Marshall’s inclination to punning sometimes slips into unseemly regions: ‘Raising the stakes’ (a subtitle [185], when scaffolds became prominent in the early 1530s), ‘Time of trial’ (title of chapter 13) on Queen Mary’s reign to depict both the difficulties of the government and the prosecution of Protestants soon to be committed to the flames. Cheerfulness can turn into unsavoury pronouncements: ‘… as the climate of relations between England and the Holy See was starting to freeze over, the temperature of persecution was – quite literally – rising’ [186]. The metaphor is reduplicated later: ‘1556 was a burning-year still hotter than 1555, with eighty-five executions’ [405].

The author knows that his title, meant to attract readers, is a gross, almost absurd simplification of reality. Didn’t Lollards, for example, believe in revelation and the teachings of their Bible? Had Lutherans or Calvinists no faith? Nobody will deny that the words ‘evangelical’, ‘sacramentarian’, ‘godly’ have a meaning. So the reader will raise an eyebrow when he comes across ‘Lollard beliefs’ [108], ‘evangelical believers’ [316], ‘believers’ referred to as ‘the godly’ [353], Protestant believers [413, twice] including Jane Grey ‘an ardent believer’ [373]. Surprisingly, (modern) heretics, commended upon their ‘robust independence of thought’ swell the ranks of the ‘small army of believers’ [the author’s fellow historians] who helped him to polish his book (‘Acknowledgments’: 580).

Sometimes, a (restricted) admission occurs that the opposition between sheep and goats is too crude. Thus ‘Lollards were Catholics [italics in the text] to the extent that they participated in the rituals of the parish and shared its obligations and communal life’ [116]. A limited extent in all cases. Elsewhere, we are told that ‘Heretics and Catholics were the same sorts of people’ [158] but this is immediately qualified and the stress is then on the ‘deep and bitter divisions’ which ‘had emerged’ (by 1529) and never is mentioned the phrase attributed to (the future) Cardinal Pole by Thomas Starkey in A Dialogue between Pole and Lupset written around 1530: ‘heretics be not in all things heretics’.

Alongside Marshall’s general trend of thought, some objective explanations or comments do not fail to crop up: ‘The suspicion persists that behind the intense devotional activity of the late medieval laity lurked a pervasive, unhealthy fear of punishment in store’ [21], there existed ‘fissures in the fabric of faith’ [22], ‘turf wars… between the secular clergy and the mendicants’ [53] and ‘unsightly encrustations [on] the abiding rock of the Church’ [40]. The execution of nearly 300 heretics between 1554 and 1558 is clearly called ‘persecution’ [408, 415, 437, 494], but is toned down to ‘repression of Protestants’ in the index (‘Mary I’ : 642; ‘Pole’ : 645).

But facts are presented in an artful way which frequently oversteps meticulous objectivity: uncensorious and appreciative when the ‘believers’ are concerned, most of the time caustic, hard-hitting as heretics bear the brunt of the author’s attack. Among the former, the Observant Franciscans Henry Elstow and William Peto, former exiles in the Low Counties, are ‘the most venerable veterans of the English papalist cause’ [402] in 1555; much earlier, Savonarola had been ‘a superstar revivalist preacher’ [58]. The Italian universities of Bologna, Ferrara and Padua ‘concluded, in vague terms, that popes did not have power to dispense for marriage to a widowed sister-in-law’ [180]. ‘Vague terms’? Bologna’s text claims that such a dispensation is forbidden, even to popes, by ‘the law of God, of nature and of man (jure naturae, divino, et humano) and that Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was horrible, accursed and abominable (horrendum fore, execrabile, detestandum). Padua repeats the same formulas and Ferrara just omits the ‘law of man’. Potentially embarrassing questions are rapidly dealt with. Nothing much is said of indulgences apart from their theological explanation [17]; it is only three pages later that allusion is made to ‘purchase of paradise’, between inverted commas in the text [20] as this is ‘a view of modern critics’. Luther and Lutherans will appreciate.

On the other side, criticisms range from uncharitable sarcasm (‘The condemned [Protestants] thought hard about ways to make the show [their death at the stake] their own’ [393]) to sheer hyperbole: Wyclif is ‘an arch-heretic’ [101], Christopher St German ‘arch-anticlerical’ [250]. Overstatements are helpful to defame unorthodox policies: ‘An ocean of blood had been spilled since Edward came to the throne’ [342] even if, paradoxically, the meaning is not evident as heresy laws had been repealed in 1547.

Understatements are not missing either: ‘there was no second chance ‘[106] for the rector of Lectombe Basset in Berkshire who had abjured in 1499 and been ‘allowed to remain in office’ but he was denounced in 1508 for sheltering two heretics. ‘No second chance’ avoids the description of an obvious outcome. Sometimes things are more complex, about relics for example. Their genuineness, so much criticised by Lollards and evangelicals of all sorts, is first stated with conviction: at Canterbury, ‘a physical remnant of the once-living saint [Thomas Becket]’ [26], at Walsingham ‘a remarkable relic of the milk of the Virgin Mary’ [ibid.], at Hailes in Gloucestershire ‘a vial containing a portion of the Holy Blood of Jesus’ [27]. Later in the book, what is ‘famed’ at Hailes is ‘a vial purporting to contain the blood of Christ’ [226], a serious downgrading. Yet Marshall insists on the exaggerations in the reports of the governmental visitation of the monasteries which lists a whole array of ‘false or forged relics’ [226-228]. Apparently the visitors are to be blamed, the scale is tipped against them and against disparagement of ‘traditional piety’.

The same is true of Elizabeth Barton, the so-called ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, presented from the start as ‘a teenage visionary who …experienced a miraculous cure through the intervention of the Virgin Mary’ [195], a ‘young visionary nun’ [206]. Then, among other predictions, she announced Henry VIII’s death if he married Anne Boleyn but she later ‘confessed her visions and revelations to be frauds’ [207]. Things could be left there; they are not. We are told that Barton’s avowal was obtained ‘[u]nder intense pressure’, implying threats, perhaps moral torture. We are led to think that she might have been a real prophetess after all. Historians generally think that she had been manipulated by her entourage, in particular by several Canterbury monks. Here, this is just what ‘the authorities later claimed’ and the monks are no more than ‘her clerical supporters’ [207]. Half a dozen of them were executed (wrongly if they are only ‘supporters’) and practically all (monks and nun) appear as victims. Accusations are thus overturned. The authorities were even more abject when they ‘went to great lengths to discredit Barton’. But – final touch the ‘campaign’ against the maid and the monks only ‘reflect[ed] anxiety about the strength of the opposition’ [207]. Thus a muddy episode is turned to advantage, a religious disaster becomes a victory (of sorts).

Ingenuity is a constant feature. Just as the defeats of the traditionalists are not totally lost battles, the successes of the other side are always severely qualified (‘but’, ‘yet’, ‘though’, etc., modulating adverbs, in great numbers). Right from the Preface, we learn that ‘the imposition of the Reformation was a Pyrrhic victory of the English state’ [xii] where Protestantism emerged ‘deeply, perhaps fatally, fractured’ [509]. No praise is wasted on the new national feeling particularly marked under Elizabeth (whose famous Tilbury speech of 1588 is not even mentioned; nor are Gaunt’s words about the ‘scept’red isle’ in Shakespeare’s Richard II). The patriotism encouraged by the break with Rome, by the pride in the rising role of Parliament and by the (Protestant) perception of being an ‘elect nation’ is given short shrift. The ‘Elizabethan era’ is no more than a turmoil of petty religious and political quarrels (‘wrangles’ : 552), Elizabeth herself, is reduced to being ‘a Nicodemite’ [421, 449], a procrastinator, a prevaricator [559], an erratic ruler, ‘a past mistress of the dramatic walk out’ [462-463]. Exit a fake Gloriana.

Not only Spenser’s ‘fayre Elisa’ (in The Shepheardes Calendar) is roundly knocked off her pedestal but many other well established reputations are exploded. The humanists, for example, do not deserve the flattering respect they generally enjoy and their criticisms of what was wrong in the Church were just the ‘jeremiads of clerical reformers’ [51]. Psychological flaws are not excluded: Erasmus was subject to a ‘paranoia about the malevolent hostility of friars’ [35] and John Colet ‘was obsessively concerned with the failures of the clergy to assume their rightful role in the divine plan’ [31]. The moral standards of these would-be disciplinarians are not unimpeachable either since ‘recent assessments’ have noted ‘the apparent hypocrisy of Colet’s own position as a non-resident “pluralist” ’ [43]. These men remain mischief-makers and ‘humanist scholarship’ could be ‘the thin end of a dangerous wedge’ [36]. It is of course pointless to accuse Erasmus of having ‘laid the egg’ that Luther ‘hatched’ [140] as he had been accused of by ‘some friars’ but his ‘ ideals undoubtedly helped foster a critical perspective on traditional piety’ [ibid.] His opponents, Martin van Dorp, Edward Lee, Henry Standish, Louvain and Sorbonne theologians, etc. [35-40] are credited with greater merit than the ‘runaway monk’ of Rotterdam, the ‘self-appointed scourge of ignorance, obscurantism, superstition and abuse of power’ [29].

Overstatements about ‘enemies’ are matched by understatements or even plain omissions as far as ‘believers’ are concerned. Henry VIII’s agents were ‘copiously furnished with bribe money’ [180] to induce ‘universities overseas’ to condemn the Aragon marriage as if the same methods were not used on the imperial side to prevent these condemnations. Bishop Fisher’s execution is a glaring scandal given what he was reproached with but historians know today that he could have been judged for treason had his appeal for a military intervention by Charles V been disclosed (cf. dispatches written by Chapuys on September, 27 and October, 10, 1533) and this is passed over in silence here. Idem for Cardinal Pole’s ill-fated, fruitless papal missions, first to France and Flanders in 1537 and then to Spain and again in France in 1539 in order to persuade Francis I and Charles V to intervene (in accordance with Pole’s hot-blooded – but not mentioned – denunciation of Henry VIII in his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum Caesarem). If divisions among Catholics at the end of Elizabeth’s reign are duly recorded [527, 530, 550, 570], if we are told that they ‘would widen’ [570], the book stops short before this became notoriously flagrant with the ‘Wisbech stirs’ of 1595 and the beginning of ‘the archpriest controversy’ in 1598.

The period covered by this study spreads over roughly six decades, until the time of the ‘Invincible Armada’ but the book does not end with its defeat (despatched in a dozen lines [565]), a disaster for English Catholics and therefore an inappropriate dénouement to drop the curtain. Nothing better to mitigate the blow and soothe disappointment than to return once more to the internecine quarrels amongst Protestants; theMarprelate tracts’ [567-570], the first of which appeared in the same year as the Armada (1588), provide a good finishing stroke. This sounds like a clanging of cymbals drawing to a close more than two hundred pages of stormy exchanges between ‘heretics’, since the accession of Edward VI at least and more specifically during the whole of Elizabeth’s reign plagued with constant quarrels between the Establishment and the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the ‘Precisians’, the separatists, the Brownists, etc., in spite of Canterbury’s efforts ‘to appease the sects and schisms [within the Church of England]’ [547]. After describing some bitter polemics among Elizabethan radicals in the early 1570s, Marshall observes that ‘Catholics liked nothing better than an intra-Protestant feud’ [507]. One modern historian does not seem to feel much differently.

It is true that those sixty years overflow with quarrels, conflicts, bickering of all sorts, and the facts reported are true even if they are seen though special glasses. But creating a new religious system, inventing a new connection between Church and State is no easy enterprise. An allusion to the beginnings of Christianity would not have been amiss when divisions and sects were quite as common; the relations between ‘believers’ and the Empire and the formulation of dogma itself took more than sixty years to come to stay (and with incessant ups and downs as far as the former is concerned). The author forces ‘heretics’ into a corner when they repeatedly failed to agree on their interpretation of the Last Supper; he scorns their dissensions, stresses the disagreements between Luther, ‘Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer and others’ [160] not to mention Calvin or Cranmer’s inconstancy on this subject. But transubstantiation, one of central tenets of Catholic dogma had also been an object of discord within the Church of Rome. In 843, Ratramne’s metaphoric interpretation of ‘this is my body’ clashed with Paschase Radber’s views. Then the dispute flared up on a larger scale in the 11th century until Bérenger de Tours was forced, in 1079, to accept the realist interpretation, afterwards confirmed at Latran (fourth Council) in 1215. Nearly three centuries had been necessary to reach a solution. No wonder many things could have been confused between 1535 and 1590. A comparative approach is not a useless tool.

Never fearing to show his true colours, Peter Marshall has written elsewhere that he does not recognise historians’ ‘confessional perspectives and allegiances’ ‘as a difficulty'(1) and his own cards are clearly laid on the table. Were it not that their ideological positions are poles apart, he would certainly accept Jean Paul Sartre’s old slogan in favour of ‘ littérature engagée’ (committed / bound to a ‘cause’). Marshall’s book is history engagée, bent on paying tribute to one category of ‘believers’. ‘Modern’ or ‘tidy-minded’ or ‘liberal-minded’ historians are taken to task for simplifying complex problems but, at the same time, a totally different vision of the past has to be proposed and imposed on the reading public.

This public has been deceived by the academic profession but also, more insidiously and maliciously, by another speciality: fiction. Depreciatory evaluations of Thomas More’s role are a case in point. ‘Modern [scholarly?] commentary’ [143](2) sometimes delves into More’s ‘own psycho-sexual pathology’ [ibid.] but novelists are even worse as they contaminate vast crowds of people who know no better. One name lurks in the background of this study, a name which does not appear, but is alluded to in a (single) footnote and between brackets [note 65 page 602]: Hilary Mantel. The ‘probably largely groundless […] allegations’ [modulating adverbs] of Thomas More supervising ‘the torture of suspects’ are ‘recycled in modern history books (and novels)’. Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, two winners of the celebrated Man Booker Prize (2009 and 2012) are the obvious butts. These novels and the television series which followed caused quite a stir in some circles; Eamon Duffy who acknowledged ‘Mantel’s brilliant reimagining of the court of Henry VIII’ admitted that ‘([f]or admirers of St Thomas More this could be bad news’ and might ‘shape a generation’s perception of what really happened in the most formative age in English history’ (The Tablet, January 31, 2015). For many people, something had to be done to counter this deceptive perception and Marshall’s book is his contribution to the rebuttal campaign.(3)

In spite of the disagreements mentioned above, the present reviewer is not indifferent to the assets of this impressive analysis. Not least among them is the final, cautious, plea in favour of toleration and the (discreet) regret that ‘centuries would have to pass before every one finally admitted [the idea of] offering liberty of conscience’ [573]. The centuries have passed; yet one may wonder whether the repeated denunciations of ‘heresy’ displayed in this book are consistent with ‘offering liberty of conscience’? Of course, the target is 16th-century heresy but ‘evangelicals’ have not disappeared and we imagine that they will look askance at this provocative if also thought-provoking overview. No doubt Marshall’s combative stand-point, his patent support of ‘true believers’ at the expense of false (?) believers will not fail to divide his readership. History engagée has its limits.


(1) ‘(Re)defining the English Reformation’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (July 2009) : 570.

(2) No name given but this concerns ‘modern’ historians, probably John Guy, and no longer A.G. Dickens and his ‘school’.

(3) A more general onslaught on the Reformation as a whole will be found in American Catholic historian Brad S. Gregory’s How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012). All the economic, moral and intellectual ills of the modern world, including capitalism, consumerism and toleration (sic) have their roots in the religious divisions which appeared in the 16th century. Marshall never goes to such extremes.



Cercles © 2018

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.