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Religious Identities in Henry VIII's England

02 November 2006

Ashgate 60 (0-7546-5390-0); Church Times Bookshop <>
Reflections on a maze of mirrors: Alec Ryrie commends thiclear-headed and ironic guide to Henry VIII's religious legacy

ANGLICANS - and indeed England as a whole - cannot quite escape from thlegacy of Henry VIII. The potato-faced king remains an instantly recognisablfigure, an icon of lust and marital tyranny, thanks to those six wives and hitendency (as his Italian contem-poraries put it) to "chop, change, and beheathem"
He is comic enough at a safe distance, perhaps: but this monster of egotisand do-it-yourself theology also (not quite unwittingly) created ainternational Christian denomination. And yet his religion and the religiou
events of his reign are still tangled in confusion, a tangle that affectus all
Peter Marshall is an ideal guide to this maze. In this invaluable book hhas collected eight essays that he has written over the past ten years oaspects of the topic, and has added two new pieces and a substantiaintroduction
Some of these essays are curios; some are gems; all help to make thiunsavoury but fascinating period a little more comprehensible
Marshall's keen sense of irony and clarity of style keep us company as wdiscover how one, but only one, Catholic was burned for heresy under HenrVIII; as we trace the fate of those Catholics who chose exile rather thaschism (a subject that has, remarkably, never been properly studied before)and as we discover how Henry was acquiring a reputation for gruesome tyrannacross Europe, especially in Spain, even in his own lifetime.
Thauthor even takes us inside the experience of early Protestant conversion, topic as important as it is undocumented.
Marshall is at his besthowever, when navigating the halls of mirrors that Henry's subjects and theisuccessors built as they interpreted, reinterpreted, and re-reinterpreted theichaotic times. He can take a single event, such as the mysterious murder of prominent London Protestant in the street in 1536, and use the successivaccounts and conspiracy theories that grew up round it as a window into turbulent world. Or he can unpack a complex in-joke that the King cracked iParliament in 1545 to show how the religious sands were shifting under hifeet
The highlight is an essay titled "Is the Pope a Catholic?", which is foeveryone who has ever thought it odd that the Church of England's creedproclaim our faith in the Catholic Church. If the Reformation was a familquarrel, then words such as "Catholic" (or, indeed, "Evangelical") were thfamily heirlooms that all sides wished to keep, and which were divided with bagrace.
Marshall's tracing of the tussle to control the wor"Catholic" is fascinating, but also unexpectedly moving. As Cardinal Polcommented, both sides in the Reformation disputes were twisting their sharevocabulary so far out of shape that they could no longer make themselveunderstood.

His point - that a debate between ideologies can become a clash oidentities all the more easily when the debaters are divided by a commolanguage - is not just a historical one.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University oBirmingham

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