All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THERE have been three eras of Reformation history during my lifetime. When I was at university in the early 1960s, we studied it top-down and nationally from authors such as A. G. Dickens, a judicious Anglican historian, and his more obviously Catholic counterpart Philip Hughes.
Then there was the fashion for local history. Here Dickens was a pioneer, followed by many others, notably Eamon Duffy, who approached it through parish records. The bringing down of Thomas Cromwell was abandoned for that of the church rood loft.
Professor MacCulloch began his career with a study of Reformation Suffolk. But he has since turned our attention back to national and international matters with his biography of Cranmer, history of the European Reformation, and recent great history of Christianity itself. This collection of his articles and reviews since 1995 keeps likewise to wide and top-down history: the main players in the English and Continental Reformations and the key ideas that were at issue then.
That is in no sense to repeat the views of a previous generation. These articles teem with new perspectives on familiar subjects and arresting illustrations of the period. The author writes with sympathy for the Church of England but a determination to get its history correct.
The English Reformation was thoroughly Protestant at its height under Edward VI and Cranmer, a truth that Anglo-Catholic tradition has tried to hide. England was not unique in its “via media”. All Protestant regimes had to reconcile old and new, and did so in different ways.
Five of the essays in the book have a European context (Calvin, Trent, the Inquisition, and views about angels and the Virgin Mary) with nine on England (the Tudor monarchs, Cranmer, the Bible and Prayer Book, and the composer William Byrd). A further six examine how the Reformation has been understood by historians across the centuries.
Such a description may sound dull. This book is emphatically not. It is an engaging, stimulating tour through religion during the 16th and 17th centuries, with the benefit of an astonishing knowledge of church history as a whole. You do not need to be a historian to enjoy it or to realise that you are reading perhaps the best historian writing in England today.
It is full of wonderful insights and details. Who, having read it, will forget Cranmer sitting his bottom on the Lady-chapel altar of St Paul’s while judging a heretic, or Henry VIII trying to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments? Fortunately, Henry did not persist in the face of Cranmer’s discouragement.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.