DEREK WILSON’s The Queen and the Heretic: How two women changed the religion of England describes itself as a dual biography of Anne Askew, a noblewoman who was burnt at the stake for heresy during Henry VIII’s reign, and Catherine Parr, the King’s final wife and the first woman ever to publish a theological text under her own name.
In reality, the first part of the book is more of a history of the Reformation and religious changes in Britain during Henry’s reign, although Wilson does try to relate the changes back to the lives of both women as much as possible, besides attempting to establish where the foundations for their religious convictions stemmed from.
The book is easy to read and accessible. Wilson does not assume any prior knowledge from his readers, and is careful to give wider contextual information where relevant. Both women are brought to life with vibrancy, and as fully formed individuals. It is engaging, and the book deserves credit for highlighting the part played by Catherine’s works in influencing British religious policies and beliefs during this period of history. (Although I would suggest that arguing that Anne “changed the religion of England” is going too far.)
As a non-fiction work of history, however, the book has some problems. As Wilson himself admits, there is a lack of evidence for Catherine and Anne’s early lives. Wilson undermines his own scholarship and evident research, however, by bridging this gap with suppositions about how the woman “must have felt” and padding his narrative with events that “doubtlessly happened” but for which he has no evidence. Some of the quotations and sources that he quotes are footnoted, but others are not. This makes the unreferenced evidence harder to believe, and so weakens his arguments.
In other places, presumably to cover the lack of information about either of his subjects, Wilson refers to a dearth of courtiers, noblemen, and theorists of the day, in what can sometimes be a dizzying spin of names and titles, leaving the reader confused about their significance or relevance to the narrative in hand. Some of this long list are referred back to later in the book, but trying to remember one individual’s arguments from the myriad of voices that Wilson presents is frequently impossible.
To the book’s credit, as it progresses, and the narrative reaches the point at which the evidence for both Anne and Catherine increases, the book becomes more focused, and more academic in its reasoning. Overall, it is an interesting book, which is informative and easy to engage with, and does a great job at contextualising the political upheaval of the 1540s within the religious debates and pressures of the day. It is a must-read for anyone who thinks of Catherine Parr as nothing more than the wife who “survived”.
Danielle Cavender is completing an MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She also works as a living-history interpreter at Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.
The Queen and the Heretic: How two women changed the religion of England
Church Times Bookshop £8.10