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A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation, by Eamon Duffy

by
29 January 2021

Richard Chartres asks whether it is time to be clearer that historical fiction is not history

EAMON DUFFY’s latest collection of essays is subtitled Studies in Reformation and is divided into two parts. There are six studies of various aspects of the Reformation era with an emphasis on some of the literary output, including the Douai-Rheims translation of the Bible and the King James Version, together with an appreciative look at the “power and artistry” of the autobiographical writings of the Presbyterian divine Richard Baxter.

Part two of the book contains five studies of how the Reformation has been interpreted in the work of professional historians since the 19th century and also by writers of historical fiction, notably Hilary Mantel.

Eamon Duffy himself, in his previous books, especially The Stripping of the Altars (1992) and The Voices of Morebath (2001), has contributed significantly to a revised perspective on the health and vigour of the 15th-century Church on the eve of the English Reformation. He has also shone a light on the reluctance with which the rank and file of English people in the pew and at the altar embraced the changes that were imposed upon them.

The evidence for these propositions is incontrovertible, and, as Duffy demonstrates, even the virulently anti-Catholic historian James Anthony Froude concurred. Froude was one of the first historians to make full use of recently opened European state archives to compose his 12 volume History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Spanish Armada. It was published between 1858 and 1870. Froude regarded the Reformation in a thoroughly positive light as the overthrow of clerical power, the liberation of lay conscience from ecclesiastical control and nonsensical mumbo-jumbo, but, nevertheless, saw that “to the last, up to the defeat of the Armada, manhood suffrage in England would at any moment have brought back the Pope.”

In the second half of the 19th century, in the midst of the political and theological controversies that culminated in the loss of the Papal States and the decrees of the First Vatican Council, the inheritance of the Reformation was a matter of passionate debate and contemporary relevance. Britishness itself was thought to be bound up with notions of pan-Protestant solidarity. In his survey of historical writing on the Reformation from 1870 to the present, the ebbing of passionate confessional partisanship becomes evident.

We have experienced our own cultural revolution, and 16th-century polemics have very little hold on the children of the 1960s who are now in charge. While the Churches may be tolerated as additional outdoor relief for the vulnerable in society, questions of theological truth are not burning concerns in the corridors of power.

There are some happy consequences of this dilution of the odium theologicum. Duffy’s excellent chapter on the shrines in Walsingham shows what astonishing progress there has been in relations between Christians previously divided by the Reformation. I was glad to see an approving reference to the work of the admirable and eirenic custodian of the Roman Catholic shrine, Mgr John Armitage.

The battleground today is more likely to be in historical fiction. Duffy’s concluding essay, “Fiction and Faction”, centres on the contrasting fortunes of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell in recent writing. Duffy freely admits that More the saintly martyr for individual conscience, who is the central character in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, is hard to reconcile with the historical hammer of heretics. In one of the most fascinating passages in the book, Duffy describes his own contribution to correcting some of the more egregious errors in a draft Papal letter saluting the example of More as patron saint of statesmen and politicians.

It seems to me, however, that Duffy is right to protest against the excessive denigration of More and the corresponding apotheosis of Thomas Cromwell, most recently in the film of Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance. This attractive portrayal is hard to reconcile with Holbein’s portrait of the political bruiser in the Frick Collection, and Holbein, after all, knew Cromwell in the flesh. Is it right that the Mantel picture should now be the authorised version?

This very readable collection poses some profound questions about the use of the past and the relation between meticulous scholarship and our understanding of the episodes that have contributed so profoundly to the way in which we view the world in our own day.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

 

A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation
Eamon Duffy
Bloomsbury £20
(978-1-4729-8385-5)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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