The Protestant Reformation: upending England

A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation
By Eamon Duffy. Bloomsbury Continuum. London, 2020. 272 pages

In 1992, Eamon Duffy wrote his acclaimed history of the English Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars. It maintained that, contrary to received wisdom, popular Catholicism had considerable strength and vigour in England before the Reformation and that the Reformation was imposed in that country only with considerable difficulty and after a long period of time.

As he puts it in this more recent work, there is ‘a growing awareness of the existence of widespread discontent with and resistance to the Reformation process, which is now understood as a long labour, not a rapid and popular push-over.’

Duffy’s 1992 book highlighted hitherto neglected aspects of late medieval Christianity in England, for example, massive lay investment in the rebuilding and furnishing for Catholic worship of many of the parish churches of pre-Reformation England, in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Duffy is Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. He returns to the Reformation in this absorbing book of historical essays.

Common faith

Part One presents ‘Studies in Reformation’ and considers hitherto neglected aspects of English religion, such as pilgrimages and monasticism. The opening chapter looks at cathedral pilgrimages in the late Middle Ages and at the shrines contained in such cathedrals, notably the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Duffy talks of the ‘embedding of cathedral pilgrimage in a much broader landscape of holiness’. For example, testators at the time often asked in their wills for surrogates to go on their behalf to various pilgrimage sites in England or even further afield.

With the destruction of the medieval Cathedral shrine, Duffy argues, ‘one of the most vital and persistent institutions of medieval Christianity was snuffed out… and a resonant symbol of hope and healing banished from the great buildings that had sheltered it for half a millennium. Who can doubt that the English imagination was poorer for it?’

Part One also includes chapters on the dissolution of Ely Priory, a Benedictine priory originally founded by St Ethelreda, and on the King James Bible, which Duffy describes as a ‘magnificent translation’ of the scriptures. Another fascinating chapter covers the English Catholic seminary at Douai in modern-day France, which was founded in 1568 and moved for a time to Rheims.

One of the Douai professors, Gregory Martin, produced an important English translation of the New Testament in 1582. While the focus in most seminaries at the time was on practical pastoral skills, Douai was unusual in its emphasis on Scripture – in recognition of the fact that debate with Protestants would probably be important in the life of future English priests. As time went on, harsh persecution meant that such debate did not, in fact, become a realistic option in the immediate future.

The chapter ‘1569: A People’s Tragedy?’ covers resistance to the Reformation, and particularly the rebellion in the North of England in 1569, where the desire to restore Catholicism was the ‘single most important motive’ for the rebels.

Historical interpretations

Part Two reflects on ‘Writing the Reformation’ and looks at how the Reformation has been studied and understood in the centuries since. It includes chapters on Luther through Catholic eyes, and on historians such as James Anthony Froude and AG Dickens. Froude was highly critical of the ‘ferocious campaign against heresy’ carried out by the Catholic Queen Mary and regarded the advent of Protestantism and the repudiation of Papal authority as an ‘immense blessing, a necessary step in the emergence of the modern world and of English values, and a prelude to future imperial greatness’.


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The book includes a chapter on Walsingham, the shrine to the Holy House at Nazareth, which was established in the eleventh or early twelfth century and dissolved in 1538. It began to be revived in the 19th century and is today a flourishing place of pilgrimage. The very positive cooperation between the Anglican and Catholic pilgrimage sites there testify to the excellent ecumenical relationships which happily obtain today between Catholics and Protestants.

Literary bias

In his final, thought-provoking chapter, ‘Fiction and Faction’, Duffy reflects on how the Reformation has been portrayed in fiction over the centuries and includes a topical discussion of Hilary Mantel’s remarkably successful novels and TV adaptations.

Duffy maintains that Protestant historical reflections on the Tudor story, which also shaped fictional stories, have tended to dominate in England, even if alternative Catholic accounts began to emerge from the 1860s and 1870s. A feature of relatively recent reflection has been the strong interest of historians such as Geoffrey Elton in Thomas Cromwell, principal adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1530s, and their antipathy to St. Thomas More, the chancellor of England who was executed by Henry VIII. Such historical writings provide the backdrop to the prize-winning historical fiction of Hilary Mantel.

Duffy provides a closely argued and nuanced account of Mantel’s work. Her Wolf Hall trilogy of novels, he acknowledges, were the most widely read historical fiction for decades, were a ‘remarkable imaginative feat’ and have been hugely influential. Indeed, in their application interviews, Duffy notes, some recent candidates to read history at Cambridge have seemed to depend on Hilary Mantel for their historical knowledge of the Tudors!

Professor Duffy takes issue with the novelist’s extremely negative portrayal of St Thomas More and excessively positive presentation of Thomas Cromwell. Her ‘reversal of the roles of More and Cromwell fails as fiction because it will not stand as history’. Claims given prominence in Mantel’s novels that More was a torturer, Duffy maintains, are false. He also refers to Cromwell’s cruelty to the heroic English Carthusians, who opposed the king’s spiritual supremacy and were hanged at Tyburn in 1535.

Duffy maintains that ‘the compulsiveness of Mantel’s writing, her insistence on her faithfulness to contemporary Tudor sources and Wolf Hall’s prime-time exposure on TV have combined to ensure that fiction has been taken for fact and the necessary distinctions blurred.’

Whatever her intentions, Duffy concludes, ‘it is hard to put down Mantel’s learned and darkly witty fiction without regret, and some puzzlement, at her trilogy’s unmitigated construction of a vain, cruel and mean-spirited Thomas More.’

Duffy’s book is both a work of impressive scholarship and fully accessible to the general reader with an interest in history. While its focus is on England, its fresh take on the Reformation in England could be linked to efforts in other countries — such as Ireland — to re-visit, in a spirit of openness to historical truth, important aspects of our Christian heritage.

Tim O’Sullivan taught healthcare policy at third level in Ireland and has degrees in history and social policy from University College Dublin.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Showing 5 reactions

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  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-09 17:40:05 +1100
    The love of gold.

    Henry VIII confiscated the catholic monasteries and the treasures of the church. The monasteries owned approximately a quarter of the land in the whole of England. I assume that, like Germany, farmers liked to work the land of monasteries, because taxes and rents were lower and the monasteries also provided some social services from schools to health care and care for elderly widows etc.

    Henry was broke when he decided to separate from the Catholic church.

    In the following century England built and expanded its fleet and began to conquer half of the world.

    Looks like the initial investment into this pirate business was financed with the treasure stolen from the Catholic monasteries.

    Today, the UK is bankrupt again.
  • mrscracker
    Yes, I’ve heard encouraging things about Walsingham also. Thank you for sharing that.
  • Tim O'Sullivan
    commented 2024-02-08 23:35:58 +1100
    Yes, Christian communities in the Western world face huge challenges today related to the decline of religious practice. Part of the path forward, however, is the building of ecumenical relationships and the study of history in a fair-minded way can contribute to such dialogue. Prof Duffy’s books have highlighted important gaps in our historical understanding of the Reformation in England. Historical study should not be about point-scoring but about learning from the past and looking forward in hope towards the future. When I visited some years ago the ancient English shrine of Walsingham, which was dissolved during the Reformation, it was touching to experience there the positive links which now exist between the Anglican and Catholic shrines. Tim O’S
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-08 14:30:00 +1100
    “…just over a third of people in the United Kingdom identified as being Christian compared with two-thirds in 1983.”


    10. Of those who currently identify as Catholic,
    27.5% say they attend church services at least
    once a week. 39.2%, however, say they attend never
    or practically never. Furthermore, 59.6% of all cradle
    Catholics say they never or practically never attend

    Seems like, in the end, both Anglicans and Catholics lost out.

    Looks like fighting over the deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • Tim O'Sullivan
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-07 08:44:23 +1100