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Heretics and Believers

A History of the English Reformation

Peter Marshall, March 2018, Yale University Press, 672 pages

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Front cover of the book


Early Modern


Religion, England, Tudor

Heretics and Believers helps us understand a crucial turning point in English history and how it impacted England‘s (and Britain‘s) subsequent history and culture.

It is thought-provoking and a compelling, providing a fascinating description of this critical 16th century period.


Review by Andy Salisbury, 13 January 2022

Heretics and Believers, winner of the Wolfson History Prize in 2018, provides a comprehensive description and analysis of the English Reformation. The author, Peter Marshall, is a professor of history at the University of Warwick.

Pre-Reformation England

Peter Marshall commences his book with a helpful summary of Pre-Reformation English Christianity and thought. This is essential to a proper understanding of the events which follow: it becomes clear that ideas of 'reformation' of Christianity pre-dated Luther and Calvin. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More (who were close friends) argued passionately against the perceived abuses of early sixteenth century Christianity. Whilst Humanism would later form an intellectual component of Protestant thought and critiques of Roman Catholicism, Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were violently opposed to Luther and his teachings (as was Henry VIII himself, until he wanted to get divorced).

Thomas More later died for his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church which he had spent much of his life criticising (it must be said, having previously killed off a good few Protestants himself as Lord Chancellor).

Other aspects of Pre-Reformation England covered in the book include the state of monasticism, Lollardy and early converts to the ideas of Luther before Henry VIII caught onto the idea himself.

The Reformation

The book moves into full narrative mode with the commencement of efforts by Henry VIII and his ministers to annual his marriage to Catherine of Aragon from 1527 onwards. We are then given a detailed year by year, in many cases month by month, recounting of the progress of the Reformation in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The book concludes in the late 1580s towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I: the defeat of Spanish Armada in 1588 saw the end of a long period of attempts by Roman Catholics abroad (and, in some cases, within England) to re-impose Roman Catholicism in England by force.

The author also presents the late 1580s as the culmination of a prolonged process of estrangement between those (including many within the House of Commons) arguing for a more zealous form of Protestantism and those (principally, Queen Elizabeth I) who wished to retain the predominately Edwardian Book of Common Prayer and an Episcopal - ie pro rather than anti-bishop - church structure.

The latter would eventually dominate the established Church of England through royal patronage. The former (increasing labelled 'Puritans') would break off to form new non-conformist sects outside of the Church of England. For the author, this estrangement was exemplified by a ferocious ant-Puritan sermon given in 1588 at Paul's Cross by Richard Bancroft (later Archbishop of Canterbury but at that time chaplain to Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton).


The book concludes with a postscript which refers to the post Elizabethan legacy (or, perhaps, continuation) of the Reformation: in particular, the Civil War and the gradual lifting of legal penalties against Roman Catholics, a process that only concluded in 2013 when it became legal for a Roman Catholic to marry the heir to the British throne. The author, in my opinion, wisely keeps this section brief. The subject of the legacy of the Reformation in the United Kingdom is an enormous subject in its own right which deserves its own book.

A time of change

The author explains in the book's postscript that his treatment of the period stands in contrast to other Reformation histories which have tended to emphasise continuity. For Peter Marshall, this was a period of dramatic change. But as well as describing what those changes were, the author does an excellent job of showing how those changes or, perhaps more accurately, the process of change itself, had a profound impact on English politics, culture and thought. As the author states in the book's postscript:

... the Reformation in England, I am convinced, was nothing if not a volcanic eruption of change, whose seismic impact remains fundamental to an informed understanding of almost all the country's subsequent social and political developments.

The end of the Middle Ages

In my previous review of Dan Jones' Thrones and Powers, I posed the question of what the Middle Ages were and in what sense the events which marked its close (including the Reformation) can be said to have brought that period of history to an end. I felt that this book did a lot to provide an answer.

Whilst the author explains in the book's opening chapters that medieval Catholicism was by no means static, uniform or devoid of heresies, the life of a medieval peasant (who formed the bulk of the population) revolved around a world of comparative continuity and uniformity in which religion and day to day life were deeply integrated. Or, to put it another way, the average English peasant probably didn't need to expend too much thought on what he believed or did not believe, nor was he asked to do so.

That is, in part, illustrated in the meaning of the word 'religion' itself. For early sixteenth century people, 'religion' meant specialised ritual practices undertaken in monasteries. The idea of 'religion' as indicating specific beliefs and dogmas, and as a distinct and separable sphere of thought and activity, was, arguably, a creation of the Reformation.

The author identifies 1547-8 as the moment when the Middle Ages came to an end for many English people. In 1547, Edward VI came to the throne in England as a minor. The Duke of Somerset, his Lord Protector, enacted full scale reformation of religion: relics and images were removed from churches, chantries abolished and their funds appropriated by the state to fund war in Scotland. The financial and devotional life of English villages throughout the country were irretrievably altered, notwithstanding Mary I's subsequent attempts at Counter-Reformation.

Time to make a decision

The Reformation forced people in all walks of lives to make decisions about what they believed. In a passionate battle of ideas, propagandists appealed to every level of English society, highlighting differences of opinion. The irony is that this served to draw attention to the ideas which were being opposed - a process exacerbated by the tendency at that time to quote in full the text which a writer wished to argue against. The author contends, convincingly, that the English Reformation created English Roman Catholicism just as much as it created Anglicanism and Puritanism.

The battle for uniformity of religion

Successive monarchs were obsessed with the need to impose 'uniformity' in religion; to a lesser or greater extent, they and their councillors were willing to kill in order to achieve that. But the violent changes of this period, perhaps inevitably, resulted in a country in which people, either openly or secretly, believed different things and adopted different religious practices. It raised the question of how to coexist in a country containing people of different faiths.

This resulted in two contrasting reactions. In the immediate term, religious hatred and violence was exacerbated, most notoriously under the reign of Mary I. The idea of 'tolerance' was barely countenanced or, on the rare occasions it was mooted, swiftly dismissed (see, for example, Elizabeth I's response to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I's request for separate places of worship for Roman Catholics). Even 'leniency' towards those with differing religious views was condemned as contrary to God's will, a perceived weakness that parliamentarians repeatedly condemned in Elizabeth I.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Tudor world inherited the medieval assumption that a single realm should contain people of the same religion. But, in the long term, the idea of the need to tolerate those of other religions took hold, albeit extremely slowly and tentatively. This trend towards toleration is described in Ritchie Robertson's excellent book on the Enlightenment, reviewed elsewhere on this site. It arose from necessity rather than principle, but nonetheless was a stepping stone to one of the core values we take for granted.

New horizons

The author convincingly paints a portrait of an era of intellectual ferment. In 1563, William Cecil (later Baron of Burghley) drafted a bill of succession designed to prevent the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots ascending to the English throne following the death of Elizabeth I. Among other arrangements, it envisaged a monarch elected by parliament, which would make England a de facto republic.

It never came to fruition, but it provides a fascinating example of how religious conviction trumped loyalty to the principle of dynastic succession, and allowed politicians to conceive of new ideas. Religious conviction also provided a pretext for politicians to assert political independence in the face of monarchs who resisted their religious priorities.

Elizabeth I repeatedly ordered parliament to desist from any discussion of religious practice and organisation, which she considered the remit of herself and her bishops; parliament repeatedly ignored her. The House of Commons at this time continually lobbied the monarch for a more austere version of Protestantism stripped of what they considered to be Popish paraphernalia. Elizabeth I would invariably resist.

Religious tensions between the House of Commons and monarchs would be a defining characteristic of British history in the seventeenth century: it eventually led to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. It is interesting to reflect that British parliamentary government may owe a lot to religious zealots in the House of Commons.

What impact can an individual have?

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy vehemently argues against the 'great man' version of history: the idea that important individuals have the power to change history. For Tolstoy, battles are won and lost and countries change because of great forces at work, of which individuals are barely aware. Napoleon may have claimed credit for a victory, but actually he was just the beneficiary of some underlying force of history pushing the peoples of France eastward, until such time as they pushed too far, and then were subject to a countervailing force pushing the peoples of Russia westward. Or something like that (it's been a while since I read it).

Reading Heretics and Believers made me think about the ability of individuals to change history. Henry VIII provides an obvious example of a person who, on the face of it, appears to have changed the history of a country because of the decisions he made. Peter Marshall's book comprehensively dismisses any idea that the English Reformation was the product alone of Henry VIII's wayward love life, although he concedes that it probably would have taken a very different trajectory without sovereign sponsorship.

What struck me in this book, though, was the direct influence that Elizabeth I wielded on religious policy during her reign. What the author refers to as her 'eccentric' and 'peculiar' conservatism in matters of religion had a profound impact on the course of religious change in England.

In the earlier parts of her reign, the impression I got from this book (either correctly or incorrectly), was that she was relatively isolated in efforts to resist the efforts of MPs, bishops, Pricy Councillors and other senior advisers to push the church towards ever stricter forms of Protestantism. She generally got her way (I suppose, because she was the queen), and as time passed managed to promote fellow minded clerics to senior positions - most importantly John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury) Elizabeth I arguably did have a significant impact on the course of both Anglicanism and English nonconformity.

What is it like to read?

In the postscript to his book, Peter Marshall states that 'The real significance of the English Reformation, I would suggest, lies not in the achievement, but in the struggle itself'. That is not a bad summary of what appeared to me to be the over-arching theme of the book as a whole: how the process of religious change gave rise to new possibilities and changed the way people, in every walk of life, thought about their relationship to religion, the state, and the people around them.

The author manages to combine a highly readable narrative, depth of analysis and an ability to convey thought-provoking ideas, attributes that are not easy to combine in the same book.

Was there anything I found challenging in the book?

There is a huge volume of individuals referred to. I found myself frequently losing track of who was who and needing to resort to the index and Wikipedia to remind myself. That is in no way a criticism of the book: it is not the author's fault that a lot of different people were involved in the English Reformation. What it demonstrates is that the process of religious change was enormously complex and multifaceted: any simplistic idea that Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife and that was that is swiftly disabused by reading this book.


This exceptional book should be read by anyone wanting to understand this crucial period of English history and how it impacted England's (and Britain's) subsequent history and culture.


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