Thursday, June 28, 2012

Eamon Duffy Sums It Up

The story of the Reformation needs reforming

The destruction of most of the libraries, music and art of England was not a religious breakthrough but a cultural calamity

For five centuries England has been in denial about the role of Roman Catholicism in shaping it. The coin in your pocket declares the monarch to be Defender of the Faith. Since 1558 that has meant the Protestant faith, but Henry VIII actually got the title from the Pope for defending Catholicism against Luther. Henry eventually broke with Rome because the Pope refused him a divorce, and along with the papacy went saints, pilgrimage, the monastic life, eventually even the Mass itself – the pillars of medieval Christianity.

To explain that revolution, the Protestant reformers told a story. Henry had rejected not the Catholic Church, but a corrupt pseudo-Christianity which had led the world astray. John Foxe embodied this story unforgettably in his Book of Martyrs, subsidised by the Elizabethan government as propaganda against Catholicism at home and abroad. For Foxe, Queen Elizabeth was her country’s saviour, and the Reformation itself the climax of an age-old struggle between God, represented by the monarch, and the devil, represented by the Pope. . . .

It is time to look again at the Reformation story. There was nothing inevitable about the Reformation. The heir to the throne is uneasy about swearing to uphold the Protestant faith, and it seems less obvious than it once did that the religion which gave us the Wilton Diptych and Westminster Abbey, or the music of Tallis, Byrd and Elgar, is intrinsically un-English. The destruction of the monasteries and most of the libraries, music and art of medieval England now looks what it always was – not a religious breakthrough, but a cultural calamity.

Read the rest of The Telegraph article here. Duffy's new book, Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations is due out in the U.S. on August 2!! The Independent in the U.K. has this review:

Even in the potentially disjointed format of a collection of essays, there is something compelling and even thrilling about Duffy's combination of cutting-edge historical scholarship and effortless prose. At the heart of the story he tells is an account of the deep, deep roots that Catholicism had in England before, during and for a long time after Henry's decision to dispense with Rome. As one who grew up Catholic at the tail end of a 400-year period when my co-believers were routinely persecuted and regarded as somehow foreign, or unEnglish, it is remarkable to learn how much my faith is home-grown, part of the landscape, and of the nation's enduring religious sensibility, even if most traces of that have been obliterated and then denied. In Duffy's bottom-up approach to history, as in the fragments of stained glass that have survived in the otherwise clear panes in Salle church, there is a much bigger, bolder story.


  1. SAM: Already out on Kindle @

  2. binks webelf, there are some funny typos in the kindle edition--memento mon instead of memento mori; cod (sic) history (I'm not sure what that's supposed to be!). In the first case I guess the r and the i ran together! I'm finishing the last chapter tonight. good material for my new radio show!