Books

A Reformation history with few villains

A portrait of Anne Askew, who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1546 (Photo: gallery.nen.gov.uk)

A useful but rose-tinted account of England’s break with Rome

To Gain at Harvest: Portraits from the English Reformation
By Jonathan Dean
SCM Press, 220pp, £20/$35

In this elegantly written, heartfelt book, Jonathan Dean sings the praises of “10 remarkable figures” from the Reformation era. Everything is a little rose-tinted, but then these people are Dean’s heroes – “icons of faithfulness”, as he puts it – and, fortunately, the book does not cross the border into hagiography.

Dean engages, from time to time, with important scholarly debates, his potted biographies (20 or so pages a piece) are reliable, and he manages to inject a little wit: Dean comments of Katherine Parr that “becoming the sixth wife of Henry VIII was hardly the most attractive of assignments”.

The book’s adoring tone is set by the opening chapter on Thomas More. Utopia is “one of the finest books ever written”, and More was apparently “the greatest Englishman of his age” with “a strong claim to be the greatest of any age”. That’s something of a stretch, but Dean makes a decent fist of reconciling the seemingly contradictory aspects of More’s character. He was the “teller of merry tales” and someone who mocked the “follies and extravagances of some elements of Catholic devotion”, but also a man who held heretics in the deepest contempt.

Dean sees no obvious conflict. Whatever flaws the papacy may have had, it remained “the guarantor of connection to the Church in every other place and time”. Its enemies were to be obliterated.

One of those enemies, even if he took his time in revealing his true colours, was Thomas Cranmer. Dean likes Cranmer a lot. He argues against the idea that Cranmer’s early career was defined by vacillation or timidity and demonstrates that his contribution to the Henrician and Edwardine Reformations was valuable. Having begun as a Cambridge scholar, perfectly happy with his lot, Cranmer was dragged into public life as much through “political shenanigans” as “his own talents”, but those gifts helped to forge a brand new Church. In Mary’s reign, he let himself down with his recantation, but “his defiant death more than undid the understandable indecision of his final days”.

Talking of defiant deaths, Dean’s analysis of Anne Askew, executed in 1546, is one of the book’s highlights. Much recent scholarship has focused on the way Askew was represented during the 16th century. Those who reported her deeds – all of them men – had a bad habit of making drastic editorial interventions. The 16th-century historian John Bale “chops up Anne’s words”, lays emphasis on what seems, to him, to be most important, and adds huge amounts of commentary. John Foxe, the great martyrologist, is almost as intrusive. They perhaps assumed that “a woman cannot be trusted to make adequate sense on her own and needs the help of her male publisher and editor”. Dean does not deny this point, but he is a little kinder to John Bale than most: he at least based his accounts on what Anne said, or probably said, and was in the business of constructing a new, Protestant understanding of martyrdom: a “bold and ambitious endeavour”.

The cavalcade continues. We find Katherine Parr managing to convince Henry VIII that her increasingly reformist outbursts are simply her way of keeping the ageing king’s mind agile. We see Nicholas Harpsfield, a pillar of the Marian restoration, attempting to destroy the posthumous reputation of Cranmer. And then there’s poor old Matthew Parker. He was, Dean writes, “one of those historical figures whose lack of flashiness or show was the very virtue by which he was able to achieve so much”. His task, as Elizabeth I’s first Archbishop of Canterbury, was unenviable. He attempted to create a broad Church, taking a middle course through the era’s doctrinal controversies, even though his own theological proclivities were probably a little more advanced.

Unfortunately, the 1560s witnessed their share of protest from those of radical sympathies and, while this was hardly Parker’s fault, the queen tended to lash out at him. The “diversity, variety, commotion, and vain love of singularity,” Elizabeth grumbled, were bringing “deformity to the rest of the whole body of the realm”.

Nearing the finishing line, Dean tackles Lancelot Andrewes, praised here for his “impeccable, stirring, creative, mercurial prose”. Finally, after a little George Herbert, the book closes with a splendid celebration of Thomas Traherne. Born amid the chaos of the Civil War, and dead by the age of 37, he managed to craft a spiritual vision that embraced the joys of nature: he was always “firm and even ferocious in his anger against those who fail to enjoy the world”.

Dean has produced a charming collection of essays and, as he explains in his introduction, he has sought to forge a dialogue between past and present. Fittingly, he quotes the TS Eliot line: “what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you being dead”.