The lowbrow strategy that won the Reformation

St Thomas More meets his daughter after his trial, by William Frederick Yeames

Reformation Divided
by Eamon Duffy, Bloomsbury, £30

Another blockbuster arrives from the professor (emeritus) of Christian history at Cambridge. This time it is a collection of 14 pieces, all but two of them first published in learned journals over the years and now reworked and/or expanded.

Reformation Divided begins with two powerful essays defending Thomas More against his many recent detractors (including Hilary Mantel and her lamentable Wolf Hall). It ends with a dazzling piece on George Fox, founder of the Quakers. And in between is a galaxy of clever offerings.

Duffy writes stylish, lively prose. He greatly admires (rightly) the late John Bossy, while often disagreeing with him heartily – for the latter could sometimes be very wrong. Above all, Duffy is prodigiously learned. Again and again as I progressed through this book I found myself wanting to bang on the table in front of me in hearty assent – or in gratitude for having so much fall into place. For example, the piece on Cardinal Allen, a deeply controversial figure in Counter-Reformation English history, gets him right at last. And surely it is right to see that what fired so much of Catholic recusancy (including Thomas More and the ardent Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander) was the conviction that Protestantism had seduced, pillaged and plundered, desecrated and unleashed violence and disorder, that its “martyrs” were pseudo-martyrs, its leaders intruders, usurpers and apostates.

Likewise, thanks to Duffy’s vivid account of the wretched squabbles between (some) Jesuits and secular clergy, I now have a much greater appreciation of what the egregious Blacklo and his “Cabal” were about; how their campaign to have missionary Jesuits and other Religious brought under the control of a restored hierarchy formed an unholy alliance (or at least flirtation) with Jansenism; how deeply involved in all that were the English seminaries in Douai and Lisbon; how difficult all this made the work of the vicars apostolic when England was at last given a hierarchy in 1685, especially after the bull Unigenitus (1713) condemned Jansen’s main tenets; and finally, how anti-Jesuit Cisalpinism, so assiduously promoted by the likes of the English Church historian Charles Dodd, lived on until well into the 19th century.

I had known about Gregory Martin and his single-handed production of the Douai-Rheims Bible. But I had never heard of what Duffy calls his masterpiece, Roma Sancta, a bravura celebration of the glories of the capital of Western Christendom. I had known how the martyr William Carter, beatified in 1987, had run a very active secret printing press in London in the 1570-80s, but I had not appreciated how much Catholic devotional literature had been produced both here and abroad.

Indeed, I had not heard of a layman named George Flinton, whose Manual of Prayers (1583) went through numerous editions and had pride of place in English Catholic lay devotion until Bishop Challoner’s Garden of the Soul appeared two centuries later. A striking feature of the Manual was that most of its prayers were medieval – or taken from the writings of More, John Fisher or their contemporary, Richard Whytford, the Bridgettine of Syon. Thus did Counter-Reformation recusancy experience and affirm its continuity with its Catholic past.

In the final section of this book, where he discusses non-Catholic topics, Duffy writes warmly about the zealous Puritan Richard Baxter and how he strove to reconcile his belief in predestination and the need for discipline, that crucial Puritan concern, with his pastoral responsibility for the whole community. “If the obstinate and impudent be cast out what a stir would they make. But if Christ be not obeyed, what a stir will conscience make,” he observed.

The dilemma was acute – but, as Duffy shows, fervent Puritans knew they must battle with it. Indeed, in a fascinating passage he shows how Puritans and then mainstream Anglicanism could strive to create a “godly” people via the pulpit, of course, but also with every kind of literature, including chapbooks – cheap, lowbrow pamphlets distributed by so-called chapmen, which previously consisted of ballads, fancy tales and the like, but were now used to bring the “long Reformation” to its goal.

This is a must-read for any serious student of Reformation and post-Reformation England. But it is a collection of occasional pieces, not a comprehensive history – and, to be frank, some of those pieces, despite Duffy’s enviable literary skills, are not the easiest of reads.

So I am going to take the liberty of urging that, now that he has retired, he sits down and writes a history of Catholic England from, say, the late 1400s to the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850. It could do what Bossy set out to do with his English Catholic Community but did not really achieve. Such a book is badly needed; Duffy would do it splendidly.