Book review: Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition

Eamon Duffy, Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), viii+311 pages. In this well-researched and well-crafted collection of essays, Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Magdalene College, continues to argue the case that he made in The Stripping of the Altars (1992), namely, that the English Reformation really did not take hold of the hearts and minds of Englishmen until well into the reign of Elizabeth I. From Duffy’s perspective, the Protestant Tudor monarchs Edward VI and Elizabeth had to employ force and political persuasion to wrest the English people away from their commitment to Roman Catholicism and the papacy. It is a bold thesis—though Duffy is not the only historian who has made this argument—and his arguments for it are strong and compelling. In the final analysis, however, I must say I am not wholly convinced.

In addition to a number of essays that look at the material religious culture of early Tudor England (chapters 3–5), which Duffy believes substantiate his case, recent historiography of the English Reformation (chapters 1 and 2) is also examined. Duffy is right to outline the way in which this historiography has been shaped by the religious allegiances of English historians of the Reformation, though it bears noting that Duffy’s own deep roots in pre-Vatican II Roman CathoUnknownlicism should not be overlooked when considering the bent of his historical scholarship.[1] Chapters 6–9 trace the spirituality of two key Roman Catholic cardinals, John Fisher and Reginald Pole, who were far more well-known in the European world of their day than their Protestant counterparts, men like Thomas Cranmer (whose piety is compared with that of Pole in chapter 8) or Hugh Latimer. Chapter 8 is especially interesting where Duffy contrasts the Protestant memory of Cranmer as a noble martyr with that created by Pole: “a very different Cranmer, a concubinate priest, feebly subservient to brutal tyranny [that of Henry VIII], untruthful from the start, and unstable to the end” (p.194).

In chapters 10 and 11, Duffy traces the legacy of Tudor Catholicism. I found the final chapter—“Bare ruin’d choirs: remembering Catholicism in Shakespeare’s England (p.233–253)—especially significant as Duffy looks at the evidence of a single line from Sonnet 73 (“Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang”) with regard to the religious convictions of William Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries. Duffy rightly questions the supposed Puritanism of the playwright’s father, John Shakespeare (p.240–241), a view that was put forward by a few authors a hundred or so years ago. On the other hand, he convincingly demonstrates through contextual analysis of this line that “if we cannot quite be sure that Shakespeare was a Catholic, it becomes clearer and clearer that he must have struck contemporaries as a most unsatisfactory Protestant” (p.253).

Why then do I remain not fully convinced? First, there is the stubborn fact of the thousands of Bibles from Tyndale’s version to that of the Geneva Bible produced by Protestants in these years: who was reading these copies of the Scriptures if Protestantism was essentially restricted to a small coterie of figures? Then, there are the various “common” people martyred during the reign of Mary I: they surely indicate that if there were many whose hearts were still loyal to the ethos, doctrine and piety of Rome, there were also many whose hearts had been won to the “new” faith. But even if I cannot follow Duffy’s revisionism (though, see his comments in this regard in the Introduction) the whole way, his arguments are not lightly dismissed and reveal that the English Reformation was much more complex, and messier, than some historians in the past have thought.

Michael A.G. Haykin

[1] See, for example, his essay, “Confessions of a Cradle Catholic” in his Faith of our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), 11–19.