The Reformation in Fiction – a list of books with comments!

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Here is something completely different! A few months ago I gave a lecture on the Reformation in Fiction – one in a series of talks on the Reformation in England. I was then asked to summarise it for a magazine article, which meant that it became more of a list of books with comments on what I thought made them relevant. I thought that some readers of this blog may enjoy lists of books, so here is the short version. I actually read extracts of most of the books listed here, so it was a bit of a fight to keep it short! Some of the books may have also been reviewed on this blog, so do look them up under the authors’ name to the right of your screen.

This third talk looked at the place of fiction in understanding the Reformation. Limited to the Reformation in England, there was still a lot of ground to cover. The reason for historical fiction was summed up in Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures which are probably still available in transcript form online. The understanding of previous generations emerges through fiction, as what people felt, heard, saw and said can  be explored, even if not proved in documentation. All history is of necessity selective, so why not help people to understand what it was like to actually experience the Reformation?

Two series of books help us understand what life was like in a monastery in England pre Reformation. Ellis Peters “Brother Cadfael” books are set in a monastery in Shrewsbury in the 1130s. From them we learn about the monks who have lived in the world like Cadfael himself, as well as those who entered young with ambitions for advancement. The monastery offers sanctuary and help to the sick and needy, as well as having to maintain its position in the community. Similarly, Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew books set in Cambridge in the 1300s are about the variety of monks, priests and academics who inhabit the small town and the politics, rivalries and jealousies that emerge between the different orders.  Life in a convent is represented by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “The Corner that Held Them” as it describes the inhabitants of a small English convent.

The period of the Reformation has been covered via historical fiction writers over many decades. Some will remember Jean Plaidy’s many books about the Tudors and their supporters such as Sir Thomas More. His refusal to acknowledge the break with Rome and his fate was movingly described in the play “A Man for All Seasons” which I was fortunate to study at school. More recently, the life and times of the man, Thomas Cromwell,  who implemented many of the reforms of the times has been explored to enormous effect by Hilary Mantel in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”, the result of so much research and subsequently adapted for stage and television.

Alison Weir has produced many non-fiction books concerning British history, but her latest fictional series on the six wives of Henry VIII includes “Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession”, which shows Anne as actively interested in the reformation of religious faith in England. Elizabeth Freemantle’s first book, “The Queen’s Gambit” looks at Henry’s sixth wife, whose writing and publishing of books encouraging worship in English placed her in real danger from her husband, who was inconsistent in his views on reform.

The actual dissolution of the monasteries pushed through by Cromwell and his commissioners has been described vividly in C.J. Sansom’s “Dissolution”. A lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to solve a murder in a fictional monastery, but it soon becomes obvious that the entire establishment is riven by corruption and bitterness. As the monastery physically crumbles, the process of dissolving the religious houses of the country proceeds and their wealth redistributed. “A Cold Wind Blowing” by Barbara Willard, a much less well known book, also recounts the destruction of a monastery and its effects on the people who have been dependent on it for generations. The human cost of the Reformation is exhaustively described in Hilda Prescott’s huge book, “The Man on a Donkey” which looks at the convergence of characters which led to the Pilgrimage of Grace, the movement of people which began in the north as a protest against the religious reforms. A very real threat to the rule of Henry VIII, this book looks at people from various backgrounds who actively rejected what was done to change the practice of worship which had lasted for generations.

An account of how the religious controversy of Henry’s reform still dominated the reigns of his successors, S.J.Parris “Heresy” is dominated by the dangers of religious controversy in Elizabeth’s England and beyond. Rory Clements also recounted the real danger that England stood in from Catholic – inspired invasion during Elizabeth’s reign in “Martyr” as the settlement achieved was still precarious.

So this list of books may seem a little overwhelming, but their use of fictional characters jointly strives to give a picture of before the reformation, during the religious changes, and the effects of an uncertain settlement. There are many non-fiction books available which tackle the Reformation, but fiction can deepen our understanding of the real people involved.




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