Eamon Duffy’s “Reformation Divided” revises assumptions, offers deep historical insights

Among the very significant contributions in Reformation Divided are the three chapters devoted to Thomas More, who has suffered from much hagiographical treatment, both good and ill.

The five hundredth anniversary of the issuing of the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther, the event customarily taken as the inauguration of the Protestant Reformation, is this October 31st. For such an anniversary, everyone who is anyone in the world of early modern religious scholarship must produce something. Yale’s Carlos Eire published his substantial Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650 last year. Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World will be out with HarperCollins in September. In between there has happily appeared a new volume—Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England—by Emeritus Professor of Christian History at Cambridge University, Eamon Duffy, perhaps the leading scholar of the English Reformation in our day.

Despite its broadly suggestive main title—Reformation Divided—and the fact that it begins with Martin Luther in 1517, this book focuses on England, and the bulk of its essays deal with Reformation-era English Catholicism. This, however, is by no means problematic. Duffy rightly insists that the historical era once called “The Reformation” should not be defined in terms of Protestantism and that the Catholic Church experienced reformation too. Historians have long combatted the notion that a specific time-period called the Protestant Reformation was followed, when the Catholic Church got its act together, by a specific later time-period known as the Counter-Reformation. Far from it—perfectly orthodox reforming movements had begun in Christendom long before any putative nails were pounded into doors in the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg; one need only recall the Observantine Movement among the religious orders. And undeniably orthodox reforming movements surged throughout the Catholic Church concurrently with the schisms and heresies that eventually reft western Christendom into multiple confessional allegiances. Some of these orthodox movements were in reaction to Protestantism—Counter-Reformation—and some were simply spontaneous efforts to improve church and society within specifically Catholic contexts, and may accurately be called Catholic reformation. So Duffy’s is a book about reformation, even if Protestants get rather short shrift.

Moreover, the volume’s predominantly English content is not as insular as it sounds. For it is Duffy’s contention, continuing and expanding arguments made in his Fires of Faith in 2010, that English Catholicism during the reign of Bloody Mary (1553-58) was deeply and profoundly influenced by, and involved in, contemporary Continental ecclesiastical reform movements. This continued to be true, as he amply demonstrates, in the days of Church papists, recusants, and martyrs in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) and the following century.

Reformation Divided is itself divided into three parts. The first chapters are devoted to an exploration of Thomas More’s opposition to the early Protestant movement during the 1520s and 30s. The second and much the largest part, called “Counter-Reformation England,” ranges from topics such as the governance of the Marian Church, to clerical disputes about the running of the English Catholic mission during the reign of Elizabeth, to a study of English Catholic historians from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Finally, Part III, the shortest section, deals more directly with English Protestants, concluding with a chapter on the founder of the Quakers, George Fox. Most of the book’s chapters are re-workings and expansions of essays published earlier by Duffy, one from as far back as 1977. Only Chapters Six and Seven seem to have been originally written for Reformation Divided. Thus, the volume suffers occasionally from the minor repetitiveness almost unavoidable in a book that is a collection of independently issued previous essays. Notwithstanding minor lapses, Bloomsbury is to be thanked for producing a work of such scholarship for an affordable price.

Some Cardinals and Devotional Practice

Nearly every chapter revises earlier historical assumptions or arguments. There is a study of Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-58), correcting the previous scholarly assessment of Pole’s inadequacy as Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, much of it based on “a disastrous misreading” of a letter from 1558 which led scholars to believe that Pole stupidly downplayed the importance of preaching in his campaign to win England back for the Church after Edward VI’s reign (1547-53). The letter, now translated accurately, reveals that Pole was “guilty neither of inattention to preaching, nor of lack of realism about the challenges confronting the Marian Church.” Moreover, Duffy shows that Pole’s archiepiscopate, far from being merely traditionalist and reactionary, helped “determine the shape of Elizabethan Catholicism” and, in fact, devised for England the ecclesiastical anniversary celebration of important national events, “a ground-breaking propagandist technique, normally associated with the Protestant regimes which succeeded Mary.”

There is a chapter on William Cardinal Allen (1532-94), “a complex figure whose career illustrates the dilemmas, and the deviousness, forced upon good men in an age of religious violence.” Allen’s foundation of the English college at Douai and dedication to forming men like Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell for the English mission are highlighted. But his willingness to join international conspiracies designed to remove Elizabeth from the throne are not swept under the Tudor rug. His machinations are not defended precisely, but Allen and his priests are given credit for sensing the issues at stake: “The dilemmas on which they were impaled were not of his or their making. For him and for them there could be no peace with a state which claimed an absolute authority over consciences.” Duffy prods us to think by comparing Allen’s solution to Elizabethan problems with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s during World War II.

There follows a fascinating study of the development of Catholic devotional practice in the period. Research since the 1990s has shown how Elizabethan Protestants appropriated and “sanitized” Catholic devotional literature such as the Christian Exercise of Robert Persons, S.J. (1582). It has not been so widely recognized that this cross-pollination worked in the other direction too. The chapter “Praying the Counter-Reformation” explores the influences exerted by the Elizabethan church and the Book of Common Prayer upon Catholic devotion. The free use of litanies that evolved in these years became “a staple of public para-liturgical services in Catholic chapels and households” in the eighteenth century, and “would remain one of the most distinctive features of English Catholic piety well into the nineteenth century.”

A European Church

One theme of the book is the involvement of English Catholics in contemporary ecclesiastical trends on the Continent. The old picture of a secular Catholic clergy in England “only cosmetically involved in the counter-reformation renewal of priestly ideals and trapped in a structure-bound antiquarianism, will not do.” English Catholic life, however oppressed externally and divided internally, was not sterile and backwards-looking. In fact, “Eliza’s beleaguered isle is not known at all if only known in isolation from counter-reformation Europe.”

Chapters Seven and Eight discuss the ways in which “interaction with the European counter-reformation was fundamental to the survival of English Catholicism.” The English Roman Catholics were “a community on both sides of the sea. Links with Rome, and loyalty to the papacy, however grudging at times, constantly shaped, modified and even hindered their response to specifically English problems.” Scores of English youth went to the Continent for seminary or secular education. The dramatic intensification of emphasis on spiritual direction in the century after the Council of Trent shows up in England as well as in the rest of Catholic Europe. From the network of agents scouring Continental archives to help John Lingard become “the first historian to bring material from European and Catholic archives to bear on the traditional narrative” to the influence of Jansenism on English Catholics, Duffy mounts a considerable body of evidence demonstrating English Catholicism’s ready capacity for assimilating contemporary developments in Catholic theology, ministry, and devotion.

A Man for All Seasons?

Among the very significant contributions in Reformation Divided are the three chapters devoted to Thomas More. In reaction to his canonization in 1935 and much hagiographical treatment since, including Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960), historiographical fashion of late has tended to the disparaging of the martyred Chancellor. Duffy surveys the recent treatments, from Geoffrey Elton’s “debunking essays” to novelist Hilary Mantel’s “hostile portrayal” in Wolf Hall (2009).1 One modern biographer, Jasper Ridley, became at length so hag-ridden by the thought that someone, somewhere, might still respect the author of Utopia that he found himself capable of inventing lurid scenes of daughter-father flagellation and imagining the delights More experienced from a good flailing by Margaret Roper (Bloody Mary’s Martyrs, 2001).2

Posing a challenge to modern sensitivities is the vast mass of More’s religious polemic against Luther and other evangelical thinkers. “This huge body of literature,” one scholar observes, “has been more often deplored than studied.”3 Commentators have seen little of interest or of value in these pages. More, it has been asserted, smothers his opponents, and eventually his readers in lengthy, unpersuasive, and often ponderous arguments. One critic even suggested that if his opponent had been a centipede Thomas More would still have tried to leave him not a leg to stand on (a comment a bit ponderous in itself, I might suggest).

Duffy takes for his study perhaps the chief offender among More’s works, his voluminous Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1531), a work five times longer than the book it purported to confute. Critics, Duffy remarks, have found the Confutation a “shapeless, repetitious and boring work whose immense bulk and inflamed rhetoric reflects the collapse of More’s control over his material, and hence his failure as artist, persuader and polemicist.” Even C. S. Lewis deemed it “the longest, the harshest, and the dullest” of all More’s controversial writings.4 Duffy, however, successfully counters the perception that More’s religious polemics were failures even as literary works. More was adapting learned literary debate for a vernacular readership. Some of the vast bulk of his compositions results from his decision to quote his opponents at length so that it could be evident that he was not misrepresenting their arguments. More claimed, in fact, that Tyndale’s Answer could be reproduced in its entirety simply by leaving out More’s own responses in the Confutation. “One test of the value of any literary innovation,” Duffy points out, “is whether or not the form is adopted by other serious writers.” The form More introduced was indeed to have “a decisive influence” on the shape of religious controversies in the next generation of both Catholic and Protestant polemicists, as the works of William Rastell, Thomas Harding, and John Jewel attest.

What baffles the modern mind further is the question how the young humanist author of Utopia could become the mature persecutor of religious dissidents. That Thomas More hated heresy has never been open to question, even when sympathetic biographers have elided or suppressed it. Duffy notes More’s epitaph, composed by him in 1532 and contentedly describing himself as molestus, i.e., grievous, to thieves, murderers, and heretics.5 Duffy rejects the schizophrenic view of More turning from open-minded liberal to narrow-minded conservative promoted by some recent scholars and writers. He argues convincingly that the intellectual foundation for More’s campaign against heresy in England was “already there in his early humanist writings.” Even the Utopians were not tolerant of everything. Aversion to heresy, Duffy might have added, appears explicitly in Thomas More’s first book, a translation of a biography of the Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola, undertaken six full years before he composed Utopia.

Elizabethan martyrologist John Foxe and historians such as Ridley would have us believe that More enjoyed the part of his job as chancellor of England that involved enforcing the standing laws against heretics. But consider More’s own words, after a particularly ferocious passage threatening the young Lutheran sympathizer John Frith with fire temporal and eternal:

In these wordes I neyther ment nor meane, that I wold it were so. For so help me god . . . I wolde be gladde to take more laboure, losse, and bodyly payne also, thenne peraduenture many a man wolde wene, to wynne that yonge man to Cryste and his trewe fayth agayne & therby to preserue and kepe hym from the losse and perell of soule & body bothe.6

Doubters need but ponder, as Duffy suggests, the thousands of pages laboriously composed with pen and ink, the innumerable deadly night hours, “by candellyght whyle he were halfe a slepe,” More lost to writing these massive volumes that he imagined might save folk from loss and peril of soul and body both.

Look to It, Germany”

Near the end of his fierce book against Luther (1523), More outlined the consequences he believed would result from Luther’s theology. As the German princes had cast off the Roman yoke and confiscated church property, so the common folk would in turn shake off the yoke of the princes and strip them of their possessions. “Drunk with the blood of princes and reveling in the gore of the nobles,” the commoners would at length “run each other through. I pray Christ I may become a false prophet; I shall if men will come to their senses and resist the rising evils. Otherwise, I fear that I will become what I do not wish, a true prophet. But let Germany see to these things.”7 What Germany saw was the eruption in the following year of the rebellions now called the Peasants’ War, wherein as many as 100,000 people, mostly peasants and common folk, may have been slaughtered.

Thomas More and most of his contemporaries (as well as the pagans of Utopia, Duffy points out) believed that “rational virtue was what marked mankind off from the rest of the animals, and no society could survive without an underlying belief in a divine providence. This belief manifested itself in the exercise of moral freedom shaped by a conviction that God would reward virtue and punish vice.” After such a bloodletting in central Europe, More believed that Luther’s denial of the role of good works and merit in salvation “had precipitated precisely such a descent into bestial irrationality and social chaos.” In his Dialogue concerning Heresies (1529), he described what Luther had wrought: “Theyr secte hath all redy fordone the faythe / pulled downe the chyrches / polluted the temples / put out and spoyled all good relygyous folke / joined freres and nonnes togyther in lechery . . . caste downe Crystes crosse / throwne out the blessyd sacrament / refused all good lawes / abhorred all good governaunce / rebelled agaynste all rulers” and, because of the doctrine of predestination,

lay the faute in god / taking away the lybertye of mannes wyll . . . whereby they take away all dylygence and good endeavor to vertue / all withstanding and stryvyng against vyce / all care of hevyn / all fere of hell / all cause of prayer / all desire of devocyon . . . all the lawes of the worlde / all reason among men . . . and finally turning the nature of man in to worse than beste / and the goodness of god in to worse than the devyll.8

It was this “vision of chaos and destruction,” as Duffy points out, that drove More to accept the use of force to protect England from this heresy and its attendant plagues.

No modern reader of the Dialogue,” Duffy argues, is likely to find More’s defense of force compelling, but he adds, “twenty-first century hand-wringing about the horridness of persecution seem[s] a poor gauge of the contemporary effectiveness of More’s urgent advocacy.” Who knows, though, what the twenty-first century will bring us? It ill behooves a coming generation that violently shuts down unpopular speech and demands safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses to be so very superior to folk of earlier times who believed, however naively, that some ideas were so dangerous that they ought to be denied a hearing, legislated against, and snuffed out, before they wreaked a greater violence on the world.

Much will be written to celebrate the anniversary of the movement ignited by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. This book, eminently readable but even more eminently scholarly, is one of the good things to come out of that event. Throughout, the reader is rewarded again and again with deep historical insights into the events succeeding Luther’s revolution and into the minds of those who grappled with it and its consequences in England. One could almost wish that quincentenaries would come around more often.

Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England
by Eamon Duffy
London: Bloomsbury, 2017
Hardcover, 448 pages


1 Wolf Hall won the Mann Booker Prize and the film version directed by Peter Kosminsky took the Best Mini-Series Golden Globe in 2015. It is no wonder that Duffy suggests that Mantel’s depiction “looks like becoming the authorised portrait of More.”

2 As Tudor historian Lacey Baldwin-Smith observed, Ridley had turned into “a disturbing case study in what a trained historical interrogator can do to the so-called facts of history.” In one farcical passage in his biography of Mary Tudor, Ridley asserts that the Queen “attended Mass nine times a day, as everyone was supposed to do in theory, but which few people did” (The Life and Times of Mary Tudor, 194). One wonders where to look in the canon law for the requirement of attending one Mass each day, let alone the obligatory other eight! But Ridley offers no footnote and no source.

3 Rainer Pineas, Thomas More and Tudor Polemics, ix.

4 English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 173.

5 A modern reproduction of the epitaph may be seen today carved in marble in Chelsea Old Church, More’s former parish, but there is a telling blank space where More wanted the word haereticisque.

6 The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of Thomas More, 9:122.

7 Ibid., 5:691-93.

8 Ibid., 6:403.

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About Michael B. Kelly 3 Articles
Michael B. Kelly received his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame. He is now associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, and specializes in the English Reformation.


  1. Was planning to get this book, and the review confirms that I should. Glad Professor Duffy continues to do research and write.

  2. A lot of article that says little of anything new…except the opinions of those who have an axe to grind with More and the Church in general. For all the puffery about the “Reformation”, such sympathetic Protestant historians have yet to show a single doctrine, whether Ex-Cathedra or by Ordinary Magisterium, that the Church denied or changed.

    Changes were in corrupt practices.

    There is nothing to celebrate…the cleaving of Christendom and the introduction of Protestantism and its thousands of denominations that contradict themselves both in faith and morals….a direct contradiction to the words of Christ about the Gates of Hell.

  3. Duffy’s work if his article is an indication should be comprehensive. Most accounts of the Reformation and counter Reformation provide lots of detail but often lack analysis. And if provided often slanted. Protestantism stemming from Luther’s final reliance on conscience v doctrine is revived with Amoris L. Primacy of conscience the major detriment of the entire Protestant reform movement is now a Catholic dilemma. Nevertheless Luther realized his responsibility for the Peasants Revolt. Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (German: Wider die Mordischen und Reubischen Rotten der Bawren) is a piece written by Martin Luther, related to the German Peasants’ War. Beginning in 1524 and ending in 1526. Luther is considered the foundation for the Peasants’ Revolt. He maintained allegiance to the Princes. Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants alludes to Luther’s concern that he might be seen as responsible. “The peasants have taken on themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man, by which they have abundantly merited death in body and soul. Therefore, dear lords stab, smite, slay, whoever can”. Luther agonized over his salvation and settled on justification by faith. Whatever he arrived at theologically was justified by conscience. Denmark’s famed Kirkegaard suffered similarly. He coined Angst. “What Luther says is excellent, the one thing needful and the sole explanation — that this whole doctrine (of the Atonement and in the main all Christianity) must be traced back to the struggle of the anguished conscience. Remove the anguished conscience, and you may as well close the churches and turn them into dance halls. The anguished conscience understands Christianity” (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. London: Indiana University Press, 1975), Volume 3, p. 63). Fear led Luther to break with perceived inflexible Catholic doctrine. Finally predestination. Finally actions are neutral. Finally God alone saves. What was lacking during Luther’s emotional crisis was a Catholic theology of love. “But by reason of this secret and intimate union with God, there remains in the Soul a sweet impression, so firm and assured a satisfaction, that no torture, however cruel, could overpower it, and a zeal so ardent that a man, had he a thousand lives, would risk them all for that hidden consciousness which is so strong that hell itself could not destroy it” (Saint Catherine of Genoa Spiritual Dialogue, Part Third, Chapter X written sometime before her death 1510. Discovered approx 1560).

  4. It seems to me that those who vilify Thomas More for engaging in the suppression of a very few heretics miss the choice he had to make. He was a man of his time, and he understood his times far better than we do. He understood that the church was the framework, the lattice of support that held Christian nations together. Break that lattice, and the whole structure may crumble. And it did. The Reformation unleashed a time of unrest and violence that lasted for over a century. The estimates are that the wars of religion which were unleashed by the Reformation cost the lives of between 10 and 20 milliion between the time of Luther and the Treaty of Westphalia. And those wars of religion were not really wars about religion, they were local princes taking advantage of the split in religion to advance their secular interests, by pressing for Protestantism when it served their secular purposes.

    So Thomas More was probably right – executing a few heretics that threatened to bring decades of war and suffering was probably the lesser of two evils. Although there are undeniable positive things that came from the Reformation, things that moved us closer to democratic rather than monarchical government, Protestants never focus on the downside – that 10 -20 million deaths they simply ignore. Looking back, it seems as if it could have all been done without the Reformation

    • If Leo X hadn’t been a superficial Pope, who is supposed to have said: “God gave us the Papacy, let us enjoy it”, and so much in love with hunting and theatrical shows, maybe Luther would have ended up like Huss before him. As for reform in the Church before 1517, it happened in Spain under Queen Isabella, who certainly should be a saint and Cardinal Jimñenez de Cisneros. The reform began with the religious orders and thanks to that the greatest feat of evangelization in the history of the Church took place.It was the Golden Age of the University of Salamanca, whose theologians were, for the most part, the ones who drafted Trent’s documents. Clement VII, the successor of Leo X, also a Medici was equally inept as regards the quelling of the Lutheran conflagration. He was more interested in politics and hated Spain, although he was concerned about the Turkish menace, which if it hadn’t been for a providential storm which hit Vienna in 1529, it could well have fallen and with it the whole of Central Europe. Of course, Luther had so much hatred for Catholicism that he wouldn’t have minded a Turkish takeover. We don’t need a statue of Luther in the Vatican, nor do we have anything to celebrate. I wish someone would explain this to Pope Francis, but I assume he would pay no attention.

  5. Disappointing to see, without explanation or comment, the first mention of Mary I by the historically bigotry-derived epithet “Bloody Mary”. Surely Prof Duffy did not use that expression? As even the anti-Catholic Protestant historian Lea has conceded, “for every drop of innocent blood which Mary spilt, Elizabeth spilled a pint.” If anyone can be called by that name, it is Bloody Bess.

  6. One never could buy indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms — indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences.
    The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

    As Sacred Scripture was assembled, declared and guaranteed as the Word of God only by Christ’s Catholic Church, Luther’s ideas as “only a man” – with some accepted and others rejected by mere men also to become “Lutheran Confessions” – thus have far less value as a matter of faith and morals against Christ’s Catholic Church founded by Him and with whom Christ declared He would be present until the end of time.

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