The best books on the English Reformation

Peter Marshall Author Of Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation
By Peter Marshall

Who am I?

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick, co-editor of the English Historical Review, and the author of nine books and over sixty articles on the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe. His authoritative account of the Reformation in England, Heretics and Believers, was awarded the Wolfson History Prize in 2018. Peter is a native of the Orkney Islands, and currently writing a book on the islanders’ experiences in the Reformation era.

I wrote...

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

By Peter Marshall,

Book cover of Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

What is my book about?

Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished remain deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s sweeping new history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. King Henry VIII wanted an orderly, uniform Reformation, but his actions opened a Pandora’s Box from which pluralism and diversity flowed and rooted themselves in English life.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Why did I love this book?

Thirty years after its first publication, Patrick Collinson’s elegantly written account of how Protestantism transformed English society remains fresh, challenging and surprising. Focusing on art and culture, urban life, the family and ideas of nationhood, it persuasively argued that it makes more sense to see the Reformation as a drawn-out process rather than a dramatic ‘event’, and as one that was coming to fruition only in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. It is also a triumphant demonstration of how short books can punch above their weight.

By Patrick Collinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Birthpangs of Protestant England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'...a masterly study.' Alister McGrath, Theological Book Review '...a splendid read.' J.J.Scarisbrick, TLS '...profound, witty...of immense value.' David Loades, History Today Historians have always known that the English Reformation was more than a simple change of religious belief and practice. It altered the political constitution and, according to Max Weber, the attitudes and motives which governed the getting and investment of wealth, facilitating the rise of capitalism and industrialisation. This book investigates further implications of the transformative religious changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the nation, the town, the family, and for their culture.

Book cover of Providence in Early Modern England

Why did I love this book?

In the world of the Reformation, nothing happened by chance. Providentialism was the belief that every event in the human and natural world was a result of the direct will of God, and was infused with meanings for people to interpret. With great sensitivity and insight, Walsham draws us into these unfamiliar ways of thinking, where everything from a bout of bad weather to the unmasking of a political plot could be a message from God demanding an urgent collective response.

By Alexandra Walsham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Providence in Early Modern England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Providence in Early Modern England is the most extensive study to date of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century belief that God actively intervened in human affairs to punish, reward, warn, try, and chastise. Providentialism has often been seen as a distinctive hallmark of puritan piety. However, Dr Walsham argues that it was a cluster of assumptions which penetrated every sector of English society, cutting across the boundaries created by status and creed,
education and wealth. She explores a range of dramatic events and puzzling phenomena in which contemporaries detected the divine finger at work: tragic accidents and sudden deaths, strange sights…

Thomas Cranmer: A Life

By Diarmaid MacCulloch,

Book cover of Thomas Cranmer: A Life

Why did I love this book?

The finest historical biographies use the life to illuminate the times, and MacCulloch’s meticulously researched book on the career of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is also the best single account of the see-saw religious politics of the reign of Henry VIII. Its sympathetic portrayal of a flawed idealist is ultimately very moving as well as consistently enlightening.

By Diarmaid MacCulloch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thomas Cranmer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was the archbishop of Canterbury who guided England through the early Reformation-and Henry VIII through the minefields of divorce. This is the first major biography of him for more than three decades, and the first for a century to exploit rich new manuscript sources in Britain and elsewhere.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the foremost scholars of the English Reformation, traces Cranmer from his east-Midland roots through his twenty-year career as a conventionally conservative Cambridge don. He shows how Cranmer was recruited to the coterie around Henry VIII that was…

Book cover of The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village

Why did I love this book?

Eamon Duffy’s justly acclaimed ‘microhistory’ transports us away from the world of bishops, parliament and the court in order to track, across four crucial decades, the experiences of a tiny village on the edge of Exmoor in Devon, based on meticulous recordings in the ‘church book’ by the long-serving parish priest. It is a story in miniature of the tragically destructive aspects of the Reformation, but also an uplifting one in its depiction of the capacity of ordinary people to survive and adapt.

By Eamon Duffy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Voices of Morebath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the fifty years between 1530 and 1580, England moved from being one of the most lavishly Catholic countries in Europe to being a Protestant nation, a land of whitewashed churches and antipapal preaching. What was the impact of this religious change in the countryside? And how did country people feel about the revolutionary upheavals that transformed their mental and material worlds under Henry VIII and his three children?

In this book a reformation historian takes us inside the mind and heart of Morebath, a remote and tiny sheep farming village on the southern edge of Exmoor. The bulk of…

Book cover of The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society, and Culture in Early Modern England

Why did I love this book?

At the heart of the Reformation in England was an insistence that people be allowed access to Scripture in their own language, but translation was invariably a selective and creative process. Tadmor brilliantly shows how the translators of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) remade the ancient world in the image of contemporary Tudor society, editing out many references to slavery and polygamous marriage, and merging together distinct forms of political governance through consistent reference to the authority of a ‘prince’. The findings are eye-opening, and the book should be required reading for modern biblical fundamentalists.

By Naomi Tadmor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Social Universe of the English Bible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How can we explain the immense popularity of the English Bible? In this book, Naomi Tadmor argues that the vernacular Bible became so influential in early modern English society and culture not only because it was deeply revered, widely propagated, and resonant, but also because it was - at least in some ways - Anglicised. She focuses in particular on the rendering into English of biblical terms of social description and demonstrates the emergence of a social universe through the processes of translation from ancient and medieval texts to successive and interrelated English versions. She investigates the dissemination of these…

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