anglican focus

The news site of the Anglican Church Southern Queensland: nourishing and connecting our faith community

The European Reformations: what do the stories of everyday people tell us?


“Students and strangers often tell me, sotto voce and slightly awkwardly, that history was never their favourite subject at school. They then often explain that they were told to memorise lists of king and queens or prime ministers, or dates and places of major events, all with little context. To me, that is not history. History is not primarily concerned with the when and where – history is the study of people and the world they lived in,” says Dr Sheilagh O’Brien from St Francis College

Print article

Through a gilded looking glass

The images we associate with the European Reformation today are so often brought to us by the seemingly endless parade of historical costume dramas on film and television, and the overstuffed shelves of historical novels – an extraordinary proportion of which seem to be set in Tudor England. The ubiquity of these films, TV series, and books is therefore helping to shape popular views of the century when the Anglican Church was being conceived and established.

On our screens, these narratives range from the dramatic and Oscar-nominated Elizabeth (1998) to the relentlessly silly The Tudors (2007-2010). Then there are the literary sensations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) – and a TV series of the same name (2015) – and its sequels Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020), which work to redeem the good name (if he ever had one) of Henry VIII’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell. At the other end of the spectrum are the Tudor romances, such as Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2002), and the film of the same name (2008).

Calling the majority of these “historical” may somewhat stretch the meaning of the term. Perhaps “based (very loosely) on actual events” might be more appropriate. The historical value of these works notwithstanding, it sometimes seems that everywhere we turn in the 21st century, there is a little bit of the re-imagined 16th century cluttering up our bookshelves or finding its way onto our screens, usually with a focus on the gilded world of the wealthy and powerful.

Recovering stories from the margins

The people we tend to lose in the background of such stories are the everyday men and women of early modern Europe. These are the people who, like you and me, will never have their names written in a history book – unless by extraordinary accident – and whose words and feelings are so often lost to us forever.

But not always.

Recent histories of the Reformations have sought to reimagine again and again how we see the past and expand whose voices we hear. Developing out of the trends of social history from the 1960s, these works focused not on the great and famous, but on ordinary people and the context of their lives. Early iterations focused on an idea of “the people”, but in its more mature form social history uses the different stories of many individuals to develop a more nuanced and complex image of what their lives may have been like.

In The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (2001), Eamon Duffy details the daily lives of people in 16th-century Morebath, a remote Devonshire village caught up in the turmoil of the English Reformation. These lives are illustrated through the detailed churchwarden records kept by the parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay (pronounced “Trickey”). As Duffy recounts in his book, the documents from Morebath give us insights not only into the rhythms of daily life, but into moments of crisis. They reveal the loss of precious items, stolen from the church by a thief in the night; attempted treason by the Morebath community in supporting the failed Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549 and the stripping of the physical signs of Devon churches’ traditionalism after its failure; and, the accommodations of the early years of the Elizabethan settlement in the Catholic regions of Devon and Cornwall.

Sir Christopher’s churchwarden documents, meticulous and detailed, record events in the parish from the 1520s to the 1570s, showing the ways in which one community negotiated the changes and reversals in religious practice. The entries following the failed Prayer Book Rebellion show how the priest and parishioners reacted to “[t]he order to compile and certify to the [King’s] Commissioners an inventory of goods”. Indeed, the alarm is startlingly visible in the attempts of the parish to fend off feared confiscations as Trychay writes out a list in an unusually “cramped” hand “disfigured” by crossing out the goods they tried to hide. The list itemised the parish’s best vestments, hidden from the King’s Commissioners and regularly moved between leading families in the Morebath parish.

Residents’ fears that their church would be materially altered were more than borne out says Duffy, as “by the early summer of 1549…the parish of Morebath had been stripped to the bone” losing its statues, images and any other Catholic décor that might offend the reform-minded Commissioners, while also fetching a good price. But the changes stuck, and in time Morebath calmed and reconciled itself to the accommodations of the Elizabethan settlement. When he died in 1574, Sir Christopher was laid out “between the site of the altar where he had sung the mass, and the table where he had celebrated the Supper.” His life was witness to profound change and his voice adds depth to our understanding of the times in which he lived.

The success of micro histories – such as the controversial The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) and the celebrated The Voices of Morebath – that used already known sources and records to yield deeper understandings of the lives of ordinary people has led to more and more works following in their footsteps. In The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (2019), Suzannah Lipscomb examined how reformed Huguenot church courts in the southern French city of Nîmes can give us the voices of women who were brought before the court to be judged or who tried to use it to achieve their own ends.

Nîmes, an ancient Roman city with a fairly small population in the historical region of Languedoc (modern Occitanie), was a hotbed of reformed Protestantism in the 16th century. Early in the French Wars of Religion (a prolonged period of brutal conflict between Catholics and Huguenots), Nîmes was the site of the Michelade, a massacre of Catholics on the Feast Day of Michelmas, 1567. The local church court, or Consistory, was organised similarly to John Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances once the city was under the control of the Huguenots.

In the opening pages of her book, Lipscomb describes the attempt to force Gillette de Girardet, just 18 years old and grieving the recent loss of her father, to marry a young man whose family would benefit financially by the arrangement. While she had previously agreed to the marriage, when questioned by the elders of the Consistory Court as to whether she had promised to marry Anthoine Dumas, Gillette said no, adding that she was “married to Jesus Christ”. Gillette was not the only woman on that day to refuse to enter into marriages, denying that they had previously agreed to the unions. And, Gillette’s story, that of a young woman confronted by half a dozen men just days after her father’s death, causes Lipscomb to ask:

“How should we interpret these events? Gillette was young, vulnerable, and grief-stricken when the engagement occurred: it happened just a few days after her father’s death, when she was surrounded by a group of father figures: men far older than she, some with significant social standing and all related to the Dumas family.”

The understanding that we may have now, that Gillette had the right to change her mind or to refuse to marry Anthoine under such circumstances, was unfortunately not the view of the (male) elders in her community. Poor Gillette, despite her repeated declarations that she could not and would not marry Anthoine Dumas, was ordered by the men of the Consistory to marry because she had agreed to it in front of witnesses: “the marriage will be achieved” they declaimed. According to Lipscomb, “[b]y acting quickly while Gillette had been befuddled by grief, the men of the community had successfully maneuvered to protect their financial interests and to keep valuable resources out of the hands of a young woman.”

All too many women in the period, in all but the most radical of groups, would likely have experienced much the same result. But it is difficult to know as the voices of women who were not aristocrats or saints are rarely found in any depth or detail. In The Voices of Nîmes, we have the unusual chance to hear them speak clearly about their wants and needs.

Even when works try to take a wider view than such micro-histories, like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (2017) or Peter Marshall’s Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (2017), there is still a focus on the voices of those on history’s margins. Their accounts of movements, leaders and policies are recontextualised with an eye to those ordinary people whose lives were so profoundly changed by the arrival of, and schisms within, the Reformation in early modern England.

In Marshall’s work, there is an active attempt to investigate interactions and reactions in individual cases to illustrate wider trends. For example, an excellent chapter on Lollardy – a 14th to 16th century religious sect sometimes seen as a forerunner to the English Reformation – uses the lives of individual Lollards to explore their individual experiences and how they interacted with their communities – including their Catholic, and later, Protestant neighbours.

In one notable excerpt, Marshall uses testimony gathered in 1521 to “eavesdrop on discussions between two sisters, Elizabeth Copland and Isabel Morwyn of Amersham”, one a traditional Catholic and the other a Lollard, who were living in a town and region with significant Lollard activity. Over their father’s death, the two women’s religious differences surfaced, eventually leading to disputes over purgatory and pilgrimages. Both of these were essential to traditional Catholic religious practice, and both were anathema to Lollard beliefs.

This conversation comes to us from one of the periodic anti-Lollard persecutions of Henry VIII’s early reign. The community of Amersham experienced intermittent crackdowns and executions of local Lollards, including the death of seven Lollards known as the Amersham Martyrs.

Market and Washing Place in Flanders, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Joos de Momper, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A richer image

Lavish popular culture depictions of women in brocade and pearls and men in silk velvet doublets and Tudor hose can obscure the wider context of a Europe in flux – in conflict with itself and its neighbours. It was a volatile and heady time, filled with new ideas and discord, as well as doctrinaire opinions and reconciliation attempts. It was a time of significant changes in both the physical and intellectual infrastructure of early modern England and Europe and had significant impacts further afield.

Students and strangers often tell me, sotto voce and slightly awkwardly, that history was never their favourite subject at school. They then often explain that they were told to memorise lists of king and queens or prime ministers, or dates and places of major events, all with little context. To me, that is not history. History is not primarily concerned with the when and where – history is the study of people and the world they lived in

Studying history should be an act of empathy, of understanding. It should allow us to reach out across time to try and comprehend those people from the past who lived in a strange and different world that we do not fully understand. In these days of increasing polarisation, in which acts of empathy for those who are different from ourselves seem all too infrequent, there is surely value in engaging in an act of empathy to understand how people felt and thought in a time of incredible turbulence, when it seemed to many that the ground was shifting beneath their feet.

At St Francis College, I teach THL132 – The European Reformations for those studying to be ordained, lay people, and those who simply want to enrich their understanding of their faith and its history. In The European Reformations, as we confront moments of crisis and catastrophe, it can be easy to slip into simplistic polarised myths or to merely recoil in horror at religious wars and state-sanctioned religious violence. But if we reach out, if we seek to understand rather than to judge, if we let history be messy and incomplete, we may allow ourselves to see something more confronting, but ultimately more humanising, in those who came before us.

THL132 – The European Reformations does explore many characters from the past with which may be familiar, such as wayward Augustine monks turned reforming firebrands and kings with half a dozen wives. But they are joined by many whose names you may not yet know, but whose stories weave a far richer tapestry of the Anglican past than those images with which may be familiar. Understanding that past, in all its richness and depth, will hopefully allow all of us in the present to reimagine what it means to be part of that story.

If you are interested in studying THL132 – The European Reformations in semester 2 2022, please contact Dr Sheilagh O’Brien at St Francis College on (07) 3514 7403 or via

More Features stories

Loading next article