The Re­for­ma­tion

On the 500th an­niver­sary of the Re­for­ma­tion, David Starkey tells Rob At­tar why the tu­mul­tuous fall­out from 1517 has strik­ing – and of­ten chill­ing – echoes in the present day

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - David Starkey is a his­to­rian and broad­caster who spe­cialises in the Tu­dor era. He is cur­rently work­ing on the sec­ond vol­ume of his Henry VIII bi­og­ra­phy

David Starkey tells us why the re­li­gious vi­o­lence of the 16th cen­tury has strik­ing echoes in the present day

The first fig­ures to flicker across the screen in David Starkey’s new his­tory of the Re­for­ma­tion are not Martin Luther, John Calvin or even Henry VIII. They are mem­bers of Isis. We see clips of masked men bran­dish­ing dag­gers, while prison­ers await a vi­o­lent death. Above them a stark mono­logue is de­liv­ered: “We live in an age of re­li­gious ex­trem­ism. An age of ter­ror and vi­o­lent slaugh­ter.” This is the Re­for­ma­tion story as it’s surely never been told be­fore.

While the hook for the doc­u­men­tary is the 500th an­niver­sary of Martin Luther’s 95 The­ses, the fo­cus for Starkey is very much on the present. Mod­ern par­al­lels are a con­stant theme across the hour-long pro­gramme and are re­peat­edly brought to the sur­face dur­ing our dis­cus­sion in Starkey’s north London home. The com­par­i­son with Isis is a de­lib­er­ate one and helps to stress a point that the his­to­rian feels has for too long been ig­nored: the Euro­pean Re­for­ma­tion was a hor­ri­bly vi­o­lent and de­struc­tive episode.

“In that open­ing we used some of the nas­tier mo­ments of the Isis tapes: all those hor­ri­ble meth­ods of public ex­e­cu­tion – burn­ing alive, dis­em­bow­elling and what­ever. Well I’m afraid we did them all 500 years ago,” Starkey says. “I think that what peo­ple have done is de­lib­er­ately dis­in­fect the Re­for­ma­tion. It was blood­ily vi­o­lent and it led very quickly to the Ger­man peas­ant re­volt [an armed chal­lenge to the power of no­bles and land- lords, fought from 1524–25] and then the Mün­ster re­bel­lion [when a Chris­tian sect, the An­abap­tists, briefly es­tab­lished a govern­ment in Mün­ster]. The rebels were the equiv­a­lents of Isis – com­plete loons and mon­strously vi­o­lent – and the sup­pres­sion was even more hideously vi­o­lent than that. It all then led, in lit­tle more than a cen­tury, to the Thirty Years’ War [be­tween Protes­tant and Catholic states] which was, man-for-man, the most vi­o­lently bloody war that Europe had ever known.”

And this was a sit­u­a­tion that was also re­peated far closer to home. Starkey: “Here in Eng­land, where the vi­o­lence was state di­rected, you get a level of de­struc­tion that makes what Isis did in Palmyra look like a child’s pic­nic. Hun­dreds of monas­ter­ies – in­clud­ing build­ings on the same scale as West­min­ster Abbey or York Min­ster – are de­mol­ished and stripped of their trea­sures.”

Luther’s molten fury

The theme of vi­o­lence con­tin­ues when Starkey re­flects on Luther, the man who ig­nited the fire of re­li­gious re­form in 1517. “He was a man of per­pet­u­ally barely-sup­pressed vi­o­lence and it was his dis­gust at what he found the Ro­man church was do­ing that pow­ered it. Lots of peo­ple – such as Eras­mus and Thomas More – were dis­gusted but with Luther it was like a blast fur­nace. There was some­thing molten about the fury and the con­cen­trated force.”

But for Luther to suc­ceed where pre­vi­ous re­form­ers had failed, the cir­cum­stances also had to be right. Firstly his words had to fall on fer­tile ground, which they did thanks to the wealth and per­ceived cor­rup­tion of the early mod­ern Catholic church, par­tic­u­larly the sell­ing of in­dul­gences, or as Starkey de­scribes it, “the sale of par­adise”. The con­trast be­tween the op­u­lence of the Vat­i­can and the poverty of many or­di­nary Ger­mans was key to Luther’s ap­peal. “We for­get,” says Starkey, “that Michelan­gelo is the ex­act con­tem­po­rary of Luther. In Italy you have these works of ex­trav­a­gant beauty paid out of il­le­git­i­mately wrung pen­nies from Ger­man peas­ants.”

The other cru­cial el­e­ment in Luther’s suc­cess was a tech­no­log­i­cal one: the print­ing press. Though this was an in­ven­tion that had al­ready been in ex­is­tence for sev­eral decades by 1517, Luther’s use of it was still gen­uinely rad­i­cal. “They were try­ing to re­pro­duce manuscripts but they couldn’t do that be­cause they didn’t have the tech­nol­ogy. It was Luther who res­cued print­ing be­cause what he came up with looked just like The Sun. One of the mo­ments of ab­so­lute rev­e­la­tion for me was when I got to see fac­sim­i­les of great Lutheran works such as The Ad­dress to the Chris­tian No­bil­ity of the Ger­man Na­tion. I knew about the con­tents of them but I had as­sumed they were books. And yet these things looked like cheap pam­phlets.

“What Luther was able to do was take huge ideas and re­duce them to an ex­traor­di­nar­ily sim­ple core of ar­gu­ment, vividly ex­pressed, in the na­tive lan­guage and with ex­actly what a good jour­nal­ist in­cludes: lots of sto­ries, a bit of dirt, some gos­sip and ex­cite­ment. This was won­der­ful for the prin­ters; it was easy to

pro­duce and sold like hot cakes. With print­ing Luther broke out from the aca­demic con­ven­tion, turn­ing him from a mar­ginal fig­ure, a quar­rel­some friar, into the fo­cus of Ger­man pol­i­tics. Within 10 years, half of Ger­many was Lutheran.”

To Starkey, Luther is un­doubt­edly one of his­tory’s ‘great men’, but a ter­ri­ble one too. “One of the things I try to bring out in the film is the com­plete du­al­ism of the fact that high and no­ble mo­tives are in­volved while un­speak­ably hor­ri­ble things are done. We have this com­par­i­son run­ning through­out with Isis be­cause this is a work of pas­sion­ate de­struc­tion. For Luther, the en­tire ap­pa­ra­tus of medieval faith, the whole struc­ture of the Catholic church and the pat­terns of Catholic be­lief and cer­e­mony are filthy and idol­a­trous. He be­lieves, as Isis do, in the idea of the sec­ond com­mand­ment: thou shalt have no graven im­ages. And he also of course in­vokes vi­o­lent Ger­man na­tion­al­ism, anti-Semitism and xeno­pho­bia. It’s not pretty.”

The first Brexit

The other great fig­ure to be­stride Starkey’s Re­for­ma­tion story is Henry VIII, a man whom he has spent sev­eral decades writ­ing about. The king was ini­tially a pas­sion­ate op­po­nent of Luther, es­tab­lish­ing him­self as a lead­ing de­fender of the pa­pacy. Yet, fa­mously, Henry’s thwarted at­tempts to di­vorce Cather­ine of Aragon and marry Anne Bo­leyn led him to make a dra­matic volte-face with huge con­se­quences for Eng­land and its re­la­tion­ship with Europe. Starkey re­peat­edly draws par­al­lels be­tween the English Re­for­ma­tion and the great is­sue dom­i­nat­ing mod­ern Bri­tish pol­i­tics. It was, he be­lieves, “the first Brexit”.

Yet un­like the EU ref­er­en­dum, there was no pop­u­lar man­date for split­ting from Rome. “This was to­tally top down. The king as­sumed an ex­tra­or­di­nary power over the church; he was mak­ing the church royal. And it is this royal supremacy that then be­comes the dy­namic of re­li­gious change in Eng­land,” Starkey ex­plains. “We’ve tended to look at this the other way around. There is this demo­cratic myth in his­tory where we re­ally want to be­lieve things are all about pop­u­lar­ity. Par­tic­u­larly in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, his­to­ri­ans were de­ter­mined to find that the Re­for­ma­tion was pop­u­lar, which re­sulted in sig­nif­i­cant acts of self-de­cep­tion. It’s all part of our na­tional Protes­tant myth. I think we are now much more aware than we were of the de­struc­tive­ness and un­pop­u­lar­ity of the English Re­for­ma­tion.”

Starkey, though, does not wish to deny what he sees as “the no­bil­ity and am­bi­tion” of much of the Re­for­ma­tion, no­tably Wil­liam Tyn­dale’s de­sire to trans­late the Bi­ble into English and pro­vide “the gospel in the lan­guage that the plough­boy could un­der­stand”. In­deed, the im­pact on the English lan­guage is one of the most pro­found lega­cies that Starkey iden­ti­fies. “The Re­for­ma­tion pow­ers English as a lan­guage and a lit­er­a­ture. It turns us into the land of Shake­speare, tak­ing a lan­guage that had been mar­ginal and giv­ing it abil­ity and as­pi­ra­tion.” This was an im­por­tant part of a pe­riod of rei­den­ti­fi­ca­tion for Eng­land, which, hav­ing be­come a pariah after the split from Rome, be­gan to de­fine it­self against Europe.

“It’s al­most dif­fi­cult to stop the par­al­lels with Brexit,” says Starkey. “The Re­for­ma­tion took the coun­try out of the in­ter­na­tional en­ter­prise of the Catholic church, which it had been at the heart of for 1,000 years. Eng­land was ab­so­lutely at the cen­tre of Euro­pean Chris­ten­dom. We were not sim­ply part of a cross-chan­nel ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal struc­ture, but of­ten a po­lit­i­cal struc­ture as well, and Henry rup­tured all of that.”

Even with these par­al­lels, Starkey is cau­tious of draw­ing lessons from this pe­riod to in­form the cur­rent dis­course. He does,

“We of­ten re­gard Henry VIII as tem­pes­tu­ous, baby­ish, self­ind­ul­gent – Don­ald Trump-like. But I think he op­er­ated in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sively”

how­ever, be­lieve there are morals avail­able, es­pe­cially in Henry’s abil­ity to achieve dra­matic trans­for­ma­tions with rel­a­tive ease. “I won­der whether we have pow­er­fully un­der­es­ti­mated Henry VIII as a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor,” he says. “Let’s just take the case of Henry in 1529 and his failed at­tempt to get a di­vorce from Rome, a pol­icy in which he had in­vested the whole of his public rep­u­ta­tion at home and abroad, vast amounts of money and his per­sonal hap­pi­ness. It all sud­denly col­lapsed. In other words, it’s a bit like our wak­ing up and find­ing out that we’ve voted for Brexit – and look at the mess we’ve made in terms of pol­icy since then! But what does Henry do? He pauses. He sets up a think-tank. He re­forms the royal li­brary. He gets re­searchers go­ing. He thinks. And it’s only once he’s come up with a sat­is­fac­tory strat­egy that he tries to act. That’s quite a con­trast.

“We’ve been taught to re­gard the king as tem­pes­tu­ous, baby­ish, self-in­dul­gent – Don­ald Trump-like. Well there were as­pects of Henry like that but when it came to the pur­suit of a strate­gic goal, I think it would have been dif­fi­cult to have op­er­ated more im­pres­sively. The rea­son it took so long is be­cause he had to come up with ac­cept­able rea­sons for the di­vorce and Henry’s head­ship of the church and then get it through par­lia­ment. You see it’s ex­actly the same as with Brexit. He had to get an ex­tra­or­di­nary thing through a frac­tious, dif­fi­cult and di­vided assem­bly and so he gave him­self time. From the day in which Henry and Anne pledged to marry to that event ac­tu­ally tak­ing place took just short of six years.”

Cer­tain­ties in the dust­bin

For Henry’s sub­jects it was a con­fus­ing and dan­ger­ous time, as Eng­land swung from one form of Chris­tian­ity to an­other. “Pro­found cer­tain­ties sud­denly went into the dust­bin and there were these acts of public de­struc­tion of the things that had been the most pre­cious. Relics, saints’ stat­ues and mir­a­cle-work­ing stat­ues of Christ that peo­ple had fallen down and wor­shipped were pub­licly ex­hib­ited and made ob­jects of ridicule. In that sense and so many oth­ers, the 16th cen­tury was very much like our own. There were these as­ton­ish­ing re­ver­sals and un­der­min­ing of val­ues and at­tempts to im­pose new ones. It all cen­tred on what it was to be a Chris­tian, which was the ab­so­lutely key ques­tion at a time when most peo­ple re­ally did be­lieve there was an af­ter­life.

“The im­age in the church was not of the nice, cud­dly Jeremy Cor­byn-Christ. It was Christ Pan­to­cra­tor, the awe-in­spir­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing judge with those eyes look­ing down at you, a few of the saved on one side and the le­gion of the damned on the other. Peo­ple were pro­foundly aware of all this but sud­denly they were told that ev­ery­thing they were do­ing to be saved was go­ing to make them damned and they had to do some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

This goes to the heart of what is per­haps Starkey’s key re­for­ma­tion mes­sage: the power of re­li­gion. “I am an athe­ist and not a doubt­ing one but we have be­come con­temp- tu­ous of the force of re­li­gion. We should re­mem­ber that we who are athe­ists in a so­ci­ety that is ca­sual about re­li­gion are in the mi­nor­ity. Most peo­ple now and most hu­man be­ings through­out his­tory have be­lieved, and we must recog­nise the power of this thing, es­pe­cially if we don’t like it.”

And ul­ti­mately Starkey ac­cepts that there is plenty peo­ple might not like in his doc­u­men­tary. Pep­pered with al­lu­sions to 21st-cen­tury ten­sions, this is his­tory that’s sup­posed to be un­com­fort­able. “With so much his­tory on tele­vi­sion, even when it’s about nasty, vi­o­lent things, there’s a kind of fairy-tale bed­time story as­pect about the whole thing. ‘It’s a long way away dear child, it’s not go­ing to hurt you. We’ve got over all that, haven’t we? There’s noth­ing to worry about.’ Well I don’t be­lieve that, and hence the wish to dis­turb.”

TOP ROW L-R: David Starkey; the cover of a pam­phlet of Martin Luther’s 1520 tract To the Chris­tian No­bil­ity of the Ger­man Na­tion; a 1525 de­pic­tion of the Ger­man peas­ant re­volt; a c1532 paint­ing of Luther BOT­TOM ROW L-R: A 16th- cen­tury Protes­tant pam­phlet im­age show­ing Luther un­der at­tack from Catholics; Isis fight­ers pic­tured in Fe­bru­ary 2015

TOP ROW L-R: Dam­aged mon­u­ments at Palmyra; Henry VIII; the ex­e­cu­tion of the lead­ers of the Mün­ster re­bel­lion of 1534-35; Dutch writer and hu­man­ist Eras­mus, 1523; ( par­tial) the medieval ru­ins of Tin­tern Abbey

BOT­TOM ROW L-R: A peas­ant de­liv­ers a ser­mon, 1524; the grave of a fighter killed by Isis; English scholar and writer Thomas More; Michelan­gelo’s fresco The Last Judg­ment in the Sis­tine Chapel; Christ the Pan­to­cra­tor de­picted in Vladimir Cathe­dral, Kiev


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