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Sixteen-year-old Jane Grey (1537-1554) and Anne Askew (1521-1546) both dared to criticize the Mass and were pioneers of Protestant views concerning superstition and symbols. Jane Grey was executed because of her Protestantism. Anne Askew was tortured and burned at the stake. Catherine Willoughby (1520-1580) anticipated later Puritan teachings on predestination and election and on the reformation of the church. She was forced to give up everything she had and to flee with her husband and nursing baby into exile.
Paul Zahl vividly tells the stories of these five mothers of the English Reformation. All of these women were powerful theologians intensely interested in the religious concerns of their day. All but Anne Boleyn left behind a considerable body of written work - some of which is found in this book's appendices. It is the theological aspect of these women's remarkable achievements that Zahl seeks to underscore. Moreover, he also considers what the stories of these women have to say about the relation of gender to theology, human motivation, and God. An important epilogue by Mary Zahl contributes a contemporary woman's view of these fascinating historical figures.
Extraordinary by any standard, Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katharine Parr, Jane Grey, and Catherine Willoughby remain rich subjects for reflection and emulation hundreds of years later. The personalities of these five women, who spoke their Christian convictions with presence of mind and sharp intelligence within situations of life-and-death duress, are almost totemic in our enduring search for role models.
The Protestant Reformation in England was a movement to restore the Christian religion in that country to the original values of Christianity as described in the New Testament. This Reformation took 168 years to achieve success, beginning with the entry into England around 1520 of the insights of Martin Luther and concluding with the constitutional establishment of Protestantism at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. With the exile of King James II, a Roman Catholic, and the accession of William of Orange, a Protestant, England became explicitly, across almost all classes of people and interest groups, a country that understood itself as Protestant rather than as Catholic. This is undeniable fact. Every attempt that has ever been made to deny that England by the late 1600s was the leading Protestant nation in Europe has always had to plead, "Don't confuse me with the facts." England was an overwhelmingly Protestant country until recently, and now it is simply searching for faith in something rather than non-Protestant in any sense of that expression.
There was a breathless and seemingly unending number of false starts, reversals, and "new" beginnings from 1520 to 1688, such that at several moments of crisis it was anyone's guess what the final result would be. England passed through more than one period of apparent re-catholicization before the issue was settled. Even the Oxford or Tractarian Movement of the nineteenth century was an intellectual and aesthetic attempt to reverse the Reformation.
But the fundamental common self-understanding was from 1688 and forever after Protestant. To read the Sovereign's Coronation Oath, as it was administered from the early 1700s and still read at coronations through the nineteenth century, is to be confronted with the decisive finality of the Reformation's success in England. It is important to print the Oath here. It settles the question of whether official English Christianity is Catholic or Protestant.
I, --, do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare that I do believe that in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, at or after the consecration thereof, by any person whatsoever; and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the sacrifice of the mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious, and idolatrous. And I do solemnly, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do make this declaration, and every part thereof, in the plain and ordinary sense of the words read unto me, as they are commonly understood by English Protestants, without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation, and without any dispensation already granted me for this purpose by the Pope or any other authority or person whatsoever, or without any hope of any such dispensation from any person or authority whatsoever, or without thinking that I am or can be acquitted before God or man, or absolved of this declaration or any part thereof, although the Pope, or any other person or persons or power whatsoever, shall dispense with or annul the same, or declare that it was null and void from the beginning.
The five women portrayed in this book devoted the core energies of their lives to contending for the ideas expressed in that oath.
There is a further important point of prologue to make before Anne Boleyn enters the stage. Why did medieval Roman Catholicism engender the hurricane of absolutely and unconditionally negative reaction represented by these women of the English Reformation? What was it in the Catholic understanding of Christ and church which created such massive focused criticism?
There are at least two reasons for the Reformation protest against Roman Catholicism. They are bound together. First, Catholicism sought to objectify, or make concrete and palpable, the relation between God and humanity. This cannot be done. The relation between God and humanity is, like all relationships in life, unseen. Love is unseen. Forgiveness and affection, malice and animus: relationships exist within the invisible theater of emotions and feelings. People who are emotionally hungry know this. You cannot buy off with things someone who hates you, except maybe for five minutes. Nor can you get someone to love you by means of gifts, that is, at least, until the heart loves. Jane Austen taught this in Pride and Prejudice. Lord Darcy is unable to win Elizabeth Bennet's affection, absolutely and paralyzingly unable to win her heart, until his personal sacrifice and selflessness win it. His grand houses and estate, his reputation, his connections: nothing of his that is exterior to himself is sufficient to win the love of his life. It is a maxim that love is totally powerful and also totally invisible.
Our Reformation women knew that.
These women could not possibly endure a system of "meritorious" actions and offerings and indulgences and pilgrimages and prostrations that did not reflect the authentic inwardness of life and love. So they rejected, absolutely forcefully, the characteristic attempts of Roman Catholicism to objectify or make tangible that which is subjective and intangible.
Second, as a result of their insight regarding the primacy of the inward, Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katharine Parr, Jane Grey, and Catherine Willoughby all developed an allergy to superstition. Superstition is the idea that a concrete object handled in a definite way possesses power, negative or positive. Superstition attaches invisible hopes to visible things. Reality, however, scuttles superstition.
Reformation women observed the fallacy of superstition and challenged it. They challenged it tenaciously and unremittingly.
Thus medieval Catholicism, with its attempts to objectify God and God's relation to us, strengthened by a regressive human tendency to crave such objectivity and bring our own superstition to the equation, had to come down! The church had to come down — at least in the face of our Reforming women's X-ray vision. They pierced the veil of human cravenness and puerility, and pierced in doing so the age-old veil of the Temple (St. Matthew 27:51).
ANNE BOLEYN'S LIFE IN BRIEF
Anne Boleyn, the bane of that virtuous and religious Queen Katherine, the ruin of many pious, worthy and famous men who favored not that unlawful marriage, the first giver of entrance to the Protestant religion.... What a zealous defender she was of Christ's gospel all the world doth know, and her acts do and will declare to the world's end.
Anne Boleyn was twenty-six years old when she became Queen of England. She was twenty-nine when she was executed for treason against the King.
Anne was born in Norfolk to a family that we would describe today as nouveau riche and ambitious. Anne's father and her brother, together with Anne herself, worked single-mindedly for the advancement of their family's interests at the court of Henry VIII. What distinguished them from other courtiers, however, was their early acceptance of the New Religion, as it was called at first: the Protestant insight regarding the message of the New Testament as it emanated from Germany after 1517. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Anne's brother, became an extremely committed and articulate advocate of Protestant Reform in England. Anne shared his views precisely, probably even more deeply,3 and almost definitely with more learning.
Anne was educated in France from the age of six. Her seven years in the royal courts of Burgundy, Flanders, Amboise (and Cloux, where Leonardo da Vinci served the French king), and Paris gave her a delight in the French language; an extremely cosmopolitan exposure to Renaissance classicism and also fashion — for it is proven beyond a doubt that she forever after loved fine clothes and jewelry; and a strong, living link to a heritage she had in common with most of her sisters in the English Reformation. This heritage was the French connection, a Reforming tendency which existed at the highest level of the French nobility. This Reforming fervor was embodied in Marguerite of Angoulême (later known as the Queen of Navarre), Gillaume de Briçonnet, her Reformist bishop, and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, the humanist Bible translator and influential polymath. "Lutheran" ideas, as all the insights of the Reformed Religion were at first labeled by their opponents, came to France through these three brilliant individuals. It is through their writings, specifically, that the Reformation insight first came to Anne Boleyn.
The Reformation insight, which was justification by grace through faith and the consequent disenchantment with the Catholic church, was to come to Anne, and thus to Queen Anne, from a French Bible, from French commentaries on Scripture, and from the anti-establishment, Reformist poetry of Clément Marot. The French connection was not unmediated, insofar as Anne never knew Marguerite de Navarre as Reformer, nor was she old enough to comprehend the issues involved during the period she lived in France as a very young child. But Anne's delight in the French language made the works she began to receive as gifts later on as a young adult, entirely accessible and also pleasant to her. Anne received the Reformation, in other words, partly because she understood its third principal language, its first language being Latin and its second being Greek. English is the fourth language of Reformation literature. The earliest Reformation works in English were translations of Luther from his German and Latin.
Anne Boleyn's story intersects with that of Henry Tudor at the point that King Henry began to be impatient with the inability of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to produce a male heir. Although she was not regarded as a beauty by her contemporaries, Anne's inward confidence and outward vivacity caught the king's eye on hunting excursions during which her family sought to put themselves forward for royal preferment.
Around the beginning of Lent 1526, Henry began to go after Anne. The following winter he decided on a divorce from Katherine. The story of his divorce and the nation-shaking events that led to his marriage to Anne on January 24 or 25, 1533 (she had become pregnant) is well known and quite complex. Anne's coronation as Queen of England took place on Whitsunday (i.e., Pentecost), June 1, 1533.
Anne Boleyn was executed on Friday, April 19, 1536. The length of her reign, just under three years, has inspired the nickname, "Anne of the Thousand Days." During this period she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, who was later declared a bastard both under English law — the ruling was reversed later when circumstances changed — and also under Roman Catholic church law. The second ruling was never reversed. It fortified the pope's declaration that Anne's daughter was entirely illegitimate as Queen of England and therefore the legitimate target of a fatwah.
During her thousand days, Anne, supported by like-minded Reformers such as Thomas Cromwell at court and Thomas Cranmer within the church, presided over the Reformation of the Church of England. Anne, leaning on Henry, fomented a policy of dissolving all the monasteries, although she also worked actively towards the use of the riches and lands thus expropriated for the relief of the poor. There is incontrovertible evidence of this. At the same time, many nobles who stood to gain from the Dissolution resented Anne's claims on expropriated property for the relief of the destitute. This resentment probably led in part to widespread support for the coup d'état that crushed her.
Anne also secured, again through Henry — as her good works were almost always achieved from and through her husband's authority — the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans for the newly independent Church of England. Anne was also patron to Protestant publishers and writers, who were able to become extremely prolific during this Protestant period of royal policy. Thus Anne sought to convince Henry that William Tyndale, the outlaw Bible translator and "Lutheran" theologian, was the king's supporter and friend. That was basically true, in any event.
For reasons that have never become clear, Thomas Cromwell, who was by theological conviction and government policy a supporter of Anne's and of the Protestant party's goals at court, turned on her, with seeming suddenness, in the early months of 1536. He later told the Hapsburg ambassador to England that he, Cromwell, had engineered the coup: the false charges of adultery against Anne; the charges of collusion with her brother, Lord Rochford; the startling speed of their arrest and trial; the "evidence" presented to King Henry as well as the "witnesses"; the engineered trials — everything! Cromwell's motives have never been understood. Possibly he thought to avert Henry's suspicion of himself by setting the king on to Anne.
In any event, Anne denied all the charges at the trial, as did Rochford her brother. She carried herself with affecting poise right up to the moment of her death. At that moment she spoke earnestly, but without grievance, of the faith in which she was to die. Cranmer met with her as confessor and chaplain the day before her execution. We will never know what passed between them, although we do have Cranmer's letter to Henry, the most difficult of his career, defending Anne as best he could. He had been kept sedulously in the dark, right up to the last minute, concerning the accusations and their sources. His painful yet brilliant letter managed at the same time to defend Anne, to submit no less absolutely to the king's judgment, and to speak for the Reformed Religion that Anne herself had demonstratively backed.
Anne died meekly but gave away nothing. She was then completely erased from the record. It became as if she had never lived. The value of her achievement only began to be understood after her daughter Elizabeth became queen twenty-five years later. It was then that John Foxe, the Protestant chronicler, was able to tell Anne's story, at least as he and many of her contemporaries had grasped it at the time.
What sort of person was Anne? What was her inward life like? We cannot really know. We have windows into Anne Askew's spiritedness, into Katharine Parr's penitence and prescience, into Jane Grey's "back talking" in the face of danger, and into Catherine Willoughby's desperation at being excluded from court and thus from influence by Elizabeth I.
Anne Boleyn's temperament and personal qualities, on the other hand, have to be deduced from a few bits of written evidence, such as the lists of her fabulous wardrobe and the fact that she sent back one of her infant Elizabeth's caps three times to the designer at Greenwich until it was just so. We also have her unflappable, firm "No!" to every charge that was laid publicly against her at the trial.
But what was really in her mind? How did she really regard her husband? What did she say to Cranmer the day before she died — in an appointment that lasted two hours? And how did she regard herself as she laid her head on the block that Friday? There is no way to know. Of her theology, however, of her specific commitments in Christianity, we know a good deal.
Anne treasured a 1534 edition of the Bible in French, printed in Antwerp. It was the translation by Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples. Its frontcover and back-cover inscriptions let us know immediately that it is an evangelical and therefore a Reformed book:
AINSI + QUE + TOUS + MEURENT + PAR + ADAM: AUSSY + TOUS + SERONT + VIVIFIES + PAR + CHRIST (As in Adam all die, so will all be raised to life again by Christ [This is a summary of Romans 5:12-18].) LA + LOY + A + ESTE + DONNE + PAR + MOYSSE: LA + GRACE + ET + LA + VERITE + PAR + IESU + CHRIST. (For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ [St. John 1:17].)
Excerpted from FIVE WOMEN of the ENGLISH REFORMATION by Paul F. M. Zahl Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 21, 2001
Biographers take note: you can learn much about how to make history come alive--just read these excitingly-told tales of the Reformation. Paul Zahl brings to vibrant life five women you'll wish you had known personally. Their stories are told with unrestrained zest and respect--respect for them as individuals, respect for them as important historical figures. You will leave this little book wanting to know more about these extraordinary people!
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