Lecturer reassesses Reformation facts and fictions

Friday, 7 July 2017

On 5th July 2017 emminent historian Professor Eamon Duffy addressed the legacy of the Reformation as part of a lecture series co-sponsored by the British Province of Carmelites.

Inspired by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Professor Duffy gave an engaging presentation entitled "The Reformation in Faction and Fiction" to a packed audience in York Minster.

The Ebor Lectures in Theology and Public Life are an ecumenical project co-sponsored by the Carmelites, York Minster, the Methodist Church, York St John University, and The Morrell Trust.


Professor Duffy being introduced by Canon Christopher Collingwood, Chancellor of York Minster.


Eamon Duffy is Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Magdalene College. He is well-known as a commentator on Church affairs. His most famous publication, The Stripping of the Altars, prompted scholars to reassess the vibrancy of the late medieval Church in England, and he recently edited a prayerbook entitled The Heart in Pilgrimage.

Professor Duffy spoke about how the Reformation has been presented by individuals and groups, from the time of Martin Luther up to the present day. He argued that the facts of the Reformation have rarely been presented in an entirely objective manner, and our knowledge of it in Britain is both informed and distorted by the way that Tudor history has been depicted in literature, art, film, and television.

Through a series of illustrations and quotations, Professor Duffy showed how myths about the Reformation were made by both Protestant and Catholic factions in the sixteenth century onwards. For example, scholarship has shown that the famous 1517 episode of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the doors of a Wittenburg church did not actually take place, but was an idea propagated by his followers.


Professor Duffy spoke of how both real and imagined events in Martin Luther's life were a source of inspiration for Church reformers.


Professor Duffy demonstrated how England's dramatic Tudor history still fascinates the public today, whether it be through films such as The Other Boleyn Girl or Carry on Henry, television programmes such as The Tudors, or best-selling novels such as C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series or Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy.


Professor Duffy argued that the costume and general depiction of Thomas Cromwell in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall drew on images normally associated with Thomas More.


Going through a sequence of texts including Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Charles Kingsley's Hypatia, Alfred Tennyson's poetry, and the novels of Robert Hugh Benson, Professor Duffy showed how artistic licence was often taken by both Protestants and Catholics in their presentation of the other's beliefs.


The majectic setting of York Minster made a splendid backdrop for the lecture.


Among the audience were students and staff associated with the Catholic Chaplaincy at the University of York, which is served by the Carmelite Order. The Chaplaincy building is under the patronage of Saint Thomas More, and Professor Duffy devoted a considerable part of his lecture to how More has been portrayed over time, starting with the biography by More's son-in-law, through to the play and film A Man for All Seasons, and subsequent novels and papal documents. Duffy challenged the view that Thomas More is an unproblematic 'Patron Saint of Religious Freedom', pointing out how as Chancellor of England he had supported the burning of heretics; on the other hand, Duffy argued that More's depiction as a torturer in some modern fiction contradicts what is known of his character as a man who valued truth.


Duffy argued that A Man for All Seasons gave a compelling but somewhat romanticised portrayal of Saint Thomas More.


Professor Duffy addressed the fact that historical fiction is what draws many people to study history, but recounted anecdotes from colleagues who find that students applying to read history at university often accept historical fiction as factually correct.



Professor Duffy stated his opinion that the best historical novel on the Tudor period is The Man on a Donkey, written in 1953 by Hilda Prescott. Prescott was an academic historian, who rarely diverted from documented facts in her novel's account of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular rising in protest at the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.


Some 300 people attended the lecture.


The effects of how Reformation history has been told are still with us, Professor Duffy argued, pointing to the recent political coalition between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party whose identity is closely alligned with Protestant interpretations of history.


After the lecture Professor Duffy signed copies of his books.


More photographs of the event can be seen on Flickr and Facebook.