Posted By Claire on March 18, 2011
I have primarily read historical fiction books of the Tudor era, until Amazon “suggested” to me Paul F. Zahl’s Five Women of the English Reformation. Zahl includes amongst these women, Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katherine Parr, Jane Grey, and finally, Catherine Willoughby, chosen from those females making a profound impact on the religious reformation in England during the sixteenth century. Elizabeth I made a close sixth, but as Zahl writes, “Elizabeth was a Protestant in her genes, because her mother was Anne Boleyn and her legitimacy was denied formally and forever by the Church of Rome. She was a Protestant, in other words, by compulsion, as Rome would never recognize her status as queen of England,” Elizabeth Tudor stood somewhat apart from the conflict and turmoil the other five women personally endured for the sake of the Protestant religion. Furthermore, this book was written with passion and a keen interest by the author. Zahl mentions in his forward he considers himself a systematic theologian and believes to understand all of these women on a personal and religious level.
The first chapter is dedicated to Anne Boleyn and her zealous efforts to defend the Reformation. Zahl dates Anne as twenty-six when becoming Queen of England and at twenty-nine when she was executed for treason. This would make Zahl partial to the 1507 birth year of Anne, as opposed to the often disputed 1501. The author goes into the standard background of Anne, educated in France, love for fine clothes and jewelry, and her rise to favor as Queen of England, as a result of Henry Tudor’s infatuation with her. Another strange detail of Zahl’s account of Anne is that he writes her execution date as Friday, April 19, 1536. I have been reading Tudor books and studying Tudor history for about five years now and have never heard that date recalled as the day Anne was executed until now.
Further, Zahl admits we do not really know much about Anne’s inward life and her character. What we do know of Henry Tudor’s ill-fated second wife is derived from the scarce written evidence still surviving. Very few documents survived about Anne after her fall from favor. My favorite passage in the book includes a few sentences where Zahl mentions “her fabulous wardrobe and the fact she [Anne] sent back one of her infant Elizabeth’s caps three times to the designer at Greenwich until it was just so.”
Zahl ends his chapter on Anne by noting that each of the five women he includes in this book can be linked to a contemporary soul mate during the Reformation movement. For Anne, this soul mate would be William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English. The rest of the women in this book have less well known contemporary counterparts.
The next Protestant martyr included in this book is Anne Askew. Anne belonged to Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr’s, inner circle of ladies. Anne was also one of the first women to be tortured on the rack as a conspiring heretic. Three weeks later, she was carried on a chair to be burnt alive. The close knit circle of reformers included Katherine Parr, Anne Askew, Jane Grey, and lastly, Catherine Willoughby. These women stayed true to each other up to the point of death.
Following Anne Askew is the chapter on Henry’s surviving and last queen, the mature and well-read Katherine Parr, followed by Jane Grey, the author’s most sympathetic case of reformed martyred women. Zahl writes, “Jane Grey has been in my soul for sixteen years.” Zahl also includes a background on Jane’s quick rise to the English crown and eventual untimely death under Mary Tudor’s reign, leaving Jane the title of The Nine Days Queen.
Last is the chapter on Catherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk. Zahl includes an important point in that of all these first generation female reformers, none but Catherine Willoughby lived past their thirty-fifth birthday. Under Mary Tudor’s reign, Catherine fled to Holland, Germany, Poland and Lithuania, all Protestant friendly countries, in order to flee Mary’s agents. Catherine would not to return until Elizabeth was crowned queen. She lived out her days in England as a radical reformer, often at times too radical for Queen Elizabeth.
Zahl’s writing is familiar, yet academic. Of course this book differs from others in that it is strictly non-fiction and gives an accurate insight into the lives of five influential and well educated women. Although I do not agree with some of Zahl’s dates, particularly the day and month of Anne’s execution as well as her date of birth. Also, I believe Zahl may be inaccurate in some of his facts regarding family lineage. He says Catherine Willoughby “is directly related” to Jane Grey, although to my knowledge Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Charles Brandon and his third wife, Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister. Catherine Willoughby was Brandon’s fourth wife, making her, if anything, Jane Grey’s step-grandmother. I am not sure if this is what Zahl considers directly related, but it appears their only relation is through marriage and perhaps some “royal” blood they both shared. Overall, I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the religious and political changes of the Sixteenth Century and the women who contributed to this reformation.
Title: Five Women and the English Reformation
Author: Paul F Zahl
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (June 30, 2001)
Availability: It can be purchased at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk or your favourite bookstore.