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Briefly Reviewed: May 2020

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

By Peter Marshall

Publisher: Yale University Press

Pages: 672

Price: $24

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Peter Marshall’s history of the English Reformation won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize and earned accolades from other historians, but an anti-Catholic prejudice pervades his work, in both language and substance.

First, language. In the chapters on Henry VIII, Marshall refers over and again to “zealous evangelicals” whom he pits against “conservatives.” His “zealous evangelicals” are those militant iconoclasts who trashed the 900-year Catholic heritage of England, breaking and burning virtually all the beautiful paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows they could get their hands on. They even destroyed the tomb of King Alfred the Great. Do we speak of the “zealous” Taliban? As for being “evangelical,” does not the Gospel teach us to “love one another”? Instead, these intruders demonized most Christians in Europe as “idolaters” destined for Hell and as “sons of Antichrist” with whom no fellowship was possible. In page after page, Marshall calls faithful Catholics “conservatives” for defending the ancient faith, as if they merely wanted to keep the political status quo.

Moreover, Marshall calls Catholics “rebels” who took up arms to defend their religion, and he even uses the derogatory word “papists.” In one case, he calls Catholics “iconoclasts” for burning the Book of Common Prayer, which was intended to supplant the Mass and the Book of Homilies, and which branded the Catholic Mass as “idolatry.” He calls St. Cuthbert’s miraculous banner, which was used in the Catholic uprising of 1536, a “totem.”

Second, substance. Marshall makes the outlandish assertion that Henry VIII’s Reformation was “never really about the money” and that “the dissolution of the monasteries was not only or even primarily an exercise in aggressive state fiscalism.” In fact, the destruction of 376 lesser monasteries, 645 greater monasteries, 90 colleges, and 2,374 chantries in the 1530s was all about money. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, a deist who wrote the first official biography of Henry VIII (1649) based on the royal archives, states that Henry’s chief vices were “covetousness and prodigality.” He was a greedy tyrant but so intemperate that the loot just slipped through his fingers. The revenues of all those abbeys Henry seized amounted to “the third or fourth part of the revenues of the land,” but he scattered this ocean of wealth among his courtiers and ended up so broke that he debased the coinage and died in debt to foreign usurers (whom Catholic Queen Mary Tudor had to pay off).

In The History and Fate of Sacrilege (1632) Protestant historian Henry Spelman also affirms that Henry’s Reformation was all about money. He speaks of the king’s “insatiable avarice,” which caused the abbeys to be “sacked and razed as by an enemy,” though the money and land Henry stole “melted and dropped away from the Crown like snow.” These monasteries from time immemorial had cared for the poor of the land, the orphans, the elderly, and the sick. Now, for the first time in English history, all those in need were “utterly cut off” and left to destitution. Ah, but Henry had a solution for those awful swarms of beggars: He passed a law that a beggar arrested for the first time would have his ears cut off, and for the second time would be put to death. Little wonder that Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) records that 72,000 were executed during Henry’s reign. That would be like half a million executed today, in about a decade. Marshall makes no mention of those countless executions, though he speaks in detail about the 277 put to death under Mary Tudor.

Another thing Marshall leaves out is what happened to the monastic libraries, which had been expanding for 900 years and contained many annals and histories now lost. Spelman speaks of this as a “most horrible infamy”: For generations to come, these manuscripts, England’s great patrimony, would be used in the jakes (privies), as well as to scour candlesticks and rub boots. Ships loaded with these manuscripts would be sent overseas to be scraped and used to bind newly printed books. One merchant bought two monastic libraries for 40 shillings. And they dare to speak of the previous centuries as “dark ages”!

Marshall refers several times to Elizabeth I as having acted like a Nicodemite during the reign of her sister Mary Tudor (1553-1558) — i.e., like Nicodemus in keeping her true Protestant faith hidden from the authorities. This is balderdash. Elizabeth didn’t merely dissemble; she was an outright liar. She spoke and acted as if she had a great zeal for the Catholic religion. Marshall cites Henry Clifford’s Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria (1887; Dormer was a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor), but he leaves out the crucial passages: Jane reported that “the Lady Elizabeth did hear daily two masses, one for the living, another for the dead, seeming extraordinary devout to our Blessed Lady.” When she was examined about her religion, Elizabeth “prayed God, that the earth might open and swallow her up alive, if she were not a Roman Catholic. And this is likewise confirmed by the duke of Feria [in] his letter to the King [Philip II].” The Spanish duke certified that Elizabeth “did profess Catholic Religion, and believed the Real Presence, and was not like to make any alteration for the principal parts of religion.” When she was dying, Mary sent two members of her council to tell Elizabeth that she would leave her the crown on the condition that “she would promise to maintain the Catholic faith and worship in England.” Elizabeth heartily agreed to this condition, and so the Catholic Council proclaimed her queen on November 17, 1558, the day her sister died. At her coronation by a Catholic bishop, Elizabeth took yet another oath, the traditional coronation oath to maintain the Catholic religion. But as soon as she seized power, she broke all her oaths and destroyed the Catholic religion in England within a few months.

Finally, what Marshall says about the entrapment, trial, and execution of Mary Queen of Scots is based only on the work of one historian, John Guy, and is mistaken. Marshall denies that Elizabeth was guilty — as she was! — of her cousin’s judicial murder, but the records show that she and her principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, entrapped Mary in the Babington Plot because she was the Catholic heir to the crown of England. On this topic, I recommend John Hungerford Pollen’s Mary of Scots and the Babington Plot: Edited from the Original Documents in the Public Record Office, the Yelverton MSS, and Elsewhere (1922).

For an overview of the English Reformation, I strongly recommend the first great Catholic history of the English Reformation, Nicholas Sander’s Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1573) and William Cobbett’s A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, edited by Francis Cardinal Gasquet (1824-1827). Cobbett was a Protestant in favor of Catholic Emancipation — i.e., of Catholics having their civil and religious rights restored — something that happened in 1829, five years after he published his passionate account of how terribly Catholics had been persecuted in England and Ireland from the reign of Henry VIII to that of George III.

The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS

By Robert Spencer

Publisher: Bombardier Books

Pages: 448

Price: $27

Review Author: Timothy D. Lusch

It is an extraordinary phenomenon — and a recent one — that non-Muslim leaders of the West, possessed of little knowledge and no authority, dictate to Muslim jurists and theologians what Islam teaches. Intellectual imperialism seems still to be very much in vogue. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all claimed, in one fashion or another, that Islam is a religion of peace, that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, that jihad (“struggle” in Arabic) is spiritual only, or that criticism of Islam is bigotry and slander against Muhammad. Joining the chorus of incoherence, popes and prelates have parroted the pieties of progressive orthodoxy — Pope Francis, of course, being the most recent and most vocal example. Into the muck wades Robert Spencer, who, along with Raymond Ibrahim, Bat Ye’or, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others, takes Islam at its word.

Spencer has been accused of being a racist, a bigot, a hater, an Islamophobe, and many other things I will not repeat here (my mother will be reading this review). One of the few things he is rarely accused of — at least with supporting evidence — is being wrong. Some, of course, find his posts on the Jihad Watch website provocative, or his manner somehow, well, distasteful. But assuming one doesn’t need trigger warnings or safe spaces to engage in rational and informed debate, nothing Robert Spencer writes or says should disturb. Except the truth.

In The History of Jihad, Spencer draws a straight line from Muhammad to ISIS. The doctrine of jihad — and the obligation to wage it — is a marvel of consistency. As a teaching, it has been enjoined on Muslims from the beginning. And whatever else it may mean (jihad of the pen, jihad of the tongue, and so forth), it has always meant — from the perfect example of the Prophet himself — the sword. One may deny it, downplay it, or distort it, but the command to conquer by the sword those who will not submit to Allah remains the rule, not the aberration.

Spencer respects Islam enough to let the religion speak for itself. He provides ample — and I mean ample — selections from Islamic theological and legal texts. And, since jihad occurs in history and not in a vacuum, Spencer includes plenty of citations from historical sources. This is significant because many of the great sultans, caliphs, and military commanders have not been Muslim exemplars. Most, however, still used the language of jihad to motivate their Muslim soldiers. This attests not only to jihad’s doctrinal validity but its potency.

Spencer’s critics complain that Islam is not monolithic and there are moderate Muslims who don’t run off and wage jihad. Quite true. There are various schools of theology and jurisprudence in Islam: Sufis and their orders, Shi’ites, and smaller sects (Alawites, Ahmadiyya, et al.). They speak to a wide diversity within Islam and, more importantly, to wide disagreement. There are moderate Muslims, yes, but there is no such thing as moderate Islam. There is only Islam. And jihad has been a part of Islam from the beginning.

Spencer provides plenty of evidence for this over continents and centuries. One of the highlights of the book is his coverage of early jihad in the East. Much is written about Arab Muslim armies in the decades following the death of Muhammad, especially conquests in the Levant, Maghreb (North Africa), Spain, and France. But the jihad in India, and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, often gets overlooked. Spencer rectifies this and shows how consistently jihad was waged, regardless of time or place. Especially interesting was the Battle of Talas (A.D. 751) in which Arab Muslims clashed with the army of the Chinese Tang dynasty. This battle is considered the first and only time in history that Arab and Chinese armies fought.

The aftermath of jihadist conquests is also often overlooked or given scant treatment. Dhimmitude (the legal classification and enforcement of Christians and Jews as second-class citizens or worse), the jizya (qur’anic mandated tax), and the establishment of the slave trade are only a few of the transformational changes that consistently occurred from Africa to India to Spain. It is astounding that the Muslim slave trade — millions and millions of conquered or captured people — has not garnered more attention. A handful of books are dedicated to it, and Spencer helpfully references them, but the role of Islamic slavery — especially among blacks in sub-Saharan Africa — is routinely ignored in favor of the Atlantic slave trade with early America. Perhaps it shouldn’t be astounding, given progressive emphasis on denigration of “whiteness.” According to progressive thinking, some slavery is worse than others. That slavery occurred in Muslim lands and had — and still has — legal sanction is truly a topic deserving more attention.

The History of Jihad is an exceptional work. The book that comes closest, from a slightly different angle, is Ibrahim’s excellent Sword and Scimitar [reviewed in the Sept. 2019 NOR — Ed.]. Both cover 14 centuries of Islamic imperialism and conquest, but Spencer’s book sustains an alarming urgency. This is because Spencer, focusing solely on jihad, allows for the sacred Islamic texts and the words of Muslim jihadis over the centuries to corroborate each other with a consistency that is irrefutable. And frightening. Yet, so many politicians, progressive Puritans, and bishops bumble along, dumbly enforcing denial and scolding those who seek the truth about Islam. Spencer ends his book, fittingly, with the observation that “as the fourteen-hundred-year Islamic jihad against the free world continues to advance, the best allies the warriors of jihad have are the very people they have in their sights.”


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