I thought that this was going to be yet another book about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more about some of the neglected aspects of the Reformation era. It also included quite a bit of the theology of the Reformation, which tends to be overlooked in books. All right, the soap opera-esque story of the loyal wife being thrown over in favour of a younger model makes for a much better story than debates over (let’s see if I can remember how to spell this!) transubstantiation, but it’s good to see the actual religious issues being mentioned too!
The protagonist, Honor Larke, an orphan, becomes a ward of Thomas More – known to us as St Thomas More, the man for all seasons, the man who died rather than betray his beliefs, et al. This book reminds us that More was very much involved in suppressing early attempts to bring the Reformation to England, and that a number of “heretics” were burnt at the stake during his time as chancellor. There’s been debate over this in the past, and More was strongly criticised in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, but it’s not something that’s really mentioned now. By the standards of the times, his actions were not severe – what he did was hardly the “Spanish Inquisition” – but it still doesn’t sit very well with the supposed ideas of humanism. He’s also presented as a dirty old perv who lusted after young girls: that bit doesn’t really work, as I’m not aware that there’s any historical evidence for it.
Honor becomes involves in trying to protect early Protestants from More, but ends up having to leave England … and becomes involves with the Anabaptists, and the Munster Rebellion. It’s unfortunate that the word “Anabaptist” has become identified with what went on at Munster, because the actual word “Anabaptist” just refers to the (IMO) very sensible idea that people should only be baptised, or otherwise join/be regarded as part of a religion, once they’re old enough to take that decision for themselves, rather than the idea, which most people hold, that parents and guardians and religious leaders should be able to try to force their own religious views on a young child. Anyway, Anabaptism also came to encompass the rejection of civil society, which is fine when you’re talking about (later) peaceful groups like the Amish and the Mennonites but which, in the 1530s, resulted in an attempt to take over the city of Munster, in Westphalia, and then got wildly out of hand with its leaders legalising polygamy and trying to force women into marriage.
I think the idea of this book is that all forms of religious extremism and religious intolerance are very dangerous, and that’s obviously a lesson that’s very relevant today. It really wasn’t what I expecting, because the blurb on the back cover gives the impression that it’s all about Henry and Catherine and Anne. Even the title does that, because for a while Honor is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Honor does have rather more adventures in a short time than anyone is likely to, but, hey, it’s a book. And it’s certainly a different take on things. Worth a read!