A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett

A history of the Protestant Reformation sounds like it should be dry, dull, of narrow interest, and not at all relevant today. Which is why I’d like to tell you about this book. William Cobbett is marvellous, sadly not as widely-known as he should be, and an inspiration. If he were alive now he would be blogging and tweeting every moment of the day, trying to bridge the ever-present gap between truth and the population at large. This book is written in Cobbett’s usual style, not so much conversational as like the man who corners you at a gathering and begins a lot of sentences with ‘And I’ll tell you another thing about…’; it’s certainly not formal and dusty, though he does like to cite references (primary sources if possible so you can go check for yourself) and he gets himself wound up to a pitch and repeats things sometimes (this was serialised, too, so no chance for him to change his sections around later).

The main spur for this book was the ridiculous and appalling anti-Catholic laws still existing in England in the early 19th century (some, like no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic can be the monarch, are in place even now). The point that tells you the most about Cobbett is that he and all his family were members of the Church of England, he had no personal axe to grind but he saw an injustice and he couldn’t resist bringing it to public attention, questioning it in a reasoned and logical manner, and campaigning for its end. Although the book, and the creation of the Church of England, are nominally about religion, Cobbett argues persuasively that it’s all about greed, power, corruption, and land-grabbing. Everything rides on a political agenda.

It’s the same today, which is why Cobbett’s book is still relevant. Not only did I learn some unsavoury things about the Tudors, but it made me think in a joined-up way about the things I already did know, which was part of Cobbett’s point – you don’t have to hide unpleasant truths, you just have to present them in such a way that people are unlikely to go ‘but hang on, didn’t he also do…?’ and want to dig deeper. How many contradictory things do governments say on a regular basis, and how many laws or policies are formulated ‘after careful consideration of expert evidence’ meaning ‘we read it, it didn’t fit our pre-formed ideas or political goals so we discarded it’?

If you’re not interested in religion, or you’re not British (or Irish – they came under the same heavy-handed laws at the time, of course), or you’ve never heard of William Cobbett, it doesn’t matter – you might not be familiar with all the players but the game itself may be enlightening. I would also suggest that if you enjoyed Josephine Tey’s unusual detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, this might appeal to you in that same spirit of painstakingly uncovering historical facts that weren’t hidden, but have just been publicly contradicted so often that ‘everyone knows’ the complete opposite.

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