Broken Idols of the English Reformation

Broken Idols of the English Reformation
Margaret Aston
Cambridge University Press 1136pp     £120

In 1988, Oxford University Press published Margaret Aston’s England’s Iconoclasts. Vol.1: Laws Against Images, a book which developed Aston’s long engagement with the Lollards and their allergy to images and projected it forward through the first century of the Reformation. This latest work, not quite Vol.  2, Broken Idols of the English Reformation, completed just before Aston’s death, brings together her gifts as a historian, the depth and breadth of her scholarship and clarity of exposition. Any book this long, especially one that presupposes knowledge of a predecessor that looked in a chronological fashion at the medieval and continental-reformation background, is going to be hard work and readers may want to dip in for people, places or themes of particular interest to them. 

The book is in three parts. The first examines the mental world of iconoclasts and is also very good not only on ‘official’ attitudes (sermons, etc) but also on ‘popular’ participation and initiative. Thomas Cromwell’s love of burning images rather than smashing them (cauterising festering blasphemous wounds in the Body of Christ) is just one point very well brought out; but the zeal that maimed and disfigured images (while leaving headless torsos as reminders) is shown to be a powerful trigger for Laudian ‘beauty of holiness’ and a renewed preoccupation with architectural evocations of Solomon’s Temple. 

The second part offers case studies of iconoclasm and its limits. There is a chapter on saints and the very different fates of the cult of good St George and bad St Thomas Becket, every image of whom was to be eradicated, every reference in service books expunged and the story of his martyrdom airbrushed out of official histories. The tomb itself – ‘a treasure trove of gold and jewels’ – was sacrificed on the altar of Henry VIII’s greed. There is a chapter on bells and organs, silenced and melted down, and another on the destruction of images and representations of the Trinity. 

In the final part, the first chapter focuses on the destruction of stained-glass windows (destruction, that is, of many but by no means all of them) and the second examines many debates about the Cross of Jesus (and more especially the crucifix) in their various forms (including signing with the cross). It culminates with a gripping account of the desecration and restoration of Cheapside Cross in London during Elizabeth’s reign and its final nemesis in the first months of the Civil War of the 1640s. The book ends with a chapter that examines new and refined ways of deploying words to replace images as a way of capturing the hearts and minds of those on the margins of literacy. This is a book of deep learning, if a little shaky on the finer distinctions within protestant theology, but which chronicles brilliantly and explains well why the Reformation involved such an orgy of violence against objects of special devotion, the disfigured remnants of which even now reprove those who ordered it.

John Morrill is Emeritus Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge.


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