Five Women of the English Reformation

Five Women of the English ReformationI first encountered Paul Zahl’s Five Women of the English Reformation in 2001, when I reviewed it for Reformation & Revival Journal (now Act 3 Review). I had occasion to peruse the book again a few months ago when Brandon and I were researching our chapter on Katharine Parr for Courage and Conviction, the third book in our church history series. Dr. Zahl’s discussion of KP was our introduction to this significant but rarely-mentioned Protestant reformer, whose Queen Esther story we decided had to be included among the 12 we had room to tell in our volume. So, to whet your appetite for our rendition of her story—as well as commend Zahl’s excellent work—I post below my 2001 review. (Zahl has since become president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.)


[Originally published in Reformation and Revival Journal Vol. 10, No. 4 (Fall 2001), 191-194. To access back issues, subscribe at]

Five Women of the English Reformation
Paul F. M. Zahl
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans (2001)
120 pages, cloth, $18.00

Paul Zahl, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal) in Birmingham, Alabama, offers an invigorating presentation of five women who were active participants in the English Reformation. Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katharine Parr, Jane Grey, and Catherine Willoughby “muscularly and monocularly” strove for the furtherance of the Reformed faith in their nation (2). Although he includes biographical information, Zahl’s focus is their theological perspectives regarding the church, the nation of England, and their own sufferings brought about by the boldness of their faith.

The book opens with an introduction, in which Zahl presents the women he has chosen to feature, as well as the criteria for their selection (and why, for example, Elizabeth Tudor is not included). Two sources are given for his interpretation: writings and letters, and recorded conversations.

Here the author asks an important question: What role did their gender and position play in the dramas of their lives? Zahl demonstrates how both impacted them positively and negatively. The best example is found in Anne Askew, who often used her gender defensively to taunt her examiners about their fears of a “silly woman’s” opinions. But being the one woman in the group not of royal blood, she was considered easily expendable by the king. Significantly, Zahl points out that the issue faced by these women was not gender or class, but freedom: their concern was not that they were women without freedom, but that they were Protestants without freedom.

Each woman is the focus of one chapter, documenting her life in brief, examining the texts she left behind, describing her theology, and interpreting her beliefs and actions. In an interesting touch to each chapter, the author also delineates the woman’s contemporary “soul mate”–a guardian, publisher, or friend–as well as her theological or political nemesis.

It is in the main body of the text that we meet the “nursing mothers” of the English Reformation (6). The “first phase” of the Reformation, which focused on the doctrinal issue of justification by grace through faith, begins with Anne Boleyn, known to students of western civilization simply as one of Henry XIII’s queens. But she had an impressive theological library, supported William Tyndale, and was eventually beheaded for her Reformed convictions. Katharine Parr, another of Henry’s wives, wrote a remarkable devotional book entitled Lamentation of a Sinner and narrowly avoided execution, surviving Henry. The women of the “second phase” debated the physical presence of Christ in the Mass. Jane Grey, the child prodigy who wrote to Heinrich Bullinger for help studying Hebrew, left behind an articulate written testimony when she was beheaded at the age of 16. So did Anne Askew, who was tortured and burned at the stake. Catherine Willoughby represents the “third phase,” when the focus of the Reformation was on the doctrines of providence and election; she studied Scripture with the other women, and protected preacher Hugh Latimer until forced into exile with her nursing daughter. The author allows these women to speak for themselves, as theologians of intense convictions.

Following these five chapters is a brief conclusion, and an epilogue by the author’s wife, Mary Zahl, which offers an application of such a study to our modern lives. Mary’s attempt to picture these women in today’s world of significantly different perspectives on gender seems incongruous with what the women themselves clearly saw as important. But her enthusiasm for the presentation of such role models is seconded, and her questions of application are excellent and worthy of careful introspection.

Possibly the most valuable aspect of the book are the several appendices which include a partial royal family tree, a suggested reading list, and a sampling of the texts discussed, including letters of Thomas Cranmer and Catherine Willoughby, the court records of the examinations of Anne Askew and Jane Grey, and an excerpt from Katharine Parr’s book.

Zahl himself declares his method as that of a systematic theologian, not an historian, and this is seen in his overall inattention to details to which historians would perhaps attribute more importance. Certainly the available sources, though not numerous, have not been exhausted. Additional historical, biographical, and textual work could add immensely to our understanding of the subjects, since we currently know so little. But Zahl’s common sense attitude successfully avoids misdirecting the reader’s attention from the goal of personal confrontation by these five extraordinary individuals.

Zahl is well read and relevant. This is demonstrated by his somehow appropriate and often entertaining references to everyone and everything from Jane Austen, John Donne, Bill Clinton, and the Rolling Stones to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, the French poetry of Agrippa d’Aubigné, the Godfather movies, and Snow White. He is also articulate, economizing his words to produce a potent work that reads only 120 pages.

Most evident to the reader is the author’s passion. Clearly this book was not written simply to contribute another volume on the Reformation, but to ignite the reader’s soul with the zeal of the subjects. Zahl identifies with these women, engages their tight-fisted convictions, and emerges with a spirit of theological aggression and fortitude that many modern Christians have forgotten. His work is valuable to anyone desiring to expand his or her knowledge of the English Reformation and is recommended for devotional reading as well as homeschooling curriculum, college courses, and additions to pastoral and church libraries.

Mindy L. Withrow
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

03. December 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 6 comments

Comments (6)

  1. I’ve read the Zahl volume and really enjoyed it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    I heard that you’ve been under the weather recently with illness. Hope you’re back 100% by now.

  2. Hmm. I remember reading this maybe 2 years ago and being fairly disappointed. Possibly I had over-high expectations of a book addressing what I think should be a fascinating subject.

    From what I recall, I thought there was a lot of pop history and theorizing without engaging properly with the sources and the historical context. Doesn’t he take some of his stuff on Lady Jane Grey from the 1986 film (which, btw, is one of my favourite films ever, but hardly a reliable historical source)?!

    Anyway, I disliked it enough to take it to the charity shop which as an inveterate book hoarder is really saying something.

  3. The book is definitely an introductory level read. If you came to it expecting more, I can see why you’d be disappointed. But I think it brings to light the role women played in the Reformation well and Zahl’s book does deal with the usual existing sources.

    One problem though (for all historians), is that there are few sources to work with from the period for some of the figures (especiallly women). For example, the main account of Katherine Parr’s episode comes from Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, which is hagiographical. On the other hand, Foxe knew Katherine’s chaplain and it is argued by some historians, probably received his information from him and filled in some of the drama. A good read between the lines helps with the hagiography. But aside from letters and official documents (and even then) there is no such thing as a critical history for this period. (Parr’s cousin Throckmorton, for example, wrote her history in poetry. One wonders what words he chose for the sake of meter, but which also would have changed the story.)

    Zahl does mention the movie Lady Jane in a positive way (I’ve never seen it). He takes note of the changes to the story line and the usual Hollywood embellishments, but his point is that where the movie was accurate (quoting Jane’s debate with Feckenham word for word, for example), he found it inspired him to look into her life with more depth. It served (for his book) as a personal story of his interest in her life.

    On a side note, for an intermediate level, narrative history, on figures like Parr and connecting figures like Anne Askew, I’d recommend Alison Wier’s book on the Wives of Henry VIII. More accademically, Susan James’ book, Kateryn Parr, is also very good.

    Hmmm….can you tell that I have a special interest in Parr?

  4. Yes, I’ve read a couple of Alison Weir’s books though not, I think, the one on Henry’s wives. And I do take your point about the lack of a critical history for this period, particularly with respect to the women. Maybe I’ll just read the Withrow version instead!

  5. Sounds like a great idea to me! :)

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