Alexandra Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain, Ashgate, London, 2014.

Alexandra Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain, Ashgate, London, 2014. £80.00, ISBN 978-0-7546-5723-1 (hardback), pp. xvii + 490.


Reviewed by: Hannah Thomas, Durham University, May 2015

The historiography of post-Reformation Catholicism has grown exponentially over the last four decades­­. Since John Bossy’s seminal work The English Catholic Community 1570–1850 first appeared, the triumphalist Protestant narrative of A.G. Dickens et al has given way to the narrative of a strong, thriving and multi-faceted Catholic community that employed a huge variety of survival strategies and techniques in the post-Reformation British Isles. Other key works have added yet more depth to our understanding of the structure of the Catholic community in this period: Christoper Haigh’s English Reformations (1993); Eamon Duffy’s Stripping the Altars (1992); Alexandra Walsham’s Church Papists (1993); Tom McCoog’s multi-volume examinations of the role of Jesuit missioners (dates) and Questier’s Catholicism and Community (2006) in particular have demonstrated that Catholicism was far from decline on the eve of the Reformation, and was in fact firmly embedded in lay culture for several decades after the Reformation. Moreover in later generations, post-Reformation Catholics were not a homogenous minority, but rather a varied and widespread community who adopted a range of religious practices and political positions.

Walsham’s latest work will no doubt take its place on this shortlist as a comprehensive and detailed account of the various positions of the post-Reformation English Catholic community, from the role of the Jesuits and other missionaries, to the importance of miracles and angels, the particular dilemmas of conscience that faced those who remained Catholic, the use of the landscape in maintaining Catholicism, and the impact and use of a burgeoning print culture to further the Catholic cause. Admittedly, many of the chapters have appeared in earlier publications, and readers familiar with Walsham’s extensive body of work between 2000 and 2010 may find these chapters a little repetitive of material they know well. However, this should not deter those readers from engaging with this latest volume: all chapters that had been previously published have been revised, updated and expanded, errors have been corrected, new evidence incorporated and adjustments have been made to reflect upon more recent historiographical interventions (p. xiii).

The main aims of the book are summarised thus: it is intended as a contribution to our understanding of how the Catholics of England, Wales, and to a lesser extent, Scotland, responded to the Reformation and adapted to the proscription and persecution of their religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, aiming to revisit older questions and raise new ones (pp. xiii and 3). As well as an extensive introduction, incorporating a thorough and comprehensive review of the historiography of post-Reformation Catholicism over the last four decades or so, the book tackles four main areas of Catholic life and culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: conscience and conformity, miracles and missionaries, communication and conversion, and the translation and transmutation of Trent into the everyday rituals of Catholic life.

Walsham’s work offers major new contributions to three particular areas of Catholic history: firstly, a re-evaluation of the importance and impact of those who chose outward conformity over full-blown recusancy; secondly, a new appreciation of parts of Wales and Welsh Catholicism; and thirdly, a persuasive analysis of the growing role of literature and the printed work in furthering the Catholic cause. In these three areas, the author brings to the fore the variety of strategies and coping mechanisms employed by Catholics, presenting a wide range of several responses to the moral and ethical dilemmas presented by a changing proscribed religion.

Building on the foundations of her Church Papists, and several articles, Walsham argues that, hitherto, the history of post-Reformation English Catholicism has only been told from the perspective of the courageous recusancy of a small number of individuals, which, instead as being seen as the only alternative to complete conformity, should instead be viewed as one of a range of reactions presented by the Catholic community of the British Isles in the wake of the changes ushered in from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. Walsham presents a persuasive argument that conformity needs to be seen as a positive option rather than a form of spineless apathy or ethical surrender, and was, in fact, often a pragmatic and principled response to difficult circumstances. She also notes that it is important to consider the value of conformity as an excellent cloak behind which to engage in subversive, anti-Protestant activity, a cunning form of camouflage in the delicate game of cat and mouse Catholics played with the late Tudor and early Stuart authorities (p. 56). Other chapters explore the particular dilemmas of conscience faced by those who chose to remain Catholic and the range of socio-economic factors that may have lain behind religious choices, arguing that for more than a century after the Elizabethan Settlement, it was still very hard to force English Catholicism into the straitjacket of a fully segregated sect (p. 94).

Secondly, the book presents a major new contribution to our understanding of the importance of Wales and the distinctly Welsh flavour of Catholicism that flourished in post-Reformation Britain. Focusing predominantly on North Wales, and the continued importance of Holywell and the cult of St Winefride, Walsham argues for a reassessment of the evidence in order to cast new light on the nature and impact of the Counter-Reformation in Wales: rather than dismissing pre-Christian traditions as evidence of the failure of the Counter Reformation in Wales, we should instead be focusing on the revitalization of the late medieval geography of the sacred, and the way in which skillful missionaries exploited the rhythms of the country’s Celtic heritage and made use of gateways to the sacred which had evaded total obliteration by Tudor iconoclasts, such as at Skirrid Fawr in Abergavenny and the shrine of St Winefride in Holywell (pp. 188–90).

Walsham’s reappraisal of the shrine of St Winefride restores it to its rightful place as an icon of the Tudor dynasty, and one that was of central importance to royal religious life and spirituality for several generations. The author also notes that religion was intertwined with nascent Welsh nationalism, and concerns about Holywell as a magnet for pilgrims reflected a wider strand of contemporary anxiety about the remnants of popery and idolatry in Wales (p. 185). Building on a previous article on Holywell and St Winefride, the sections of the book that urge the reader to reconsider Welsh Catholicism could have been taken further, hinting at questions that still need to be explored by historians of post-Reformation Catholicism. Similarly, the author’s tendency to focus on North Wales at the expense of South Walian Catholic traditions creates the impression that Catholicism flourished only in the north of the principality, with a small number of recusant hotspots in the south. The book would have benefited from a second chapter on Catholicism in Wales away from the pilgrimage centre of Holywell, such as the network of patronage and support created by the Somerset family, earls of Worcester in the south, to present a more cohesive survey and truly emphasise the need for a re-evaluation of the importance of Wales to post-Reformation Catholicism in the British Isles.


Thirdly, Walsham’s work presents a persuasive analysis of the growing role of literature and the printed work in furthering the Catholic cause. Often perceived as lagging behind the omnipresent book culture of the Protestant religion, Walsham turns such assumptions on their head, demonstrating that Catholicism was closely associated with the printed word, and in many cases, produced greater quantities of works than their nonconformist brethren for much of the seventeenth century (p. 246). Providing an overview of the thriving clandestine English book trade, and its links with the continental book trade, Walsham argues that the enormous amount of time and effort government officials spent attempting to intercept recusant books was actually a back-handed compliment to the sophistication of this communications system (p. 251): authors and printers alike adapted printing technologies to allow mass dissemination of their polemic.

The book makes a compelling case for the necessity of print to the success of post-Tridentine Catholicism, arguing that, not only did books and manuscript copies of works allow the spread of polemic far beyond the reach of one individual, but that books and written works also had the power to represent priests and missioners in places which they were unable to be physically present (p. 264). Continued access to the written Catholicism of continental Europe went some way to counteracting the isolation felt by the British Catholic community in post-Reformation England and Wales, and allowed them to stay wholly connected with their continental counterparts.

Walsham offers a detailed and thorough study of the mobility and flexibility offered by the print revolution, examining Catholic uses and manipulations of this new technology. Revealing the ‘astonishingly rich culture of print’ that the extended Catholic community relied upon, for both spiritual and polemical reasons, the author demonstrates that Catholics treated the written word, not only as a valuable auxiliary, but also as a creative opportunity (p. 264). Walsham draws attention to often-overlooked parts of the network of the written word, such as the use of scribal publications and manuscript copies of existing work, or the role of books as useful substitutes for when public worship was impossible and access to a cleric was rare, concluding that Catholicism truly can be described as a religion of the book (p. 282).


This volume will appeal to a wide range of readers and is an invaluable resource, boosted by an extensive historiographical survey and a thorough bibliography. Presenting a summary of existing and better-known topics in the wider field of ‘recusant history’, the book also presents a range of new contributions and new perspectives, and will be an essential work for those who study post-Reformation Catholicism in the British Isles, from students to seasoned professionals.