Melissa Franklin Harkrider, Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England.  Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580, Studies in Modern British Religious History 19, Boydell, Woodbridge, 2008.

Melissa Franklin Harkrider, Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England.  Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580, Studies in Modern British Religious History 19, Boydell, Woodbridge, 2008. £45, ISBN 978-1-84383-365-9 (hardback), pp. xii + 174.

Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, Université d’Aix-Marseille I, July 2008

In this monograph, Melissa Franklin Harkrider analyses the emergence of Protestantism among the Lincolnshire aristocracy by focusing specifically on one of its most influential members, Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk.  The stated aim of this work is not to focus upon courtly religious circles but rather to draw a picture of regional religious activism in the local communities of Lincolnshire, in its parish churches, in the Duchess’s extended social network or more privately in her household.

In an effort to go beyond the simplistic categorisation of Tudor men and women as either ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’, this study highlights the fluidity of spiritual beliefs during such times of constant change.  When Katherine Willoughby was baptised in 1519, her godmother was the queen, Katherine of Aragon, with whom Lady Willoughby had strong political and personal ties at court; Lord Willoughby was also active in the cause of Catholicism, promoting clergymen of his choice to benefices and administrative offices.

As chapter one demonstrates, Katherine Willoughby remained steadfast in her Catholic faith for the greater part of her youth, and through her marriage to Charles Brandon.  Yet her relationship with Catholic kin and neighbours became gradually more strained; as a dispute over inheritance loosened her ties with religious conservatives at court and in her county of Lincolnshire, new patronage links in the Brandon household facilitated her acceptance of evangelicalism.  Thus, whilst Katherine Willoughby remained dedicated to the Catholic faith through the 1530s, her beliefs underwent a gradual shift until she finally embraced Protestantism through the 1540s and 1550s, and through her second marriage to Richard Bertie, himself a zealous partisan of Reform.

Chapter two focuses upon Willoughby’s gradual rejection of Catholic traditions and her increased reliance upon scripture and faith alone; the author argues that Willoughby’s spiritual journey from traditional Catholicism to evangelical proselytiser is rather typical of Tudor religious change.  She underlines the importance of kin and patronage networks, and calls for further regional studies which would help refine our understanding of the impact of reform away from the court.  In chapter three, she shows how evangelical women contributed actively, through their patronage, to the expansion of their beliefs in their local communities. She also demonstrates how they contributed to the shaping of their church.  Chapter four presents the various ways in which promoters of reform fostered religious change in their households, their social networks and their counties at large. Moving on chronologically, chapter five then shows how Katherine Willoughby’s new religious identity as an advocate of reform remained steadfast through the great changes which accompanied the successive reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.  An active promoter of reform under Edward VI’s rule, the duchess chose exile on the Continent and refused any compromise with the Marian Church.  She and her household returned to England in 1559 but, like many of their fellow radicals, they found it difficult to be satisfied with the Elizabethan settlement which they deemed too timid.  Finally, chapter six explores the activities undertaken by Katherine Willoughby and her circle in order to further Protestantism on a local scale; beyond their activism at court, noble and gentry families encouraged reform in their households, in their parishes and in their counties at large.  This was a delicate balancing act in which they must take care to respect the queen’s religious settlement and to preserve their relationships with Catholic neighbours or even with fellow Protestants whose religious views differed from their own.

This monograph is extremely well referenced, resorting to abundant, lengthy and detailed footnotes. It order to build this picture of Katherine Willoughby’s spiritual development, the author used primary sources and archives such as household accounts, personal correspondence or court accounts from the Tudor State Papers, Longleat House, Hatfield House and the British Library, property records from the Court of Chancery as well as ecclesiastical registers, visitation records and religious treatises from the library at Lambeth Palace and the Lincolnshire Archives Office.  The extensive bibliography and index will also be most useful to the reader.

My only reproach for this otherwise highly commendable book would be with regards to its tackling of issues related to gender, which does not appear entirely convincing.  In chapter three particularly, several observations (for instance, that ‘Women’s understanding of themselves as “the elect”, “heiresses” and “children of God” supported their strong commitment to other evangelicals’, p.63) could equally apply to men.  Moreover, one gets the impression that the term ‘gender’ is used as a synonym for ‘women’: if this chapter clearly highlights the key roles played by women in the promotion of evangelicalism in their neighbourhoods, it remains unclear whether, beyond their awareness of their sex, they used their culturally-constructed gendered identity to further their religious cause in a specific way.  From this point of view, the title of the monograph (Women, Reform and Community) reflects the interests of the author more faithfully than the dust jacket, with its insistence upon ‘the importance of gender in the process of spiritual transformation’.  Nevertheless, this is a monograph in which the research is thorough, the style clear and the argument scrupulously methodical.  With her study of Katherine Willoughby, Melissa Franklin Harkrider contributes to the deepening of our understanding of religious change in Tudor times.