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Book Review: Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580 by Melissa Franklin Harkrider

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If you wanted to identify a book that David Starkey, the historian who claims that history has been falsely "feminised", then Melissa Franklin Harkrider's Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire's Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580 could well be a perfect example.

Women, in Starkey's world, had no significance in the 16th century, and writing a biography of a woman, even one who was high-ranking, with access to royalty, would be a pointless exercise. Read this slim monograph, however, and you'll realise just how silly this stance is.

Take even the start of her life: when her father, Lord Willoughby, died in 1526, leaving her as his sole heir, her mother (note that point Starkey) successfully defended the lands and goods against a bid , this despite her mother, Maria, not even being English, but a noblewoman who had arrived as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon.

Certainly, when at age 14, she became the fourth wife of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, she wouldn't have had much chance for independent action or influence, but when Brandon died in 1545, she was left a wealthy and powerful widow, a position that scarcely weakened when in 1552 she married her gentleman usher, Richard Bertie.

But she wasn't just living a comfortable life of privilege; like pretty well everyone at this time she was caught up in the virulent religious controversies that saw England swinging backward and forward between Catholicism and "godly Protestantism".

Harkrider shows how she worked to promote the gospel among her relatives, servants and other dependents, noting: "She has been variously been described as an 'evangelical firebrand' and 'champion of the godly' at Henry VII's court, the 'doyenne of the evangelicals' during Edward IV's rule, and the head of a 'pious menage' in Elizabeth I's reign."

The author is particularly interested in how Katharine's experience of religion differed from that of other Protestants, and the unusual survival of documents relating to her flesh out the story of her "zeal and her beliefs on communion, liturgy, and ceremonialism in detail" and suggest "the diversity of Protestantism" as it emerged in the later 16th century".

This is only a slim monograph, which is perhaps a good job, since Harkrider's prose could be at best described as pedestrian, and the structure rather repetitive, but the interest of the tale makes the reading worth the effort. And the tale of Katherine, and women like her, need to be recovered for woman today, to understand that their foremothers might have faced even greater restrictions than women today, but they still found ways to make an impact on their world. And to counteract misogynist polemicists like Starkey….

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.