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Reformation London - A European Divorce

Reformation explores the significance and implications of Henry VIII’s decision to leave Catholic Europe, through a comprehensive and intriguing programme.

London graduate fair
Reformation at Senate House Library until 15 December 2017

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, triggering widespread theological revolution. The subsequent crisis facing the Pope in Rome provided King Henry VIII of England with a politically expedient solution to an affair of the heart – his desire to divorce Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry declared himself head of the Church of England, dissolving the monasteries and divorcing his country from Rome, shattering the power of the Catholic Church in Britain at a stroke.  

The Reformation, as it is known 500 years later, was a time of turmoil and the consequences of taking England outside of the family of Catholic states were profound, according to a new major exhibition at the University of London’s Senate House Library. The exhibition: ‘Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings’ will run from 26 June until 15 December 2017. It will be part of world-wide celebrations to mark such a momentous event and its impact on England’s history, and it will be accompanied by a range of events.

Its comprehensive programme will explore the lives and work inspired by Martin Luther’s defiant writing, with reading and performances from a line-up of well-known personalities such as actors Joanna David and Nickolas Grace, bestselling author Philippa Gregory, and historian and television presenter, Suzannah Lipscomb (see programme below). In addition an exclusive musical performance will be provided by star vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini, who on 13th July will present a unique, specially selected arrangement exploring the impact of the Reformation on music.

‘Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings’, focuses on London during the 16th and 17th centuries, tracing the impact of the Reformation through the four themes of: culture, society, communications and new world order. 

The significance of the Reformation can be seen in the description of the exhibition’s ‘New World’ gallery: ‘Henry VIII’s decision to take England out of Catholic Europe had dramatic repercussions on its place in the world in terms of trade links, military power, diplomatic influence and within the emerging ‘New World’. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than London – the heart of diplomacy and trade.’ 

To create its own story about the period from the beginning of the Reformation until today, the exhibition will present cultural and literary items, such as a manuscript Book of Hours, that was ousted by the Reformation, and items that replaced it. Among the contemporary items to show denominational social rifts at home and abroad, is an early biography portraying Mary, Queen of Scots as an innocent martyr who died for her faith. 

Martin Luther’s original desire was to encourage academic discussion and the exhibition will amplify this. It speaks to the cornerstone elements of the Reformation and allows Senate House Library to showcase its rich holdings of that tumultuous period in word and print, literature, translation and music, and demonstrate its tremendous value for research and engagement.

Senate House librarian Jackie Marfleet said: “Reformation is our flagship exhibition for 2017, we hope that you’ll be inspired by the diversity of material on display and a truly compelling events programme. We are bringing the story of Britain’s theological divorce from Europe to life through the lens of London in the 16th century. The dramatic decisions that King Henry VIII took changed the course of British culture, communications and society and reordered the map, both spiritually and geographically. This exhibition is a chance to see how our collections tell the tale of the shattering of one world and the beginning of another.”

Events programme

Listed below are the headline major events with more under development and to be added throughout the season, including free offerings at the Being Human and Bloomsbury Festivals.

Symposium: Reformation London 

6 December, 10am, Senate Room, Senate House 
This one day symposium presents the latest research on the Reformation across the four exhibition themes – society, culture, communications and the new world order