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Senate House Library


London and the Reformation

Martin Luther was a monk, and professor of moral theology at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. On 31 October 1517, he sent 95 theses disputing the power of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz and, in line with university custom, probably posted the notices on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg. In doing so he sparked a movement that was to shatter the unity of the Catholic Church in Europe, as his criticisms of ecclesiastical corruption – in particular the sale of ‘indulgences’ to save one’s soul from purgatory – were reproduced in pamphlet form and disseminated widely, thanks to the revolutionary mechanisation of print technology. A network of theologians such as Calvin and Zwingli could now not only communicate or argue with each other more easily, but for the first time share their thoughts quickly with a wider public. The result was the Protestant Reformation.

At first, England was largely sheltered from the ensuing turmoil of doctrinal reformation and counter-reformation that swept across the continent; indeed, Henry VIII had authored In Defence of the Seven Sacraments in 1521, rejecting Luther’s ideas and earning him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the Pope. However, the crisis facing the Pope in Rome provided Henry with a politically expedient solution to an affair of the heart – his desire to wed Anne Boleyn and father a son to succeed him, even though he was married to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope’s reluctance to grant an annulment led to a radical solution: Henry overthrew the authority of Rome and established himself as the Head of the Church of England with the Act of Supremacy in 1534, so that he could obtain his divorce and marry Anne.

The consequences of taking England outside the family of Catholic states were profound, and had a major impact on London throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as it grew into one of the world’s largest cities. Focusing on London through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this exhibition traces the impact of the Reformation on culture and society; the way its communications industry drove change; and the consequences of the emergence of a new world order. 

The bespoke Reformation website is now live, and includes a range of resources, images from the exhibition and online exclusives.

Exhibitions at Senate House Library

Reformation ran from 26 June to 15 December 2017. The Library runs exhibition and engagement seasons throughout the year. Find out more on our exhibitions and events pages.

Senate House Library is located in Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU. See information about how to find us.