There is much that Belloc gets wrong in his Characters of the Reformation--details like Henry VIII having syphilis and Anne Boleyn having an extra finger--but his analysis of politics and personalities is often correct. It is his thesis that the Reformation was more a political event than theological and that England's break from Rome thwarted the political reunion of Christendom after Luther and Calvin divided the Continent.Share
That thesis drives his selection of characters: neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin have a chapter to themselves. Belloc selects instead, on the Continent for example, Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, Gustavus Adolphus, and Cardinal Richelieu. The first tried to reunite Germany under Catholicism and failed; the second was the brilliant general who thwarted that attempt; the third was the éminence grise who aided the second to prevent German unity at the expense of French hegemony, and thus continued the break up of Christendom.
Because of the second part of his thesis, Belloc profiles almost all the important figures of the English Reformation era: Henry VIII, More, Cranmer, Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, etc. He also includes figures from the early Stuart era, two philosophers (Descartes and Pascal) and two more combatants: William of Orange and Louis XIV.
In each chapter, Belloc examines the personality of the individual he is profiling. His analysis of Henry VIII's character, for example, explains more than the usual attempt to trace a change in his personality. He identifies Henry's main characteristic as "an inability to withstand impulse; he was passionate for having his own way." Belloc notes that all those who helped Henry get his way (Wolsey, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn) flattered and led him until he grew tired of their control over him and destroyed them. Belloc thinks that only Catherine of Aragon loved and respected Henry but even she did not attempt to influence him in matters of self-control. As Belloc notes, she was so simple, direct, and straightforward that she did not understand intrigue: "She neither made scenes, nor intrigued to recover her position," Belloc states. She remained adamant that she would never respond to any other title than Queen of England, but she did not know how to manipulate others to achieve her goals. (Read more.)