Reformation, Hilary Mantel and Melvyn Bragg

In the first of a recommendations series for undergraduate History degree applicants, we spoke to Dr Jonathan Willis, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History.


First off, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided is a brilliant introduction to early modern Europe, written by an extremely knowledgeable and engaging historian, and aimed both at a popular and an academic audience.  You can pick up the kindle edition from about £6 or grab a second hand paperback copy from about £3. 

Secondly, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (Wolf HallBring up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light) are really impressive accomplishments, and brilliant, compelling books to read.  While Mark Rylance was superb, and the overall production was lavish, I personally found the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall a bit slow – too many silent pondering looks into middle distance…  The addition of Cromwell’s inner monologue make Mantel’s books a much more gripping experience.  While definitely historical fiction, these books give a fantastic sense of what it could have felt like to be a member of the Tudor Court at a time of immense political and cultural upheaval and intrigue. 

Thirdly, the archive of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time is absolutely packed to the rafters with brilliant historical content – for every period, really, but especially the early modern.  For anybody unfamiliar with the format, floppy-haired national treasure Melvyn Bragg shepherds a group of three academic experts through a wide-ranging conversation on an significant topic.  Episodes are free to stream or download from the website. Try browsing the ‘History’ or ‘Religion’ categories, but here are some good episodes to start with for the early modern period: ‘The Thirty Years War’; ‘The Book of Common Prayer’; ‘Erasmus’; ‘St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’ and ‘Calvinism’.  

Finally, a bit of self-promotion – together with three early modernist friends from other universities I co-author a blog on early modern history called the many-headed monster.  Since 2012 we (and some generous guest contributors) have published more than 330 blog posts on everything from diaries and periodisation through to primary sources and academic life in general, although the general emphasis is on ordinary people and history from below.  You can read the latest post, browse by theme, or look at the posts in one of our mini-series or online symposia.


Dr Jonathan Willis is a historian of the English reformation, with interests in the history and theology of late-medieval and early modern Europe more broadly. His research focuses on the religious and cultural history of England over the course of the long sixteenth century.

Jonathan teaches on our History and Joint Honours with History programmes, contributing to lectures on the first year core module ‘The Making of the Modern World 1500-1800’ and has taught a Practising History B option on ‘Angels and Demons: the Disenchantment of the World?’. His second year teaching includes a Group Research module on the Tudors in film and television, and the option module ‘Reformation and Rebellion in Tudor England, c.1485-1558’.