Dr Jonathan Willis BA (Hons), MA, PhD, FRHistS, FHEA

Department of History
Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History

Contact details

Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

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



  • PGCert Academic Practice, University of Birmingham
  • PhD in History, University of Warwick
  • MA in Religious and Social History 1500-1700 (Distinction), University of Warwick
  • BA (Hons) (First Class) in History, University of Warwick 


I joined the Department of History at Birmingham in September 2011.  I grew up in Sprowston, just outside the city of Norwich in Norfolk, and studied history as an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Warwick.  Following the award of my PhD in 2009 I spent six months as an early career fellow at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study, and in 2009/10 I lectured in reformation history and theology at Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion.  Between September 2010 and August 2013 I held a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (for one year at Durham, then for two years at Birmingham) for a project entitled ‘The Ten Commandments and the English Reformation.’  I formally took up my post as lecturer in early modern history at Birmingham in September 2013, and became senior lecturer in May 2016.


I am on study leave during the 2019-20 academic year.

Ordinarily, I contribute lectures to the first year core course ‘Reformation, Rebellion and Revolution: the Making of the Modern World’ and have taught a Practising History B option on ‘Angels and Demons: the Disenchantment of the World?’  At second year I have taught a Group Research module on the Tudors on film and television, and I teach the option ‘Reformation and Rebellion in Tudor England, c.1485-1558.  At third year I usually teach either an advanced option or a special subject focussing on religion and religious change in Elizabethan England.  At postgraduate level I convene the MA and MRes in Early Modern History, as well as the core modules 'Introduction to Early Modern History' and 'Writing Early Modern History: Sources and Approaches'.  I also teach on 'Historical Methods' and 'Beyond the Book', as well as supervising dissertation preparation and dissertations at both UG and PG level.

Postgraduate supervision

I am interested in supervising research projects on most aspects of the social, cultural and religious history of reformation-era England, especially concerning questions of theology, popular belief, religious practice, puritanism, parish religion, material and musical cultures, and religious education.

I have been/am currently involved in supervising MA dissertations, MRes theses and PhD theses on the following topics:

MA Dissertations:

  • 'The doctrine-making of 1537-8: the "Bishops' Book"'
  • 'The material significance of stringed instruments in the domestic environment in early modern England'
  • 'The Early Elizabethan Voyages of Exploration'
  • 'Female virtue and the ideal woman as presented in seventeenth-century English funeral sermons'
  • 'Divine wrath and punishment: a warning to mankind'
  • 'Archbishop Matthew Parker and the 1567 whole Psalter translated into English metre'
  • 'Experiencing fire in early modern England, c.1580-1680'
  • 'Defacing Gloriana: attacking effigies of the Queen in Elizabethan England'
  • 'Angels in early modern printed sermons'
  • 'Cultures of Catholic conspiracy in Elizabethan England'
  • 'The experience of mental disability in early modern England'

MRes and PhD Theses:

  • Susan Orlik, 'The changing interior of the English parish church, 1560-1640' (2012-2018)
  • Jan Tasker, 'Early English Drama and the Supernatural, 1530-1642' (AHRC funded - ongoing)
  • Tayler Meredith, 'Environmental Change, Natural Disaster and English Communities, c.1550-1650' (ESRC funded - 2014-2018)
  • Sally Wadsworth, 'Liturgical and musical change in the cathedral and parish churches of Salisbury, c.1480-1650' (ongoing)
  • James Taffe, 'The Careers of Ladies in Waiting at the Henrician Court' (MRes - 2014-2016)
  • Ellie Hedger, 'Soundscapes of Incarceration and Execution in Early Modern England' (AHRC funded - ongoing)
  • Elizabeth Crawley, 'Popular religious violence in Reformation England' (AHRC funded - ongoing)
  • Howard Barlow, 'Catholicism in post-Reformation Cheshire' (BRIHC funded - ongoing)
  • Chris Barnes, 'The post-reformation soundscape of worship in the dioceses of Gloucester and Bristol' (ongoing)
  • Zoe Screti, 'Alchemy and the Reformation in England' (CAL funded - ongoing)
  • Yasmin Vetter, 'The influence of transnational scholarly networks on the Elizabethan Church' (ongoing)

Find out more - our PhD History  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


My research explores the nature of religious, social and cultural change during the period of the Reformation, both in the lofty realm of doctrines and ideas, and also in terms of the effects of religious change on the lives, values and beliefs of the great majority of the people; who lived and died without ever reading, much less writing, a work of sophisticated theology.  On the most fundamental level, I am concerned with questions of belief and identity, the relationship between the two, and in the cultural history of theology.

My doctoral research looked at the relationship between church music and Protestant religious identity formation in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.  This involved considering the philosophical and theological origins of ideas about music, as well as a detailed exploration of the practice of music-making in key religious sites, the parish and cathedral church.  I also explored the ways in which music was used as a tool of religious instruction, propaganda and devotion, as well as its ability to foment both harmony and discord in a range of different communities.  I have published a monograph and a number of essays and articles stemming from this research, and this is an area in which I retain an active interest.

My last major research project, for which I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship from 2010-2013 by the Leverhulme Trust, was on the Ten Commandments and the English Reformation. The Commandments were a vitally important text, little known for most of the middle ages due to the pre-eminence of the Seven Deadly (or Cardinal) Sins.  All that changed around the time of the Reformation.  In England especially, the Decalogue rapidly became ubiquitous: a staple of religious education, church decoration, liturgical invocation, theological speculation and moral instruction.  Taken separately, the commandments speak to some issues of enormous significance for early modern belief and society – iconoclasm, violence, criminality, gender relations – but, taken together, the Law of God also assumed a central role in determining the new Protestant interpretation of  key theological concepts such as faith, good works, justification and sanctification.

My current project involves recovering some 'lost voices of the Elizabethan age' by examining a collection of virtually unknown letters in the English State Papers.  I am interested in recovering the religious, cultural, social, political and economic views, values and identities of a group of 'ordinary' people, whose voices would not ordinarily have been preserved by the historical record.  As part of this, I am also interested in exploring the cultures of counsel and complaint in Elizabethan England, by which ordinary people felt that they could legitimately seek redress for their personal troubles and grievances by writing to the Queen herself and her chief representatives.

Other activities

I regularly speak at conferences and seminars in Europe and North America, and I am a member of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies (CREMS).

I am a member and was also (between 2011 and 2015) General Secretary of the European Reformation Research Group (ERRG).

I sit on the editorial board of the monograph series St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, formerly published by Ashgate, now by Brill.  I also peer-review articles and am a frequent reviewer of books for journals including English Historical Review, History, Journal of British Studies, Reformation and Renaissance Review and Journal of Early Modern History.

I contribute to a collaboratively-authored early modern blog, the many-headed monster.

Some recent conference papers:

  • September 2019.  'A "frantick Person's Address to the Queen": Mental Health and Mental Illness in Post-Reformation England'.  European Reformation Research Group, Newman University.
  • September 2018.  'Smashing Iconophobia: navigating images in Post-Reformation England' (with Dr Tara Hamling).  Reformation Studies Colloquium, University of Essex.
  • September 2017.  'Remembering the Reformation: Epistolary Constructions of Religious Identity in Late-Elizabethan England.'  Remembering the Reformation, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.
  • August 2016.  'Lost voices of the Elizabethan age: the religious identities of some "ordinary" people as seen through their extraordinary letters.'  Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, Bruges, Belgium.
  • May 2014.  'Music in the post-reformation parish church: a theme and variations...'  Warwick Symposium on Parish Studies - Parish Soundscapes, University of Warwick.
  • April 2014.  'Picturing the Ten Commandments in the Post-Reformation English Parish Church.'  The Ten Commandments in medieval and early modern culture, University of Ghent.

Some recent seminar papers

  • 19 September 2016, 'Towards a Cultural History of Theology: The Ten Commandments and Popular Belief in Post-Reformation England', Interdisciplinary Early Modern Seminar, University of Cambridge.
  • 11 November 2015, 'Decalogue Boards and Popular Belief in Post-Reformation England', Centre for Early Modern Studies seminar, University of Exeter.
  • 3 February 2015, 'Puritanism and the Ten Commandments in Post-Reformation England', Religious History of Britain 1500-1800 seminar, Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London.
  • 16 October 2014, 'Picturing the Ten Commandments in the Post-Reformation English Parish Church.'  Thursday afternoon seminar, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.


Recent publications


Willis, J 2017, The reformation of the Decalogue: religious identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c.1485-c.1625. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History, Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108241526

Willis, J (ed.) 2015, Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham.

Willis, J 2010, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham. <http://openurl.ac.uk/?isbn=9781409400721>

Chapter (peer-reviewed)

Willis, J 2016, Ecclesiastical Sources. in J Willis & L Sangha (eds), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, Routledge. <https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138823648>

Willis, J 2016, Introduction: Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. in J Willis (ed.), Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 1-22.

Willis, J & Tingle, E 2016, Introduction, Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration. in J Willis & E Tingle (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, pp. 1-24.

Willis, J 2015, Music and religious identity in Elizabethan London: the value (and limitations) of the churchwardens’ accounts. in A Foster & V Hitchman (eds), Views from the Parish: Churchwardens' Accounts c.1500-c.1800. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, pp. 179-199.

Willis, J 2014, The Decalogue, Patriarchy and Domestic Religious Education in Reformation England. in J Doran, C Methuen & A Walsham (eds), Religion and the household. Studies in Church History, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge.

Willis, J, Mears, N (ed.) & Ryrie, A (ed.) 2013, Protestant Worship and the Discourse of Music in Reformation England. in N Mears & A Ryrie (eds), Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 131-150. <https://www.routledge.com/products/9781409426042>

Willis, J 2010, Nature, Music, and the Reformation in England. in P Clarke & T Claydon (eds), Gods Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World. vol. 46, Studies in Church History, Boydell & Brewer, pp. 184-193.


Willis, J 2016, 'Moral Arithmetic' or Creative Accounting? (Re-)defining Sin through the Ten Commandments. in J Willis (ed.), Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 69-86.

Sangha, L & Willis, J 2016, Introduction: Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. in J Willis & L Sangha (eds), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, Routledge.

Willis, J 2013, Repurposing the Decalogue in Reformation England. in D Markl (ed.), The Influence of the Decalogue: Historical, Theological and Cultural Perspectives. Hebrew Bible Monographs, no. 58, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, pp. 190-204.

Willis, J & Richardson, C (ed.) 2010, 'A Pottle of Ayle on Whyt Sonday': Everyday Objects and the Musical Culture of the Post-Reformation Parish Church. in T Hamling & C Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings. Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 211-220.

Book/Film/Article review

Willis, J 2010, 'Duffy, Eamon, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), Xiv + 249 Pp., £19.99/$28.50, Isbn 978 0 300 15216 6', Journal of Early Modern History, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 273-275. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006510X490093

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