Purgatory be damned

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery by Geoffrey Moorhouse
    Weidenfeld, 283 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 85089 2

The focus of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book is a great church with one of the most recognisable profiles in Europe: Durham Cathedral. The ‘last office’ – ‘office’ in its specialised meaning of a communal act of worship – was the last sung service of the Benedictine monks, which closed their life at Durham in the time of Henry VIII, on 31 December 1539. This is where Moorhouse starts, in a study of Durham that is more than just a study of Durham, and which is enriched by his usual stylish prose and eye for detail. The book would be a good place to begin if one wanted to understand the life of medieval English Benedictines and the brilliant bureaucratic and political skills that destroyed their world in the 1530s.

That New Year’s Eve was an end, but also a beginning, because Henry was planning something new for the vast Romanesque church on the loop of the River Wear. The cathedral was now his ‘New Foundation’, a freshly founded corporation of dean, prebendaries and ancillary staff created out of the cathedral priory in 1540; but it also remained the ancient church, with its penumbra of monastery buildings, complete enough to lend themselves for a scene or two in Harry Potter movies. Durham houses the tomb of early medieval Europe’s greatest historian, Bede, and that of another Anglo-Saxon monk, Cuthbert, probably a more effective bishop of Durham in death than in life. Cuthbert was also the name of the 16th-century bishop who did his best to steer the cathedral through the early Reformation: the thoughtfully traditionalist theologian and mathematical writer Cuthbert Tunstall (‘Dreaming Durham’, they called him at the time). It is through the prism of Durham, with its generous archive surviving from the Reformation and long before, that Moorhouse surveys Henry’s wider enterprise, which left England after 1540 with just one ghost of a monastery, out of around eight hundred corporate foundations standing in England and Wales eight years before. The story has often been told, but such an astonishing act of bureaucratic destruction bears revisiting, and there is no better vantage-point than the high peninsula above the Wear, looking south towards the sealing-wax and counting-houses of Westminster.

One of the oddities of the medieval Church in England was that more than half its cathedrals doubled as monasteries. This was very unusual elsewhere in Latin Catholic Europe, and occurred only in places with some English influence; the peculiarity dated from a reforming mood among kings and bishops in Anglo-Saxon times, when monasteries seemed the guarantors of best practice in the Church. The bishop was the nominal abbot of such a cathedral, even if he was not actually a monk: the real head, equivalent of a dean or provost in non-monastic cathedrals, was the prior, and so these exceptionally stately monastic houses were called ‘cathedral priories’. Henry VIII dissolved them all, but then refounded them all apart from Coventry, a spare cathedral in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield which was demolished, and Bath Cathedral Priory, a nominal cathedral in Bath and Wells, which looked more like, and became, a large parish church. Henry even elevated some former monasteries to be cathedrals for the first time: Westminster Abbey, Gloucester, Peterborough, Oxford, Bristol, Chester.

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