Evesham in Worcestershire is one of those agreeable English provincial towns whose modest size preserves its medieval layout. It’s not hard to notice the absence at the heart of the town, a great green open space once occupied by a massive Benedictine abbey. Little of it is left: the remains of two monumental entrance gates plus a lofty detached bell tower, the latter dwarfing the two parish churches that once respectfully flanked an abbey church as large as Worcester or Gloucester Cathedrals. Evesham Abbey, founded when Mercia was a flourishing Anglo-Saxon kingdom, met its end on 30 January 1540, one of the last of the more than eight hundred English religious houses closed over the previous decade and a half. The final day of monastic life at Evesham witnessed the standard process of surrender by which Henry VIII’s government took possession of these ancient and supposedly perpetual corporations; but someone decided to add extra pointed drama to the occasion – probably the abbot himself, Philip Ballard alias Hawford (medieval Benedictines tended to acquire a second monastic surname, often the place they had come from).
The life of a monastery centres on worship, an intricate performance of chanted services rhythmically punctuating every day of the year. On the evening of 30 January the 35 monks of Evesham gathered in their choir stalls as usual to chant vespers, which they took as far as the words ‘Deposuit potentes’ – and then stopped. The sound died away in the great 13th-century choir. The monks had broken off halfway through the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving for the message that she would bear the Christ Child, destined to make all things new. A decade later an English version of the Magnificat appeared in Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, where ‘deposuit potentes’ was translated as ‘he hath put down the mighty [from their seats]’. So, there was a grim and ambiguous humour in this moment: was mighty Evesham’s destruction a moment for grief, or for hope of a new world to come?
The abbey, dedicated to that same Lady Mary, was soon given over to demolition, not least by the townsfolk of Evesham, who were not displeased to acquire an apparently inexhaustible supply of good building stone. The 35 monks put down from their seats in the abbey choir were assured of a pension from the bureaucracy set up by Henry VIII and his details man and fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Abbot Hawford’s career was not over; he died seventeen years later as dean of Worcester Cathedral, also lately a Benedictine monastery. While abbot of Evesham, Hawford had been a loyal henchman of Cromwell’s, but as dean at Worcester, appointed by the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, he spent lavishly on renewing the architectural splendour of his cathedral after Protestant iconoclasm. As his work took shape, it looked for a year or two as if old Catholicism (or new Counter-Reformation) had triumphed in Worcestershire, but Mary died only a year after Dean Hawford. Her successor, Elizabeth I, once more turned religion to Protestantism, including the closure of the few monasteries, nunneries and friaries that Mary’s Catholic restoration had begun to coax back into life.
The dissolution of the monasteries is an old tale oft told: the most decisive and dramatic change of the English Reformation. It was the speediest such operation in Europe: Henry VIII’s phase of the process spanned a mere eight years between 1532 and 1540, while Protestant Scotland took around forty years from 1560 to empty the convents. This was despite the fact that England boasted far more monastic houses than elsewhere in Northern Europe, in an extraordinary variety of sizes and functions. The oldest, like Evesham, were older than the kingdom of England itself, but a large proportion testified to pious Anglo-Norman energy after William I’s conquest of England in 1066, resulting in the formation of a diverse range of communities whose distinctive ‘rules’ for communal life were an implied criticism of the monasteries that had gone before. Well-functioning monasteries constantly do their best to reform themselves, because monastic life is always prone to lapse into unheroic comfort and modified austerity.
A more radical critique emerged at the end of the 12th century, with a great proliferation of new and distinctive communities called friaries. Medieval monks and nuns lived mostly enclosed in their precincts so that they could pray and worship apart from the world, supported by the great landed estates that made this renunciation financially possible. Friars (fratres, ‘brothers’), contemptuous of the wealth that such resources produced, avoided large endowments and deliberately made themselves dependent on the continuing generosity of laypeople beyond their walls. In return they directed their energies into society, and were active in the spiritual support of ordinary folk: hearing confessions, preaching, saying masses to save souls from Purgatory or Hell. They tended to place their friaries on the edge of expanding towns and cities, and in England’s two expanding universities at Oxford and Cambridge.
By the third month of 1540, this eight-centuries-old accumulation of communities under monastic and fraternal rules had ceased to exist. Protestants, anxiously scrutinising Henry VIII’s eccentric effort at Reformation to see whether it chimed with their theological concerns, rejoiced amid the wreckage. They regarded monastic life as part of the confidence trick played on the people of Europe by the bishop of Rome’s corrupt Church. Communities of useless and idle celibates offered false roads to salvation, pretending to save the faithful with their prayers and feigned contemplation of the divine, teaching them lies in sermons, doling out meaningless penitences in the confessional – generally stopping people from finding out God’s truth for themselves. In the late 1540s, the much more self-consciously Protestant government of Henry’s son, Edward VI, delivered the coup de grâce to the old system. It closed and confiscated the endowments of the thousands of chantries where non-monastic priests still celebrated masses for souls. In doing so it killed off a host of accompanying devotional practices and beliefs.
Protestant joy was checked when it became obvious that the huge wealth released by the dissolutions had generally gone into the pockets of the wealthy, rather than being redeployed for godly purposes. In time, some among the new Protestant establishment became a little sheepish at the sight of the countless monastic ruins that remained so obvious across England’s varied landscapes – sometimes neutralised as picturesque garden features, as at Richard Tracey’s Cotswold mansion, which cannibalised parts of the former Hailes Abbey; sometimes gaunt safety hazards like Crowland Abbey church, where the tottering nave roof-vaults (twin to those in Westminster Abbey) loomed over the parish church and across the expanses of the Fenlands for a century and a half before they collapsed into rubble. Shakespeare, a sensitive barometer of the late Elizabethan Protestant mood, portrayed autumnal emotions in Sonnet 73, where twilight haunts ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’.
Had it all been worth it? Roman Catholics knew the answer to that from the start, though many Tudor Catholics weren’t slow to snaffle the monastic acres sold off by the crown, or to commission lavish transformations of monastery buildings into stately homes. By the 19th century, English romantics of all persuasions echoed Catholic fury at the destruction and waste. Blame was usually diverted from Henry VIII (Victorian England’s hero) to his best servant, Cromwell. The music hall star Marie Lloyd described herself as ‘one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit’, though she was regrettably unspecific as to whether she was pointing the finger at Thomas or his collateral descendant Oliver (also no slouch at creating ruins).
Amid much that is familiar, James Clark’s absorbing and formidable study presents much that is refreshingly new, as might be expected after a lifetime of scholarly work on late medieval English monastic life. Clark corrects the common impression that monasteries in their last 150 years of existence were a long way from past glories, and that this explains the ease with which they were destroyed. He provides plenty of evidence for liveliness and initiative even into the 1530s. The architectural record has always suggested this: that great bell tower at Evesham had only been topped out a few years before the monks sang their last half-Magnificat. Such building wasn’t merely the self-indulgence of cloisterers with more money than sense, shutting their ears to the rumbles of Protestant revolution – most remarkable is the fact that in the 1530s an unprecedented number of monks were leaving their cloisters temporarily, as part of their intellectual training, to attend university in the special monastic colleges quite recently founded in Oxford and Cambridge. Monastic populations were rising, especially in the larger houses, as they had not done since England’s demographic disasters in the 14th century, and there were recruits to the monastic life even in its last year.
A politically aware head of house would no doubt also have rejoiced that the royal family took such an active interest in the monastic life. This might not always be convenient, since both Henry VII and his son were adept at ferreting out ancient royal rights that had lapsed, relied on monasteries to house old servants who needed a retirement home, and took a far more active part than their predecessors in choosing new abbots. Yet all this was paired with Henry VII’s truly exceptional plans for a permanent memorial for himself: a thanksgiving for having become the least likely king of England since William in 1066. Henry placed his tomb in Westminster Abbey, served by the most elaborate chantry chapel in English history, but this was only the centrepiece of a series of arrangements involving a consortium of the greatest Benedictine abbeys in the realm. Abbots found themselves enjoying a new political prominence in early Tudor England. Given all this, it was easy to misread Henry VIII’s activist intervention in the 1530s as reform and not destruction.
But would it really have been a misreading? This is where Clark’s account is at its most rewarding, and indeed could have been taken further. For there is no sign until the very last twelve months of monastic life that there was any masterplan for complete suppression. The man most responsible for the dissolution process, Thomas Cromwell, was eminently qualified, since his public career began in 1524 when he was tasked with dissolving some monasteries. But that had not been for the king: his then master was the greatest prelate of the old Church, Thomas Wolsey, cardinal legate and personal representative of the pope in England, doubling as Henry’s lord chancellor. Cromwell’s job was to carry out Wolsey’s scheme for his own permanent memorial, designed with typical chutzpah to upstage the recent arrangements for Henry VII at Westminster Abbey. There would be a tomb, of course, and like the late king’s monument it would be the work of Italian sculptors (this was actually the reason Cromwell had landed his job, because, most unusually for an Englishman, he knew Italy and Italians at first hand).
The suppression of monasteries that was also part of Cromwell’s brief made Wolsey’s chantry arrangements very different from those of Henry VII. To support this ‘legacy project’, monastic revenues would pay for two deluxe and non-monastic colleges of priests, with a dual purpose of praying for the cardinal’s soul and of teaching students. One of these colleges, in Wolsey’s birthplace of Ipswich, would be a school sending promising boys into university life at the other college, Cardinal College, Oxford. This background is crucial when it comes to understanding the later royal dissolutions. Wolsey’s idea was not original, since it echoed successful earlier schemes, in particular those of Henry VI, whose memorial twin colleges of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, were also financed by dissolutions. There was nothing perverse about approving this as a good and Catholic programme of church reform. Wolsey was not to know that his efficient manager Cromwell was already interested in the new and more radical Reformation promoted in mainland Europe by rogue clerics such as Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. Wolsey’s dissolutions went ahead: 29 mostly small monastic houses, nothing on the scale of Henry VIII’s later programme, but still a model for what came next. In short: monasteries into colleges.
This is where Clark’s account needs reinforcement, as events in the 1530s begin to move at a frightening pace. He faces the problem of anyone trying to comprehend what happened, drawing on a vast archive of manuscript sources that nevertheless don’t reveal everything that we would like to know, and concerning hundreds of institutions across the kingdom. Any account must be pointillist in character. The danger, however, is that we may miss the significant shapes that emerge from these myriad individual points. An extra hazard is that many of the documents have been misdated in the past and need putting in the right chronological order (Clark’s text itself has accumulated a tally of small slips that ought to be sorted out for the paperback). Henry VIII’s dissolution programme was a political event, but Clark’s account is almost the dissolution with the politics left out: a monk’s-eye view, when we need other perspectives as well, particularly from the royal court.
What needs to be added? First, we need to be told more about Cromwell’s further tentative experiments in specimen dissolutions in 1532, soon after he had established himself in the king’s confidence. There were three or possibly four dissolutions in this programme; between them they exposed logistical problems demanding solutions, and also suggested to Cromwell that a good deal of trouble might follow if the programme was extended. The next important stage, in 1535, was a visitation of monastic institutions and colleges, headed not by a bishop or a monastic head of house, but by Cromwell himself. He used ‘vicegerential’ powers, which he exercised in the name of the king, but which looked uncannily like the jurisdiction exercised on behalf of the pope by Wolsey.
The historian Anthony Shaw has traced the progress of this vicegerential visitation in a miniature masterpiece of detection, reconstructing its dynamics month by month – and demonstrating that such reconstruction is eminently possible. It all led up to parliamentary legislation in 1536 providing for the closure of smaller monasteries, but this legislation in fact represented a defeat for Cromwell’s suggested strategy of imitating Wolsey’s piecemeal dissolutions, in order to avoid a national explosion of anger. His instinct was right, as the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace proved later that year. This was the most serious challenge to the Tudor monarchy across the entire century, and was nearly fatal to Cromwell’s own career. He was already shouldering the blame for knocking all those ruins about a bit.
And yet, if we stand back from what was happening, and forget the pilgrims’ fury, royal policy from 1532 to 1536 can be seen to represent a winnowing of monastic life with the same rationale as Wolsey’s. It concentrated its destructive power on the Anglo-Norman element, since many of the surviving houses from the 11th and 12th centuries were now unfeasibly small by Tudor standards. This meant that the dissolutions up to and including the 1536 act spared at one chronological extreme the Anglo-Saxon behemoths like Evesham and at the other, a very select group of impressively devout and much more recent houses, mostly founded by English monarchs or their families – Syon’s Bridgettine double monastery, Carthusian houses in London and Sheen, and Franciscan Observant friaries near the royal palaces. That is indeed what the act said about its purpose, praising ‘divers great and solemn monasteries, where, thanks be to God, religion is right well kept and observed’.
This was of course music to the ears of reform-minded abbots, who probably approved of many of the provisions in Cromwell’s visitation injunctions of 1535 (particularly the emphasis on good education and study), and may well have felt that he was their friend rather than their foe. He did indeed know many of them well, and made a great personal impression on some of the monks when he stayed at Evesham’s near neighbour, Winchcombe Abbey. Significantly, the monks who were arriving at the universities in increasing numbers at this time were spending their years of study in colleges very like the non-monastic ones run by ‘secular’ (non-monastic) priests. It was an alternative and no doubt attractive vision of community life. Monastery or college? One did not need to be a Protestant to anticipate change with some pleasure.
In 1537 a new dynamic emerged after the barely achieved defeat of the Pilgrimage. The crucial event was a marriage: Cromwell achieved the stunning coup of marrying his teenage son, Gregory, to Elizabeth Seymour, sister of the current queen, Jane. In an informal sense, the brewer’s son from Putney became the king’s uncle by marriage. This new situation outraged a previous royal uncle by marriage, Anne Boleyn’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk needed pacifying, not least because he was the biggest snob in all Tudor England, but more specifically because if anyone was responsible for defeating the Pilgrimage of Grace, it was him. Cromwell could not afford to antagonise Norfolk further.
Accordingly, the two men struck an unsentimental deal in autumn 1537: a clutch of monasteries in southern England fell into their hands, with generous collateral benefit for Cromwell’s own newly acquired fixer, Thomas Wriothesley, rewarded for services rendered. Central to the plan was the fact that Gregory needed a splendid house for his royal bride. This was provided by Lewes, a stunningly wealthy Cluniac priory in Sussex, conveniently far away from Norfolk’s interests, although part of his historic inheritance; the good folk of Lewes were very excited at the thought of the queen’s sister living on their doorstep, and were deeply disappointed when the young couple failed to arrive and celebrate Christmas in the former priory buildings. The necessary dissolutions needed to be sorted out at high speed (not least because the new Elizabeth Cromwell was advanced in pregnancy), and so for the first time every monk in a dissolved monastery was guaranteed a pension, to avoid anyone being obstructive. This policy was adopted for subsequent suppressions – all as a result of the Cromwell-Seymour marriage.
Finally, the reader needs to understand how a Wolsey-style plan for turning monasteries into colleges worked out in the helter-skelter eighteen months down to March 1540, when the very last monastery closed at Waltham Holy Cross in Essex. While the friaries of England were being closed in one twelve-month clean sweep starting in spring 1538, people who were in a position to know still believed that it was government policy to refound major Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries as colleges of priests. Here the unanimity across the religious spectrum is striking. A central government figure like Thomas Audley, the lord chancellor, proposed the refoundation of Colchester and St Osyth’s in his home county of Essex; the aggressively Protestant Bishop Latimer of Worcester mooted Great Malvern in Worcestershire, further suggesting two or three such refoundations in each county. Cromwell himself put a slightly surprising amount of effort into proposing Walsingham Priory in Norfolk (minus its famous shrine of Our Lady); his northern Protestant client Robert Ferrar advocated for his own Nostell Priory in Yorkshire as a new preaching centre and school. Abbot Sagar of Hailes Abbey imagined his house to have a future like Walsingham, as a college purged of its cult object of Christ’s blood. Among religious traditionalists, Norfolk had plans to remodel the Howard mausoleum church at Thetford, having already obtained the king’s consent to make this Cluniac priory into a college. Remarkably, Norfolk proposed to model the new Thetford College’s statutes on those that had recently been written for Stoke College in Suffolk (always non-monastic) by an unmistakeably Protestant Cambridge don, Matthew Parker.
What happened to this apparently nationwide plan? Clark could have speculated more, though the answer is fairly clear: Henry VIII cut across the expectations of everyone, from Cromwell downwards. By 1539, the Holy Roman emperor and the king of France had come to an understanding after years of hostility, leaving Henry feeling desperately vulnerable. His fears sent him scurrying to his military engineers to order a great southern coastal defence programme. It produced state-of-the-art new fortifications from St Michael’s Mount to Lowestoft: many still impress, not least by their evident cost. No other single countrywide scheme was built on the same scale before the 19th and 20th centuries. The vast expense made the confiscation of estates from the remaining monasteries much more tempting.
Nevertheless, despite the financial windfall from the monastic closures in 1539, fragments of the old plan remained. Two great abbeys, Thornton in north Lincolnshire and Burton in Staffordshire, did indeed become colleges on a generous scale, pure specimens of the scheme, and they remained on their new course into the 1540s. Adding to the sense of open-endedness around these events, they must have continued in their communal life through a period of limbo after Cromwell’s execution in 1540 before being officially refounded, rather like the supposedly dissolved monastic colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, which have mostly persisted in one way or another down to the present day. Besides Thornton and Burton, all the English cathedrals that doubled as monasteries were remodelled (minus one, Coventry, a secondary cathedral in its diocese, but plus Christ Church Dublin) and some abbeys were promoted to cathedrals, Westminster Abbey among them. At the time, these new cathedral foundations were called ‘colleges’; they remain the most lasting fragment of Henry VIII’s Reformation, still among the chief glories of the Church of England. When preparations for Parliament began in early 1539 with an act about dissolution that merely clarified the legalities of the process, the future of the monasteries remained untidy and uncertain. The dissolution was not a certainty until it was complete. What it was not was a long-term scheme authored by Cromwell.
The whole dissolution process was thus analogous to the proverbial frog boiling in water: you might not notice until it had happened. This is a partial explanation for why Henry VIII got away with it, but there is more to be said. Even though the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536-37 was a very serious threat to the king – and was undoubtedly kick-started by the round of dissolutions in 1535-36 – puzzles persist about the parts of Henry’s realm that did not join in: conservative Wales and western England, the latter boasting as many if not more monasteries as the northern regions that did rebel. This is where Nicholas Orme’s excellent book on the life of medieval England’s parish churches complements Clark’s work. What it suggests is that it was possible, even if you were a religious traditionalist, to experience the Henrician Reformation, complete with monastic dissolutions, as the tidying of a system rather than its destruction.
This was because the devotional life of most people in England carried on regardless of the passing of monasteries, in the thousands of parish churches that served (and still serve) the general population. Orme provides an absorbing and detailed picture of the Church’s daily involvement in every aspect of people’s lives, an involvement the dissolution process did little to disturb. It is an essential feature of the English Reformation that it hardly affected the parish structure of England at all: there was some simplification and amalgamation, but not nearly as much as the drastic local changes made by the Protestant Church of Scotland, and also spectacularly less destruction and rebuilding of church fabric than took place north of the border. Hence that special feature of the English countryside or historic towns: the presence of recognisably medieval and often magnificent parish churches, despite a Protestant Reformation.
It is a happy coincidence that Yale has simultaneously brought out two books on such allied topics, both written by professors of history at the University of Exeter. Yale has served Orme especially well, with superb colour illustrations integrated straight into his text (an example others might follow). His subject is inherently visual in all its aspects, from the architecture of church buildings to the teeming daily activity that went on inside and around them. Some of his pictures might seem a bit of a cheat, since they illustrate French or Flemish rather than English scenes. Actually this doesn’t matter too much, because between 700 and 1550, popular worship evolved across Northern Europe in broadly similar ways. The network of parishes, each parish with at least one church building serving it, was created over a couple of centuries up to around 1200, after which time virtually every acre of Northern Europe lay under the pastoral eye of a priest appointed for the task. I live on the edge of one of the exceptions to prove the rule, the vast open expanse outside Oxford called Port Meadow, which was too valuable a communal resource for any one parish to absorb it; consequently, ancient formal agreements allowing horses and cattle to roam freely over it are still in place, probably predating the parish system and maybe even English Christianity itself. Oxfordshire boasts an unusual number of these cartographical black holes. For the most part, though, Anglo-Saxon kings and noblemen busily founded local churches for their estates which morphed into parish churches. They infilled or outflanked the earlier and more dispersed system set up after the mission from Rome in 597, which had established greater church buildings called minsters, whose staff of clergy ministered over a wide area.
The present-day Church of England, strapped for cash even if not too short on clergy, looks nostalgically at the minster as a possible antidote to the logistical problems of parishes, which in essence are still trying to fulfil the same function as before the Norman Conquest, offering a ministry to everyone who happens to live in a precisely defined area. In a few country places, jealously guarded ancient parish boundaries are still marked yearly by a processional perambulation of inhabitants ceremonially taking note of them. The perambulation was a medieval custom whose popularity if anything increased during the Reformation, which in other respects drastically reduced the variety of communal ceremony. The potential for alcohol-fuelled enjoyment in ‘beating the bounds’ was rather charmingly implied in the 17th-century records of the parish where I grew up, with the clerk describing them as ‘ramblations’. Things are tamer now, and safeguarding has curtailed the ceremonial beating of small boys at strategic intervals en route to reinforce their memories of local geography. But if you are reading this in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, you are a member of some parish or other, whether you know it or not.
The medieval Western Church was unique in Christian history in its religious embrace of everyone in society, with the exception of Jews – Edward I of England despicably solved that anomaly by expelling his entire Jewish population, starting a dismal trend elsewhere in medieval Europe. Orme’s subject is therefore much larger than churchgoing as it is experienced today: he is describing the way that everyone in English society behaved every day for half a millennium. He takes due and careful notice of those who didn’t fit in or had a loose relationship to the system even after the Jews had left; but it was really quite difficult not to conform in this society where everyone would notice if you were not inside the church building at some point during the week. All adults were expected to be seen in person at one of the many masses: in that daily-repeated drama, the priest invoked divine power to make bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, thus bringing the divine presence directly into the everyday world via the Church. Those out in the fields would hear the ringing of the church bell to mark the moment when this miraculous transformation happened.
The mass had a standard core throughout Western Europe, but its seasonal emotional colouring was kaleidoscopic, and the communal mood was shaped by the liturgical mood of church services. Half the annual calendar represented the life, public ministry, death and resurrection of Christ. There was feasting through the season from Christmas to Epiphany, austerity in Advent and then Lent, leading to three days of ceremonial grief at Christ’s death and burial, immediately followed by a joyful reversal of mood for the Resurrection at Easter, and general liturgical cheerfulness for weeks afterwards. The greatest image in any church was Christ on the Cross, but many of his saints were likely to feature too, especially his mother Mary, and their special remembrance days were also marked in the year’s round. The rhythms of the Church structured people’s sense of time; you were likely to date your letters or legal documents by the feasts and fasts of the Church. They also structured your passage through life. Your children would be baptised in the church font: from the 11th century onwards, it was increasingly likely that you would have been married in a church. After the final rites, performed by the parish priest or his assistant clergy, your body would be properly buried in the churchyard, or if you were exceptionally lucky, in the church itself.
In describing all this and more, Orme’s book inevitably invites comparison with Eamon Duffy’s masterpiece The Stripping of the Altars – yet another Yale book, now thirty years old. Duffy wrote with elegiac elegance about the effects of the Reformation on parish religion, unafraid to show his passionate sympathy with the old world. My historian friend Judith Maltby once mischievously observed to me that Duffy’s book is consciously or unconsciously modelled on the first three chapters of Genesis: the biblical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The first half of the book is a gorgeous tableau of English religion around 1520; it is intricate but static, like one of the beautiful altarpieces in Orme’s illustrations – as timeless and unchanging as Eden before Adam and Eve fatally disobeyed God’s command. Then comes 1533, Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and Duffy’s clock suddenly starts ticking: the rest of the book spools out as a chronology of the Reformation, and of Mary I’s brief effort to reverse it. Duffy ends his tale of destruction, England’s royally inspired expulsion from the Golden Age and papal obedience, in around 1580. The Fall is complete, as is England’s Reformation.
Orme’s timeframe is more ambitious than Duffy’s, taking us right back to Anglo-Saxon England, and as a result he constantly reminds us that medieval English religion was never immobile, but was always characterised by innovation and development. History, even the history of that remarkably uniform society of the Western Church in the millennium before Luther, marches on. And yet, contrariwise, Orme repeatedly argues that there are more continuities in parish church life across the Reformation divide than have commonly been realised. For instance, Archbishop Cranmer’s use of English rather than Latin in his reconstruction of worship was not a new experience for late medieval churchgoers. They were used to their priest speaking in English when leading them to suitable topical subjects for prayer, and they also said the most intimate vows of their life in English: ‘for richer, for poorer … till Death us depart’. It’s an interesting line of thought, poles apart from Duffy, and enjoyably contestable. Orme gives us the evidence to decide for ourselves.
One particular observation of Orme’s, about the nature of liturgy in the late medieval parish church, throws special light on the puzzle of how so many who thought of themselves as good Catholics managed to sit out the dissolution of the monasteries with reasonable equanimity. The weekly round of worship in a parish church was necessarily less elaborate than that in the greatest churches, which employed fleets of clergy to worship God with maximum prescribed ceremony. Nevertheless, the large-scale enterprises naturally provided a model for simpler local variants. Parish churches did not look for inspiration to the special forms of service followed by monks, nuns and friars, but to those devised for the cathedrals, the mother churches of the dioceses into which parishes were collected. Some cathedrals in England were also monastic – this was rare in the rest of Europe – but it was the others, those filled by secular clergy, that set the patterns or ‘Uses’ for parish churches. In England, the Uses of York, Lincoln and Bangor enjoyed various degrees of allegiance, but increasingly it was Salisbury Cathedral – New Sarum – which captured the market with its ‘Sarum Use’.
In the 1540s Henry VIII much encouraged the primacy of the Sarum Use for worship throughout the remaining churches of his kingdom. In this, he was going with the flow, not simply because there was now no single monastic church operating in England. The particular variant of cathedral Use hardly matters; the important thing is that very little changed in parish churchgoing despite the religious traumas of the 1530s, and that what did change had nothing directly to do with the dissolution of the monasteries. Why not let it happen, hope for the best and for a Catholic future, and maybe bargain for the nicest altarpiece at the local monastic closing-down sale, carrying it back in triumph to the parish? When those 35 monks stepped down from their choir stalls at Evesham one January night in 1540, new futures in the king’s eccentric version of the Catholic Church beckoned. We know what was to come; they did not.
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