Through Trychay’s Eyes

Patrick Collinson

  • The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy
    Yale, 232 pp, £16.95, August 2001, ISBN 0 300 09185 0

Eamon Duffy’s celebrated The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (1992), which opened our eyes to the vitality of late medieval English Catholicism, was a book born when its author learned to drive. The motor car diverted him from other historical pursuits and took him to those East Anglian churches which, after a century of drastic iconoclasm, and a later century of Victorian ‘restoration’, still conserve so many precious vestiges of that old religion. If Duffy had been employed in, say, Keele, or Leeds, this might never have happened. So there is something to be said after all for the location of the University of Cambridge, which, as its denizens tend to complain, is a dank sort of fenny place with nothing to protect it from the chill winds of Siberia but the low hills of the Urals. Some thought that Duffy’s great book might have been called Christianity in the East – with reference to John Bossy’s brilliant and more wide-ranging anatomy of late medieval religion, Christianity in the West (1985).

The Stripping of the Altars was one of those rare books which have the power radically to alter our understanding of a large piece of the past. When A.G. Dickens published The English Reformation in 1964, reviewers predicted that it would stand the test of time as a nearly definitive account of its subject. ‘Masterly’, the TLS pronounced. ‘There is not likely to be a comparable study of the English Reformation in our lifetime.’ Dickens had certainly mapped out that great watershed in British history, a truly cultural revolution, more comprehensively than any of his predecessors in the field, paying as much – skilfully balanced – attention to the religious and social forces making for change as to its public and legislative enforcement as (in the words of an earlier historian) ‘an act of state’, a ‘parliamentary transaction’.

But Dickens was wrong in one crucial respect. Convinced that Protestantism was a more authentic version of Christianity than Catholicism, he believed that 16th-century England came to share that conviction, rapidly and voluntarily. Protestantism was an idea whose time had come; Catholicism, like Anglicanism today, a religion for declining numbers of mostly elderly people, in all respects ‘the old religion’. A conservative Yorkshire cleric who wrote a regretful account of the religious sea-change through which he had lived was accorded the title of ‘the last medieval Englishman’. ‘Will the Last Fellow Extinguish the Candles’, we are exhorted, apocalyptically, in the Combination Room of my college. In an essay on early Protestantism in Northamptonshire, Dickens found little evidence of his subject in the archives, yet managed to persuade himself that ‘a new climate of thought was provoking an ever broader rejection of the traditional claims of the medieval church.’ There ‘lingered a certain pious addiction to the old ways’, but even the clergy ‘failed to defend Catholicism with much conviction or success’.

It now seems unlikely that this can have been true of any part of England in the 1530s and 1540s. Within twenty years of the appearance of The English Reformation, a tidal wave of revisionism began to engulf it. First there was J.J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People (1984), which declared, in its opening sentence, that ‘on the whole, Englishmen and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came.’ For a time, it was possible to object that Scarisbrick, a card-carrying Catholic historian, would say such things. There was nothing from him about the pre-Reformation Lollard heresy, and only five words on the Marian persecution of Protestants: ‘Everyone now regrets the burnings.’

Soon, however, the penetration of county record offices to investigate the Reformation in the localities, research that Dickens had pioneered and in which he had encouraged a new generation, blew up in his face, and revealed that insofar as the process of reformation came from below, it was almost everywhere slow, contested and even in the long term less than a total success. Margaret Bowker’s The Henrician Reformation: The Diocese of Lincoln under John Longland 1521-47 (1981) swung the debate like Middle America in a Presidential election, since this large swathe of rural England, extending from the Humber to the Thames, appeared to contain very little precocious Protestantism; while Susan Brigden, who published London and the Reformation in 1989, found that even in London, it was a minority sect, at least until the early years of Elizabeth.

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