The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and
vulnerability before the break with Rome
G. W. Bernard
Yale University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code
GREAT pillars of the Church in Tudor England collapsed like
dominoes: papal power, monasteries, images, pilgrimages, and Latin
services. Did that signify the Church's vulnerability, or its
vitality - the fact that it was at the centre of royal policy and
national life, and emerged in some ways stronger than before?
Professor G. W. Bernard sets out to examine this issue before
the break with Rome. His book would be better entitled The Early
Tudor Church, because it begins with a study of the case of Richard
Hunne, allegedly murdered while in the Bishop's prison in London in
1514. It certainly considers evidence from the 14th and 15th
centuries, but does so chiefly to explain the period from the 1480s
to the 1530s, not to recreate the Church's history since 1300.
The author addresses a number of significant aspects: the
monarchy (dominant over the Church long before Henry VIII),
bishops, religious orders, parish clergy, the laity, criticism of
the Church, and heresy. His account is based on deep and wide
reading, mainly of published works, and it collects together a
large amount of valuable information. He is judicious and
detached, presenting neither an account of an England fervently
Catholic nor one of such superstition and corruption that it was
moving irretrievably towards Reformation.
Why, then, did I finish it with some disappointment? One reason
is the work of Eamon Duffy. He based his Stripping of the
Altars firmly on what happened in England's 10,000 parish
churches, especially on Sundays. It is understandable that a later
historian should wish to take a different approach, and Bernard
covers aspects of the Church which Duffy did not, but worship is
not really here. The word is not in his index; and nor is "liturgy"
or "service". Duffy used lay people's prayer-books to understand
their religion; these, too, are absent from this book.
Worship was the bedrock of the Church. Whatever the apparent
changes of the Reformation, a Sunday mid-morning service, led by a
priest and clerk, with a set liturgy that did not expect literacy
and involved the parishioners very little, while they sat in order
of rank on pre-Reformation seating looking at a pre-Reformation
rood screen, survived the 16th century in all these respects. Any
church history needs to emphasise this.
It is a challenging task to deal with the range of topics
addressed in the book. One needs to be careful in saying that
friaries were endowed (this was hardly true in most cases); that
the basic prayers were readily available in English (most
primers were in Latin until the 1530s); or that there was a
"profusion of chantries" in parish churches (most churches had
none). What the author calls "confraternities" were actually a
range of institutions: stores, companies of young men, maidens, and
wives and guilds. "Confraternity" is best used of the associations
run by religious houses which had little social basis.
This is a useful book, but it struggles to summarise the
complexity of the Church in the early 16th century, after 1000
years of organic growth. Worship, as Duffy realised, is an
essential part and a uniting strand.
Professor Orme's books include histories of Exeter Cathedral and
of the Church in Cornwall.