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When the old religion met its doom

13 July 2012

What was the English Reformation like in the parishes? Eric Ives investigates


Missing figures: the doom from Wenhaston, in Suffolk, which originally filled the top of the chancel arch. It was painted c.1480, and whitewashed over in 1549. The original painting was uncovered in 1892. The spaces for the carved rood figures are clear.

Missing figures: the doom from Wenhaston, in Suffolk, which originally filled the top of the chancel arch. It was painted c.1480, and whitewashed ov...

WOE betide anyone daring to change a church service. But, in the spring of 1534, parish priests in England were ordered to do exactly that. Midway through a village high mass, there was a pause to "bid the bedes" - that is, pray in English for the Church, the nation, and the local community. On that Sunday, however, instead of prayers for the Pope, the bishops, the clergy, and only then the King, the opening prayer was for "our sovereign lord King Henry VIII, being immediately under God the only and supreme lord of this Catholic Church of England".

That was how thousands of English men and women first heard that the King had ousted the Pope.

At Westminster, there had been two years of controversy, but few of the population at large knew or cared about such distant happenings. The Reformation was not only about national issues: to most of the country's peasants - who made up the bulk of the population - what mattered was the local parish.

Most parishioners were illiterate. All the Church expected of them was that they should be able to repeat the Paternoster, Creed, and Ave Maria, in Latin; know the Ten Commandments; and to know what were the seven deadly sins and the seven sacraments. They were also expected to confess to a priest before they received communion, once a year, at Easter - known as "taking one's rights".

What peasants valued was the Church's practical support for living and dying: "sacramentals", such as holy water, to ward off demons; and prayers, which were effectively pro-tective charms. Repeating "a bone of him shall not be broken" was held to be a good remedy for toothache.

Supremely, there was the mass. This was said by a priest, at the altar, sotto voce and in Latin, but, when he elevated the consecrated wafer ("the host"), people believed that they were "seeing God".

The mass was the only effective insurance available. In 1530, an auditor, travelling to Chester, paid for a mass to be said for him every morning, and added the cost to his bill. Above all, it was believed that masses could expedite an individual's passage through purgatory, and, in consequence, religion became "a cult of the living in the service of the dead".

FAST-forward 30 years. Now, you find English services that use a Book of Common Prayer, with congregations required to join in; "lining out" - people repeating each line after the priest or clerk; everyone, not just boys and male choirs, but women for the first time, singing the psalms and canticles; integral Bible readings; a sermon or a homily scheduled for each Sunday; and no prayers for the dead.

What this amounted to was a change from a religion of images and actions to a religion of ideas and words. Shrines and pilgrimage sites no longer dispensed divine grace. The eucharist ceased to be a drama where, his back to the people, a priest in eucharistic vestments recited words at a stone altar, and then held up the body of God. Instead, it was a symbolic meal at a moveable table in the nave or chancel, led by a minister wearing - or possibly not wearing - a surplice.

The laity joined in the liturgy, and received not just a wafer, but both wheaten bread and wine. The visual props were gone, including statues - some churches had had dozens. Instead of sacred pictures, walls were whitewashed and decorated with texts. In windows which had taught through images, there was now plain glass. There were no more sacramentals, and no more appeals to saints. Most noticeably, in place of the lifesize figures of the crucified Christ with his mother and St John, there appeared the royal coat of arms.

There was a downside - there were no supports for the illiterate - but the future lay with print.

THE first driver of this change was the new "Supreme head of the Church". Henry VIII certainly did not maintain "Catholicism without the pope". He adhered to the doctrine of transubstantiation, but otherwise intro- duced reforms as he thought appropriate, including changes and additions to the liturgy. For the first time, parishioners heard the Gospel and the epistle in English.


Henry undermined the death industry. The doctrinal formula that he laid down reduced prayer for the dead to prayer "for the universal congregation of Christian people, quick and dead". Monasteries and chantries were abolished.

Most significant of all, the King overturned a century-old ban by insisting that every church should provide an English Bible for all to read, although a statute of 1543 did attempt to prohibit "the lower sort" from reading the scriptures (publicly or privately).

The second impetus for change was a religious revival, which had been building up for more than a century. Thoughtful Christians were beginning to seek a more intimate experience of Christ, and personal devotions, such as to the Holy Name of Jesus, became increasingly popular. The buoyancy of the Lollard heresy points in the same direction.

Julian of Norwich and others found Christ through mysticism. Thomas à Kempis's masterpiece The Imitation of Christ was translated into English by order of Henry VII's mother. This revival was the seedbed of 16th-century reform, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

TENSIONS that would eventually split the revival began to emerge only in the 1510s. New and better Bible translations called in question core teachings of the Church. The peculiarity of England's ban on translation meant that reformers such as John Fisher and Thomas More, who initially welcomed better texts, found themselves attacking William Tyndale's New Testament when it was smuggled in from the Low Countries.

London was the hub. In 1535-36 a law student there, Robert Plumpton, sent his mother a contraband copy of Tyndale's New Testament, assuring her that God "will give knowledge of the scriptures as soon to a shepherd as to a priest". Continental ideas of reform began to spread through the trading networks of the south-east, with its easy communication with Europe. As the Bishop of Norwich complained, it was "merchants and such that hath their abiding not far from the sea" who became infected.

Royal action and spiritual revival were not comfortable bedfellows, and the result was a parochial roller-coaster. Reforming numbers grew, and so, too, did the noise they made. Preachers became bolder. Proclaiming the "word of God", Bible in hand, carried an authority that no traditional exhortation could match.

Some parishes became hotbeds of reform. Increasingly, transubstantiation was questioned, despite savage royal repression. On the other hand, a majority of parishes clung to tradition. In 1536, John Kene told Bristol that the new ideas were bringing in "damnable darkness and endless damnation". The parson of Wincanton attacked readers of Henry's approved Bible translation as "heretics, knaves, and Pharisees".

WHY, then, was change not resisted? Armed protest did erupt in 1536, but only in the sparsely populated north. At Lavenham, in Suffolk, in 1525, threats of violence had helped to force the withdrawal of a tax demand, but, when royal agents stripped the town's magnificent church of its treasures, some years later, nobody went on the march.

This suggests that only a minority of parishioners was committed absolutely. Traditional services were comforting - especially valued were rites of passage - but shops and alehouses stayed defiantly open during services, and youths played football. At Colchester, in 1542, half the parishioners dodged church: some were working, some were in the pub, one stayed in bed. These, the less engaged, are crucial to the Reformation story. Only they explain why loyalty to Henry VIII usually trumped dislike of his religious policies.

Perhaps the incidence of serious religion was much the same as it is in Britain today. There were, too, material advantages in conformity. There was confiscated church land to buy, and savings from pilgrimages, church ceremonial, and the veneration of shrines did not, as the Government asked, go to the poor. Once the late John Trotte's sons realised that he no longer needed praying for, they repossessed his Cullompton almshouse.

Henry VIII died claiming that "religion has been restored and . . . the truths of God . . . begun to be held in due reverence." He was wrong. Changes over the next 25 years would determine the future of religion in England.

Reformers welcomed Edward VI's moves to unequivocal Protestantism - one London parish even jumped the gun. Churches were stripped of such traditional furnishing as remained, most noticeably the roods. Successive prayer books abandoned transubstantiation; altars disappeared; and, in 1552, the prayer to consecrate the communion bread and wine was dropped.

Conservatives had tolerated English in the mass, but this was different. A rebellion alleging that "the new service is only like a Christmas game" got little support outside Cornwall and Devon. But many conservative parishes concealed sacred artefacts, and evasion flourished. Until prohibited, "Our Lady's mass" masqueraded as "Our Lady's communion"; and the Protestant advance hardened traditionalist self-identity.

UNDER Mary Tudor, that identity sharpened further. Cardinal Pole introduced the Roman Catholic emphases that would shortly be embraced by the Council of Trent. Protestants, equally, became better defined. To avoid the reintroduced mass, the wealthy went abroad, and many that remained kept their heads down. Mary burned the most prominent of them as a warning, only to find ordinary folk prepared to die for their faith. An official, exasperated by a Londoner, Juliana Living, burst out: "You care not for burning, by God's blood there must be some other way found for you." She replied: "What will you find any worse way than you have found?"

At the end of her life, Mary was still having to burn four or five "heretics" a week.

Hardening identities destroyed the hopes of the incoming Queen Elizabeth for minimum unity, based on a modified Edwardian Prayer Book. Some priests, especially in the north, opted out, and offered Catholic sacraments illegally. In 1566, the Pope forbade attendance at Anglican services, and recusants, as non-attenders were called, increased in numbers. Few could survive in isolation, but what guaranteed recusancy a long-term future was the protection of powerful families with local influence, who dared to harbour fugitive priests, and so maintained the sacraments. And, by an irony, such embattled communities were the perfect nursery for Tridentine spirituality.

Protestants, too, were unhappy with Elizabeth's somewhat old-fashioned settlement. Pressure on her to conform to advanced continental churches got nowhere. What did emerge was a "godly" lifestyle nicknamed "Puritan". Puritans did not desert the parish church, but sought to add a more intense spiritual experience. The clergy felt an overriding commitment to preach, and the laity "gadded" assiduously, travelling miles to hear an "edifying" sermon.

What of those outside both communities? Undoubtedly, many remained "neuters", going through the motions each Sunday. Nevertheless, Prayer Book religion is not to be written off as mere routine. The vernacular Bible, and services in "a tongue understanded of the people", exposed serious listeners to Christianity's demand for personal response. Liturgy and creeds, repeated Sunday by Sunday, instilled a double message almost by osmosis - trust God, and live a moral life. The Reformation was not a disaster.

There were abominations - Christians' slaughtering each other, supposedly to glorify God. But, despite that, religious revival did come, in the spirituality of Tridentine Catholicism, and the Puritan experience of vibrant faith and quiet, Prayer Book understanding of faith, and duty to God and others.

Professor Eric Ives is the author of The Reformation Experience (Lion, 2012).



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