Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and
conflict in the Tudor Reformations
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT628
FROM the moment you set eyes on Eamon Duffy's collection of
essays on the English Reformation, you know where his allegiances
lie. The cover displays a gory image of martyrdom: Thomas More, his
neck on the block, waits for the axe to fall, and Cardinal John
Fisher's bloodied body is stretched out in front of Margaret Pole.
She clasps her rosary, knowing that she will be next.
Duffy uses the evidence of material culture like this fresco to
present a revisionist view of the upheavals of the 16th century.
The result is an emotive, often violent, description of the fate of
the Roman Catholic Church in England.
In one of his most compelling essays on "The end of it all",
Duffy sifts the evidence of inventories compiled in 1552 by parish
churches under the gaze of King Edward VI's officials. According to
this account, the new Protestant regime intended to "depersonalize
and desacralize" the ritual furnishings of the church. There would
be no more hoggling and may-games, or diriges for the dead.
Once-sacred objects, chalices, copes, and candlesticks, and the
silks and satins given by local families to adorn the Lady chapel
or the Easter sepulchre were now officially redundant. These
underpinnings of medieval parish life were "bulldozed away". The
crucifix on the chancel arch was pulled down, to be replaced by the
Tudor royal arms.
In his final essay, Duffy shows that Catholics found ways to
mourn their losses. The great monastic houses were in ruins, but
their beauty was reconstructed in loving detail by Elizabethan
writers. It is at this point that Duffy enters into the debate
about Shakespeare's religious leanings. A single line from Sonnet
73 - "Bare ruin'd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang" - is
presented as evidence of sympathy with the old religion. For Duffy,
Shakespeare's image of the deserted abbey makes him "a most
Duffy's research dwells on this problem. How, in the space of a
generation, could a vibrant Catholic world be dismantled? Memory
and forgetfulness, nostalgia and the rewriting of the past are
recurrent themes throughout the book. He considers how writers from
Bede to George Orwell characterised the relationship between the
papacy and the English. Apologists on both sides of the schism
resurrected the legend of King Lucius and the conversion of Britain
to support their arguments.
But Duffy also suggests that historians are still struggling to
escape doctrinal stereotypes. According to him, "visceral
Protestant sentiments passed into the blood-stream of the nation,"
and have coloured the writings of Geoffrey Dickens, Keith Thomas,
and Simon Jenkins. He also acknowledges that a high proportion of
revisionist historians - those who offer "a more positive
re-evaluation of late medieval religion" - are, like himself,
Catholic by upbringing. They are still resisting the thrust of the
Elizabethan injunctions to "take away, utterly extinct and destroy
all shrines . . . so that there remain no memory of the same".
So what was left after the whitewashing? In 1662, a parishioner
observed, "The church is like a waste barn: there is no images nor
saints, to worship and make curtsey to: little God in the box is
gone." For Duffy, "Reformation meant ruin."
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is an art historian based in