The ruining of the choirs

by
01 February 2013

This is emotive RC history, says Suzanne Fagence Cooper

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and conflict in the Tudor Reformations
Eamon Duffy
Bloomsbury £20
(978-1-4411-8117-6)
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 unsatisfactory Protestant".

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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 Yorkshire.

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