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Book review: Decorating the Parish Church in Post-Reformation England by Susan Orlik

by
04 August 2023

Was it the Laudians v. the philistines? William Whyte isn’t so sure

MELCOMBE HORSEY and Maiden Bradley, Lydiard Tregoze and Rime Intrinsica, Paulett and Puddletown, Trull and Thurloxton, Abbey Dore, Broad Blunsdon, Cerne Abbas, and Clyffe Pypard. The parishes of Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire have some of the most entrancing names of any in England. As this beautifully illustrated and intensely scholarly book reveals, they also possess scores of exceptionally intriguing and attractive church buildings.

Based on her 2018 doctoral thesis, Susan Orlik’s study is a painstaking survey of somewhat more than 100 churches spread across the three counties. What drove her to scour archives, raid libraries, and travel thousands of miles for field work was a determination to understand how these places were changed in the 80 years between 1560 and 1640. This was the period in which England became Protestant, in which the Church of England was established, and in which divisions opened up which would culminate in Civil War.

It is also a period of some obscurity in the architectural history of the Church. That something happened is clear. Successive injunctions from monarchs and bishops alike insisted on the need for change as well as the imperative of keeping the parish church well-maintained. Surviving remains show that many parishes took seriously such texts as the 1563 Homily for Repairing and Keeping Clean and Comely Adorning of Churches, with its assertion that it was “a sin and shame” to let the church decay when a building that was “well adorned and comely and clean kept” would make people “more desirous to resort thither”. Yet the relationship between words and deeds is opaque, and the material evidence is fragmentary. Put simply, the Victorians hated all this stuff and ruthlessly removed it when they could.

The result is a poorly charted landscape. There are scattered examples of pews and pulpits, communion tables and chancel screens. There is also a range of different written sources, from churchwardens’ letters to parliamentary legislation. Until comparatively recently, scholars tried to make sense of all this by emphasising a binary battle between Puritans and Laudians. Puritans, they suggested, were iconoclasts to a man, rejecting art, beauty, and any sort of ornament. The followers of Archbishop William Laud, by contrast, were depicted as aesthetes and connoisseurs, united in their desire for the Beauty of Holiness. When historians found anything decorative, it was described as Laudian. When it was absent, the Puritans were blamed.

Orlik’s book is part of a swelling revisionist wave. In Rime Intrinsica, Clyffe Pypard, and dozens of other euphoniously christened parishes, she discerns a more complex pattern. By delving into a succession of local studies, she is able to show that the Godly were not always philistines, that church communities were well able to make their own decisions about ornamentation, and that much once called Laudian was anything but. It is a singular achievement.

Its many full-colour illustrations will delight the eyes as well as stimulate the mind. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the book is a revelation. Much of the material is ordinary and everyday; but there are some stunning examples of design. The staggeringly accomplished carpentry at Bridgwater, the beautiful plasterwork in Axbridge, the extraordinarily enriched communion table of Thurloxton — these, and other case studies, help to establish the real importance and creativity of this period.

A social as well as architectural history, the book is also good on parish life. From the rector who suffered “unkindness” in a Somerset parish to the Dorset vicar who was condemned as “fitter for a pisspot than for a Pulpit”, Orlik manages to turn the caricatures of the past into real people.

All told, this is a triumph. It is a scholarly text: dense, rich in footnotes, emphatic in its determination to prove again and again that previous historians have been wrong. But in this, her first — and, very sadly, her last — book, Orlik established herself as a major historian of the subject.
 

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

 

Decorating the Parish Church in Post-Reformation England: Material culture, community and identity in Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, 1560-1640
Susan Orlik
Shaun Tyas £35*
(978-1-915774-03-3)
*available by emailing: shaun@shauntyas.myzen.co.uk

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