Eamon Duffy’s celebrated The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (1992), which opened our eyes to the vitality of late medieval English Catholicism, was a book born when its author learned to drive. The motor car diverted him from other historical pursuits and took him to those East Anglian churches which, after a century of drastic iconoclasm, and a later century of Victorian ‘restoration’, still conserve so many precious vestiges of that old religion. If Duffy had been employed in, say, Keele, or Leeds, this might never have happened. So there is something to be said after all for the location of the University of Cambridge, which, as its denizens tend to complain, is a dank sort of fenny place with nothing to protect it from the chill winds of Siberia but the low hills of the Urals. Some thought that Duffy’s great book might have been called Christianity in the East – with reference to John Bossy’s brilliant and more wide-ranging anatomy of late medieval religion, Christianity in the West (1985).
The Stripping of the Altars was one of those rare books which have the power radically to alter our understanding of a large piece of the past. When A.G. Dickens published The English Reformation in 1964, reviewers predicted that it would stand the test of time as a nearly definitive account of its subject. ‘Masterly’, the TLS pronounced. ‘There is not likely to be a comparable study of the English Reformation in our lifetime.’ Dickens had certainly mapped out that great watershed in British history, a truly cultural revolution, more comprehensively than any of his predecessors in the field, paying as much – skilfully balanced – attention to the religious and social forces making for change as to its public and legislative enforcement as (in the words of an earlier historian) ‘an act of state’, a ‘parliamentary transaction’.
But Dickens was wrong in one crucial respect. Convinced that Protestantism was a more authentic version of Christianity than Catholicism, he believed that 16th-century England came to share that conviction, rapidly and voluntarily. Protestantism was an idea whose time had come; Catholicism, like Anglicanism today, a religion for declining numbers of mostly elderly people, in all respects ‘the old religion’. A conservative Yorkshire cleric who wrote a regretful account of the religious sea-change through which he had lived was accorded the title of ‘the last medieval Englishman’. ‘Will the Last Fellow Extinguish the Candles’, we are exhorted, apocalyptically, in the Combination Room of my college. In an essay on early Protestantism in Northamptonshire, Dickens found little evidence of his subject in the archives, yet managed to persuade himself that ‘a new climate of thought was provoking an ever broader rejection of the traditional claims of the medieval church.’ There ‘lingered a certain pious addiction to the old ways’, but even the clergy ‘failed to defend Catholicism with much conviction or success’.
It now seems unlikely that this can have been true of any part of England in the 1530s and 1540s. Within twenty years of the appearance of The English Reformation, a tidal wave of revisionism began to engulf it. First there was J.J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People (1984), which declared, in its opening sentence, that ‘on the whole, Englishmen and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came.’ For a time, it was possible to object that Scarisbrick, a card-carrying Catholic historian, would say such things. There was nothing from him about the pre-Reformation Lollard heresy, and only five words on the Marian persecution of Protestants: ‘Everyone now regrets the burnings.’
Soon, however, the penetration of county record offices to investigate the Reformation in the localities, research that Dickens had pioneered and in which he had encouraged a new generation, blew up in his face, and revealed that insofar as the process of reformation came from below, it was almost everywhere slow, contested and even in the long term less than a total success. Margaret Bowker’s The Henrician Reformation: The Diocese of Lincoln under John Longland 1521-47 (1981) swung the debate like Middle America in a Presidential election, since this large swathe of rural England, extending from the Humber to the Thames, appeared to contain very little precocious Protestantism; while Susan Brigden, who published London and the Reformation in 1989, found that even in London, it was a minority sect, at least until the early years of Elizabeth.
Christopher Haigh, who describes himself as an ex-Methodist Anglican agnostic, decided that this revisionist band needed a leader, and headed into battle with a stream of publications that came to full fruition in English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society Under the Tudors (1993), in all respects a work of deconstruction. A series of disconnected, lower case reformations, part political, part religious, had passed most people by. Haigh concluded with a two-word sentence: ‘Some Reformations.’
But it was The Stripping of the Altars, which had appeared only months before Haigh’s book, that caught the public imagination, partly because the author, who is not an ex-Methodist agnostic, had boundless sympathy for the traditional religion of late medieval England. To be sure, there was no mistaking the polemical nostalgia that had characterised negative accounts of the Reformation for two centuries, from Cobbett to the tear-stained pages of Cardinal Gasquet and the belligerence of Belloc: ‘Heretics all, whoever you may be,/In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,/You never shall have good words from me./Caritas non conturbat me.’ Duffy could never have written anything as unpleasant as that. But he could have been the target of Robert Browning’s jibe (in ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’) about ‘that dear middle-age these noodles praise’, when, ‘you’ll say, once all believed,’ from Henry VIII to the ploughman with his paternoster.
So it was not a book above and beyond criticism. How ‘traditional’ was this traditional religion (a question Duffy himself asked)? Did Duffy succeed in convincing us that ‘superstition’ was an inappropriate term to apply to religious practices that included swallowing bits of paper on which were written prayers of dubious provenance, and to the belief that to hear the opening words of St John’s Gospel read at morning Mass would ensure that you would not die a sudden death that day? (He did convince us that such beliefs were shared by rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike, and so were not, in the conventional sense, ‘popular’.) Had he deliberately averted his gaze from areas of the pre-Reformation Church where it was not all sweetness and light – many of the towns, for example? Surely it was wrong to suggest that the politicisation of religion began with Henry VIII. What about Henry IV and Henry V, and the statute de haeretico comburendo? Did the insecure hold on power of these Lancastrian usurpers have nothing to do with their fierce religious orthodoxy? Above all, Duffy was criticised for failing to provide a sufficiently convincing explanation for the strange death of Catholic England, beyond, that is, the confused motives of the royal deus ex machina. And this was a structural weakness in a work which resembled a diptych, two books loosely hinged together. It was as if one came back to a play after the interval to find the stage occupied by new characters busily destroying the things celebrated and admired in Act One, for reasons not adequately explained.
None of this matters all that much. The Stripping of the Altars was not only a rich and beautiful re-creation of a world that was lost – its seasons, its saints, its devotions, religion as something transacted by the living on behalf of the dead, the souls in Purgatory, the Mass as the source of community, the innernesses and the demonstrative outernesses of late medieval religion. It was also evidently and in all essentials an accurate picture, or at least a great deal more accurate than Dickens’s ‘ever broader rejection of the traditional claims of the medieval church’. The conclusion that ‘traditional religion had about it no particular marks of exhaustion or decay’, and that the Reformation was ‘a violent disruption, not the natural fulfilment, of most of what was vigorous in late medieval piety and religious practice’ carried conviction. The Reformation was the result of contingency, not a teleology. But, unlike Haigh, Duffy has no doubt that it happened, and that eventually it proved to be what he has called ‘a runaway success’.
The Voices of Morebath, a pendant to The Stripping of the Altars, takes us to the West, and to the last years of traditional Catholicism in a remote Devon sheep-farming parish of 150 souls, lying between Exmoor and Dartmoor. It is a microhistorical threnody and lament for the many Morebaths of Tudor England.
Why Morebath? The answer is Christopher Trychay (pronounced ‘Trickey’), its vicar from 1520 to 1574, the most momentous years in English religious history; and the unique parish accounts annually rendered in Trychay’s own hand, allowing us to hear his accented voice throughout those 54 years. Duffy prints all quotations in their original orthography and punctuation, with translations into modern English appended. The Morebath accounts have been known to historians for more than a century, since J. Erskine Binney, vicar of the parish and a competent antiquarian, edited them for a local record society. But Duffy, working from the original manuscript, is the first to attune his sensitive and learned ear to the record’s myriad subtexts. And by correcting a tiny palaeographical error in Binney’s reading he has made a sensational discovery concerning Morebath’s role in the English Reformation.
It would be misleading, if conventional, to call the record ‘churchwardens’ accounts’. For in Morebath several accounts were annually audited (literally, spoken and heard), and recorded by Trychay: not only the accounts rendered by the ‘High Wardens’ but also from the several funds or ‘stores’ responsible for maintaining ‘lights’ before the church’s various images, some of them sustained by the ‘church sheep’, which were dispersed around the parish, one animal per household. Each year, Trychay would tell the assembled parishioners: ‘Now how many of our Lady scheppe be dede and gon this ere: and how many there be as yett a lyfe and yn hoo ys kepyng they be now schall ye have knolyge of’ (or ‘ye schall hyre’, or ‘y wyll schow you’). As the vicar conducted the annual sheep count around the parish, ‘a sort of verbal beating of the bounds’, Duffy suggests that he was engaging in a formal rhetorical exercise expressive of community.
The Alms Light (or All Saints Light), burning before the high cross, had its own warden. The Maidens (all unmarried girls of twelve or so) looked after the tapers lit before the image of the Virgin, and the popular Exeter saint, Sidwell, whose name was given to some of the infant girls christened in the 1530s. And for this they collected and accounted for small sums given ‘of devotion’. The store of the Young Men (all bachelors of communicant age) raised larger sums from parties (church ales) to keep the lights burning before the patronal image of St George.
Although ‘devotion’ is a somewhat inaccessible substance – we cannot weigh or measure the piety of four centuries ago – this is eloquent testimony to the almost total involvement of Morebath’s inhabitants in its religious life, something impossible to separate from what Duffy calls ‘the living tissue’ of the community. The outlay on new imagery, in Trychay’s heyday, was staggering: several sums of five or seven pounds (add three noughts to come near to modern values) when a year’s total parish income rarely exceeded eight to ten pounds.
Not that Morebath was simply a piece of Merry England. Modern Anglicans who sit on their PCCs will find some aspects of its affairs quite familiar. In 1537 a row about the payment of the parish clerk’s wages ruined the betrothal party for a young couple, for, the priest said, ‘all that day we resonyd schamfully a bout our clerkscheppe’. But, as John Bossy has taught us, late medieval religion was a peace-keeping operation in communities not naturally disposed to be at peace. Brotherhood referred to otherhood. (And ‘community’ itself was more a value than a thing.) Nor were the precious contents of Morebath church saved by their sanctity. Many modern churches, including my own, stand open to all comers (we lost our sacristy light last year). But not so 16th-century churches, which were often locked up. In November 1534, a thief used a ladder to break into the tower window and so down into the body of the church, where he stole a chalice and St Sidwell’s silver shoes. The Young Men and the Maidens immediately rallied with fundraising to replace the chalice.
But it was the outside world, not inner tensions and the odd local burglar, that altered for ever the religious and communal texture of the life of Morebath. From outside came the creeping process of official ‘reformation’, which in 1536 abolished or demoted the festival days which were focuses of religious feeling and regional pride, occasions for fairs and markets on which local economies depended, and in 1538 put out the lights before the various images, abolishing at a stroke the ‘stores’ which had maintained them, and the saints themselves, except as pieces of furniture. ‘If ye have heretofore declared to your parishioners anything to the exalting or setting forth . . . of images, or any such superstition,’ Thomas Cromwell’s Injunctions of that year insisted, ‘ye shall now openly afore the same recant and reprove the same.’ From mid-September 1538 Morebath obediently and completely abandoned the active promotion of the cult of the saints which had until then been the most striking feature of its devotional life.
Morebath looked to the future and made what it could of the injuries of the present. It bought a small chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, which had succumbed to the ‘reforms’ of 1538, pulled it down and used the materials to build a new church house, a place for convivial fundraising. But in 1548 the first Royal Commission of the new reign of Edward VI gave a thumbs down to church ales on account of the ‘many inconveniences’ to which they had given rise. That spelled the end of Morebath’s church house (the contents were sold for 46s. 2d.), and of the only significant source of income remaining to the parish. By 1549, ‘the parish was to all intents and purposes bankrupt, the interior of its church gutted, its ornaments defaced or confiscated and its remaining social institutions in disarray.’
And then, in the summer of that year, came the Prayer Book, replacing the Mass itself. Thanks to Duffy’s correction of Binney’s tiny error, we now know that at Morebath the worm turned. The parish equipped and sent five of its young men to join the Prayer Book rebellion besieging Exeter from St David’s Down (misread by Binney as ‘sent denys down’), three of whom probably never returned but were among those cut down at Clyst St Mary on 5 August 1549. The Exeter historian John Hooker, an eyewitness whose sympathies were with the Reformation, described what nowadays would be called an asymmetrical battle: ‘Notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain’ – one may add, by Spanish and German mercenaries. It is remarkable that Trychay dared to record this act of fatal treason in his accounts.
Trychay’s centrality in all these events is accentuated by our almost total dependence on his accounts. Most other records of the parish, including all of Morebath’s 16th-century wills, went up in smoke in a raid on Exeter in the Second World War. And, for all that he was ventriloquising his parishioners, Trychay’s voice is strikingly idiosyncratic, tirelessly careful for his people, but also for himself, even a little self-pitying. All the voices of Morebath are his voice. So this is the record of a personal tragedy. It was Trychay who introduced and built up the cult of St Sidwell, ensuring that her gilded image was equipped with silver shoes, Trychay who devoted twenty years to his pet project, the acquisition of an expensive black cope for funerals. And it was Trychay who watched as these valuable acquisitions were destroyed or hidden away. What must for ever remain mysterious is the alacrity with which Morebath complied with these devastating changes; and that, in the Elizabethan end of the story, Trychay became, to all outward appearances, some kind of Protestant, ministering and even preaching to a parish which had totally changed its religious identity. But to call him a Vicar of Bray would be an insulting caricature.
To see Morebath only through Trychay’s eyes, and in these accounts, is of course not to see everything, or even most things, in this little upland community of scattered farmsteads. We do not learn anything about his personal income, his tithes and about his parishioners as tithe-payers. The intricate sociology of marriage and inheritance, getting and spending, the mundane business of getting by for Morebath’s inhabitants, appears through Trychay’s eyes and voice as through a prism, and tangentially at that. Duffy’s regret for a little world lost is understandable and even justified, so long as we remember that other Morebath voices might have had other tales to tell. This is the problem with history, as a discourse with the dead. It converses with lost worlds, but can never hope to recapture what it might have meant actually to live in those worlds.
Those tempted to purchase The Voices of Morebath should look out for the second imprint, which appeared within weeks of the first. Yale University Press had underestimated the demand for anything written by this bestselling historian, and were obliged to reprint. But that gave Duffy the opportunity to insert a detailed description of Trychay’s vicarage, rediscovered at the 13th hour in a survey (one of the kind called ‘terriers’) of the early 17th century.