Eamon Duffy explores further aspects of the English Reformation
SAINTS, SACRILEGE AND SEDITION:
Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations
by Eamon Duffy
(Bloomsbury, 2012, Hardback, 253pp, $45.00, ISBN: 978-1-44118-117-6. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Approximately 20 years ago English historian Eamon Duffy published a monumental work The Stripping of the Altars which challenged the prevailing interpretation of the English Reformation.
What is often referred to as the 'Whig' interpretation argued that by the time of the late medieval period, the Catholic Church in England had become so corrupt, moribund and despotic that it was easily swept aside at the time of the Protestant Reformation, which was enthusiastically embraced by most English people because it stood for liberty and freedom.
Duffy notes that the popularity of the film Elizabeth, which he describes as a "vulgar and sometimes unwittingly comical recycling of John Foxe's version of Reformation England" (p. 49), indicates that this interpretation of the Reformation is still with us.
Against this view of history, used to justify the Protestant hegemony for centuries, Duffy argued that despite certain weaknesses, the Catholic Church was a vibrant organisation which provided a coherent world view that was endorsed by the bulk of the population; its passing was lamented and Protestantism ultimately succeeded in England through the repression of Catholicism and when the generations who had remembered it had died out.
In Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition, Duffy revisits many of the ideas he explored in The Stripping of the Altars and explores in depth other facets. While there is an underlying thread to the material in this book, it could be described as a series of essays in which he explores aspects of the English Reformation. The topics range from a survey of the historiography (or writing of history) of the English Reformation, to the spirituality of St John Fisher.
One of the ideas Duffy commences with is the notion that Catholicism was somehow un-English. This was a central tenet of the Whig version of the Reformation: Catholics were regarded as a fifth column in league with England's enemies, such as the Pope and Spain, who were intent on seeing the victory of a Church associated with tyranny and despotism. Duffy argues that prior to 1534 this view was held by what he describes as a "lunatic fringe". Indeed, Protestantism was initially seen as a foreign import to Britain.
Although the King Lucius legend is now generally regarded as fanciful, in the 16th century it was generally believed that Christianity had come to Britain in the second century when King Lucius requested Pope Eleutherius to send missionaries. This was an integral aspect, for example, of Cardinal Pole's defence of Catholicism. By contrast, he argued that Protestantism began in Germany and many of the leading figures in the English Reformation were foreign imports.
It has been said that history is written by the winners. Gradually, in the reassessment of the Reformation, Catholicism began to be seen as the alien element, one key text in this being Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which recounted the fate of those executed during Queen Mary's reign. Both the Spanish Armada and Gunpowder Plot fuelled English fears of a Catholic takeover which developed through the 17th century, as there was a concern that the Stuart monarchs would – as ultimately happened – convert to Catholicism. Those who were instrumental in orchestrating the deposition of James II and the Act of Succession, which prevented Catholics from becoming the monarch or marrying an heir to the throne, used the historical account known as the 'Whig' history to justify the Protestant ascendancy.
However, Duffy notes that the Anglican Church's identity only gradually emerged. During the Elizabethan period, England viewed itself as the champion and defender of Protestantism and an integral element of an international Protestant movement, such a view being reflected in the public prayers prescribed to be said in churches after the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenots (French Protestants) in Paris in 1572.
It was only towards the end of Elizabeth's reign and into the Jacobean and Carolingian period that the more Catholic facets of Anglicanism, such as the retention of the threefold order of ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, were emphasised as the Anglican Church imaged itself as distinct from Protestant groups on the continent.
As with The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy considers in this work the material artefacts and suggests that these provide clear evidence of the vibrancy of late medieval Catholicism in England as the faithful literally 'put their money where their mouth was'. Most English parish churches were extensively refurbished or rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries and lay donations, often in the form of bequests in wills, were instrumental in much of this refurbishment.
By contrast, parishioners tended to see the actions of the church commissioners in the reign of Edward VI, charged with seizing items regarded as superstitious, as a 'cash grab' from which the government benefited. Such actions were frequently resisted, often in the form of items 'disappearing' only to re-emerge during Mary's restoration of Catholicism.
Another strategy employed – as by the parish of Salle, on which Duffy focuses in one chapter – was the sale of valuable metals, prior to the commissioners arriving so that the parish rather than the government benefited. Duffy also notes that the English did not automatically become Protestant – at least not in heart and mind – with Elizabeth I's accession. For example, Duffy notes that Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, wherein is found the phrase "bare ruin'd choirs", "decisively aligns Shakespeare against the Reformation" (p. 250).
Duffy notes that a number of scholars are re-assessing the English Reformation, many of whom, like Duffy, are Catholics. He suggests that this may be due to an increasing number of Catholics who have studied for higher degrees at university. However, their overall approach has antecedents amongst Catholic writers from the 16th century onwards, reflected in works such as Nicholas Sander's The Origin and Growth of the Anglican Schism first published in 1585. Duffy acknowledges, though, that this does not necessarily mean that Catholics produced the better Reformation historians. Quoting David Knowles, Duffy notes that late 19th century-early 20th century Catholic historian A. Gasquet's "capacity for inaccuracy amounted almost to genius" (p. 42).
Throughout the work, one detects the writer's wry sense of humour, which climaxes in his scathing critique of the film Elizabeth. For example, he describes the scene in which Elizabeth confronts the Catholic bishops as "one more than usually historically inaccurate" (p. 49).
Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition is an interesting read. Duffy balances both breadth and depth of material well and, given its length, it is a more accessible work for the average reader than The Stripping of the Altars.