Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Reformation and cultural change

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
It was dissolved in 1539 and the abbot was
hanged for treason.
I have used the following books (among others) for this post:

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Sutton, 2004)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992)
Eamon Duffy, Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2001)
Christopher Haigh, English Reformations:Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Clarendon Press, 1993)

The changes to church and state brought about by Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the religious policies of his successors had profound cultural consequences and this is only a very brief account. 

The dissolution of the monasteries

At first the government’s moves were aimed only at the smaller religious houses (those with incomes of less than £200 pa). This inspired a series of revolts in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in 1536 and 1537, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebels marched behind the banners of the Five Wounds of Christ and of St Cuthbert. Economic grievances and northern resentment at a policy dictated from the south were mingled with religious outrage. Ballads lamented the economic distress they thought would result from the loss of monastic charity. This was the last serious attempt to halt the process of the Reformation in England - and it failed.

The rebellion gave the government the excuse to dissolve more monasteries. In September 1538 the shrine of Thomas Becket was destroyed; chests of jewels were carried away so heavy that ‘six or eight strong men’ were needed to lug one box and twenty carts to carry them away.  An Act of April 1539 recognized the dissolution of the larger monasteries. By this time monasticism was only a shell. There was not much left to dissolve and the Act’s main function was to recognise surrenders already made. In April 1540 Waltham Abbey surrendered - the last to go.

Many of the monasteries then became private houses or parts of the buildings were seen as a valuable investment. In 1613, at the very end of his playwriting career, William Shakespeare made a substantial investment in property in London, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, where the Blackfriars Theatre was located, for £140. Others, especially if they were in remote rural areas, simply decayed. By the eighteenth century ruined abbeys were seen as picturesque and had become tourist attractions,

The monks were pensioned off. The average pension was five or six pounds per annum, the wage of an unskilled workman or the stipend of a poor priest. But the nuns received very small pensions, and they were debarred from marriage.  Many of the friars became parish priests.

The dissolution redistributed national wealth overwhelmingly in favour of the laity - the nobility and gentry - rather than the Crown. It was the largest single redistribution of wealth since the Conquest.  But the land was taken over by existing landowners. There was no new capitalist class. 

The English Bible

Henry VIII's Great Bible,
with its message of
loyalty to the King.
Historians have often noted the link between the Protestant Reformation and the printing press. Biblical translators made great use of this new technology. From 1523 the English exile William Tyndale began printing his translation in Cologne. His Bible was banned in England and he was executed in 1536.

In 1535, Miles Coverdale a former Augustinian friar, published his Bible in Zurich, the first complete Bible to be printed in English.
In August 1537 it was licensed for sale in England and it was published in 1539. Thomas Cromwell contributed £400 to its publication.

The reign of Edward VI (1547-1553)

Portrait of Edward VI of England by Circle of William Scrots (fl. 1537–1554) - 
Philip Mould Ltd. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
In the reign of the boy king Edward VI England became a Protestant country. Edward’s sister, Mary, who became queen after his death in 1553 did not live long enough to reverse the changes. Elizabeth I was more conservative religiously than her brother had been. Nevertheless she was forced to accept most of the changes of his reign. 

In December 1547 Parliament paved the way for clerical marriage and abolished chantries. This was followed by the destruction of  images. 

From 1549 the English prayer book (and its more radical successor of 1552) revolutionised church services. The communion table replaced the altar.

The Church transformed

The abolition of the chantries changed church architecture. The Mass was replaced by a memorial service and vestments were abolished. Candlemas candles, Ash Wednesday ashes and Palm Sunday palms were all forbidden. By the end of 1549, all images were cleared from churches.  All this profoundly changed the nature of worship.

The new services gradually accustomed the people to the idea of Protestant worship. Those who benefited from the sale of monastic lands were joined by priests now free to marry. A new culture was being created, though the nation was by no means yet committed to Protestantism.

The abolition of holy days

The movement against holy days began in August 1536 when Cromwell promulgated an act abolishing all the days that might interfere with the gathering of the harvest. This gathered momentum in the reign of Edward VI. 

Nevertheless popular conservatism was reflected in the survival of the agricultural calendar, which continued to entwine religious holidays with seasonal chores. The quarter days, on which rent was paid, continued to coincide with religious festivals. Servants continued to be hired at Martinmas (11 November)

Old habits died hard. The seventeenth-century writer, John Aubrey, knew from his Wiltshire boyhood that 
non obstante the change of religion, the ploughboys and also the schoolboys will keep up and retain their old ceremonies and privileges’. (Quoted Cressy, p. 15)

However some festivals died out. Because the Church of England had only a limited interest in the cult of saints, bellringing at Halloween gradually ceased and the feast of All Souls (2 November) was abandoned. 

Over the seventeenth century a new Protestant calendar came into being. Bells were rung on 5 November (the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot) and from the 1620s on 17 November (the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession).


These religious changes had profound and lasting effects upon English culture.

  1. Church services were now in English
  2. The mass was abolished
  3. Chantries were abolished
  4. Clergy were allowed to marry
  5. Many traditional holy days and rituals were abolished or fell into disuse.

These changes seem to have been accepted fairly readily in London and the south-east. Other parts of the country were slower to adapt. However, though pockets of Catholicism remained, especially in Lancashire, by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, England was a firmly Protestant country, imbued with a sense of having been providentially chosen by God. This sense of providentialism was promulgated through new rituals and through a vibrant print culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment