The Dowery of Mary: The English Church on the Eve of Reformation
by Robert H. Hassell
In the warm afterglow which history always seems to cast over happier and calmer times, the spring of 1509 in England would seem well-nigh idyllic. The old king, Henry VII, had died earlier in the year, and in his place reigned his young son of the same name. His accession was hailed as the dawn of a golden age, and in this tall, handsome, athletic, and cultured young lad of eighteen years many Englishmen saw a mirror of the best of their island lineage. It wasn't so much that the elder Henry had been a bad king. His victory over Richard II at Bosworth had effectively ended the Wars of the Roses, which had ravished and impoverished England for a generation, and his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, had united the red rose of Lancaster to the white rose of York and set the House of Tudor firmly on the throne with an unquestioned legitimacy. He left behind a full treasury, a stable currency, and a nation at peace. However, his ministers had a reputation for being rapacious and unmerciful, and toward the end of the reign the whole court seemed gloomy, miserly, and dowdy. By contrast, Henry VIII was young, vibrant, and given to hunting, tournaments, and pageantry. He loved fine clothes, banqueting, and music, and he surrounded himself with a court of like-minded men and women. Far from being a playboy, however, young Henry had a reputation for scholarship, and his court was often graced by the finest minds of Europe. St. Thomas More, then a jurist, later a member of the council, and eventually Lord Chancellor, wrote to Erasmus that Henry "has more learning than any English monarch ever possessed before him."1 In June of that same year Henry married Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the young widow of Henry's elder brother, Arthur. Catherine was a popular choice as queen, for her piety, generosity, and patience were already widely known. With such a vigorous and attractive couple on the throne, England seemed poised to recapture that vision which had once seen England as master of half of France and a powerful player on the European stage.
The story of how Henry came to lose the respect of his people, cut the bonds of his kingdom to Catholic Europe, and to embark on a reign of terror which would cause later generations to mark him as a "blot of blood and grease upon the History of England"2 has been well-told elsewhere. What has not been so well-told is the story of the English Church which Henry inherited and then proceeded to pillage and smash. It is a story which cries out for the telling, first because of the many parallels to the story of the Church in our own time, but also because it is a story covered over by centuries of propaganda, falsehood, and exaggeration perpetuated by several generations of textbook authors bent on justifying the Protestant ascendancy in Britain and America.
In order to truly understand the English Church in 1509 and to comprehend the catastrophe Henry's revolution thrust upon the folk of his time one must try to visualize a society which those who have grown up in the totally secularized atmosphere of twentieth century America and Europe can scarcely imagine. It was a society wholly immersed in religion. All society from top to bottom moved with the cycle of the Church year, from Christmas, through Lent and Passiontide, to Easter and Pentecost. The great popular festivals were Church festivals, and the Church calendar set the days of work, rest, and rejoicing. Birth, confirmation, marriage, death all were hallowed by Church rites and made understandable by Church teachings. All society was ordered by Church law, and religion gave a continuity, stability, and uniformity from the humblest rural parish to the most important cathedral center. Education, where available, was meted out by churchmen and based in large measure on Christian doctrine. People literally breathed religion in the air! This is not to say that this atmosphere made people more holy or more pious than the Christians of our own day. Then, as now, men's salvation could not be legislated or wrought by the social order, but at least Church and state were agreed on the fundamental principle of right and wrong and marched together accordingly. The idea of a government which viewed religion in a neutral or hostile light would have been unthinkable to Europeans of Henry's day. Heresy, the overt teaching and practice of doctrines contrary to Catholic belief, was persecuted by Church and state alike as a threat to the public order, and all men viewed this as right and proper.
At the beginning of Henry's reign England was divided into seventeen dioceses and 8,071 parishes, this for a population of about 2,700,000.3
In each parish there was to be at least one full-time priest and a clerk of sufficient learning to assist in divine service, and in those parishes of sufficient income a deacon and subdeacon were also to be in residence.4 The rite of Mass predominant in English churches was the useage of Sarum, the name being derived from the Old English name of Salisbury. The Sarum use derived from a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman customs overlaid on the Roman missal and codified in the liturgical books set down by St. Osmund, first Norman bishop of Salisbury.5 It must be remembered that the Roman rite, later made obligatory almost everywhere in the West by the Council of Trent, was only one among several uses in the medieval Church, and local custom was allowed wide latitude within the basic structure of the Mass. A present-day worshipper familiar with the Tridentine Rite would feel quite at home with the Sarum missal, although at particular seasons and festivals some sections of the Mass could be very elaborately done. The prayer of the priest at his own communion is one of the most beautiful items unique to the Sarum rite. In English translation it reads:6
"Hail for evermore, Thou most holy Flesh of Christ! Sweet to me before and beyond all things beside. To me a sinner may the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ be the way and the life."
The Lenten and Holy Week ceremonial of Sarum was both elaborate and striking. White vestments were used during Lent, and all through the penitential period from Ash Wednesday to Easter pictures and statues were veiled in white. On Maundy Thursday the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession to the Easter Sepulcher, which was, in many parishes, a permanent structure, several of which can be seen in English parish churches even today.7
Church buildings in England were among the finest constructed anywhere, and the care and respect with which the church fabric was regarded is still evident in medieval church buildings all over England. The nave was generally regarded as the special province of the parishioners, while the care of the chancel was the responsibility of the parish priest. The magnificent towers, porches, and roofs testify to a deep popular devotion.8 Some of this can, of course, be attributed to the generosity of individual donors, but in the main the scale of building still seen in England today was undertaken communally through every manner of raising funds.9 A fixture of the medieval English parish church almost totally swept away by the reformation was the rood screen. This separated the nave from the chancel and was usually elaborately carved from wood. Atop the screen would be a large crucifix (rood) often accompanied by figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Apostle.
Of course, elaborate buildings and impressive ceremonial do not make the Church, and some idea of the degree to which the faith was lived in the hearts and daily routine of the average Englishman is essential if we are to understand the full impact of the reformation on the country. Unfortunately, this is a difficult item on which to find information because so much of the contemporary record was destroyed in that orgy of looting which characterized the Henrician revolution. For example, the great libraries of Oxford suffered through two major disasters, in 1535 and again in 1550, resulting in the loss of almost the entire collection. However, some records did survive and inferences can be drawn from later events. A Venetian visitor to England wrote home at the beginning of the sixteenth century:10
They all attend Mass every day and say many Paternosters in public. The women carry long rosaries in their hands and any who can read take the Office of Our Lady with them, and with some companion recite it in church verse by verse, in a low voice, after the manner of churchmen. On Sunday they always hear Mass in their parish church and give liberal alms.
Although printing had only existed in England since 1470, 138 titles had been printed before 1500, of which 59 were religious titles. Of these, the largest portion by far were devotional works and works on the interior life.11 Interestingly enough, several of the most popular titles from this era are still in print in modern English translation, and through them we can get some idea of the type of literature forming the minds of that portion of the population that could read. The most widely distributed of these works is The Cloud of Unknowing. Written in English during the early 1400's by an anonymous parish priest, it is a work about knowing God through prayer and has as its basic premise that God can only be truly understood through love. It is a work of overpowering tenderness and must have had a profound effect on the pious men and women who took its message to heart. Even today it has a freshness which touches hearts with God's love for man and shows a side of medieval religious teaching that has been generally overlooked.
Even for that portion of the population that could not read (Thomas More estimates that fraction at somewhat more than half) there were sermons in abundance, plus printed homilies read to the congregation by their priests throughout the course of the Church year. A further device of instruction now emerging from under coats of whitewash is the wall painting. Early medieval fashion in church painting favored a majestic Christ surrounded by saints and angels, while later preference was for a suffering Christ, scenes of Doomsday, and the "four last things"—death, judgment, heaven, hell. The Last Judgment scene on the west wall of Trotten Church, Sussex,12 must have been a powerful accompaniment to preaching and exhortation from the pulpit. Stained glass, too, was used to teach in a way that still impresses. St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, has its complete set of medieval glass. Erected in the late 1400's, the twenty-eight windows depict in striking beauty the life of Christ, in particular the Nativity and the Passion. Also shown are the apostles and the doctors of the Church, plus a truly graphic and spectacular Last Judgment. In their haste to obliterate any trace of "idolatry" from the Church, the reformers smashed much of the glass, burned the rood screens, and spread paint over the pictures.
In sum, there can be little doubt that the average Englishman of 1509 knew and understood the Mass, the doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the purpose of his religion, perhaps at least as well as the Catholics of our own day. The blood of thousands of common Englishmen who died in defense of the Church and Mass during the brief reign of Edward VI stands as mute testimony to the attachment the country folk felt for the faith of their fathers. As Cardinal Gasquet has written,13
The imposition of the book of new service was only effected through the slaughter of many thousands of Englishmen by the English government helped by their foreign mercenaries.... Terror was everywhere struck into the minds of the people by the sight of the executions, fixed for the market days, of priests dangling from the steeples of their parish churches, and the heads of laymen set up in the high places of the towns.
Pilgrimages were a popular means of expressing religious devotion, and England had a number of pilgrimage sites famous all over Europe. Most celebrated of all was the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Murdered in his cathedral in 1170, his burial place in the crypt under the high altar was the site of numerous miracles. Pilgrims from all over the world donated jewels, plate, and ornaments to enrich the shrine, so much so that when Henry destroyed the site in 1538 it took twenty carts piled high to remove all the treasure to London.14
Less famous but perhaps no less dear to English hearts was the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. Site of numerous miracles, the shrine had been enriched with gold, silver, jewels, and lands by grateful pilgrims. Erasmus came here in 1511 as a supplicant, as did even Henry VIII in 1513.15 The shrine was spoiled in 1538 and the statue of Our Lady removed. The feelings of the people of Norfolk at the loss has come down to us anonymously in a contemporaneous poem, which reads in part:16
turned to blasphemies,
Holy deedes to dispites!
Sinne is wher our Ladie sate
Heaven turned is to Hell;
Sathan sittes wher our Lord did swaye:
Walsingam, oh farewell!"
The destruction of Our Lady of Walsingham was made all the more bitter by the profound devotion the ordinary folk had to the Blessed Virgin. The rosary and the Little Office were popular up and down the country, and a large number of parish churches throughout England were dedicated to the Mother of God under one of her many titles. So great was the English devotion to Our Lady that the Kingdom of England was widely known in medieval times as the Dowry of Mary.
All of the medieval cathedrals (save Coventry, destroyed during World War II, and London, burned in the fire of 1666) can still be seen and visited, as is likewise the case with many of the parish churches. However, a very significant aspect of English religious life of the time was centered on the the monasteries, and scarcely a trace of them remains. In 1509 there were roughly eight hundred monastic establishments distributed throughout the kindgom.17Almost every religious order was represented, from the cloistered Carthusians to the preaching orders of Dominicans and Franciscans. Some of these establishments were great houses, well-endowed with lands and with many residents, while others were small and poor. On an aggregate scale about half the wealth of the English Church was centered on the monasteries, much of it in land. About half of this wealth, however, was concentrated in only one-seventh of the houses,18 meaning that life in the average English monastery must have been far from comfortable.
Of particular note was the House of the Salutation of the Mother of God at Smithfield, otherwise known as London Charterhouse. A foundation of the Carthusians, it lay on the edge of the teeming city and was thereby able to exert tremendous religious influence. It attracted a steady stream of vocations, many from wealthy and noble families, and even St. Thomas More tested a monastic vocation within its walls.19 Its prior, John Houghton, was regarded as a saint, even before his martyrdom. He looked on his monks as angels of God, and it was said that if a man wished to see the life of man with God exemplified in its fullness he should visit the London Charterhouse.20 The king rewarded their steadfastness in the faith and their purity of life by executing some of them, including the prior, at Tyburn on May 4, 1535, for denying the Royal Supremacy. Others were left to die of starvation chained upright to the prison wall inside Newgate, "silent witness to His words, hidden from the eyes of all."21 Henry used their house to store his pavilions and arms. The altars were found useful as gaming tables for the workmen.
Religious communities of women were not numerous in England, but one of the most famous was the community of Bridgettines at Syon. It was located on the Thames and had close associations with the Carthusians at Sheen and London. It had a magnificent library and was able to attract a steady stream of vocations from among both noble families and the gentry.22 Its reputation for strictness of observance and intellectual distinction made it a stronghold of orthodoxy in the country. The community was unanimous in its opposition to the divorce and the Royal Supremacy. The chaplain at Syon, Richard Reynolds, a theologian second in learning in England only to St. John Fisher, was executed with the Carthusians at Tyburn. The house was confiscated by the king in November, 1539, and despite their brutal treatment some of the sisters of Syon continued to live together in community under their rule even after being turned out of their house.
One of the justifications used by Henry for the dissolution of the monasteries was the corrupt and dissolute lives of the monks and nuns. David Knowles, after an exhaustive survey of the evidence, including that collected by Henry's own commissioners, concludes, "the conflict of evidence leaves us without a clear, simple, and overwhelming proof of the general depravity of the monasteries."23 There is no evidence at all that residents in the vicinity of the great houses felt anything but affection for the local monks and nuns, even though many of them later participated in the destruction of the buildings. A poignant remembrance of that time has come down to us from a nearly contemporaneous (1560) account by Michael Sherbrook, The Fall of Religious Houses. Sherbrook describes in great detail the destruction of Roche Abbey in Yorkshire, and relates the following conversation with his father:24
"I demanded of my Father, thirty years after the suppression ... whether he thought well of Religious Persons and of the Religion then used? And he told me Yea: For said He, I did see no Cause to the contrary: Well, said I, then how come it to pass you was so ready to destroy and spoil the thing that you thought well of? What should I do, said He; might I not as well as others have some Profit of the Spoil of the Abbey? For I did see all would away; and therefore I did as other did."
Today the roofless ruins of many of these houses rise above the rural countryside in stark and sorrowful remembrance of a Catholic England swept away in a surge of greed and sacrilege which, until modern times, few felt capable of understanding. In truth, the England of 1540 was a vastly different place from the England of 1509, and perhaps as a result no other nation on earth, save Russia, has been so cut off from its history.
One is tempted to ask whether this revolution could have been prevented, whether at some point the destruction could have been stopped and England saved for the Church. In trying to locate those critical junctures one must keep in mind that this was a revolution generated from the top down imposed on all orders of society with a mindless reign of terror. That the ordinary Englishman did not wish these changes was of no import—his only choice was to bend to the lash or die for his obstinacy. Therefore, the only people who could have altered this course of events were those with power and authority. First on the line of attack was the papacy. Clement VII occupied the See of Rome in 1527 when the divorce proceedings against Catherine were begun. Henry mounted a merciless assault on the old man in the form of countless emissaries, financial pressure, and ruthless propaganda. It is to Clement's credit that he did not bend, but neither was his stand strong and unequivocal. Instead, Clement chose to play for time, hoping, one supposes, that the matter would go away. He refused Catherine's requests for a swift judgment in her favor, and, in fact, such a judgment was not forthcoming until July, 1533. By then it was too late—Henry had already been declared by Parliament head of the church in his realm. The prestige and power of the Pope were not inconsiderable in England at the beginning, and perhaps a swift judgment in Catherine's favor would have galvanized Church and State and forced Henry to back away from the precipice over which he was about to drag his country. Clement's own weakness in the face of a clear challenge to Church teaching gave Henry the opening he needed.
Next on the line were the country's bishops. They were, in general, capable men of great learning, and almost all of them were native-born Englishmen. Henry had determined by 1531 that if he could not get a divorce through the Pope then he would make himself head of the church and get the church to give him what he wanted. In February of that year he demanded that the English bishops declare him Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy. In the face of so direct a challenge to a fundamental point of doctrine a ringing and unanimous refusal would certainly have been in order, but the bishops, like the Pope, wavered. They tried to add the words "in so far as the law of Christ allows" to the title. Henry accepted this for a few months, and then in the spring mounted another assault. Faced with the threat of financial ruin the clergy capitulated on May 15. No one today seriously thinks that any one of the bishops believed Henry to be pope in his own realm. They buckled under pressure, as More said in a letter to his daughter, Margaret, "a weak clergy lacking grace constantly to stand to their learning." Only one bishop, St. John Fisher of Rochester, refused to swear that Henry was head of the Church, and he was executed for his stand on Tower Hill, June 22, 1535. Faced with a stalwart clergy united in defense of the faith Henry might have been forced to back down, but the princes of the Church broke easily. As Fisher said to his brother bishops, "The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it." The capitulation of the hierarchy left the Church and its flock defenseless in the face of impending catastrophe.
The next line of opposition should have been the nobility and the jurists, but scarcely a whimper was heard from them. Only St. Thomas More, a lawyer and one-time Lord Chancellor, refused the oath, and he, like Fisher, was beheaded on Tower Hill, July 6, 1535. The nobility and Parliament put Henry VII on his throne; they could have just as easily removed Henry VIII from his but the nobility were as greedy for Church booty as was Henry. In the end all the forces who could have effectively opposed the king bent to his will.
Are there any lessons that this English tragedy can teach those who are called to lead the Church in this century's hour of crisis? The most obvious lesson is that while Christ has promised the survival of the Universal Church to the end of time, the survival of the Church in a particular place, whether America, France, Britain, or anywhere else, is not guaranteed. The English Church,in spite of its long tradition, great wealth, and spiritual richness, proved easily cut down and destroyed in the space of a few short years. The Catholic Church in America will survive only if the American faithful, bishops, clergy, and people, stand fast in the traditions they have received against repeated assaults on their faith and practice.
A perhaps even more critical lesson is that compromise on matters of faith breeds disaster in the long term. The strongest defense Catholics have is that sure deposit of faith, and its maintenance, whole and complete, is our only weapon in the battle against evil in this present world. Compromise of doctrines seemingly at the edge of this fabric of faith soon leads to destruction at the very heart. The Catholic faith, complete and entire, is impervious to the attacks of the Evil One; the faith compromised is no match for his assaults.
A pivotal lesson, and perhaps the most critical for the Church in America, is that Catholicism without the Pope is not possible. The English bishops in 1531 repudiated Papal authority and then tried to continue with business-as-usual in all other aspects of Church life. Their Catholicism-without-the Pope lasted until 1549, when the Mass was abolished and most other aspects of Catholic practice in England ceased. Repudiation of Papal authority leads to a Protestantization of all aspects of Church life as surely as water runs downhill.
Finally, the English reformation teaches us that in matters of faith and morals no majority, no matter how large and powerful, can be taken as an authority. At least initially, only one bishop, one prominent layman, and a handful of monks were willing to stand up to the king in defense of a vital Church teaching. Clearly, adherence to the Magisterium may sometimes be a very lonely and, perhaps, thankless task, and even the leadership provided by the bishops of a whole nation may have to be opposed.
1. James A. Froude, Life and Letters of Erasmus (NY: C. Scribner's Sons, 1894), p.142
2. Charles Dickens, A Child's History of England (NY: A.L. Burt Co., 1890), p.266.
3. Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England (NY: Macmillan, 1963), vol.1, p.33-34
4. Colin Platt, The Parish Churches of Medieval England (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1981), p.61
5. Charles G. Herbermann, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (NY: Robert Appelton, 1912), s.v. "Sarum Rite" by F. Thomas Bergh.
7. Platt, Parish Churches, op. cit., p.41
8. Ibid., p.97
9. Ibid., p.93-94
10. Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (Long Prairie, MN: Newman Press, 1984), p.8
11. Hughes, The Reformation, op. cit., p.98-99
12. Platt, Parish Churches, op. cit., p.124
13. Francis Aidan Gasquet, Edmund Bishop, Edward VI and the Book of Common Prayer (London: J. Hodges, 1890), p.238.
14. Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII : The Politics of Tyranny (New York: Viking Press, 1985), p.314.
15. Charles G. Herbermann, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1912), S.V. "Walsingham Priory."
16. "A Lament for Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham" in Poets of the English Language, v.2.: Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets (New York: Viking Press, 1950), p.52-53.
17. Hughes, The Reformation, op. cit., p.36.
18. Ibid., p.44
19. Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1984), p.34.
20. David Knowles, Bare Ruined Choirs: The Dissolution of the English Monasteries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 107.
21. Ibid., p.115
22. Ibid., p.98.
23. Ibid., p.190.
24. Colin Platt, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England (New York: Fordham University Press, 1984), p.234.