Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village
Yale University Press
In 1992 Eamon Duffy published his ground breaking The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 describing the English Reformation as it happened in the parishes. His thesis was that the people of England were Catholic and that the Reformation was imposed on them against their will and only slowly accepted. Especially noteworthy was his use of the records of the parishes and their members, rather than the doings of the senior leaders Protestant and Catholic on which the usual histories are built. Running through out the book are the comments of Sir Christopher Tryche (pronounced Trickey) of Morebath who was the pastor from 1520 to 1574. A shepard of definite opinion on just about anything, with a deep concern for his flock, his comments bring to life the impact of the Reformation on the parishes. In this follow up book Dr Duffy tells the story of Morebath as it is preserved in Sir Christopher’s records. (In this period priests were addressed as Sir as we would use Father.)
Morebath was a village of 33 families (1531, Sir Christopher’s count by family and farm) and about 125-150 souls located in a remote corner of northeast Devon. The secular political and economic organization was the Manor of Morebath, unfortunately the records of the manor were destroyed in WW II. Except that the crop was wool instead of grain this appears to be a fairly typical medieval village, the manor provided the local government services and was also organized the economic activities. So long as the rents were paid, and there were no disputes requiring outside resolution, a village was fairly autonomous.
Duffy’a account is based on the financial records of the parish maintained by Sir Christopher, as such they provide a good accounting of the physical activities of the parish but do not provide direct evidence of the most important item: the faith life of its members. We see something of this from the comments and asides by Sir Christopher, and indirectly by the amount and type of contributions to the parish and how the parish spends it’s money.
Sir Christopher comes to Morebath as an enthusiastic young priest. We see the parish repair the building, increase devotions, the financial records show a parish spending money on things that facilitate worship and teaching the faith. Two of Sir Christopher’s special projects were establishing the veneration of St Sidwell and obtaining black vestments for funerals. He purchases the statue of St Sidwell from his own money and the parish over several years provides for it's decoration. He contributes about half the cost of the vestments the parish contributing the rest, these must have been decorative, it took 20 years of saveing to purchase them.
In November 1534, Sir Christopher’s world began to unravel. Henry VIII decided that in order to get a divorce he would have to break with the Papacy and had Parliament pass the Law of Supremacy making him head of the Church of England. To keep his appointment Sir Christopher would have had to sign the oath of supremacy. Changes began slowly as Henry’s Protestant advisors slowly brought protestant ideas into force. Widely unpopular, they were they were met with a reaction from passive resistance to open rebellion. But since the King was head of the Church of England these changes had the full force of civil law, denying that the King could be head of the church was high treason. In Morebath there was grudging though timely compliance and trying to make the best of the situation. The records show a change in income and purchasing. Voluntary donations are down; there is one time income from the sale of now forbidden objects. If these are not sold the Crown will confiscate them without compensation. Money is spent to buy Protestant replacements and more and more there are external requirements to raise money to support secular activities such as road maintenance and wars. Decrees 1538 and 1540 eliminate the devotion to saints. However until 1548 Morebath is still a Catholic parish. The Pope is no longer prayed for and is denounced four times a year. The veneration of the saints is gone, but still every Sunday Mass is celebrated. Sir Christopher is required to burn the statue of St Sidwell by outside direction. The black vestments were banned a year after their purchase, but are hidden by a parishioner.
In 1548 King Henry dies, King Edward is a minor and the regents appointed to rule in his place are activist Protestants. A series of decrees are published against all things Catholic, most importantly replacing the Mass books with the Protestant Book of Common Prayer. This is too much for South West England; it rises in what is called the Prayer Book Rebellion. Morebath sends five men to join the rebels and the parish pays to buy them weapons. The revolt is ended when the Crown brings in foreign mercenaries who make short work of the amateur rebels. Of the six thousand rebels 3000 to 4000 died, mostly after the revolt was defeated. Three of the five from Morebath never again appear in the parish records. For the rest of Edward's reign things are dismal. A parish that is doing what it needs to do with no spirit, or least any spirit that they would want to record on paper.
But joy returns. King Edward dies and Queen Mary assumes the throne. Things Catholic begin to be restored, and Mass is celebrated. Items of Catholic worship that were hidden come out hiding. The parish records show voluntary donations to restore the Church as well as an increase in ordinary income.
After a few years of rebuilding, Queen Mary dies and Queen Elizabeth restores Protestantism. She bans things Catholic and reestablishes Protestantism. However she does not restore the activist tendencies makes a very few concessions. Morebath gradually turns into a Protestant parish. In 1574 Sir Christopher dies, the Shepard of Morebath to the end. After his death the parish sells his Mass chalice which he never stopped using and buys a Protestant communion cup.
Useless trivia learned.
To make a noun possessive in 16th Century English the word “ys” followed the noun, which over time became contacted to apostrophe "s". From “Hank ys Eclectic Meanderings ” to “Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings.”
How did the reformation succeed in England?
1) It had the full weight of both Church and State authorities. When Henry VIII made himself head of the Church it was high treason to speak or act against the changes.
2) There was still a good bit of continuity between the Catholic and Protestant faiths so being required to stop some specifically Catholic pratices left room for practices that were acceptable to both Catholic and Protestant. It took longer to get specifically Protestant practices adopted.
3) Like the fictional frog being boiled by gradually increasing the heat, the Reformation happened in small steps so that at the end things were accepted that never would have been accepted at the beginning. Sir Christopher’s tenure lasted 53 years about the average life expectancy at that time. At his death, most of the parish had few or no personal memories of the Catholic period.
4) The old saying “As we pray, so we believe” is relevant here, over time the recitation every week of the Book of Common Prayer would gradually change the parish from Catholic to Protestant. Certain sermons had to be read 4 times a year. Sir Christopher had to have read them for at least 30 years. What ever he felt about them at the beginning somewhere around the 40th or 80th time they must have become part of his belief.
5) The example of priests like Sir Christopher, adapting even under protest, set an example that the laity followed. Mathew 18 makes a good case for accepting the decision of the Church on controversial issues. The parish could hardly be blamed for following Sir Christopher’s lead and he could hardly be blamed for following the direction of his bishop.
This is an excellent book. Well written and informative, it brings to life the people of this parish. The glimpse of a late medieval village we see here is useful for understanding the life in the medieval period in general as well as the reformation period. The only problems with the book are that it is based on accounting records and once in a while it reads like a summary of accounting records. Duffy could have been more generous with modern translations of Middle English. But these are trivial. This book is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.
I would think that despite every thing Sir Christopher would still wish you to pray for the repose of his soul and those of his beloved parishioners.
See alsoLife in a Medieval Village.
5 months ago