Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition by Eamon Duffy

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Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition by Eamon Duffy

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A collection of essays on various aspects of the Reformation in England, and an overview of previous writings in English about the era.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 311 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781441181176

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In the introduction to this book Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge History, points out that all too often historians have written about the English Reformation from strongly polarised views. Taking two extreme examples, he cites one which states that the people of England, formerly happy medieval Catholics, were forced by King Henry to abandon their religion, and England was never merry again, alongside another which speaks of the English being oppressed by corrupt churchmen until King Henry gave them the Protestant nation for which they longed. On the following page, he suggests that it had long been an axiom of historical writing that the success of the Reformation in England was an inevitable consequence of the dysfunction and unpopularity of late medieval Catholicism. Such remarks were evidently made by writers with an axe to grind.

The aim of this book is partly an effort to bring a greater degree of balance, and re-evaluate the process in a more balanced fashion, partly to focus on specific aspects of the Reformation in a series of nine essays, under the headings 'Reformation unravelled', 'The material culture of early Tudor Catholicism', and 'Two Cardinals'.

The first section looks in detail at the hiatus in the British experience of religion that the Reformation represented, in its creation of a division between people and their religious past, and in its rejection of purgatory and of the cult of the saints. Almost overnight, the author suggests, a millennium of Christian splendour became alien territory. Protestantism was an uncompromising rejection of Catholicism, a fiercely negative force personified by the smashing of statues, the whitewashing of churches, dissolution and even destruction of monasteries, denunciation of the Pope and the mass. Its impact which felt far beyond everyday life and the church, and particularly in the arts, with England's greatest musicians being Catholics, and a complete lack of distinguished painters.

This is followed by an examination of the building and extending of churches during the medieval era on the eve of the Reformation, and asks the questions who gave to the church and why, and what was the balance in pious giving between devotion, conspicuous consumption and the desire for influence or prestige in the community. An interesting study is made of the erection and adornment of the rood screen, the partition between chancel and nave which divided the high altar and choir from the people, the largest and most complex piece of furniture in the late medieval parish church, a feature of every parish in the land until the Reformation. One chapter is devoted to the importance of Salle Church, an isolated building near the Norfolk village of Aylsham.

Finally, the spotlight is turned on Cardinals John Fisher and Reginald Pole, and to an extent the role of Archbishop Cranmer. Fisher has gone down in English history as the only cardinal who ever died a martyr’s death, a fate avoided by Pole who also fell foul of Henry VIII but was wise enough to be in Italy at the time he incurred the royal wrath by defending papal primacy during his master's efforts to divorce Catherine of Aragon. An aristocrat and distant relative of the Tudors themselves, he never wavered from his conviction that Kings were answerable to their subjects, and in spiritual matters they were subordinate to priests. He later came close to being elected Pope himself, and was fortunate enough to die of natural causes within a few hours of Queen Mary in 1558. Cranmer declared that a rightful King was directly anointed by God, and that the Pope was an antiChrist, a belief which would lead to his burning as a heretic under Mary.

This is a demanding book, and certainly one for the specialist. Nevertheless, in its focus on the end of medieval England and the Protestantisation of the country under Queen Elizabeth, it makes for a fascinating addition to Tudor studies.

I fthis book appeals then you might alo enjoy Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore

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