Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, by Eamon Duffy

This book came into my house very highly recommended – er … ten years ago. Looking for something suitable to the season, I finally tried to read past Chapter 2, managed it – and have been rewarded by doing so. Health warning (knowing that there are historian Foxes out there) – I am approaching this as a general reader, and make no comment on the author’s historical method or the validity of his conclusions. I hope there will some informative debate in the comments.

I have not read Eamon Duffy’s most celebrated work The Stripping Of The Altars, his study of English religion spanning the Reformation, but now I must – this book stands alone, but really it is a companion to that work, which takes a wider sweep. This book is a microcosm of the effect that the English Reformation had on one small corner of the West of England, and on the region that contained it.

The remarkable source for this study is a set of Churchwardens’ accounts, stretching from the 1520s to the 1570s, spanning four reigns and three changes of state religion. They were all compiled by one man, the parish priest of Morebath in North East Devon, Sir Christopher Trychay (today, he would be known as Father Christopher Trickey). This is an almost unprecedented record of a stretch of years, through one pair of eyes, that essentially linked medieval to modern England.

I feel I should know more about the Reformation in England beyond the familiar political and dynastic story of Henry VIII’s wives and ambitions. This book is certainly a start. Morebath is a not very large (33 households), not very prosperous village on the edge of Exmoor. Sir Christopher became its parish priest in 1520, just after the accession of Henry VIII, and died in 1574, more than fifteen years into the reign of Elizabeth I.

For the first ten to fifteen years he flourished as the spiritual (and temporal) leader of a small society in which religious practice bound people together and defined their social life, and the church and church house were the focal point for it. England was a Catholic country, and its sovereign an ardent champion of the Roman Catholic Church. Politics and religion were aligned, and the social, as well as the religious unit was the Parish.

For this reader, the mountain to climb in the first couple of chapters is the sheer sophistication and complexity of the common ownership and financial exchange that underpinned the social unit that was the Parish. There is a church sheep flock, cared for in common, but it is not a single flock, but several, the proceeds of which are dedicated to different purposes. There are ‘Stores’ – funds collected and managed by different groups (for example, the Young Men, and Maidens), dedicated to the beautification of the church, devotion to different saints, and maintenance of lights kept burning before images and symbols of faith. Funds were raised by celebrations known as Church Ales. The setting for these and other gatherings was the Church House (which sounds like a cross between a village hall, a youth club and a pub). There are not just two churchwardens, as now, but a multiplicity of wardenships. The public face of the Parish, supporting the priest were at various times called the Four Men, the Five Men (even at one point the Six Men). (Oh, by the way, from the 1520s onwards, women held wardenships on a regular basis – complete news to me, and very interesting). The financial web was exceedingly complicated, but annually, all these funds, collections, expenditures, gifts and debts, along with an inventory of the church’s assets, were accounted for by Sir Christopher. The unique feature of these accounts is that, as well as balancing the books, Sir Christopher’s voice comes through in his commentary – not always explicitly, but the story of the parish and its families and activities is there to be extracted. All I can say is, please don’t test me on any of this – I had to keep all these details as essentially background noise, while I absorbed the human and political stories that through Eamon Duffy’s commentary they had to tell.

These stories are those of a group of ordinary people whose world was regularly turned upside down. Generally harmonious, sociable and confident, routinely pious, devoted to the Virgin and to their saints, through the changes of the 1530s starting with the change of Lord of the Manor from monastic to secular, the villagers find their certainties knocked down. Sir Christopher, a formidable leader, works with his Wardens to respond with caution to the Act of Supremacy, the requirements to take oaths, the visitations, the abolition of saints days, the injunctions to remove and destroy images. The accounts tell the stories. Piece by piece, the structure of social as well as religious life is dismantled, and its loss is mourned. The parish does what it can to preserve its traditions (and hedge its bets). Church silver, vestments and images are spirited away into farmhouses and barns – but once inventories are demanded, this is more difficult to achieve, and one by one, these relics are hunted down and either given up to be destroyed, or turned into money for the state. Another strong theme is that the religious life of the parish was the focus for raising and sharing funds, and enjoying the proceeds in common. More and more, the church was required to respond to levies by the state. As the parish was the social unit, the church was the focal point for collecting money for arming soldiers and waging wars. Reformation morality attacked the social life of parishes, banning Church Ales, and finally abolishing Church Houses. With no images to revere and lights to maintain, Stores and the groups that sustained them failed and vanished.

The progress of reform was not even – in the late 1540s there was a reversion to conservatism, when Morebath could creep back into its old ways. But the brief reign of Edward VI was a massive reversal, with repressive demands for conformity that led to rebellions in East Anglia, and, crucially, the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 centred on Exeter. Deeply hidden, and previously mistranscribed, there is a record in the Morebath accounts of the financial support given to a group of young men from Morebath setting off to join the rebel camp at Exeter. Not all of them came back. The result was even more stringent control of religious observance, and confiscation of church goods and wealth.

The counter-reformation of the reign of Queen Mary was seen as a return to all that was right, proper and good – a return to ‘Devotion’, as it is recorded in the Accounts – but short-lived. With the advent of Elizabeth I, the final transition away from the Roman Catholic church, if they did but know it, was complete.

This is a detailed, meticulously researched and documented study. I know it’s a bit of a common theme in my reading: I enjoy words of intensive scholarly research, love the journey, and am fascinated by the research techniques and the critical skills brought to bear on the interpretation of the evidence. So, those who like that sort of thing will deeply appreciate and admire this book. Duffy is an immensely skilful writer, able to grip the attention and direct it to the human story, even when describing an entry about (say) the purchase of a book for the church, or the equipping of a man ‘to serve the Queen’. In this book he turns a particular lens on the period. To me as a reader, it seems that all his sympathies are with Sir Christopher and his bewildered parishioners, trying to survive in a world where their certainties are knocked about on a regular basis. His dislike of certain people is palpable – for instance, Dr Simon Heynes, the zealous reforming Dean of Exeter in the turbulent 1530s, whose fall with Thomas Cromwell is recounted almost with glee. He doesn’t like these clerics on the make; he doesn’t like rapacious secular landlords, sweating the assets they’ve gained from the dissolution of the monasteries. The era of Edward VI is recounted almost as a tragedy – now, how many of us have taken away from our school history lessons that it was such a cruel time? His understanding and compassion are for his hero, defending Sir Christopher from the charge that he is some sort of Vicar of Bray figure, changing with the times, seeking his own best interest. He describes him in the end as someone who over 50 years or more sought to protect what he felt was important about the faith and the society for which he lived. Brought up and educated for the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Christopher was always most comfortable when the tide of reformation was receding – but with the one rebellious exception, from which he undoubtedly learnt, his concern was always for the welfare of Morebath and its people, and with time came a measure of adaptation and acceptance.

This is the story of the Reformation told from the perspective of a corner of society only reluctantly accepting it – one that was comfortable in the Roman Catholic Church. This is of a piece, I understand, with Duffy’s uncovering of the power and sincerity of popular religion in pre-Reformation England in The Stripping Of The Altars. However, there has to be another history to read, of the people whose consciences and lives were liberated by the Reformation, of the institutions that grew up to replace the decaying philanthropy (as it was seen) of the medieval church. I look forward to finding it, and making the synthesis.

Eamon Duffy. The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village. Paperback ed. Yale University Press, 2003. 232pp
ISBN13: 9780300098259
(My copy is the hardback edition of 2001, no longer in print.)

6 comments on “The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, by Eamon Duffy

  1. Chris
    April 22, 2011

    Very interesting – and informative. I didn’t know about ‘group’ church sheep or ‘stores’. It sounds a really fascinating read, offering a different (and very personal) perspective on a period of history we tend to know only through accounts of the monarchs and the turbulent lives.

  2. Jackie
    April 22, 2011

    This sounds like one I’d definitely like. What a good idea to show the effects of an event upon one village, I would think that would do a great deal to humanize it & make it more accessible. The book also seems to shine a light on a lot of practices & everyday activities that have been lost over time, I would think that would enlarge our knowledge of the period.
    Thanks for this fitting review for Good Friday & for letting your enthusiasm come through.

  3. Pingback: The Voices of Morebath. Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, by Eamon Duffy (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

  4. Moira
    April 25, 2011

    A lot of this is news to me – like Jackie I’d never heard of Church Houses or Stores before.

    It’s always salutary to view history through the eyes of ordinary people, and although I’ve been familiar for a long time with the ebb and flow of Roman Catholicism in this period, it’s been from the point of view of the main players.

    For instance, the part in your review that most startled me was reading that Sir Christopher thought ‘Bloody’ Mary’s (fortunately brief) tenure heralded a return to that which was “right, proper and good” … I had to read that bit again because the two things just didn’t marry up happily in my brain.

    Thought-provoking stuff. Thank you!

  5. Hilary
    April 25, 2011

    It certainly is a fresh perspective, and I know that Eamon Duffy is a controversial figure in some quarters. I suppose it depends on how you like your cruelty: I’ve seen an objection to Duffy’s thesis on the basis that during the reign of Edward VI no-one was burned for heresy – but Morebath was close to the heart of the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, which was ruthlessly put down by a massacre at Clyst St Mary, and followed by numerous executions for Treason in Exeter. Young men from Morebath left for the rebel camp and did not come back.

    Sir Christopher’s retrospective on the reign of Queen Mary, written in 1558, just before everything changes again, reads

    Anno Domini 1548 was High Warden of this church Lucy Scely, and in her time the church goods were sold away without commission, as afterwards appears, and no gift given, but all from the church, and thus it continued from Lucy’s time unto Richard Cruce, and from Richard Cruce’s time unto Richard Huckley, and from Hukeley unto Richard Robybs, and from Robyns unto Robin at More, and in all these men’s time, the which was in the time of King Edward VI, the church ever decayed: and then died the King, and Queen Mary’s Grace did succeed, and how the church was restored again by her time hereafter ye shall have knowledge of it and in the first year of the Queen was Lewis Trychay High Warden.

    Anno Domini 1554 was High Warden of the church Joan Morsse widow and Thomas Timewell, and how this church was comforted again in their time and what gifts were given to the church now ye shall have knowledge of.

  6. Pingback: Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery – a Vulpes Libris Random. | Vulpes Libris

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