Book Reviews

Geoffrey Moorhouse The Pilgrimage of Grace: The rebellion that shook Henry VIII`s throne Weidenfeld & Nicholson £25 (0-297-64393-2) 2002

One of the great mysteries of Henry VIII`s England is why the people did not revolt against the tyrant who was forcing on them unwanted religious changes. The answer is that they did.

In the autumn of 1536, the largest popular rebellion between the Peasants` revolt and the Civil War erupted in the north of England. Several gentlemen who were press-ganged into supporting the rebels wound up leading them: one, a brilliant but naïve lawyer named Robert Aske, found himself captain of a spontaneous army more than twice the size of the King’s. Aske named this movement the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Geoffrey Moorhouse`s thorough and readable account of the Pilgrimage aims high. He wishes to write a work of history, with some literary quality, for a general readership (and amen to that); he also wants to provide narrative that will become a new standard of reference.

He does not quite succeed in the second aim: there are too many slips and false notes for that. There is also an alarming passage at the beginning of the foreword, in which he translates a contemporary document into modern English; his purpose is to show that this makes little difference, so it is unfortunate that his translation includes a significant misreading. It gives one a feeling of walking on eggshells throughout the book.

What he does achieve is the telling of an extremely complex story with cool precision, and he provides memorable pen-portraits of the key players. His sympathies are clearly with the Pilgrims, and he rightly emphasizes their religious motivation.

Aske is given his rightful place: ‘There may not be another significant figure in English history of whom we know so little’. He kept such good discipline that only a single man was killed during the rising. Yet it was his willingness to trust the King’s empty promises and disband his enormous army that undid the rebellion. The people could not bring themselves to believe that the King was not on their side. (Another villain of the book is the Yorkshire weather: spending October 1536 in the open would have dampened any pilgrim’s ardour.)

The movement splintered. One eccentric made a farcical attempt at a second rebellion, which became a pretext for mass reprisals. Moorhouse does consider what might have been: a king chastened or deposed, England under Roman obedience. Perhaps Aske`s naivety saved the Tudor state. Or perhaps not; popular rebellions are always unstable, and Henry VIII could be shrewd as well as brutal. By the time we reach the conclusion of this book, the mood is bleak. Whatever your sympathies, that seems fitting.

Dr Alec Ryrie

This review by Dr Alec Ryrie, Lecturer in Modern History, University of Birmingham, was first published in the Church Times on 10 January 2003.

Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie (ed) The Beginnings of English Protestantism CUP £40 (ISBN 0-521-802574-1) pbk £14.95 (ISBN 0-521-00324-5) May 2002

Perhaps the most surprising statement in Peter Marshall’s and Alec Ryrie’s introduction to their collection of essays on The Beginnings of English Protestantism is that there is still no general modern scholarly study of 16th century Protestantism. In the past 30 years, historians’ understanding of the English Reformation has changed almost beyond recognition.

Comforting narratives of the advance of rapid and popular Protestantism have been replaced by the picture of a competent and humane Roman Catholic Church in England, subjects who derived comfort and meaning from the rituals of their forefathers and the social life of the parish, and a minority Protestantism driven, in part, by the political and dynastic turbulence of the middle decades of the century. Reformation was not the rapid natural death of a corrupt church; it was the slow subversion of an ancient way of faith, punctuated by the violence of the state.

The book seeks to restore early Protestants to their Reformation. The old Reformation as known to readers of A.G.Dickens`s The English Reformation (first published in 1964, but reflecting the deep historical assumptions of 400 years) is gone; Marshall and Ryrie accept – I think positively – that there is much that is compelling in the broad interpretative schemes of historians like Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh and Jack Scarisbrick.

But they maintain that the danger is one of neglect: of sidelining Protestants by arguing too strongly for the Reformation as an act of state imposed from above on an unwilling but generally obedient nation.

Nine leading historians from Britain and the USA bring new perspectives and subtleties of subject of method to our understanding of the formative years of the English Reformation. What comes across very strongly is the fluidity and diversity of these early decades. The English Reformation sketched by all of the contributors was shaped gradually, influenced by what had gone before and the environment in which early Evangelicals thought and preached and worshipped.

The book presents new work on the relationship between Lollardy and early Protestantism. It shows how Evangelicals defined themselves against Catholicism (they were, after all, Protestants), but how they also drew on its culture. Marshall and Ryrie do not present a clear or clean break between Catholicism and Protestantism, but that is their (and their contributors`) point. Early English Protestantism, the book argues, must be understood both in the terms of the mediaeval past and the Reformation of a whole continent.

There is no new grand Protestant narrative here. Marshall and Ryrie are at pains to say that together their contributors have no agreed interpretative scheme; this is the strength of the book. It shows just how varied and kaleidoscopic the English Reformation was, from a Protestant point of view; and, with imagination and erudition, it succeeds in restoring Protestants to what was once understood as their Reformation.

Dr Stephen Alford

This review by Dr Stephen Alford, Fellow of King`s College, Cambridge was first published in the Church Times on 15 November 2002.

Peter Marshall Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England Oxford University Press £50 (ISBN 0-19-820773-5) 2002

The English Reformation came like a tide up the beach, sweeping away pope, monasteries, images and masses, as if they were sandcastles. Further up the beach it reached the rocks of human nature: self-importance, conservatism and disorderliness. It thrust against ancient beliefs and practices concerning death, funerals, graves and the afterlife. Here its progress slowed and eventually stopped.

Dr Marshall’s book, like many recent Reformation studies, observes not only the fall of the sandcastles but also the impact of the waves on the cliffs of social and cultural history. His interest centres on the way in which people regarded death and the dead in early modern times, and how far their views changed in this period.

He starts with the 15th century, when dying and burial were marked by elaborate ceremonies, prayers for the dead, and an intense interest in the afterlife, particularly purgatory and what it was like. This he judges to have been a stable culture with which ‘the late mediaeval English laity seem on the whole quite content’ - a common view today but one that can be questioned.

Relationships between Church and people could be tense and hostile. Even where death was concerned, the laity often ignored church teachings by placating spirits with food, praying for souls in hell, and burying stillborn babies in churchyards.

Then he brings us to the Reformation. It tore into the great sandcastle of purgatory. Ridiculed by Protestants from the 1520s onwards, this steadily sank in official standing during the 1530s. When Henry VIII reaffirmed support for many traditional doctrines in the Act of the Six Articles, 1539, purgatory was not among them. In 1547 it was condemned by Act of Parliament.

The Reformation also swamped the dead. In an admirable treatment of a neglected subject, Marshall shows how thousands of tombs were desecrated at the dissolution of the monasteries, while brasses were ripped up in parish churches. The author rightly draws attention to the ‘extraordinary complacency’ of Henry VIII and his leading subjects about the fate of their ancestors’ souls and bodies. They were, however, mindful of their own.

The rest of the book explores the triumphs and defeats of Protestantism in the war against death from Edward VI to the early Stuarts. Burial rites were much abridged, but the wealthy continued to insist on splendid funerals and tombs to show their importance and commemorate their names. Ordinary folk went on holding wakes round the dead, believing in ghosts, and even – as Lyke Wake Dirge reminds us – imagining souls toiling after death over Whinny Muir and Brig o`Dread to Purgatory Fire.

The Reformers found it easier to ridicule Roman Catholic beliefs than to provide alternatives that satisfied everyone. Debate and puzzlement continued. Could one pray for the dead? Were one’s Catholic ancestors damned? What happened between one’s death and the final Judgement? Even Crammer’s funeral service of 1552, which pastorally expressed the hope that each dead person would be saved, came to anger Calvinists who thought it impugned the damnation of the wicked.

This is a book with a wide compass and a wealth of interesting topics. Its focus is on writings and documents rather than the art and archaeology of death, and it contains no pictures; but the research is exhaustive, the writing clear and attractive, and the judgements wise. They avoid simplicity; correctly, because this is a study of millions of people over 200 years, during which many beliefs co-existed.

We are often told that a gulf has opened up between the way death is seen by the churches and by popular culture. This study reminds us that there has always been one.

Prof Nicholas Orme

This review by Prof Nicholas Orme of Exeter University was first published in the Church Times on 1 November 2002.

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