After decades of destruction in Tudor England, servants of God became servants of Caesar

Going to Church in Medieval England
by Nicholas Orme. Yale University Press. 2021. 496 pages

As shown by his extensive body of work, Nicholas Orme is one of the foremost experts on English Christianity in the Middle Ages.

Going to Church in Medieval England was published in 2021 and resulted in its author receiving justified acclaim from his fellow historians.

In it, Orme examines the experience of churchgoing and religious practice in England from the early era onwards, in a broad historical sweep which takes in Anglo-Saxon England, the aftermath of the Norman conquest and perhaps most importantly, the period leading up to the Reformation.

Following the collapse of Roman Britain and the loss of so many thriving towns, the churches which sprang up often came to form communities with priests and monks as their founders.

The size and scope of the religious infrastructure ebbed and flowed, with churches sometimes closing for want of the congregants and resources to keep them going. But on the whole Catholic England’s trajectory was clearly upward: from the deep reservoirs of faith sprang the desire to construct churches and cathedrals in every part of the nation.

Orme also examines the role and activities of the clergy, and the distinctions between different roles: including the “rector” or “parson” who had rule over the parish, and the resident clergyman known as the “vicar” (from the Latin “vicarius,” meaning deputy).

Clerical squabbling over responsibilities and rights appears to have often been present, not just between bishops and priests but also between the regular clergy and the friars whose popularity with the laity occasionally provoked resentment.

In other respects too, the reader comes across general controversies which are reminiscent of contemporary Christendom, even if the specifics appear archaic.

Congregations were not always reverent: talking and arguing during Mass or bringing their dogs and hawks inside the churches with them.

Churches and church grounds were sometimes used for dancing and games, and in one Yorkshire parish in the 15th century, Mass-goers are recorded as having stacked so many swords, bows and other equipment inside the porch that it was hard for others to gain entrance.

Though the status and role of the clergy, their individual moral and professional failings and the existence of tithes ensured a certain amount of anti-clericalism was ever-present, Orme’s account also makes clear that Medieval England was a place of immense Catholicity.

The proliferation of chantry chapels attested to the widespread belief in the importance of praying for the souls of the deceased, with Orme writing that “a medieval church was almost as much a place of the dead as it was of the living.”

Men tended to wear hoods or hats when in church, and it was “customary for them to bare their heads at the supreme moment of the mass, the elevation, when the priest held up the consecrated wafer: Christ himself according to the doctrine of the Real Presence;” indeed, the Lollards of the 14th century sometimes revealed themselves to be heretics by keeping their heads covered at the elevation.

The England which existed at the time of Henry VIII’s coronation was unquestionably a deeply Catholic environment.

“There were the daily, Sunday, and festival services, the calendar observances, and the christenings, weddings, and burials,” Orme writes. “Images in churches still had their devotees and stores, parishioners still formed companies and guilds, and the candle-selling and ale-brewing went on to raise money. Despite the vast number of places of worship, new votive chapels were still being founded in the hope of attracting worshippers.”

Storm clouds were already brewing in the form of a strengthened Tudor monarchy of Henry VII and his better known son and successor, both of whom had incrementally reduced the powers of the Church - including when it came to Rome’s role in appointing bishops - long before the eventual breach precipitated by Henry VIII’s divorce.

Though a canon in the Church of England, Orme does not hesitate to make clear the damage done during the Tudor revolt, including the attacks on monasteries, shrines, religious images and popular customs.

One of the changes which secular historians often miss, but which Orme clearly points to, is the function of the everyday cleric himself pre- and post-Reformation.

Servants of God became aides to Caesar. The local vicar was not like the priest or friar of yesteryear: “He could be married. He had lost whatever distinction had come from celebrating frequent masses, hearing confessions, or saying prayers for the dead. On the other hand he had gained new importance in a Church of England governed by the crown, which made him more of a royal officer than before. He read an official liturgy, preached the official homilies, and kept the official record of births, marriages, and deaths.”

The hybrid church structure which eventually emerged during the reign of Elizabeth I preserved much of the structure of what had gone before, so much so that the experience of churchgoing was in many ways quite similar, even though the religious character of England had been irrevocably changed.

“The papal headship of the Church, indulgences, monasteries and chantries, compulsory celibacy, Latin services, image veneration, and numerous calendar observances – at least as manifested inside churches – can all be said to have passed away... Reformers remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage, infant baptism, a set liturgy with traditional features, adult communion, and many calendar observances,” he writes.

For a more comprehensive account of the savagery of what this transformation involved, a reader would have to look elsewhere - perhaps to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars.

Orme’s impressive book provides the reader with a helpful reminder of how the dearest held beliefs of an entire people can be swept away through the concerted efforts of a hostile State, so that the culture that has been built up over centuries recedes into the mists of time.


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