One blogger's review concluded: "The late medieval church had its vulnerabilities, but paradoxically these were often a sign of its great vitality. This is a book that needs to be read by anyone who is interested in the history of the English Church and the background to the English Reformation. The question it raises, like the work of Eamon Duffy before it, is why, if the pre-Reformation church was so vibrant, did the English Reformation take place?"--David Hamid, the Anglican bishop for the EU community
And Peter Marshall in the "Literary Review"'s July issue commented that, "'The Late Medieval English Church' does not quite bill itself as an extended commentary on Eamon Duffy's work, but that is the clear subtext. The book is notable for its focused attention to areas of late medieval religious life that Duffy chose not to consider in detail: the role played by bishops, the state of the religious orders, the significance of Lollardy. . . . But Bernard's superbly researched and coherently argued study is far from being either a hatchet job on Duffy or an atavistic reversion to Protestant instincts about pre-Reformation Catholicism. We could reasonably characterise (sic; "Literary Review" is published in Edinburgh!) its overall thesis as 'yes, but . . . '."
Sometimes that "yes, but . . ." thesis bothers me as Bernard goes back and forth with questions about how we in the 21st century should judge how well the laity, nuns, monks, priests and bishops lived up to the ideals and standards of the Catholic Church in the late medieval era. Bernard tells us what contemporary critics of the Church in England tell us now about how some abuses were regarded, and then points out how seldom the abuses occurred--a priest behaving badly stood out and created such alarm and outcry because relatively few priests behaved badly, considering the population of the time. Yes, some of the bishops were not present in their dioceses, but they were serving the King, they made arrangements for vicars to cover their duties, and when they did go home, they regretted their absences and repaired any damage as soon as possible. Yes, some of the monks and nuns left their cloister, but they were landlords too and needed to oversee their tenants, distribute charity, or in the case of an Abbot, attend Parliament in the House of Lords. These abuses don't answer Bishop Hamid's question at all--they don't automatically mean that the English people would reject the Catholic Church once Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and Cromwell and Cranmer started introducing reforms to the liturgy and closing the monasteries, convents, and friaries.
Bernard discusses the "monarchical" nature of the Catholic hierarchy, serving the Tudor monarch and basically obeying his demands on church matters--although the bishops sometimes balked. But as Peter Marshall notes in that "Literary Review" article, French and Spanish rulers had as much control and there was no state led Reformation in either country. Bernard is fair and effective in his analysis of the vitality and vulnerability of the Catholic Church in England before the Henry VIII's Break from Rome/the English Reformation, but he doesn't solve the mystery yet of how the English people accepted religious change at the hands of its monarch with compliance, even though that compliance was not easy, immediate, or complete. Although Bernard fills in gaps that Duffy might have left (he did not claim to be comprehensive in "The Stripping of the Altars"), we still have a historical mystery, it seems. I agree completely with Peter Marshall that this is very well researched and interesting study of the Catholic Church in England before the Break from Rome and the subsequent English Reformation. Must be read by anyone interested in following the developments of the revisionist school of English Reformation studies, especially in the development of Eamon Duffy's argument about the strengths of traditional Catholic liturgical life--now balanced by consideration of some weaknesses in the hierarchy and function of the Church in England.