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How the English reluctantly abandoned Catholicism
on 3 September 2015
This is a monumental book and it certainly helps to have been exposed to Catholicism in order to wade through and appreciate all the detail. Using a vast wealth of documentary evidence (quoted in the original English), as well as photographs, the author argues against the perception that the English people’s devotion to Catholicism in the late Middle Ages was in a bad way by the time of the Reformation of the 1530s and 1540s. In the first two thirds of the book he winds his way in detail through a multitude of examples of religious practices before the dramatic changes initiated by Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, citing many examples from East Anglia in particular. He argues that Lollardy had already seen its apogee and decline long before. Traditional Catholic customs formed an important part in moderating everyday life and binding all levels in communities. The author stresses the importance of liturgical calendar and the hold it had on people’s lives on fasting, abstaining from work and attending services. Much activity was set on ensuring a smooth passage through Purgatory through donations and bequests in wills in return for prayers and making sure that one’s name was on the bede roll of dead benefactors (“Catholicism at the end of the late Middle Ages became in large part a cult of the living in the service of the dead”; people “bought post-mortem fire life insurance”). Proof of a thriving Catholic culture is that during the 150 years prior to the Reformation around two thirds of English parish churches were rebuilt.
Henry VIII sought separation from Rome and removal any references to the Pope, but he did not want to provoke revolution. Cromwell, and then Cranmer (who also led the changes through the reign of the juvenile Edward VI) went much further is dismantling and reshaping the liturgical practices and calendar. Latin was replaced by English. Symbolism was replaced by Bible reading. They attacked of the cult of saints, abolishing a multitude of national, local and saint’s days associated with occupational patrons. They did away with local gilds. They outlawed burning of candles before images and the use of rosaries. Prayers for the dead were abolished. Pilgrimages and processions were banned. Eventually even altars were removed. All the paraphernalia and riches of churches, much of it left by parishioners, was first inventoried and shortly afterwards confiscated.
The arrival of Catholic Queen Mary, who reigned for 5 years before Protestant Queen Elizabeth, showed that Protestantism had not had its way as much as has been assumed. There occurred a telling rapid resurgence of Catholic elements in wills as well as a flood of printed primers that reflected a reversion to more traditional catholic practices. Returns from diocesan visitations during Elizabeth’s reign, even in strongly Protestant Kent, showed how much was yet to be done to firmly establish Protestantism once and for all.