BOOKS AND ARTS
20 September 2012, Review by Eamon Duffy
Religion under the King’s thumb
The Late Medieval English Church: vitality and vulnerability before the break with RomeG.W. Bernard
Yale University Press, £25
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 Tel 01420 592974
G. W. Bernard is one of the ablest, and one of the most disputatious, of early-modern English historians. An archival bloodhound with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Tudor sources, he is famous for espousing unfashionable views, and for his relish for academic fisticuffs. Turning academic orthodoxy on its head, he has argued that Henry VIII laboured for years to keep Anne Boleyn out of his bed, only sleeping with her once he could see his way clear to making an honest woman of her (and legitimating their offspring) by marriage. More recently, he has challenged the widely held view that Anne was an Evangelical who helped influence Henry towards Protestantism, while arguing, equally controversially, that she was probably guilty of the multiple adulteries and the incest with her brother used to justify her execution.
In his new book, Bernard turns his fire on “revisionist” accounts of the pre-Reformation Church in England, and in particular the basically positive account of late-medieval English religion outlined in the present reviewer’s 1992 The Stripping of the Altars. Or rather, he wants to add a corrective appendix. “Without wishing to dispute anything, details apart, of its overall view”, Bernard feels that it “did not tell the full story”, since it left us with the problem of explaining how it could be that so apparently successful and vigorous a form of Christianity could have been overthrown by the Tudor reformers. Hence, he believes, the late-Medieval Church must have been marked by “vulnerabilities” which have been “ignored or played down in much current writing”, and which make that overthrow more intelligible. The point of this book is to explore those vulnerabilities.
This Bernard does in a series of chapters considering both early Tudor religious institutions, like the episcopate, and the monasteries, as well as some key expressions of late-medieval piety
This slightly curious balancing act is not without its rewards. Bernard has a useful discussion of the extent to which the pre-Reformation English Church was in fact firmly under the thumb of the monarchy. He is rightly dismissive of claims that the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy had been anticipated in some of Henry VIII’s dealings with the Church in the early years of his reign, but equally rightly insistent on the very wide powers which the king exercised in ecclesiastical affairs both in his own right and through Wolsey’s legatine role.
In the same way, Bernard explores the notable lack of enthusiasm and zeal in fifteenth-century English monastic life. By and large, he concludes, English monks and nuns were innocent of the grosser corruptions the reformers accused them of, but the reforming and Observant wings of the great religious orders made a late entry into England, and there were none of the revivalist movements which swept other parts of Europe under the fiery preaching of charismatic friars like St Bernardine and St Vincent Ferrer. The luke-warm gentility of late-medieval English monasticism has often been remarked upon. This is in part because its great historian, Dom David Knowles, viewed it through the filter of his personal alienation from his own monastery, which he thought guilty of the same lack of zeal. But it is useful to have the pros and cons judiciously set out.
And Bernard has some more surprising conclusions to offer. Not the least of these comes in his first chapter, a re-examination of the notorious case of Richard Hunne, a wealthy London merchant accused of heresy and found hanged in his cell in the Bishop of London’s prison in 1516. A London coroner’s jury found that Hunne had been murdered at the instigation of the archdeacon, with whom Hunne had had a feud. The case became celebrated in 1536, a generation after the event, when an anticlerical pamphlet presented the Hunne case as typical of the mutual hostility of clergy and laity on the eve of the break with Rome. John Foxe incorporated the pamphlet and its claims wholesale into his Acts and Monuments, from where it passed into the standard academic histories. Thomas More made a close study of the Hunne case, and in his Dialogue of Heresies insisted that Hunne was a heretic who had committed suicide. Historians have been inclined to disbelieve More, but Bernard, in a bravura re-reading of the original documents, shows that the archdeacon was in fact cleared of murder after a personal intervention by Henry VIII, and he concludes that while More may have been wrong about Hunne’s heresies, he was right that Hunne took his own life.
All the same, the reader is left at the end of the book wondering quite what it was all about. Bernard’s central theme, the vulnerability of the late-medieval Church, seems too general to be helpful as an explanatory device. All human institutions are “vulnerable” to something or other. Of course pilgrimage was “vulnerable” to the criticisms of those like Thomas à Kempis or Erasmus, who thought gadding to shrines a distraction from more fruitful forms of piety. But pilgrimage did not succumb to its vulnerabilities – it continued all over Catholic Europe, survived both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and in shrines like Lourdes remains in greater vigour than ever. The Reformation was not about correcting the weaknesses of late-medieval Christianity, it was about replacing its doctrine with something radically different.
The English Reformation left the structure of the medieval Church exactly as it found it, replacing the pope with the monarch, thereby making the Church of England unimaginably more a “monarchical Church” than ever its medieval predecessor was. But it threw out its central doctrines and its sacraments. If someone demolishes your living room by driving a bulldozer through it, no light is thrown on the affair by remarking that you’d always thought the wallpaper looked wrong. The medieval English Church did not succumb to its vulnerabilities, it was hit by a bulldozer. In his attempt to explain why, Bernard has left us better informed, but not much the wiser.
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