14 June 2022

Duffy Revisited

In a new preface to his seminal The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy recalls how one of the discoveries which gave impetus to his revisionist approach to the history of the English Reformation was his realisation that, on the very eve of that 'reformation', so many parish churches were having (lay-funded) additions made to them ... a sure sign of the vitality of the cultus which they symbolised and enabled.

My own studies have given me reasons to conclude that this may be even truer than Duffy was able to gather from the evidence. I suspect that in many places building work was going on which has left only oblique evidence.

In 1644, when King Charles I was marching West, the cavalier diarist Richard Symonds traveling with him made notes about the heraldry he saw in the windows (and monuments) of all the churches and gentry houses he could get into. I was taking an interest in Lifton Church, near Okehampton; so I looked at the Victorian edition of Symonds to see what he noted there. An initial mistake ... I couldn't make his account fit. But when I looked at his ms in the British Library, and eliminated the mistakes the Victorian transcription had made, matters were much clearer. In terms of new armorial glass dignifying new local potentates, a great deal was going on in the 1490s!

But one problem continued to stand out. Symonds listed no heraldry in the South aisle windows. And when I looked carefully at the tracery in those widows, the penny dropped ... what I (and other observers) had assumed to be part of a late medieval set were nothing of the sort; they were top-quality Victorian additions deliberately made to match the earlier work.

I think it is pretty clear that a major reshaping of Lifton Church was going on just as the Reformation struck; work stopped; within the next century, the uncompleted South aisle was patched up; but not to the best standards. That is why Symonds can give us no information about any heraldic data in those windows. There was none.

Fast forward 250 years ... the Victorians put in good matching masonry and tracery; further evidence that good late medieval work had not survived. 

Because, with the lack of vision and optimism which accompanied the Reformation, no decent work had been put up there to survive!


armyarty said...

For all his intellect, far surpassing anything possessed by men, Satan never comes up with anything new.

Every heresy, every schism, every act of iconoclasm is simply a replay of some ancient, long discredited error.

This is strikingly true of the Protestant Reformation, during which we see the Act of Supremacy, and the Act of Appeals, which justified state control over the church, on the grounds that England was an Empire. This was already a disreputable idea, but was partly behind the schism with the Eastern Orthodox.

The whole barge load of heresies which were quickly either adopted by the state run church, or were proliferating as a result of the schism were merely variations of old and long condemned errors.

The hallmark of the schism begun by Henry was its iconoclasm, which is striking, because he personally disliked it- except in the case of images of certain saints, such as Thomas A Becket, of which he heartily approved- for obvious reasons. Yet we saw again an error that had been successfully exposed as far back as the ninth century.

The destruction of images, of churches, and of monasteries was neccessary to the Protestant error, and the aims of the regime. It provided money- one of its main goals, but it also obscured doctrine, and destroyed great monuments erected by "over-mighty subjects" whom Henry intended to humble.

There are no new heresies!

Matthew F Kluk said...

Regarding iconoclasts and iconoclasm, in 50 or 75 years when the worst of the VII churches will need structural repairs or new rebar for their all concrete panels, will there be those who demand they be preserved? As sacred shrines? Or will that ilk be gone? Or will there be those who long for Novus Ordo Masses, which may be rarities in that far distant future? Is it a similar vengefulness to Henry VIII's which secretly lurks I'm my dark heart, that would like to see Pope Francis' undoubted canonization revoked, his cause discarded, and Annibale Bugnini removed from whatever Catholic cemetery his wretched corpse was consigned?