The Crucible of Faith: Reformation and Resistance in Northern England
by Mary Sharratt
[This essay is gleaned from a course I took in July 2009 at the University of Lancaster—A Crucible of Faith: the Religious Heritage of North West England. My instructors for the parts of the course dealing with the English Reformation and its aftermath were Adrian Braddon, Dr. Lisa Curry, and Jim Wadman.]
The English Reformation continues to hold an enduring fascination for a modern audience. Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award-winning masterpiece, Wolf Hall, puts forward a traditionalist view that the Reformation heralded an era of enlightenment and progress, in which humanists and forward-thinkers left the ignorance and superstition of the late medieval era behind. However, the reality is much more tangled than Mantel’s excellent fiction would have us believe.
Most of what we were taught about the English Reformation twenty to thirty years ago has been completely turned on its head. Eamon Duffy’s 1992 book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, laid out the thesis that the English clung to their traditional religion and were very reluctant to embrace the reformed faith. By now Duffy’s views have become mainstream.
Nowhere was this truer than in the Northwest of England, which is still the most Catholic region of England—Catholics comprise about 26% of the population compared to 8% in the rest of the country. About half of Liverpool is Catholic and about a quarter to a third of the residents of Preston. There are also rural villages such as Hurst Green, Crosby, and Ribchester that support both Catholic and Anglican churches. The high percentages are due in part to immigration from Ireland and Poland, but also to the survival and revival of Catholicism within the region, largely owing to the resistance of the gentry. Many important landowning families such as the Towneleys, Southworths, and Shuttleworths remained Catholic, despite Elizabeth I’s religious conformity laws.
Why were so many in Northwest England so reluctant to embrace the Reformation? Not only were they a long way from the power center in London, they were a very long way from Rome. Whereas the Catholic establishment in Italy during the Reformation period was rife with corruption, there is no evidence of major corruption or scandal in the English Catholic Church at this time. People wanted reform with a small “r” and it was happening. Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, was closing down monasteries that seemed unproductive and changing them into schools and colleges for laymen. Wolsey also reduced the power of the Church courts. Yet even after Henry VIII sacked Wolsey, stripped him of his bishopric, and appointed himself head of the Church of England, the majority of people, especially in the North, did not want radical religious change thrust upon them.
This became starkly clear during the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising of 400,000 armed men in the North who gathered under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ to oppose Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. They very nearly won! Henry had no standing army. 400,000 was an incredible number when the entire English population at this time was around 2.2 million. But the Catholic nobility in the North intervened and, anxious of opposing the King, negotiated a truce. If they hadn’t, Henry’s reforms couldn’t have gone through. The closing of the monasteries was disastrous for the poor, who had relied on the now outlawed religious orders for charity and medical care. Apart from leaving the poor in the lurch, however, Henry’s reforms didn’t penetrate everyday religion so drastically. Most holidays were still celebrated and the churches retained their saints’ altars and religious images.
The real English Reformation didn’t begin until the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son and heir. Edward attacked the entire cultural framework of traditional English life. In his banning of the saints’ days and his orders for the destruction of religious statues, rood screens, stained glass, and holy shrines, Edward cut deeply into the lives of his people, destroying the ancient rhythms of the liturgical year and their round of village festivals. Church walls, traditionally covered in religious images to communicate the mysteries of faith to a largely illiterate population, were whitewashed over.
The picture below, of St. Wilfrid’s Church in Ribchester, shows the pre-Reformation fresco discovered beneath the whitewashing. The stained glass is modern.
Most people sincerely welcomed Mary Tudor’s arrival on the throne. Although she couldn’t undo the dissolution of the monasteries, she restored the Mass and the holidays, which provided much-needed recreation for hardworking commoners. When Mary fell from grace it wasn’t because of her religion but because of her unpopular marriage to the Spanish king which inspired fears that the English were to become a Spanish colony. Today “Bloody” Mary is most commonly remembered for burning nearly three hundred Protestant dissenters, Archbishop Cramner among them. She committed these atrocities against the advice of both her husband and her priest-confessor, who were worried that she was becoming a dangerous fanatic.
Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about Mary and the true history of the Pendle Witches and their connection to pre-Reformation beliefs, visit her website: www.marysharratt.com .