Edward's world as a stage

Tudor Church Militant
April 21, 2000

Mandy Rice-Davies would, I suspect, be surprised to find herself quoted in a book on the mid-Tudor church, but here she is nevertheless, along with other quotations and allusions with a distinct 20th-century flavour. The Edwardian age is described as beginning with glasnost, and Archbishop Cranmer's policies are characterised as exemplifying the middle way. The use of such contemporary language reveals the book's origins as Diarmaid MacCulloch's four Birkbeck lectures (1998). Thorough grounding in evidence, combined with that most difficult of historical skills - Janus-like looking at the past while refusing to allow knowledge of the future to colour interpretation - has produced a work that illustrates all the best virtues of historical scholarship. These lectures explore the destruction of the medieval church and the construction of an evangelical substitute, interpreting the period in its own terms, and with an important concluding chapter on the significance of the Edwardian church establishment.

The central conceit of the book is to see the reign of Edward VI as a play. MacCulloch sets his scene by introducing the dramatis personae, then considers the heart of the drama: "Purifying the realm" (the destruction of the remains of the medieval church) and "Building the temple" (the construction of a new church to replace the old), and ends with a curtain call in the shape of a chapter on the "Afterlife of the Edwardian reformation", which looks at the response to the Reformation of Edward's half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and their Stuart successors.

The first chapter sets the scene admirably, rehearsing the policies, both clear and confused, of Edward's father (Henry VIII) and showing how his attitude to national and international developments was an important influence on what was achievable by Edward and his advisers. The actors who played important parts in the drama of the reign are treated to substantial sketches.

Edward himself receives lengthy treatment. MacCulloch discusses his schooling and development, from a nine-year-old orphan to an assured and educated young man. He shows how Edward had his own views and that he was able to exert policy influences on his councillors. Edward's enthusiasm for the evangelical project is seen as a key factor in its progress. The overall impression given here is not far from the one contemporaries were fond of giving. MacCulloch points out that constant comparisons were made to Henry VI, and leaves us with the feeling of loss, as a man of immense promise was written out of the script far too early.

If the central conceit of the book is drama, the central theme of the drama is revolution. After the uncertainties and inconsistencies at the end of the reign of Henry VIII, Edward's accession heralded a new dawn "of hope and moral fervour... This was a time of apparently infinite possibilities, when ordinary people believed they themselves could influence the future, and when the government appeared to agree." MacCulloch succeeds in conveying the mood of excitement of Robert Kett and his followers, and the more cerebral engagement of the theologians and others at the centre of the evangelical revolution. The risings by Kett and others, following recent research, are characterised as movements in sympathy with the government's efforts at reform. MacCulloch shows how supportive the duke of Somerset was of those who left their homes in the "camping time", acknowledging with grace his own previous failure to realise the significance of the small cache of letters from Somerset to the "rebels".

But notwithstanding the moral fervour of the men leading the revolution, support for it was limited in two crucial ways. Geographically, reform was championed in the South and East and in the major ports, whence evangelical ideas are thought to have spread from continental reformers. Socially, the reforms were most enthusiastically received by Cambridge scholars and a well-educated aristocratic group. The outline is convincing, but as with all explanations in Tudor England, there remain difficulties. York was a major port with strong links to the continent, both in its own right and through Hull. Yet despite this, and its importance as an ecclesiastical centre, there is no convincing evidence that York was an enthusiastic participant in the Edwardian reforms. Contemporary wills in York show that its inhabitants remained confident of the efficacy of obits as a means of diminishing time spent in purgatory right up to the end, while churchwardens deliberately employed former monks to service these obits. Churchwardens in the city might not have got involved in anti-reform rebellion like colleagues in the Southwest, but they were keen to avoid the worst consequences of the abolition of church ornament. In characteristic Yorkshire fashion, they took their plate to the market in Beverley, turning their assets into cash rather than see them confiscated in the manner of monastic property a decade previously. In the secular sphere, York Common Council spent many years in an effort to get back the city's chantry lands, eventually realised in Elizabeth's reign.

So the central mystery of the Reformation(s) remains. How can we reconcile a vital medieval church, as described so vividly by Eamonn Duffy, with an eager reception of the Edwardian revolution and indifference to Mary's attempt to revive it only five years after Henry's death? Revolutions, MacCulloch says, "are not best glimpsed through account books". The clue to unravelling the mystery may yet be found in them. As Beät Kumin (1994) has shown using a range of churchwardens' accounts, voluntary activity in the church declined as the regulatory framework was strengthened, under both Edward and Mary. Perhaps, as in all good dramas, the seeds of their destruction were sown by the protagonists themselves.

Christopher Webb is archivist, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York.

Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation

Author - Diarmaid MacCulloch
ISBN - 0 713 99369 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 283

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