Catholic Demise in Devonshire

The Voices of Morebathby By Eamon DuffyYale University Press. 232p $ 22.50

Eamon Duffy, president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Reader in Church History at the university, is widely known for his award-winning book, The Stripping of the Altars (1992), in which he portrayed the pre-Reformation Catholic piety of the English laity and their resistance to the deliberate steps away from it by three of the Tudor monarchs. In this richly detailed new book he focuses on the Devonshire village of Morebath, where the local priest, Sir Christopher Trychaypronounced trickeyserved the parish of 33 families from 1520 until his death in 1574. Sir was then the equivalent of Father. For four decades he inserted into the financial report, which he read to his parishioners, pages that narrated local incidents of interest to them.

Fortunately, this unique file has survived, and Duffy has found here the voices of Morebath preserved by the whim of Sir Christopher, who had appointed himself the custodian of the parish memory. But this village is not a part of Merry England, and Duffy assures the reader it will not be mutely conformist in accepting the Reformation’s changes.


The first half of the book analyzes Trychay’s numerous vignettes of energetic pre-Reformation village piety. His people were mainly tenant farmers engaged in raising sheep on the verdant hillsides. His parish kept records of ten funds, then called stores, six of them administered by men or women parishioners, called the wardens, and four larger stores under the high wardens of St. George, who was the patron saint of the parish church. His records mention various expenses of the wardens for new vestments, altar cloths, the need to gild statues or prepare banners for processions for special occasions, like the feast of a local saint. One store paid for the beeswax lights burning before an image of a favorite local martyr named St. Sidwell, who died near Exeter in the Anglo-Saxon period. If the stores were out of funds, Sir Christopher would arrange a church ale, for which the households would brew beer to sell to visitors and friends to gather money to pay the parish’s debts. This is a brief example of numerous links that Duffy notes between the social relationships and the pre-Reformation religious observances of a small Devonshire parish faithfully documented by Trychay’s pen.

Henry VIII’s divorce and schism changed this country priest forever. Obedient to the Act of Supremacy of 1534, he took the oath to sever his loyalty to Rome; and then in 1536, after the legal suppression of the smaller monasteries, the centuries-old patronage of the Augustinian priory that had first appointed him to Morebath was ended and a layman assumed that role. Undoubtedly it was the Injunctions of 1538 from Thomas Cromwell, as the king’s vicegerent for the church, that upset the laity of Morebath. In a bitter statement he banished from their church their favorite lights, images and relics as phantasies of men and superstitions and acts of idolatry. Duffy comments that 18 years of devotional activity was suddenly ended, for an English Protestant Bible was destined to be the centerpiece of the church’s sanctuary.

Cromwell’s abrupt fall brought a mitigation in Henry’s policy, but his preoccupation with a ruinously expensive foreign war forced Morebath parish to pay new taxes that its resources could ill afford. After 1547 the remnants of the parish’s Catholic legacy were in grave jeopardy under the aggressive Protestant policy of the guardian of the boy king Edward VI. New Injunctions stripped Morebath’s church of prized vestments, statues, banners, processions and even the saying of rosary beads, the ringing of church bells and all fundraising by a church ale. Undoubtedly several precious items were hidden by trustworthy families, but three other serious problems confronted Morebath: two poor harvests, burdensome taxes and debasement of coinage. Accordingly it was an unwelcome last straw when Trychay had to introduce to those present in his barren church the reformed prayer book printed under Edward’s name, which would change their centuries-old style of worship beyond recognition.

Many villages in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset reacted, as did people in Morebath, by sending armed men to gather in a camp near Exeter to seek an end of the policy. Their protest has been mislabeled, Duffy argues, as The Prayer Book Revolt of 1549, for they were hardly rebels but merely intent on keeping traditional rites. Local officials responded with foreign troops who attacked and massacred hundreds of the untrained farmers, including three youths from Morebath. With reason Duffy entitled this chapter Morebath Dismantled, for thus far the Reformation appeared to the people as arrogant, destructive and unEnglish. The accession of Mary Tudor was welcomed by Trychay, although he faced grave problems in recovering from the iconoclasts of Edward VI and the financial burdens left by Henry, for many of the church’s ornaments had been sold or looted. Furthermore, the Diocese of Exeter did not have enough workmen to restore its churches from the Edwardian pillage, so Trychay was pleased to record that some good Catholyk men started to repair his church, while the full Catholic rites were once again celebrated. But Mary’s death in 1558 ushered in a fourth change.

Duffy notes ironically that Elizabeth was proclaimed at Morebath with impeccably Catholic ceremonial, yet this was to be the funeral rites of Catholic England. Again the parish’s Catholic vestments and altar vessels were hidden, while Trychay obeyed a Protestant-oriented regime, with its Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity and Injunctions seeking to plant true religion. There was another less stridently Calvinistic Book of Common Prayer, which was to be the cornerstone of its worship, that represented the fourth change in the services over which Trychay presided in 25 years. He became a pluralist by accepting a second benefice with a stipend nearly four times the value of Morebath, but he stayed in his first parish and hired curates to minister to this second.

Since over the decade until his death he guided his people into a full conformity to the Elizabethan established church, Duffy rightly characterizes Sir Christopher as a cleric who obeyed each change with a cautious compliance. Obviously more gratified with Mary’s regime than Edward’s or Elizabeth’s, he made no personal statement or gave any hint by an independent action of his private beliefs. Outward conformity undoubtedly satisfied Elizabeth, who liked to remind her courtiers that she did not seek to put windows into men’s souls.

All students of the English Reformation will welcome this book. In his nuanced and stimulating prose Duffy provides many insights into the complex issues of this momentous religious change. Readers may watch it occur piecemeal, decade after decade, in a once-Catholic Devonshire village.

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