Post-classical history

Chapter 4


The Norman conquerors of England were, of course, as Christian as the nation they had conquered. In this vital respect there was no significant change brought by the Norman Conquest to the spiritual fabric of England. But the matter did not end there. This is because the conquerors – including representatives of the great churches and abbeys of Normandy – brought with them both the social condescension of those who had made themselves master in another person’s country and a spiritual commitment to ‘reform’ any areas of the English Church which did not meet current continental norms. Amongst their targets were lesser-known – to Normans – Anglo-Saxon saints, cathedrals in rural settings (the continental pattern located them in towns), purchase of Church positions, royal control over the Church, and married clergy.

By 1080 only one out of 16 bishops was an Anglo-Saxon. This made it easier to pull the Anglo-Saxon Church into line with developments on the continent which had not hitherto been implemented in England. In England many seats of bishops dated from before the development of towns in the ninth and tenth centuries. Centres such as Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxfordshire), Selsey (Sussex) and North Elmham (Norfolk) were not urban centres. However, in Normandy the Mediterranean practice of locating bishops in towns had become the norm. This was a spiritual geography which made the English set-up appear strangely old-fashioned and was rectified by relocating English sees into centres of administration. This served the dual purpose of ‘modernizing’ the English church structure and coordinating the management of the conquered country in a more consistent way, since the elites of Church and State were now both part of the same imposed Norman social order. In this way North Elmham gave way, first to Thetford and then to Norwich; Selsey gave way to Chichester.

Accompanying this shift was a vast rebuilding programme which saw all the great Anglo-Saxon churches demolished and rebuilt in the latest continental styles. Under Edward the Confessor, Norman influence had already revealed itself in the Later Romanesquechurch of Westminster with its broad transepts and nave. The contrast to the Carolingian style of Canterbury signalled the direction of his political and cultural sympathies. After 1066 this trend accelerated. Galleries over the nave aisles (sometimes linking into the transepts) may have housed additional altars, or been used in processions, as the liturgy became more complex. The great church centres such as Winchester Old Minster and St Augustine’s, Canterbury – where history was intertwined with both the origins of English Christianity and kingship – were remade in the image of the new political realities and liturgical trends. It was as if the entire spiritual and cultural heritage of England had been reinvented; as if nothing of worth had existed before. It seemed as if the English Church had been a mere dress rehearsal for the main event, on which only the Norman Conquest had proved capable of raising the curtain. This was spiritual and cultural imperialism of an astonishing kind. Only here and there – at places such as Brixworth and Earl’s Barton (Northamptonshire), Deerhurst (Gloucestershire), St Laurence, in Bradford on Avon (Wiltshire) – do we catch glimpses of the ecclesiastical architectural treasures of Anglo-Saxon England. Accompanying these physical changes were organizational reforms. The establishment of local archdeaconries subdivided dioceses and increased the efficiency of Church government, and Canon law cases were taken out of the hands of the hundred courts.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that ‘reforms’ advocated by the papacy swept all areas of the English Church. Strong royal influence continued; shire courts continued to hear Canon law cases; not all churches adopted the new liturgy pioneered by Lanfranc at Canterbury, and a number, such as Winchester, continued with that used before 1066; the purchase of Church posts and married clergy remained areas slow to change, despite the Norman Conquest.

The Church in medieval society

What is clear is that the Church (despite shortcomings targeted by Norman reformers) played a huge role within society. However, it would be a mistake to assume that full-time paid members of the Church spent all their time on Church business. In reality, as literate members of the nation, often skilled in administration and part of an international community, they were in demand by secular authorities for assistance in government. Since the Church was also a major landowner, those who headed it – bishops, abbots and abbesses – also had to play a major role in running these estates, just like a secular landowner. Before 1400 almost all those involved in the day-to-day running of royal government in its lower levels were drawn from the clergy. They were both paid members of the Church and royal civil servants. This changed during the fifteenth century. In 1388 the chancery was administered almost exclusively by clerics but by 1461 it was dominated by laity.

For the medieval Church virtually all people in England were members of its community; England was a Christian country. The only religious minority after 1066 was the Jews, and they were expelled in 1290. Since Anglo-Saxon times the nation had been divided into parishes, within a diocese overseen by a bishop, within one of the two archdiocese (overseen by an archbishop) of Canterbury and York (with primacy going to the archbishop of Canterbury in Kent). The local unit – the parish – played a huge part in the lives of ordinary people. Its boundaries were usually centuries old and marked each year by a procession at Rogationtide (the week before Ascension Day, a feast 40 days after Easter). Everyone living within the parish was expected to attend parish Mass on Sundays and the main festivals of the year (see Chapter 11).

All those living within the parish paid a tithe of their income to their parish church. During the later Middle Ages many parishes were granted to monasteries, and income went to the monastery with a vicar appointed for the parish. The stipend paid to him ensured that the bulk of the revenue from the parish went to the monastery. In the case of Augustinian and Premonstratensian monasteries this job was often filled by one of their own canons (a priest living in a community, sometimes serving a cathedral or placed in a parish church). The wealthiest abbeys built tithe barns to store this income from local parishes. Since the original aim of the parish tithe was to support the local parish priest, the local church and the poor, this creaming off of the tithe could cause local resentment.

Only those ordained to the higher orders of the clergy could carry out the essential sacraments which were believed to bring people into close relationship with God and which led to the forgiveness of their sins. By the late fifteenth century these sacraments were: baptism (of babies), confirmation (often of toddlers), penance, the Eucharist (though only priests drank the wine), marriage, ordination and extreme unction (the final ritual anointing of a dying person). Ordination, whereby a person entered into the clerical orders, could be carried out only by a bishop.

But who were the clergy? Today that might seem an obvious question. They constitute those in paid employment within the Church, who teach and lead worship of the Christian community. In the Middle Ages the matter was much more complex. In the thirteenth and fourteenth century any schoolboy who received a tonsure as a mark of his literate status was technically a member of the clergy. This could include boys as young as seven years old. As a result, anyone accused of a crime could claim what was called ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate. This allowed them to be tried in a Church court, where punishments (usually involving penance and without the death penalty) were lighter than in royal courts. The Bible passage used for this test of literacy was Psalm 51: 1, whose words, in Latin, contained this appropriate opening verse: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.’1 Thus, an illiterate person who had memorized the appropriate Psalm could also claim benefit of clergy, and Psalm 51: 1 became known as the ‘neck verse’. A reaction against those avoiding justice by reciting this verse led to restrictions, and by the end of the sixteenth century the crimes of murder, rape, poisoning, petty treason (e.g. a wife’s murder of her husband), sacrilege, witchcraft, burglary, theft from churches and pickpocketing went before a secular court. Analysis of those ‘clerics’ (whose professions can be checked) who successfully pleaded ‘benefit of clergy’ as recorded in the records of the archbishop of York between 1452 and 1530 show that only 24 per cent were genuine clerics.

Above this category of ‘technical clerics’ were the ordained four minor orders of doorkeeper, lector, exorcist and acolyte. Members of these orders did not have to be celibate. Above these were the three major (holy) orders of sub-deacon, deacon and priest. Only priests could consecrate the Eucharist and rise to the higher ranks of the Church such as bishop. Priests had to be at least 24 years old and bishops at least 30 years old (the age when it was believed that Jesus had begun his ministry). There were restrictions on who could enter these orders. Illegitimate men needed a bishop’s dispensation to enter minor orders and one from the pope to enter major orders. The same applied to sons of clergymen, since their fathers should have been celibate – a discipline hard to enforce, and as late as 1070 an archbishop of Canterbury had stepped back from demanding it from all clergy. It was only after 1200 that higher clerics in the diocese of Hereford ceased to be married and only shortly after this did hereditary succession to benefices (the income a priest had from the church for which he was responsible) cease. However, even as late as 1300 there are examples of married priests amongst the lower clergy.

No villein could be ordained since, as William Langland summed it up in the late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, no ‘bondmen and bastards and beggars’ should be in holy orders. Candidates should have no physical defects. Finally, they should be of appropriate character, with sufficient learning. Once ordained, clerics were supposed to avoid brightly coloured fashionable clothes and had the characteristic haircut, the tonsure.

What is clear is that there were a very large number of clerics; perhaps 33,150 in 9,500 parishes in 1250. To this should be added 7,600 monks, 3,900 regular canons and 5,300 friars. These may have made up as much as 5.6 per cent of the adult male population in 1200.2 In addition, there were about 1,500 men and women working in hospitals as part of a religious order and perhaps as many as 7,000 nuns (though some estimates are as low as 3,000). After 1200 financial pressures meant that many monasteries operated a quota system of new recruits to reduce numbers entering the orders. ‘It was a drastic reversal of the missionary strategy’ from which these orders of monks and nuns had originally emerged.3

Grants of land made the Church extremely powerful and in the later Middle Ages at least 20 per cent of land was owned by the Church. Critics as varied as the Peasants’ Revolt leader John Ball and the educated lay lords who patronized the writers of literature such as the Gest of Robyn Hodesupported the redistribution of the vast estates owned by the Church. However, critics of the Church faced opposition from both royal and Church authorities. Between 1250 and 1435 about 16,000 excommunicates were notified to royal authorities; sheriffs were required to arrest all who were not reconciled to the Church within 40 days.

Church architecture and rebuilding

This wealth and influence of the Church was expressed in the many parish churches across England. While these act as physical representations of Christian beliefs, a closer study of these buildings shows that both beliefs and architecture were not as unchanging as they might first appear. Indeed, the ways in which Church architecture changed across the Middle Ages opens a window into the beliefs of men and women and also into ways in which expressing these beliefs changed. There were certain architectural features which applied to most churches in the Middle Ages. First was the graveyard associated with a parish church, since the Church offered the message of salvation and the hope of eternal life through Christian faith. As we saw in Chapter 1, churchyard burial was something which did not immediately happen following the Christian conversions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms but, by the eleventh century, it had become well established as the norm. Burial rights were rigorously defended by parish clergy and they brought a significant income to the local church. It was not uncommon for chapels of ease to be established elsewhere within a large parish for occasional services but these did not have the status of the parish church with its burial and baptismal role. If these developed into full churches there could often be disputes with the mother church. In the fourteenth century, for example, a dispute over burial rights between Sutton-on-Hull (Yorkshire) and its mother church at Waghen led to bodies being exhumed from Sutton and reburied at Waghen.

The principal entry to churches was usually via the south doorway, and near here, inside the church, would be located the font for infant baptisms. Both of these features had symbolic significance. The doorway (often with a covering porch) was the gateway between the secular world and the sacred. It was here that babies were given to the priest for baptism and where weddings were solemnized. The positioning of the font near the door was also significant since it symbolized the point of entry to the medieval Christian community. The main focus of the church building was the altar located at the eastern end, or chancel, and particularly associated with the priest. This was the focus for the celebration of the Eucharist, also known as the Mass (Holy Communion); the main body of the church – the nave – being occupied by the laity. A physical barrier between these two areas emphasized this internal division of the building. Named from an Old English word for the cross which surmounted it, this was called the rood screen. Many churches also contained subsidiary altars in other parts of the building. By the later fourteenth century these were increasingly associated with chantries.

The responsibility for the upkeep of the parish church had, by the 1350s, fallen to annually elected members of the parish, the churchwardens. They raised money for this from a variety of sources: collections, social events such as church ales and hocking(requesting gifts from passers-by), income from church-owned animals and leasing out of property.

Church buildings were deeply imbued with meaning. After 1297 the cloisters at Norwich cathedral were rebuilt following severe damage caused by riots in 1272. The masons created a structure in the cloister’s East Walk which was capable of ‘integrating sculpture, architecture and meaning’. The complex roof bosses of the vaulted corridor were designed to elaborate and extend the meanings of the carvings around the great doorway into the church. Research has decoded the rich imagery of these elaborately carved items and the insight they give us into the Christian world view of the late thirteenth century. These lead through the ‘First Judgement’ (where a saintly few are admitted to paradise, the rest to purgatory) to the ‘Second Judgement’ (where those in purgatory are assigned either to heaven or to hell) and finally up the seven ascending steps into the cathedral itself, an earthly symbol of heaven.4

Between 1066 and 1230 England might have seemed to have been one vast building site. Indeed, so great was the extent of church construction in the thirteenth century that it has been calculated it was the equivalent, in modern terms (2006), of every family in England paying £500 every year for the whole century!5 From about 1250 many church buildings became more complex, developing from the simple components of nave and chancel. By 1300 many added bell towers, side aisles and porches. This change accelerated between 1300 and 1500. In the decades either side of 1300 many spires were added to existing church towers; the one at Salisbury being so heavy it actually distorted the piers of the crossing beneath. At Old St Paul’s in London the amazing height of – reputedly – 500 feet (152.4 metres) was achieved by constructing the spire from timber. Such spires in these High Gothic churches seemed to reach towards God, just as the elaborate vaulted roofs below and the light falling through the traceried windows seemed to afford glimpses into heaven. The increasing elaboration and flowing patterns increased in the Decorated Style. And then there was a reaction: after about 1330 the more sweeping, vertical lines of the Perpendicular Style may have struck a particular chord with a society which, after the Black Death, saw its spirituality more in terms of a personal faith surviving the destruction of earthly confidence and ambition. This was a style which saw little innovation throughout the fifteenth century.6

The rebuilding of churches in the fifteenth century was particularly associated with rich wool-producing areas such as the Cotswolds, Somerset, Suffolk and northern Essex. Here, churches such as Huish Episcopi (Somerset), Northleach (Gloucestershire) and Lavenham (Suffolk) are classic examples of this great rebuilding. Other features of church furniture and decoration also increased in this period: font covers, rood screens, brass lecterns, images of Jesus and Mary and of saints, and stone funeral monuments. It was only during this period that seating, in the form of benches and pews, became common. Some of these changes were the results of increasing wealth reflected in gifts to the Church and in social display. Other changes reflected developments within Church rituals and beliefs.

From the later fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth there was an increase in the building of chantry chapels, where Masses were said for the dead. This dovetailed into the doctrine of purgatory – which had come to prominence in Church teaching since the twelfth century. Purgatory, it was said, was an intermediate state between heaven and hell in which sins could be purged away. Prayers said for those in purgatory could lessen time spent there and make it more likely that they would reach heaven. In the years after the cataclysmic events of the Black Death a huge investment took place in building chantry chapels and in leaving money for chantry priests to celebrate Mass on behalf of the dead benefactors. Bristol by the late fifteenth century had 18 parish churches,120 temporary chantries and 20 permanent chantries. Since Church law stopped priests from saying more than one Mass a day, each of these chantries needed its own priest. Such chantries often provided employment for clergy who were unable to gain other appointments. At Ilchester (Somerset) in 1415, seven houses, a garden and 10 acres (4 hectares) of land were made over to the priory of Whitehall to support a chaplain to ‘celebrate divine service daily at the high altar in the church of Holy Trinity, Ilchester, for the souls of Joan, late the wife of John Stourton and William Whittok and Agnes his wife and their relations and for the keeping of their anniversaries on Thursday in Easter week’.7 Such arrangements multiplied in the fifteenth century, and accompanying this focus on death were new styles of tombs illustrating decaying bodies and skeletons. Other developments in society were also reflected in burial practices.

Burial practices and beliefs

The study of chantries indicates the more general ways in which changes in society were reflected in changing burial fashions. This applies across the whole of the Middle Ages and reveals itself in recent archaeological discoveries in medieval graveyards. There is no evidence that the Church actively attempted to change burial fashions before the tenth and eleventh centuries, but its influence on burial practice increased after this. However, the Norman Conquest itself had no impact on burial fashions. Grave slabs did increase in number in the eleventh century but this had started before 1066. Indeed, the evidence suggests that eleventh-century burial fashions were varied. Late Anglo-Saxon graves from beneath York Minster reveal the use of stone and wooden coffins, two biers, domestic storage cases used as coffins, and a boat. Some graves had stones as pillows and placed on either side of the head; some were lined with stones and tile; some were filled with charcoal (presumably to absorb fluids and smells from decomposing bodies). Many were marked with carved markers and slabs.8 More insights into late Anglo-Saxon burial fashions have come from the excavation in the 1990s of Raunds Furnells (Northamptonshire). The church here was used from around 900 until about 1100. During this time there appears to have been an increasing zoning of who was buried where, according to gender and age. Babies, for example, were usually buried under the eaves of the church. Interestingly, although the bodies were orientated west–east (and supine), as would be expected in an early Christian cemetery, they were often not truly west–east and were more closely orientated with the church building itself.9 At the later site of Wharram Percy, babies and a disproportionate number of children aged 2–17 years were buried on the north side of the church. This was the traditional side for the unbaptized but this would not have been the case here, so it is uncertain what this positioning signified.

At Raunds Furnells most of the dead were buried in coffins, the highest-status graves having ones made from stone. A number had markers indicating their location. In some cases arrangements of stone slabs protected the body. These were probably related to the social status of the dead. Where later graves disturbed earlier ones it is because the later ones were placed closest to the earliest church, which was probably regarded as especially sacred. What these indicators show us is that the rites which surrounded these burials mattered greatly to the living. As Martin Carver comments: ‘A grave is not simply a text, but a text with attitude, a text inflated with emotion . . . In brief, burials have a language’.10 This ‘language’ increased in complexity as the Middle Ages progressed, as more elaborate monuments commemorated the burial of wealthy people. In the later Middle Ages the fashion grew for reflecting human mortality in tomb carvings showing the emaciated corpse, or skeleton, of the dead person. Sometimes carvings included the lifelike appearance of the person and beneath it a stone representation of the decaying corpse. As the inscription on the tomb of John Baret at Bury St Edmunds concludes: ‘He that will sadly behold me with his eye, may see his own mirror [and] learn for to die.’ This call for personal piety in the face of inevitable death, and preparation for ‘a good death’, is a strong feature of religious attitudes in the late fifteenth century.11 It is surely no coincidence that one of the first books printed by Caxton in the 1490s was one entitled Arte and crafte to knowe well to die. And throughout the Middle Ages the dead and the living were part of a related community: cemeteries were used for processions and parts of Easter services; sermons were preached and fairs held in these same areas; the dead were often publicly displayed before burial; graveside memorials and rituals kept fresh the memory of the dead. While burial in rows in some large cemeteries reduced disturbance of earlier graves, there is plenty of evidence from archaeology and written sources to show this often could not be avoided and the physical presence of the dead was a daily reality.

In a revealing study of about 8,000 graves dating from c.1050–1600, in over 70 cemeteries,12 a number of changing practices can be identified which are probably reflections of developing ideas about death. From the mid-eleventh century the use of stone lining for graves increased, along with stone head supports and inscribed crosses placed with the dead. This may reflect increased fears that the dead needed defence against demonic attack. At the same time the placing of a pilgrim’s staff in a grave may have been part of the increase in commemoration of the character of the dead. By 1100 the burial of chalices and crosses with clergy reflected the increasing distinction of the clergy as a separate (celibate) group. This fashion increased during the twelfth century. The practice of burying personal possessions with the dead had extended to the laity by 1200. This became very noticeable from 1200 to 1300, as rosaries and pilgrim badges were increasingly added to personal items such as jewellery and clothing. This may have accompanied greater emphasis on personal social status and ideas of individuality, as urbanization challenged the traditional social structures and class divisions of medieval society. This presence of personal dress accessories accelerated again from about 1350. Clearly the family (especially women), as well as the Church, were influential in the presentation of the dead for burial. This evidence appears to contradict earlier assumptions that, from the thirteenth century, the clergy almost totally replaced the family as the group responsible for burial rites and practices13 and that the dead were hidden from view.

Other patterns are also apparent. By 1200 the belief in purgatory was well defined and the dead constituted a distinct group who occupied a place between this world and heaven. The burial of religious objects therefore might have been thought to give comfort to the dead. In addition, during the second half of the fourteenth century burials in coffins became more common. This may have been caused by distress at decaying corpses resulting from the Black Death’s impact on both the manner of death and the numbers of the dead – coffins may have been felt to contain this contaminating corruption (both in a physical and a spiritual sense) and to have preserved bodily integrity as the dead awaited the Final Judgement. This seems to have been particularly the case with women, since medieval concepts of sexuality held that women would decay more swiftly than men. This was related to the Theory of Humours, which classified female bodies as more changeable, colder, wetter and more liable to decay than male bodies. This heightened anxiety about death increased the value placed on objects such as papal pardons, which were buried with the dead and which may explain the presence of fourteenth-century papal seals in graves. At the same time examples of embalming (added to the established practice of reburial of exposed human remains, or their collection in charnel houses or pits), reflects medieval belief in the unity of body and soul (in purgatory) until the very literal bodily resurrection at the Last Judgement. After the Reformation (with the end of the belief in purgatory and a more spiritual definition of the resurrection at the Last Judgement) it became rare to place objects with the dead and charnel houses went out of use, although above-ground monuments became more elaborate.

Religious orders

The increased ‘visibility’ of the clergy in the burial record as the Middle Ages progressed reminds us again of the central importance of those who felt called to the ‘religious life’. In its highest expression this took the form of a commitment to a celibate life as a monk or a nun. This was a process which increased in the central period of the Middle Ages, since in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was a huge expansion of religious houses of monks and nuns in England. This was the period which saw the growth of such huge houses as Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx (Yorkshire). The largest religious orders in England were the Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian, Premonstratensian, Cluniac and Carthusian orders. Military orders included the Knights Templar (suppressed in 1308 and ever since the subject of the wildest of conspiracy theories and fantasies) and the Knights Hospitaller. A continued reaction against over-involvement in worldly affairs led in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to the steady growth of Carthusian houses, in which most of the day was spent in – relatively comfortable – isolation: praying, studying and tending the garden attached to each cell.

The oldest of these orders was the Benedictine, which had many of their houses in towns. By contrast, the Cistercians sited their houses away from centres of population and in these areas developed huge sheep ranches. Within these religious houses the head was often the abbot, or abbess, assisted by a prior or prioress. When daughter-houses were founded they came under the authority of the original abbot/abbess. A small number of abbots from the most powerful houses (the so-called mitred abbots) sat with the bishops in the House of Lords.

The growth of such houses affected people at all levels of society. Royalty and nobles gave huge grants of money and land; local landowners made donations on a smaller scale; men and women felt called to the religious life (in the earlier period they might be placed there as children by their parents); farm workers were employed as lay brothers to do manual work; others were tenants of the great abbey estates; travellers took advantage of the hospitality provided by monastic inns; sick people were given rest and medical care in monastic hospitals. The Crown might pension off loyal retainers to religious houses, as Richard Whitoc was, to the convent of Stanley (Wiltshire) in 1333, since he had been ‘butler to the king’s household’ and had ‘long and faithfully served the king’.14Others made land grants to abbeys dependent on their receiving support from the house to last their lifetime. As a result of such an arrangement with the abbot of Sherborne (Dorset) in 1374, John and Agnes Whittok received ‘two monks’ loaves of the largest size and a bottle of the best convent ale and a black loaf’ every day for life.15

During the thirteenth century a reaction against conventional religious houses led to an explosion of a new type of religious expression – the mendicant orders, also known as the friars. Relying entirely on charitable donations, friars travelled from town to town preaching and administering the sacrament. They were a reaction against what was considered to be the comfort and lack of simplicity of life in the wealthy monastic houses. In this sense the friars attempted to return to Biblical principles of self-denial and to reflect the kind of values which had led to the early monasteries in the first place. In a similar reaction against monasticism, hermits increased in number, living lives of simplicity and prayer away from the world and its activities. There were four main groups of friars which emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Franciscans (Friars Minor), Dominicans (Black Friars), Augustinians (Austin Friars), and Carmelites (White Friars). Committed to preaching and teaching, many Dominicans attended the early universities and were trained in theological study and debate. The friars caught popular imagination and enthusiasm and by 1300 there were over 120 Franciscan and Dominican bases in Britain. The land for these was usually held in trust for them by wealthy patrons, since the friars could not own property. Helping to maintain such a friary – with its team of preachers and teachers – became much sought after, as did burial in its grounds. In 1291 the heart of Eleanor of Provence, Queen Consort of King Henry III, was buried in the cemetery of the Grey Friars in London, although she had died in Amesbury (Wiltshire). Such patronage was complex though, as the friars soon found themselves living in – though technically not owning – wealthy properties. This was the very thing they had been reacting against. Henry III, for example donated a key urban site to the friars in York, opposite the castle gate, in 1243. From around 1300 friars were allowed to accept small cash gifts. This was a shift away from their founding idealism, and the friars were beginning to compromise their radical credentials. Soon they were open to the same accusations of wealth that had been levelled at earlier monastic orders.16

The impact of the friars is difficult to exaggerate: when most people relied on a poorly educated parish priest the appearance of these trained speakers in urban settings was revolutionary. In addition, there was great appeal in their message that salvation could be fully experienced without entering a monastery. But these activities often led to friction too. Local clergy might resent the popularity of the preaching friars and money paid to maintain friaries was diverted from existing Church giving. In Beverley in 1309, the canons at the minster complained that parishioners were abandoning the minster for the Dominican friary. In Scarborough there was tension when the arrival of Franciscan friars caused the monks of Citeaux (in France) – who had been given the church at Scarborough – to fear they would lose income since the friars were more popular. As a result the friars were granted land well out of the town to try to defuse the crisis.

As more money flowed to the friars they lost their radical edge. The situation was coming full circle. As a result, gifts of money moved away from the friars and instead increased to local parish churches, where clearly people felt they could monitor its use more closely. Similarly, instead of monasteries, or friaries, wealthy benefactors were now more likely to fund a college which, as well as saying Masses for the souls of their patrons, often included an educational function or provided homes for the ‘deserving poor’. These ranged from magnificent establishments such as King’s College, Cambridge to small colleges and almshouses in less prestigious market towns. This was not an abandonment of medieval spiritual enthusiasm but rather a desire to see it carried out more effectively. As with so much of the later Middle Ages, it was complex. What might be presented as an end to old patterns of behaviour can equally be regarded as a refocusing of them. This is connected with the whole debate over whether the later medieval Catholic Church in England was in decline and facing a crisis which was a prelude to the sixteenth-century Reformation, or instead was vibrant and dynamic but developing new expressions of personal religious practice. At the same time the number of hermits, often located in town churches rather than in deserted spots, increased. These anchorites, while living in relative isolation were still available for giving spiritual advice and provided an accessible personal ‘holy presence’ in the middle of busy urban communities.

The friars were not the only ones whose strict rules became more flexible in the later Middle Ages. During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries many religious houses saw a development away from communal living and an increase in individual accommodation. At the Augustinian house at Merton, London (founded in 1117), the infirmary was originally an open hall. Later, increased privacy was provided when it was subdivided into a number of small rooms, with wooden partition walls. By the time of the abbey’s dissolution in the sixteenth century, even the cloister walk had been divided up into small rooms. This was not an isolated development.

Pilgrimage, spiritual callings and superstition

The support given to the early friars reminds us of the demand for a deeper spiritual experience from amongst the laity. Whatever the compromises which occurred as a result of the earthly power of the medieval Church, the desire for a closer communion with God was always fundamental to the medieval Christian experience. This revealed itself in the popularity of pilgrimage. The custom of visiting a place closely associated with the Christian faith has a long history. There are descriptions of Christian pilgrimages from southern Europe to the Holy Land from the fourth century, and such pilgrimages were encouraged by Church fathers such as St Jerome. Pilgrimages also began to be made to Rome and other sites associated with the Apostles, saints and Christian martyrs. In addition, pilgrimages occurred to places where it was believed the Virgin Mary had revealed herself. The Crusades to the Holy Land were also considered to be pilgrimages – of a military kind.

Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages frequently started with a vow being made before a parish priest. In this the would-be pilgrim would often negotiate areas for which he or she was seeking forgiveness, or requests for answered prayer. Sometimes pilgrims would be asked to pray for someone else, unable to travel, as they journeyed. At times their expenses were met by a supporter who hoped for spiritual benefits in return.

The sites to be visited varied from those in the Holy Land (access to which fluctuated given the changing politics of the region from the eleventh century onwards) to sites in Europe such as Rome itself or Santiago de Compostela (the shrine of St James in Spain), as well as places in England. English sites were many and varied. That of St Thomas of Canterbury dated from his murder in 1170. He was rapidly canonized and the process was completed in 1173. In 1220, Becket’s remains were relocated from his first tomb to a shrine in the recently completed Trinity Chapel. This became one of the most visited pilgrim sites in England. Pilgrimages to the tomb of St Richard of Chichester dated from his canonization in 1262. Here in the Lady Chapel – in which pilgrims prayed after visiting his shrine – can still be found marks carved by pilgrims into the stone: crosses, three circles representing the trinity, and squares representing the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). These are not simply graffiti; they were public proof that pilgrims had completed their journey. Similar marks have been discovered carved into churches on the route to Chichester.17

Walsingham (Norfolk) became one of northern Europe’s greatest places of pilgrimage in the eleventh century, following a vision of the Virgin Mary to the noblewoman Richeldis de Faverches in 1061. According to the Walsingham tradition, the Virgin instructed her to build a replica of the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth, in honour of the Annunciation. The Holy House was panelled with wood and held a wooden statue of an enthroned Virgin Mary with the child Jesus seated on her lap. Founded in the time of Edward the Confessor, the chapel of Our Lady of Walsingham was granted to the Augustinian Canons when an Augustinian priory was established on the site in 1153 and enclosed within the priory.

Some of the many other places attracting pilgrims included Glastonbury (Somerset), claiming to be the burial place of Saints Patrick, David and Dunstan, as well as King Arthur; Hailes Abbey (Gloucestershire), claiming a phial containing the blood of Christ; and Durham, with the body of St Cuthbert and the head of St Oswald.

The importance of pilgrimage can be seen in the famous life of Margery Kempe. Born Margery Brunham in King’s Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn), Norfolk, in about 1373, she was married at the age of 20 to a local Norfolk man named John Kempe. With John she had 14 children. Following the birth of her first child, Margery fell ill and may have suffered from post-natal depression. She later said she suffered at this time from ‘madness’ which culminated in a life-changing vision of Jesus Christ at her bedside. According to Margery, he asked her: ‘Daughter, why have you forsaken Me, and I never forsook you?’ Following this she decided to open first a brewery and later a grain mill. Both enterprises failed. Though she had tried to live a more holy life after her vision, she was tempted by sexual desire and jealousy of neighbours for some years. In the end she gave up her business enterprises and dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling which she felt her vision required. In order to do so she began to live a chaste marriage with her husband and began to make pilgrimages around Europe. On these journeys she visited Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. She wrote of her experiences – or rather dictated them to scribes – in The Book of Margery Kempe. In her book she recounted her experiences on these spiritual journeys; the final section included a number of prayers. During this time Margery recounts how she had a number of conversations with Christ. As well as describing her journeys and spiritual experiences, she also recorded the conflicts she had with Church authorities – many of whom did not quite know what to make of this woman. Was she mad? A heretic? Or saintly? Opinions were clearly divided. She was tried on different occasions for allegedly reading scripture, for teaching and preaching on scripture and faith, and for wearing white clothes which was considered inappropriate as she was no longer a virgin. In each case she succeeded in clearing herself of charges laid against her. Between 1413 and1420 she also visited important sites and Church leaders in England. These included visits to Philip Repyngdon, Bishop of Lincoln; Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury; and the anchorite (hermit) Julian of Norwich. The last section of her book deals with a journey she made in the 1430s to Norway and to the Holy Roman Empire. Margery died in about 1438.

The controversial nature of Margery Kempe’s spiritual experience is a reminder that medieval Christians expressed their faith in many and complex ways. Some, like Kempe, were marked out by their personal understanding of their relationship with God. For others the complexity was more problematic. This was because many medieval Christians in England combined a very real and energetic commitment to Christian beliefs, as defined and articulated by the Catholic Church, with additional activities which were often throwbacks to pre-Christian practices (but now shorn of pagan religious ideology). This raises the question of how far these practices undermined Catholic orthodoxy.

Superstitious practices are recorded from a number of sources. Some of these show the persistence of folk superstitions over centuries, adapting themselves to the religious ideas of their day. Charms are known from late Anglo-Saxon sources and clearly were rooted in beliefs in magic and in attempts to gain control over apparently uncontrollable aspects of life (such as sickness, loss and death) through possession of certain items, or by performing certain patterns of behaviour. What is interesting is that these folk superstitions took on the form of official religious beliefs but used them in inappropriate and unorthodox ways. In 2006 a slightly battered thirteenth-century gold annular brooch was found at Godshill on the Isle of Wight and reported under the ‘Portable Antiquities Scheme’. The ring was inscribed with crosses and the letters ‘+A+G+L+A’. These letters represent a Latinized version of a Hebrew phrase ‘Atha Gebri Leilan Adonai’, meaning ‘Thou art mighty forever O Lord’. In itself this is completely orthodox, as it represents an Old Testament Biblical concept which is completely in line with Christian beliefs. What is revealing, though, is that evidence from other sources suggests that this phrase was invoked as a charm against fever.18 The owner of the ring was almost certainly completely orthodox in his or her Christian faith but was expressing it in a way which was bordering on magical. In other words he or she was diluting Christian beliefs rather than acting in a deviant way.

More obvious examples of blatant superstitions are found in the chickens entombed in the hollow walls of medieval buildings, vividly reconstructed in the Museum of London from finds dating to the Middle Ages in the city. These practices had no veneer of Christian belief and are comparable with records of people passing their children through holes in trees to cure illness. But even here there is no evidence whatsoever that such people invested such actions with any ideology, or belief system, at odds with their membership of the Church. Rather they bolted these attempts at gaining good luck on to Christian beliefs. Their priests would have been understandably concerned but we would be wrong to see these actions as challenges to Christianity. As with so much of England in the Middle Ages the evidence is complicated and the medieval reality is likely to have been more nuanced than the simplistic interpretations which are sometimes imposed on it.

This is not to assume, however, that such practices were appropriate. Within orthodox Catholicism there was a constant teaching mission designed to keep behaviour within acceptable boundaries. But the Catholicism of the Middle Ages had itself accrued a vast amount of semi-superstitious and non-Biblical practices, beliefs and claims. And as the Middle Ages progressed there were those within the Church in England who became more critical and vocal in their condemnation of what they felt was a falling away from New Testament faith. The question is: to what extent were these people hoping to reform the Catholic Church and to what extent were they rejecting it in order to replace it with a new concept of ‘Church’ altogether? In most cases it was almost certainly the former but this did not apply to all critics of the Church, and of all the critics of the Catholic Church none were more vocal than those who became known by their opponents as Lollards.

Radical attacks of the Lollards

The term ‘Lollards’ covers a wide range of critics of the way the Church was run in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Those who are often described under this umbrella term held mixed beliefs that were not part of a unified system. Some hoped to reform the Church. Some thought the institution of the Church was irrelevant to a person’s salvation. Some condemned all religious images. Some called for new and purer images to be produced to help people come closer to God. Most rejected the formal attempts at holiness such as institutional fasting, and it is interesting to note that the early fifteenth-century Lollard, Margery Baxter, was apprehended in Norwich because she was caught cooking bacon on a Friday (the traditional fast-and-fish day). But one thing all Lollards had in common was their attack on the worldly power and wealth of the Church.

A central figure in this challenge to the Church was John Wyclif. Wyclif had a number of key beliefs, the first of which was of predestination. This idea – that those who would be saved had already been determined since eternity – was not new. The New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul had emphasized the complementary ideas that salvation came from a personal faith in the Lord Jesus combined with living out this faith through good works. He also wrote that from eternity God had foreknowledge of those who would respond in faith and be saved. This idea had later featured in the writings of St Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century, who had developed it considerably. What was radical about Wyclif’s interpretation of this belief was his conclusion that no one on Earth could know whether or not they were members of the elect and therefore both the Church hierarchy and its membership contained both those who would be saved and those who would not. A person’s position as priest, for example, did not automatically make him a member of the elect. This could be a spiritually levelling idea since it undermined the complex hierarchy of authority which was a fundamental feature of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Thus it was a seismic shift in belief which threatened to bring down many of the carefully constructed power structures of the medieval Church. No longer was it necessary for salvation to rely on a priest with the power to hear confession, absolve sins, give penance and excommunicate those who disobeyed. In fact, it might not be necessary to have a priest at all. The most radical Lollards suggested that the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (a New Testament teaching which was downplayed by the medieval Church) meant that any good Christian man – and maybe even woman – could preach and administer the sacraments. The pope became an irrelevance, as did pilgrimages and images. Instead, all Christians should seek understanding of the nature of God and their faith through their own personal study of the Bible.

This was radical enough, but Wyclif went further. He rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which held that the bread and wine of the Mass became, at the moment of consecration, the body and blood of Christ. Later Lollards went further and claimed – as most modern Protestants do – that the Eucharist was a commemoration and symbolic. Under this belief the power of the priest to administer a miraculous experience was totally rejected. Along with the belief in making the Bible available in English and the acceptability of married clergy, the later Lollards were undermining the whole Catholic priestly system – although most still accepted a role for a transformed priesthood. And the attack continued. Lollards believed that social crimes such as adultery and fornication should be tried in royal – not Church – courts. Criminal clerics should face the same courts as anyone else, since the king had authority over the Church. In addition, priests should not hold secular jobs. The estates of bishops and the leading monasteries should be confiscated.

Many of these ideas were based on existing trends, since Papal taxation was no longer allowed in England, there was royal control over appeals to Rome and there were widespread criticisms of the worldliness of the clergy. Some of it echoed the ideas which appeared in the revolutionary preaching of John Ball during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. Even the call for an English Bible was not as extreme as it came to appear, since the translation of the Bible from Latin into contemporary languages was not forbidden.

However, the Lollards faced a number of serious problems. Firstly, they failed to inspire sufficient support amongst the gentry and nobility. This support was needed to protect the Lollards from Church reprisals. Secondly, Lollard beliefs became associated with social and political revolution. This was fatal and meant that the elite failed to take up the cause for reform. The accusation was partly ‘spin’ developed by the enemies of the Lollards to discredit them, but it was also partly based on the way in which Lollard beliefs were taken up by more radical groups, or coincided with those beliefs held by more radical elements. The fact that similar dissatisfaction with the Church fed into both Wyclif’s circle of Oxford intellectuals and the radical hedge-priests of the Peasants’ Revolt was not the result of conspiracy, or a common organization – but it could easily appear so, or be made to appear so.

The final crisis for the Lollards came with the Oldcastle Revolt of 1414. Under Henry IV, Sir John Oldcastle saw military service in Wales but, in 1413, his association with the ideas of Wyclif led to his condemnation for heresy. Arrested and imprisoned, Oldcastle managed to escape from the Tower of London and, as well as being involved in the failed eponymous uprising in 1414, he was involved in Lollard conspiracies until 1417 when he was finally captured and executed by hanging over a slow fire. Until this time the passing of the statute De heretico comburendo (‘The Necessity of Burning Heretics’) in 1401 had achieved little by way of crushing Lollardy. But after the Oldcastle Revolt, Lollard beliefs and insurrectionary threats were firmly linked – at least in the minds of the elite – and gentry support melted away as the death penalty began to be applied to those lower-class Lollards who persisted in their beliefs. When eventually the Catholic Church in England faced a radical attack on its structures, wealth and authority in the 1530s it was not the result of a bottom-up movement like the Lollards. Instead, it resulted from a top-down, state-led, cultural revolution.

The Catholic Church in crisis?

This exploration of the impact of the Lollards brings us to a key issue. There is ongoing debate as to the state of the Catholic Church in England in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Critics at the time and since were quick to point out its shortcomings, and some historians have suggested that these were part of developments which would culminate in the Reformation – in other words, that it was genuine dissatisfaction with real problems which led to massive restructuring of the medieval Church in the 1530s.

That there were problems in a number of monasteries in the later Middle Ages cannot be denied. Clearly, in these the original high standards of spiritual activity and strict discipline had slipped. At the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the pope insisted that all religious orders should tighten up their internal government and arrange regular visitations to correct any examples of falling standards. It is clear this was a response to problems which were ongoing. Following the bishop’s inspection of Keynsham Abbey (Somerset) in 1348 it was ordered, amongst other disciplinary matters, that: ‘Secular persons not to be present at meals. The porter of the outer gate ordered to let no one in or out after the hour of compline [dusk] . . . Canons keeping sporting dogs inside the monastery to be punished by being deprived of meat for a month and of fish for a fortnight.’ In 1352, despite these criticisms, it was found that women were being allowed to enter the monastery, vows of silence were being ignored, the giving of food to the poor had been neglected and gambling was taking place. These were not isolated incidents. A century later, in 1455, the bishop was again concerned at the indiscipline in the abbey and ordered that the abbot should not allow ‘any of his canons to sell wine at public fairs or markets’.19 The fact that representatives of the Benedictine monasteries opposed efforts to reform the lifestyle of the order in 1421 indicates that they had got used to meat eating, receiving money payments, living in individual rooms and travelling outside their monasteries.

But is it taking these criticisms out of proportion to assume that monastic life was in crisis? After all, in any community it is possible to identify areas of indiscipline and room for improvement without condemning the entire institution. Was monasticism really in terminal decline by 1500? The answer seems to be that, while monasticism could have survived in England (as it did in Catholic countries in Europe), its future was indeed under threat. By 1500 there were about 26,500 clerics in parishes and about 10,000 monks, plus 2,100 nuns. They made up about 2 per cent of the total population. This is high but the number was declining, while the wealth of the religious houses was out of all proportion to their declining numbers within a national community where a significant proportion of people no longer felt attracted to the liturgy and discipline of the monastic life. However, this would suggest that monasticism by 1500 faced a slow decline, not a sudden collapse.

A similar dilemma exists concerning how we should interpret attacks on the clergy. In December 1349, the Bishop of Bath and Wells was attacked at Yeovil (Somerset) by certain ‘sons of perdition’ who, armed with ‘bows, arrows, iron bars and other kinds of arms attacked the church’, injured many of his attendants and kept the bishop a prisoner there until dark. The bishop having moved to the nearby rectory, the siege was reinforced and lasted until the next day, when loyal supporters rescued him. Other accounts exist of village priests, accused of sexual misconduct, being castrated by angry parishioners. Is this evidence of a collapse in support for the traditional Catholic Church? Or does it simply indicate, in the former case, anger against the ruling class at a time of crisis and, in the latter case, high expectations of what a priest should be like and anger when trust in a vital and loved institution was betrayed? It is not unreasonable to interpret the evidence in this way, though this does not deny the strong pressures for reform of the Church by 1500.

There is plenty of evidence that religious devotion was vibrant and very real at the end of the Middle Ages. And it frequently expressed itself in ways which were quite consistent with Catholic systems of belief and practice. Rood screens – which divided the chancel from the nave – can be read as cutting off the laity from the Mass, or as heightening the drama. Many Books of Hours were written so that literate laity could pray as part of their personal devotions during the Mass. This same devotion to the Mass helps explain the large number of pilgrims coming to visit the Holy Blood at Hailes Abbey (Gloucestershire) and the relic of the True Cross at Bromholm Priory (Norfolk). Similarly large numbers visited the shrine of Our Lady of Doncaster as late as the 1520s. Likewise, the shrine at Walsingham continued to draw pilgrims, and in 1534 income from offerings stood at £260. Overall, pilgrimage as an activity declined in the early sixteenth century but it was still significant. In fact, many local shrines grew in popularity as more famous national ones faced declining visitor numbers. Devotion to the Mass meant that Corpus Christi plays survived Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and were not banned until the state-run Reformation of Edward VI. It is significant that it was the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ which became the rallying flag of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536–7. Other expressions of this traditional Catholic devotion can be found in the popularity of the image of Mary cradling the body of Jesus, known as ‘Our Lady of Pity’. If the medieval English Church faced great challenges in 1500, none need have been fatal to the continued development of a Catholic spirituality which had continued unbroken since the late sixth century. That this was not to be the case was the result of developments which could not have been foreseen as the sixteenth century opened.

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