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Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath

Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, is a leading historian of the English Reformation. He made his name with The Stripping of the Altars, an investigation into what people in the parishes of England and Wales really felt during the religious upheavals of Henry VIII and Edward VI’s reigns, when they were told to tear out their statues of saints, stop their pilgrimages and holy days and turn their backs on the monasteries. It had long been assumed that most English people, weary of the corruption and abuses of the medieval church, welcomed the new religious practices, were glad of the opportunity Protestantism offered to develop their own personal relationship with God, and that only a few recidivists in certain strongly Catholic areas, mainly in the north of England, rebelled against the changes or hankered after the old ways. In this, essentially whiggish, view of the period the development of the Protestant Church of England represented progress, the ‘course of history’, and Catholicism appeared as backward-looking, foreign and doomed to failure. The return to Roman allegiance which took place under the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-1558) was thus traditionally seen as a period of cruel and pointless repression.

Was this in fact how people at the time saw the religious changes? Did changes in religious policy, introduced by parliament or by royal decree, affect people’s religious beliefs. Is religious belief susceptible to change in that manner? Duffy’s approach to this issue was significantly different from that of most historians who had written on it, in that he did not confine himself to written material in archives, but went to look at the physical evidence in many English parish churches. There he found plenty of evidence which confuted the general interpretation and suggested that, far from welcoming the changes, the majority of people clung as tightly and as long as possible to the Catholic beliefs and rituals they had grown up with. The Stripping of the Altars was a good example of the use of local historical research to build up a national picture.

The Voices of Morebath also uses local history, but in this case Duffy investigates the impact of the religious changes of the sixteenth century on one Devonshire village, Morebath, for which we have unusually full documentation thanks to its parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, who used the parish accounts book to keep a detailed record of the life of the village. However, there is more to Duffy’s treatment than simply a reconstruction of the religious life of this sixteenth century village. Sir Christopher’s detailed accounts were already well known to historians, especially local historians, but they had always been cited as evidence that Morebath simply accepted each change of religious policy and conformed with the latest pronouncements from London. However, Morebath’s story does not fit into that pattern, for in 1549 it was one of the villages that took part in a major rebellion that spread through Devon and Cornwall against the introduction of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer to replace the Catholic Mass. The rebellion was brutally suppressed and the whole episode was one of enormous trauma for the whole region. In The Voices of Morebath, therefore, using exactly the same evidence as earlier writers, Duffy argues that the previous interpretations were wrong and that the evidence shows Morebath conforming only very reluctantly to the changes in religion, keeping its traditional Catholic faith alive in any way that was possible.

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