In search of Morebath

I first picked up Professor Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars when I was an undergraduate reading History at University College London.  It was the mid 90's and the revisionist view of the Reformation had really begun to take a firm hold in Tudor scholarship.  I remember just lapping up this compelling and refreshing account of the popularity of late medieval religion and the sad and distructive dismantling of that popular catholicism.  It was great to read a book, a work of substantial scholarship, that not only accorded with something of my romantic vision of the compelling nature of medieval catholicism, but wasn't coloured by four centuries of Protestant and anti-Catholic propoganda. It still remains one of my all time favourite books.  

The sequel, if you like, to the Stripping of the Altars, is a book called The Voices of Morebath, which was first published out in 2001.This is the account of the impact of the Tudor Reformation on a small parish on Exmoor in Devon, seen through the lense of the parish churchwarden's accounts.  The accounts were kept by a man called Sir Christopher Trychay, who would serve as vicar of Morebath for fifty four years.  He was vicar all through the period of turmoil, arriving in 1520 as a young fresh-faced catholic priest and dying in post in his eighties, as the protestant minister.  The accounts are not just a list of expenses of office, Trychay overlayed them with his own commentary and asides, which provide ga rare glimpse of parish life in the Tudor period.

During the first twenty years of his ministry Trychay put a good deal of effort into re-enlivening the devotional life of this remote parish.  He fostered the development a cult to the Exeter saint St Sidwell, which was focused on an image of her that he placed on the side altar in the north aisle.  Together he and the parishioners worked towards a thorough restoration and requipping of the church building.  Work included a new rood screen, a new rood and the renovation of all the images.  Duffy tells us that all was done with love and great devotion.  One of the most compelling and heartbreaking details of the account concerns a set of new black vestments.  For twenty years Trychay had saved up for a new set of black vestments for use at requiems, putting his own money into the fund and in July 1547 he finally raised enough money to get them.  However, Henry VIII had died earlier in 1547 and his death signalled the first phase of the Protestant Reformation and all the vestments and ornaments so lovingly bought, including the new black vestments, were soon to be swept away for ever.   

What for me is so compelling and moving about Duffy's book  is what it tells us of Trychay's attitude to the Reformation. Throughout the uncertain years that followed, with the demands of reform and counter reform, Trychay stays faithful to his parishioners. He doesn't resign his living, he stays put and weathers the storm with them.  He is quietly nonconformist when he can be and equally conformist when need arises.  There is a sense that his loyalty to his people and their place overides his own personal conviction - his thoughts and actions are always corporate, never individual.  Duffy lays bare the odd contemporary assertion, which has been voiced by commentars of this blog, that the church buildings of medieval England were somehow stolen from the Catholic church and handed to the robbing Protestants of the Church of England in a grand coup.  Duffy makes it plain that this is not so. In the reign of Elizabeth, the priest saying the communion service at the table was often the same priest who had said mass at the altar during the reigns of her father and sister.  The people responding to the new service of Matins and Evensong, were the same people who would eagerly see Our Lord lifted high above the priest's head at the altar during mass.  For the most part the people of England, both the clergy and the people, quietly conformed to the demands of the Reformation.  Priests like Trychay, inwardly conservative in religious matters, outwardly conformed and they stayed faithful and loyal to their flock.  What else could they do?

Morebath, Devon

I was very pleased to be able to visit Morebath last week and below are one or two photos of the church.  Sadly much of the church was rebuilt by William Butterfield in the 1870s and the only part that Trychay would recognise is the fifteenth century north aisle with its barrel roof.  It was at the east end of this aisle at the altar of Jesus that Trychay placed the new cultic image of St Sidwell and it was here that he said his daily mass, while he could.  Of course all sign of that altar has been swept away.

Morebath, Devon

Morebath, Devon

Morebath, Devon

Morebath, Devon

Morebath, Devon


How lovely to see lots of photos of Sir Christopher's church ! I too am a fan of Duffy's "Stripping of the Altars" and "Voices of Morebath".

It would be nice if the parish saw fit to erect a small statue/shrine to St Sidwell as a fitting memorial to Sir Christopher's devotion both to the Saint and to his parish .......
One can always hope :-)
Daniel Graves said…
Both are excellent books. In my former life as a religious bookseller we heavily promoted both titles and they sold quite well. Both were formative in my own theological (and historical) education. Kudos to Yale University Press for publishing them both. Interestingly, Yale publishes some very good church history at most affordable prices for academic books. Here in Canada I think "Stripping" was in about the $45.00 Cdn price range (pbk) when it came out and "voices" was only $23.50 Cdn (pbk - with French flaps, I might add). I don't know how they do it, but it mades some excellent scholarship accessible to many who would not otherwise have read those books.
Thanks for the pics; it is nice to see some further details. I do very much enjoy your blog.
Fr. Dan Graves
Thornhill, Ontario
Lawrence Lew OP said…
Thank you for these excellent photos. I too was enchanted by both Duffy's books, and especially moved by Sir Christopher's predicament.
Allan Barton said…
Thank you. It was really rather moving being in this place, having read the book. I hope the photos capture something of it's atmosphere, which wasn't quite as scraped as Duffy implies.
Canon Tallis said…
I appreciate the photographs, but, sadly, think that Duffy less a historian than a propagandist. Sir Christopher is rather a heroic figure, a man who did his job and cared for his people as a priest until the end of his days.

I, in particular, will remember him when I next celebrate a general requiem.
Canon Tallis said…
I came back to this because of a statement in the post which I believe bluntly untrue. That statement would be that Sir Christopher began his service as a "Catholic priest" and ended it in his eighties as a "protestant minister." Nothing could be more untrue. He was from beginning to end the same thing, a Catholic priest.

England never broke communion with the See of Rome. It was Rome acting to further the political ambitions of the King of Spain who excommunicated Elizabeth I and broke communion with the Church of and in England.

Secondly while Rome has tried to appropriate the word Catholic to itself, it continues to be less than that in separating itself from the clear teaching of the New Testament and the theological decrees and canons of the earliest universally recognized General Councils.
Allan Barton said…
Be assured that I chose my words extremely carefully here, I thought long and hard about how to phrase this. Hmmm. Well Sir Christopher would, I am sure, have seen no ontological change in himself. As far as he was concerned (and you and I are concerned) he lived and died a catholic priest. Of course not all of our Anglican brethren, particularly on this side of the pond, would agree on that point. How to describe the functional change, for functional change there were. I am open any suggestions here?
Canon Tallis said…
Father Allan,

Let me respond by asking you a question - or perhaps a series of questions. When Paul VI instituted his reform of the Roman liturgy so that one day, Roman ministers were saying their office and celebrating the Eucharist in Latin and the next doing so in a language understood of the people, was there an ontological difference? I don't think so. And I am sure that every Roman prelate from the pope to the most obscure bishop was sure that they held the same office as they had the day before.

Many year ago I engaged in a debate with the head of the "Evangelical" study house in Oxford over the Book of Common Prayer's theology of order. He was insistent that the English reformation meant that a new theory of ministry and a new ministry was introduced with Cranmer's Ordinal. I pointed out that the first English Ordinal made a very interesting choice of words. The medieval pontificals ordained to the "presbyterate," the classic term going right back to the Greek New Testament. But that term was not good enough for Cranmer, his suffragans, the convocations or parliament, and the words chosen and used were "priest' and "priesthood." Now unless your Anglican brethern are really functionally illiterate, one wonders why they have allowed themselves to be ordained priests when what they wanted to be was "protestant ministers" in the continental and Calvinist model? To have done so is an open admission of something so shocking, so lacking in ordinary morality, that it is difficult to even imagine that anyone claiming to be a Christian would do so. But unfortunately, it has happened and continues to happen.
Allan Barton said…
Dear Father,

I think this is all an issue of theological perspective really. I see your point, but surely the liturgical and theological shift from missal to prayer book, particularly to the 1552 prayer book, was rather greater than the shift between the classic Roman rite and the Paul VI missal. I'm still no closer to finding an answer to how to phrase this in a way that does justice to what I believe to be the reality of the continuity and the reality of change and is not confusing to the majority of people who read this blog.

As for how Anglican clergy perceive their orders. I agree with you that it is clear that clergy in the Church of England are ordained to the threefold ministry, and to the priesthood. Are you implying that Cranmer's use of the word 'priest' instead of 'presbyter' suggests a high view of the ordained ministry? Surely this is just an issue of semantics. Though rapidly diminishing through liberal pressure we are still in a situation where we can talk of 'theologies' rather than 'theology' in the Church of England. There are 'priests' in the Church of England, who reject the notion that they are sacramentally ordained, who reject the whole notion that at ordination a sacrament is conferred. I'm unsure of what they think they are doing. They do, however, mark their dissent from the notion of 'priesthood' visually during the ordination rite. By wearing tippets rather than stoles at their ordinations. I always find that rather funny given the medieval catholic origins of the tippet. If they were to interpret the situation at Morebath, they may not see the continuity quite as we do. No doubt they would emphasise the good of the rupture, whereas I see the sadness in it.
Christian said…
I must protest the absurd suggestions of Canon Tallis. If you embrace heresy then you are rejecting Catholicism. Henry VIII's break with Rome was an act of schism and heresy, as was "Queen" Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity. The 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer are condemned as heretical both by the pope and an ecumenical council. Until the 1960's taking part in a BCP service was grounds for automatic excommunication. Thus many of the people of England and most of the clergy (including Sir Christopher) excommunicated themselves as soon as they began to use the BCP again in 1559. I am scandalised by your contempt for the sacrifice of the English Martyrs.
Allan Barton said…
Christian thank you for your comment. You seem to have raised the temper of this thread. I'm not quite sure why you feel so scandalised by the comments of Canon Tallis. He is an Anglican and his comments are (or were) mainstream in Anglican thinking. In fact I, for the most part, hold to them. It is evident that you don't agree. There is perhaps an irreconcilable difference here, but I hardly think that he is contemptuous of the sacrifice of the martyrs of the Reformation. I see no evidence of that.

Although we naturally touch on issues of theology here, this is firstly and foremostly an art historical blog. Despite reading a lot of quite boring and aggresive polemic to the contrary, this is a heritage that we all share. I hope you will agree that we may not be reconciled theologically, but we can at least be united through beauty.
Simon Cotton said…
We're here to celebrate art history and heritage (or, indeed, "patrimony"). Perhaps gentlemen looking for a scrap would do so in the yard outside...
Christian said…
I am sorry if I have raised the temperature. As you say, this is a blog about history, which is why I read it. I admit loosing my temper. I would, however, point out that if one commits oneself to the views of Canon Tallis then one is effectively saying that those who died rather than attend a Book of Common Prayer service or assent to the 39 Articles died unnecessarily. I also believe, as a historian, that the Church of England was set up as a Protestant body. Now, I am not saying that later developments did not mollify this a little and that the actions of those like Sir Christopher did not sow the seeds for that mollification, but it was not envisaged by any of its founders. I gather that a great many Anglicans would completely agree with this assessment of history. Not least the innumerable persons who flocked to William of Orange's side when he declared that "the Protestant religion I will maintain."

Anyway, I shall say no more. I have no wish to get into a fight.
Canon Tallis said…

I am not here to start a scrap but primarily because I enjoy intensely viewing the artistic heritage of the English Church through the very perceptive eyes of Father Barton. That said, neither am I going to back away from one if I am attacked. As Father Barton pointed out, I am an Anglican, Anglican and unashamed, because I not only know our formularies and our history, but that of the Roman Church as well. I could serve mass in Latin and had memorized the Roman Eucharistic canon a number of years before I knew the Book of Common Prayer or Anglicanism existed. To please my Roman uncle (by birth in the city and religion) I served mass for a cardinal archbishop who did his best to get me to consider a vocation. He had already picked out my college and seminary in Belgium, but at that point I was headed to the military, marriage and fatherhood.

When I was a cadet we had an honor code that went " A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate a cadet who does." I have probably added more than a little charity to that - at least, I hope and pray so - but that is yet my essential view of how a man behaves himself in the world. Even as a cleric, I essentially view myself as Christ's "soldier and servant" until my life's end.

I understand folks like Christian as I had elderly relatives like him and with his views. They devoutly believed they were not to read Holy Scripture for few that they would misinterpret it, firm in the view that the priest would tell them what it meant. They believed all of the Roman myth and it was their wall against absolutely everything. But I also had a highly educated Russian Orthodox grandmother who saw to my baptism and chrismation. As a result I have come to believe that I was raised as a classical prayer book Anglican before I knew such existed or was possible.
Roger Mortimer said…
Seems to be little in the interior to suggest Butterfield (and yes, I know that it is his work).
Peter said…
I'd be curious to know if Sir Christopher's body was exhumed?