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Voices of Morebath: How One Parish Survived the English Reformation

This essay is based off of the book Voices of Morebath and was written for my Tudor and Stuart England History Class.

St. George’s Chruch Morebath, England

Morebath is a small village in England. For most of the Tudor dynasty Morebath parish had a priest named Christopher Trychay. Morebath was an interesting village. It did not have any resident gentry, and there were no incredibly wealthy men. The gap between the rich and the poor was much narrower then in many other more prosperous communities. (pg. 8) All that posterity knows about Morebath during the Tudor Age come form one source, the parish accounts which were kept by Sir Christopher Trychay. Tyrchay arrived in Morebath on the 30th of August 1520, and kept the parish accounts until 1574. (pg.14) “The result is the fullest and most remarkable of all sets of Tudor churchwardens accounts, fifty year of uniquely expansive and garrulous commentary on the affairs of a tiny and otherwise obscure rural community in one of the remotest regions of early modern England, during the revolutionary religious and social upheavals of the English reformation.” (pg. 19) Morebath started out as a small Catholic village that was forced to abandon its allegiance to the Pope, forced to regain it, and then told to lose it again.

In 1532 Morebath felt the first of the Kings interventions. Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament passed “A Generall Acte concernynge ways and sea defenses, and to ensure also the repair of ruinous bridges.” (pg. 52) Morebath then had a claim against it for Hukeley bridge. The village attempted to resist it and the leading men Morebath became entangled in a costly and time-consuming series of visits to Bampton and Exeter. This bridge ordeal was inconvenient but did not cut into the closely woven cloth that was the social community of Morebath. Everything else continued as normal. The services and social structure of the village did not change. This would be one of the last times Morebath would show any resistance to change.

On the 20th of November 1534 the Act of Supremacy which declared that “the king, our sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken accepted and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia” (pg. 84) Catholicism was no longer welcome in England. The King who had once been a great defender of the Catholic faith, had just usurped the Pope and declared himself the supreme head. The first of these changes that Morebath directly felt was in 1534, Sir Christopher and his leading parishioners had to make their way to Bampton or Tiverton to take an oath to this new Anglican Church. The people of Morebath certainly had heard of Protestantism, but there is no evidence of any radicals coming into their town and trying to convert anyone. They must have had an idea of what the king had in mind, and whether they liked it or not, it was happening.

The king’s religious policies slowly began to creep into the small village of Morebath. The first change that was requested of Sir Christopher by the bishop was to “scrape or cut the pope’s name out of the Canon of the Mass in his mass-book, and cease to bid the parish to pray for him each Sunday.” (pg. 89) It was very clear that the name of the pope, the title pope, or feeling any affection for the pope was not to be tolerated. King Henry VIII was the ruler of the church now, and he would not have his subjects praying for anyone else.

The next year, the smaller monasteries of England were disbanded. Some monks went to join bigger monasteries, others became priests, and a few left religious life all other. According to Duffy “it is impossible to say how the parish viewed the disappearance of the monastic community whose prior had been their Lord of the Manor for Centuries” but, “it is unlikely that anyone in Morebath wept bitter tears for the disappearance for their local monastery.” (pg. 90) This is not how everyone in their region viewed the dissolution. Some communities had riots and protests against the closing of the monasteries that they had come to rely on and were such an important part of their life. It could be inferred that the monastery in Morebath had not been tightly woven into the fabric of their society. Yet, it is to be sure that some people in the parish were sad to see it go and counted it as another attack by the king on their religious way of life.

In 1536 came a reform that touched the people in the parish of Morebath more closely. On the 11th of August, Cromwell announced the Act of Convocation which abolished “all he holy days which fell in the Westminster law terms or during the harvest period from the beginning of July to the end of September, with the exceptions of the fests of the Virgin and the Apostles, St George’s Day, the nativity of St John the Baptist and All Saints Day.” (pg.91) Cromwell thought this would improve the economy, making it so that workers did not have as many days off, especially during the seasons critical for agriculture. This upset a lot of people because the crown had taken away their holidays and was forcing them to work more. For many parishes this was also an insult, and made it so that they could no long honor the feast day of their patron saint. This was not the case for Morebath. Their patron saint was Saint George and they were still aloud to celebrate his feast. Other then some supposed grumbling, Morebath’s perishers did not resist this change.

Morebath was outwardly incredibly prompt in their obedience. They complied with the kings demands and the instructions of the new church to get rid of them statues of saints, get the new prayer books necessary for their new devotional life, and made a Bible available to read in the church at all times. These were outward appeasements to the king, little can be said for the hearts of those who worshiped there. Duffy says that it “is clear that Sir Christopher remained a firm believer in the intercession of the saints.” (pg. 103) Their images just no longer were featured in the church. He complied physically, but did not mean he compiled spiritually.

The communities discontent started when the church stores were shut down, and the churches flock of sheep was sold off. This made less work for the parishioners and created less opportunities for people in the community to be involved with the church’s workings. “It is as if with the disappearance of the stores and the receding of the saints, the community of the parish also reconfigured itself, and was less broadly and less personally conceived.” (pg. 106) This change caused a reconfiguration of the Morebath society, something that the other reforms had not done. These reforms also took a toll on the church financially, and their civility towards the new rules imposed on them began to wear thin.

This caused some of the men in Morebath to join the Prayer Book Rebellion. These men did not consider themselves rebels, but rather men who were “defending the tradition of their fathers and the well-being of their community, and their region.” (pg. 140) It was only when the fabric of their community was threated that the people of Morebath decided to fight back. That was the last straw.

But all of these changes were quickly reverted when Queen Mary took the throne after her brother Edward died. It was Mary’s dream to return England to the true faith, the Catholic faith with the pope as head of the church. Morebath did not immediately revert to its old ways, but slowly and surely old saints came out of hiding. Morebath “revive the custom of ringing-and paying for-knells for the newly dead” (pg. 160) Morebath began the process of rebuilding its Catholic spirit.

The reconstruction was halted when Queen Mary died and Queen Elizabeth I took the throne. She was a Protestant. Morebath switched its prayer books once again and sent their tithes to the Queen. At first their changes were mainly external, but they had little choice but to conform. Elizabeth was a protestant, but she was far more relaxed in her enforcement of Protestantism then her brother. She believed it was more important for the country to survive then for everyone to be a protestant. She did not want her subject to be embroiled in war like Germany. She asked that everyone be Anglican in name, but did not check on their practices. Morebath was certainly that. They were the Church of England in name, but with Catholicism not being aggressively weeded out, some of the Catholic ways stayed. Morebath, like many churches in England at the end of the English Reformation, were not quite protestant and not quite Catholic, but rather somewhere in between. But most importantly the country was not at war with itself and the community the surrounded Morebath’s church was intact.

Citations:

Duffy, Eamon. The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village. Yale University Press, 2003. f

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