Friday, November 28, 2008

The rosary rebellion

The Reformation of the church in England was a long, complex and sometimes bloody process. For those interested in studying this process, I think that one of the great contributions to the literature of religious history in England is Eamon Duffy's account of the Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580.


This was the first book I encountered on the history of the English Reformation that begins by examining the state of religion in England before the break with Rome, and it was also the first history of the subject I read that was not written from a specifically Protestant point of view. I grew up in a Congregational church, and English-speaking Protestants, understandably, tend to dwell on the aspects of the Reformation that represent their own beginnings. But Duffy's book takes a more comprehensive view. It's joined the short list of books that I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the history of popular devotion, including the rosary.

One of the most interesting rosary-related stories in the book is this one, which I will quote in Duffy's words.

Sometime in Whit week 1549 Walter Ralegh (the father of the famous seaman) was riding to Exeter. Near the village of Clyst St. Mary he overtook an old woman on her way to Mass; she was praying upon a pair of rosary beads in her hand. Ralegh, a staunch supporter of the Reformation, challenged the old woman, asking her what she meant by carrying such beads, "sayenge further that there was a punyshmente by the law apoynted agaynste her and all suche as woulde not obeye & folowe the same & wch woulde bee putt in execution vpon theime." The old woman hurried to the church, where the parishioners, already disgruntled by the imposition of the 1549 prayer-book on the previous Sunday, were gathering for Mass,

"and beinge impacyente & in an agonye with the speches before paste betwen her & the gentleman begyynethe to upbraye in the open Churche verie harde & unsemelie speches concernynge religion, saienge that shee was thretned by the gentleman, that exvcept shee woulde leave her beades & gene over holie breade & water the gentlemen woulde burne theym oute of theire howses & spoyle theim."

The enraged parishioners all but lynched Ralegh, a local mill was burned, and the rebellion escalated. The incident, not without elements of farce, was to end in black tragedy. When ultimately Lord Russell was dispatched by Somerset to put down the rebellion, Clyst St. Mary was the scene of a particularly bloody pitched battle, in which the local peasantry were ruthlessly butchered, along with all the prisoners captured by the royal forces then and previously. The village was put to the torch. Archbishop Cranmer's dislike of beads and holy water had cost the people of Clyst dear.

This mini-rebellion -- to put it in context -- was a local but very significant incident in a larger movement, generally referred to as the Prayer Book Rebellion. The immediate trigger, and the chief grievance of the protesters, was the imposition of a new Prayer Book, which was markedly more Protestant in its declarations of doctrine than many people were prepared to countenance.

Generally speaking, London was the center of Protestant thinking at this period, and in more outlying areas such as the west of England, there were plenty of people who saw no reason to change the ways of thinking and methods of worship that had served them well for hundreds of years.

King Henry VIII had begun the process of reformation in 1534 by denying the authority of the Pope and declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England -- while retaining for himself many Catholic beliefs and practices. The bishops and commissioners he appointed, however, tended to be much more avowedly Protestant. The resulting mix of religion and politics meant that the attempt to bring about a countrywide reformation progressed by fits and starts through the rest of Henry's reign, and enforcement of change at the local level was often sporadic and uneven.

The death of Henry and accession of Edward VI changed all this. A decree specifically banning rosary beads and a number of other Catholic practices was published in 1547. (Below is a nice piece of propaganda, showing some of the now banned items, "Certaine of the Popes marchandize lately sent ouer into Englande")


As this incident shows, however, we have plenty of evidence that people were still using their rosaries. As Duffy points out, the mention of "holie breade & water" indicates that it was not just beads that were the focus of the disagreement, but other specially blessed things as well. Nonetheless, the beads were an easily visible symbol, and the fact that they could be part of a dispute that sparked an armed conflict is some indication of how strongly people could feel about their beads.