The Reformation of the English Parish Church 

The Reformation of the English Parish Church.

Fig. 1. The Reformation of the English Parish Church.

The Reformation of the English Parish Church by Robert Whiting. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Hardback, 298 pages, 12 colour plates, 60 b/w illustrations, £ 55.

The religious reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries unleashed a frenzy of iconoclastic destruction across Europe which inter alia saw thousands of windows destroyed by protestant reformers. This book examines the dramatic transformations these upheavals wreaked on the physical interiors and fittings of the traditional English parish church. Chapters are devoted to screens; altars; fonts; church plate, such as chalices, paten, and chrismatorys; cloths, such as vestments and hangings; service books; receptacles such as shrines, piscinas and holy water stoops; wall and panel paintings; images and sculptures; organs and bells; pulpits and seating; galleries; monuments and, of course, window glass. In each case the author begins by describing the history, purpose and condition of these material objects on the eve of the Reformation followed by a discussion about their destruction and what replaced them. The style is readable and the examples numerous. The book is extensively illustrated.

The chapter on window glass will be of special interest to Vidimus readers. Audiences are reminded that much of the window glass in parish churches was relatively new. Some of the best known schemes, such as at Fairford (Glos) and St Neot (Devon), had been commissioned only a few decades before the protestant ascendancy. Elsewhere, traditional schemes of saints and other soon to be ‘offensive’ imagery was still being installed at churches such as St Michael le Belfry, York, and St Margaret of Antioch, at Barley (Hertfordshire) even as the opening shots in Henry VII’s war with the Catholic church were being fired.

The suppression of the monasteries after 1536 saw thousands of windows destroyed as buildings were demolished and their salvageable materials sold. Although some fragments survive as, for example, at Morley in Derbyshire, where the glass from the nearby abbey at Dale was installed in the parish church, enormous quantities were lost forever.

The next round of attacks focused on images of St Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop murdered at Canterbury Cathedral by knights loyal to Henry II in December 1170. For centuries his image had appeared in parish glazing schemes. In 1538 Henry VIII revoked the archbishop’s special place in the English church, denounced him as a traitor and a rebel and ordered that every image and mention of his name be erased. In a pattern repeated across the country the wardens of St John, Bere Street, Norwich (Norfolk), spent 19s on ‘ making of a glass window, wherein Thomas Becket was’.

These losses were nothing compared to what followed. While Henry had often been ambivalent on the pace and scale of reformation, his sixteen-year-old successor Edward VI had no such qualms. Within a year of his father’s death, the young monarch ordered the comprehensive destruction of ‘superstitious’ pictures in churches, including those in glass. Most churches complied. The author cites a number of documented examples. At St Laurence, Ipswich (Suffolk), the churchwardens spent £12 purging their windows of ‘feigned stories’ which were ‘contrary to the king’s majesty’s injunctions’, and replacing them with clear glass. At St Michael at Plea, Norwich (Norfolk), the parishioners paid £20 for ‘the new glazing of 17 windows, wherein was contained the lives of certain profane histories, and other old windows in our church’.

Elsewhere, glass was blotted out or, as at Bledington (Gloucestershire), selectively defaced rather than destroyed entirely. At St Laurence, Reading, it was removed and stored in case government policy was reversed.

While the short-lived counter-reformation of the Catholic queen, Mary I, (reigned 1553–1558), brought a halt to any further immediate losses, attacks were renewed during the reign of Elizabeth I as when the wardens of Long Melford (Suffolk) paid 2s in 1577 to, ‘ Firmin, the glazier of Sudbury, for defacing of the sentences and imagery in the glass windows’.

Window glass which had somehow survived these onslaughts faced renewed attacks in the mid-17th century when another Puritan backlash against imagery saw iconoclasts like William Dowsing embark on a spree of window breaking, including an orgy at South Cove (Suffolk) where he boasted, ‘ we took down 42 superstitious pictures in glass’. (see also Further Reading).

Apart from chronicling the damage inflicted by the reformers the author also discusses what replaced the shattered windows. This can be summed up in three ways: plain glass; heraldry and, for a short period in the early 17th century until it too was largely destroyed, figural imagery promoted by the Anglo-Catholic circle associated with Bishop William Laud.(1573–1645).

The author’s treatment of window glass is mirrored in the other chapters of this fascinating book. Invaluable though this ‘before and after approach’ is to those interested in the fate of medieval church fittings, it also provides a body of evidence for answering one of the most vexed disputes in English history: how much support did the Reformation enjoy from ordinary people?

The dividing lines are well-known. Exponents of the Reformation argue that traditional Catholicism was a decaying edifice waiting to be toppled, theologically exhausted and unable to provide spiritual sustenance for the population at large. Evidence cited includes depopulated monasteries and increasing lay disillusionment, with churches falling into disrepair and fewer chantry chapels being endowed. At the same time an unstoppable wave of reform was washing across Europe, powered by literacy, printing, individualism, and the influence of thinkers like Martin Luther and the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. Change was initiated and supported by ordinary people who often took direct action themselves, breaking and burning images and flocking to hear reformist preachers.

The counter argument is that the church was in good health before the Reformation and that evidence of its alleged decline has been deliberately exaggerated by propagandists favourable to change. The historian, Eamon Duffy, has argued that feast days were still being celebrated, fasts solemnly observed, churches decorated, images venerated, candles lit and prayers for the dead recited with regularity. Rather than being a popular event, the Reformation was imposed on the majority of worshippers by a militant minority of extreme Protestants who used their fortuitous political supremacy to crush dissent and exploit the fear and ingrained beliefs of deference, obedience and duty felt by ordinary people to enforce their unrepresentative beliefs. Although their campaign enjoyed pockets of support, particularly in London and the South, most of the country clung to the old faith. When rebellions erupted in the North and South-west they were impossible to sustain without becoming a revolutionary force – a treasonable aim specifically repudiated by catholics who blamed the king’s advisors rather than the king personally for the policies they hated.

Robert Whiting’s book makes telling contribution to this debate. It concludes that, ‘Duty, conformity, obedience were at least as powerful as spiritual convictions in inducing men and women to accept the reformation of their parish churches’.

Any downsides to the book? A few. Its strength is the examples it cites from church warden accounts and other contemporary sources. A corresponding weakness is that although numerous churches are mentioned, the reader can only discover which county they are in by consulting the index. Apart from being tiresome, this approach also makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge what is happening where. Frustrations felt in the search for a sense of regional trends or exceptions is compounded by the author’s tilted choice of examples, e.g. heavy on Devon in the south-west of England, weak on Surrey and Sussex in the south-east.

Grumbles aside, this is a well-researched and knowledgeable book which will be of value to a wide range of audiences for many years to come.

Matthew Baker

Further Reading

  • Vidimus 32
  • Duffy, E., The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580, Yale University Press, 1994

The Medieval Churches of Norwich   

Tracery lights, St Peter Hungate. © Allan Barton

Fig. 1. Tracery lights, St Peter Hungate. © Allan Barton

The Medieval Churches of Norwich by Nicholas Groves. Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), 2010, 160 pages £12.95 paperback and £19.95 for the limited edition hardback, available at selected bookshops in the city or online from and Copies can also be ordered by phone from the publishers HEART on 01603 305575

Medieval Norwich had sixty-three churches, far more than the city needed or could hope to fill. Today, thirty-one are still standing with eight used for worship and the remainder belonging mainly to conservation bodies, such as the Norwich Historic Churches Trust. Although nearly all the churches have lost their medieval glass, there still remains plenty to see of interest to Vidimus readers and this attractively written and produced book will be an enjoyable companion for those keen to do so.

The format comprises entries about each of the surviving churches explaining their dedications, and exterior and interior features of interest. The text is peppered with fascinating information, particularly about how interior fittings have been added, removed or given to other churches within the city. The peregrinations of items like the splendid brass eagle lectern presented to St Michael Coslany in 1493, then sold to St Gregory Pottergate in 1776 and finally moved to St Giles in 1974 stands out among recurring stories of altarpieces and screens stripped out of one church only to find a new home in another. Many of the churches retain fragments of medieval decoration such as painted ceiling panels at St John Maddermarket and exceptionally fine wall paintings at St Gregory’s. A separate section includes shorter notices about lost churches.

Stained glass is often highlighted. Readers are told about impressive collections of locally produced medieval windows at St Peter Mancroft (see Further Reading) and St Peter Hungate (now a Medieval Art Centre with a permanent display about medieval glass) and the 19th-century installation of 16th-century glass from Mariawald abbey at St Stephen’s (this window is currently absent, undergoing conservation). Lesser collections are also mentioned, including that at St Andrews’s which includes the famous image of Death and a Bishop. Attention is equally drawn to modern work by William Morris and his workshop at St George Tombland and St Martin-at-Palace respectively and glass by Martin Travers (St John Timberhill) and the Norwich-based King company at the rebuilt church of St Julian, where the 14th-century female mystic and author, St Julian (a form of Gillian), found solace as an anchorite.

Apart from an informative text, the book is generously illustrated with several or more photographs on most pages. These range from pre-World War II black and white photographs to modern colour digital images taken by talented amateur photographers. A useful glossary, short bibliography and double-page spread map complete a long overdue and much enjoyed guide to the largest number of surviving medieval urban churches in any city north of the Alps.

A final comment. As explained earlier only a few of the churches described in this book are now used for worship on a regular basis. With church attendances falling across Europe the fate of similar historic buildings poses problems on an unprecedented scale. Norwich has much to teach others beginning with the conversion of an underused church (St Mary-the-Less) in the mid-1500s when it was given to religious refugees from the Netherlands as a cloth hall where they could sell their woven produce. Today many of the churches now cared for by the main heritage and conservation trusts in the city continue to provide an important foci for public life having found alternative uses as arts centres, advice and social centres, business premises, bookshops and much more. While their success has lessons for us all, issues of access can be frustrating. Before visiting the churches described in this book it would be wise to check opening times well in advance.

Petrina Talle

Further Reading

  • King, D., The Medieval Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, CVMA (GB), V, Oxford, 2006 .


This book does not discuss Norwich Cathedral. Readers interested in the medieval glass of the cathedral should consult John MacDonalds’s 70 page book on the cathedral windows, available from the cathedral bookshop.

Name that Roundel! Solution 

Name that Roundel! Solution.

Fig. 3. Name that Roundel! Solution.

This is a very unusual subject scene. The key to the puzzle is the claw foot of the winged figure (a fallen angel?) and the inscriptions. The man on the right pointing to the figure is saying: Cauete ♦ ab ♦ hac ♦ peste ♦ (Beware of this plague/pestilence).

The text at the foot of the panel has been abbreviated. The missing letters are shown in brackets. The inscription says: hic ♦ ph(ilosoph)ia ♦ c(ontra)gnost[ic]i ♦ discitur (the philosophy of the contra-gnostic is learned).

The panel is clearly intended as a piece of anti-heretical propaganda, with the man on the right preaching against gnosticism (a heresy). In England such campaigns portrayed heretics as ‘false prophets coming in sheep’s clothing but (who) inwardly are ravenous wolves’ or akin to ‘weeds among the people’. The church also employed descriptions similar to those used to chart a plague claiming that the pestilence of heresy was ‘going from county to county and from town to town’. In 1409 the heads of colleges and principals of halls in Oxford University were instructed to carry out monthly investigations into the beliefs of their members as a precaution against heresy. When William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, founded Seint Marie Maudeleyn Halle (now Magdalen College), Oxford, in 1448 the ‘extirpation of heresies and errors’ was one of its aims.

Further Reading

  • Forrest, I., The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Ferreiro, A., (Ed.) The Devil, Heresy and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey B. Russell, Leiden: Brill, 1998

Kieckhefer, R., Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979

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