Magazine article History Today

Fragments of the Reformation: David Gaimster Explains How the English Reformation Is Emerging as a Key Area of Interest in British Archaeology, and How the Discipline Sheds a Unique Light on the Cultural Changes of the Period

Magazine article History Today

Fragments of the Reformation: David Gaimster Explains How the English Reformation Is Emerging as a Key Area of Interest in British Archaeology, and How the Discipline Sheds a Unique Light on the Cultural Changes of the Period

Article excerpt

TRADITIONALLY, historians of early modern Europe have viewed the political, social and economic turmoil surrounding the 'splintering of the Cross' as largely responsible for the rupture of the medieval order and the foundation of modern society, in giving rise to capitalism, imperialism, individualism and democracy. Yet the extent of the Reformation in England and its impact on the lifestyles, attitudes and beliefs of ordinary people has continued to stimulate heated debate and generate a constant flow of 'groundbreaking' revisions. Recently, the emphasis has shifted towards measuring the reception of and resistance to changes in religious practice through detailed analysis of local records, the publishing industry and literacy levels. But what of the 60-70 per cent of English men and women who could not read the Word of God? How do we quantify the extent and pace of change beyond the catechism class?

Increasingly, archaeological excavation and research are beginning to add texture to our picture of the religious and socio-political landscape of sixteenth-century England. The study of contemporary material culture--surviving architecture, monuments, burials and everyday objects--can allow us to evaluate the spread of evangelism and resistance to the new order beyond the strict confines of the liturgy.

In the past few years archaeologists have set out to demonstrate how the discipline can contribute to the wider Reformation narrative. Their aim has been to measure continuity and change in the landscape, in towns, in churches, in graveyards and in the home, and in a cross-section of society, rich and pool, literate and illiterate.

Protestantism triumphed in sixteenth-century England, initially at least, because it was given a lead by the king. It is impossible to speculate on what would have happened, had it not been for Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties. Almost certainly there would have been a Protestant party, but there is no guarantee that a Protestant Reformation would have been successful, any more than it succeeded in France, where anti-clericalism was equally rife. Historians such as Eamon Duffy have used wills, church records, court records and other documentary evidence to argue that compliance around the country with the reform movement from the late 1530s was 'an optical illusion'. They contend that little in the realms of ideas and everyday religious practice changed dramatically among ordinary people in the decades surrounding the break with Rome. Indeed, popular support for Protestantism was grudging at best, with loyalty to traditional Catholic liturgy and ritual enduring at all levels of society.

The notion of transition from a world of cultic observance, appealing through the senses, to a religion of non-ritual or even anti-ritual forms set in a desacralised world, is accurate in general terms, yet it is also clear that there were many 'Catholic survivals' within Protestant culture. This suggests that the break with the past was neither as dramatic nor as complete as conventional wisdom dictates. People were also still attached to their bibles, hymn books and catechisms, while developing an evangelical emphasis on the Word of God; and this suggests that Protestants, no less than Catholics, continued to live in a sacralised religious environment. Archaeology--literally as history 'from below'--has the ability to provide new insights into popular responses to the Reformation.

On the accession of Edward VI in 1547, the official programme dedicated to dismantling the entire infrastructure of late medieval devotional religion was almost complete. The monasteries had been dissolved, chantries abolished, the shrines of saints smashed, and pilgrimage statuary destroyed. The destruction of religious imagery was to remain a distinctive feature of the Tudor Reformation, through the reigns of Edward VI (1547-53) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and during the phase of Puritan fervour in the seventeenth century. As a result, there is a common perception that the material legacy of the English Reformation is restricted solely to evidence of destruction.

However, archaeology can illuminate central cultural aspects, from the extent of iconoclasm and changes in public worship, private devotional practice and corporate charitable giving, to developments in burial practice and commemoration. Preliminary results from excavation, survey, architectural recording and artefactual research indicate that Protestantism in England was neither adopted nor rejected wholesale. Indeed, the simple dichotomy of rejection versus adoption has been shown to be far too simplistic.

Nonetheless, churches are obvious places to start looking for the impact of the Reformation in the physical sphere. No other structure or space (aside from the violent destruction of monastic buildings) was transformed quite so dramatically by 'purification'. A physical examination of English churches highlights how the appeal to the senses was reduced as churches were transformed into lighter spaces, to assist the use of books and the learning of texts. Meanwhile, the Reformers' belief in the idolatry of the Mass led to the restructuring of chancels and east ends. Images were banished, but broken images could ultimately be seen as admonitory, as could displacing the rood with the secular heraldry of the Church's new Supreme Head. Reluctant worshippers, hoping for a reversal to the traditional forms of service, occasionally secretly buried proscribed images inside places of worship, as frequent discoveries during Victorian and later refurbishments illustrate.

A key issue revolves around the regionality of the English Reformation. Detailed mapping of various classes of material culture extant within the churches of four English counties (Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Norfolk) suggest broad geographical differences in the implementation of Reform. In the countryside, zealous individuals or local loyalties were as influential as national ordinances.

Within the Reformation landscape, residential buildings represent an archaeological index of the spread of the new doctrine and of the new social order created out of it. For example, Acton Court in Gloucestershire, with its adoption of classical architectural forms and interior scheme of Renaissance 'Antike'--work murals, is one example of the new canon of style reflecting the transfer in loyalties from church to secular authority. It was built by Sir Nicholas Poyutz, courtier to Henry VIII and Protestant sympathiser, in a programme spanning the mid-1530s to 1550s. Meanwhile, the transformation of religious houses in the countryside into secular residences also expressed political and ideological shifts, promoting the new regime and suppressing the old. In northern Ireland, the arrival of largely Protestant English Planters at the end of the sixteenth century, made a particular impact on the rural landscape. They converted the churches for Reformed use and ransacked monastic houses for building stone, or transformed them for other uses, though many monastic sites remained in use as burial grounds.

Archaeologists are now considering the rule of former monastic complexes in the emergence of new power structures in the post-Reformation townscape. The Dissolution broke the traditional urban plan, which was dominated by the medieval Church, and provided the springboard for new development in the form of private housing speculation. But despite the wealth of historical evidence, it is hard to judge the pace of transformation in many towns. In Chester, for instance, archaeological evidence suggests gradual evolution rather than rapid and drastic change. Here many pre-Dissolution buildings survived intact for up to a century. The haphazard conversion of monastic buildings in Coventry, meanwhile, can be explained by economic factors rather than by religions imperatives. In and around London, monastic buildings and episcopal mansions provided opportunities for residential conversion by the nobility, a process which turned formerly closed, sacred spaces into public areas. The topography of power was transformed in the capital, as these former semi-religious spaces became the power bases of the new secular elite.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and the chantries in the 1540s also destroyed well-established urban patterns of corporate charity. In York archaeologists have been examining the role of the guildhalls, built by religious fraternities and craft mysteries in the four-teenth and fifteenth centuries, and adapted by trading companies and civic authorities after the Reformation, in offering their communities, particularly the poor, a sense of continuity in a climate of destruction and dislocation. Elsewhere, investigations have revealed both complementary and divergent fates for charitable bodies. In the City of London such institutions underwent drastic physical transformation during the second half of the sixteenth century in the light of changing religions, political and ideological affiliations. For example, the books of the 'public library' of the chantry college attached to the Guildhall chapel were removed in 1549 by Edward Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector. The building was demolished in the following year to make way for an extension of the local cloth market. Changes in the structure of the hall complex, as revealed by excavations on the site of the Merchant Taylors' Hall nearby, have supplemented our historical understanding of the transformation of this former mercantile fraternity and craft mystery into a civic institution for secular feasting and political enhancement.

Around the country surviving structural and spatial evidence is revealing the dynamic role of the chantries as centres for communal and private piety in pre-Dissolution England and their subsequent fate under privatisation for the exclusive use of the secular elite. Many former chantries became wholly private chapels. Often shorn of intercessionary paraphernalia, they became the exclusive setting for private religion, and in particular family memorials and commemoration. However, the latest regional analysis of chantry fabric indicates a certain amount of local variability in the immediate post-Reformation phase, with many medieval features remaining intact until the 1570s.

Archaeologists are now responding to the work of urban historians, such as Vanessa Harding, who have demonstrated how traditional Catholic burial rituals, with their sense of social competition as reflected in conspicuous display, survived the Reformation because they served a real cultural need. There is a relative paucity of burial evidence from church-yards and monastic cemeteries dating to the period. However, it is now becoming clearer that the medieval tradition of memory of the dead continued to be perpetuated after the Reformation as burials were transferred from dissolved monasteries to parish churches, and through the continued use of former monastic sites for burial. Differences between later medieval and early modern burial customs in the London area include the greater use of coffins after the Reformation and the new tendency to treat deceased adults and juveniles equally. From the mid-sixteenth century, the proportion of children in London burials rises from around 30 per cent to around 50 per cent of the excavated cemetery populations.

Despite their pivotal role in the archaeological reconstruction of daily life and interregional trade, ceramic wares have been under-valued as a key historical source shedding light on changing cultural values for this period. New archaeological research into these domestic artefacts places them at the centre of our understanding of the religious, social and political order as experienced by ordinary people. From the mid-fifteenth century, radical refinements in design and technology, notably in the introduction of moulded relief forms, transformed domestic ceramics in western and northern Europe from essentially utilitarian commodities into symbolic artefacts in their own right. The introduction of new moulding techniques, combined with the popularity of a new form of iconography that derived from printed religious propaganda, further revolutionised the medium though which topical religious and temporal concerns entered the home. Prior to the Reformation, the Church, with its sculptural repertoire of Gothic tracery, devotional figures and carved wooden altarpieces, formed the primary iconographic influence on earthenware stoves and miniature pipeclay statuary that was imported into England from western and northern Germany. A decline in demand for imported devotional wares and the increasing popularity of secular forms in this medium towards the middle of the sixteenth century, as revealed by archaeologists, may be attributable to the influence of alien Hanseatic merchants and diplomatic residents in London and elsewhere on the south coast, two groups of immigrants closely associated with the introduction of the Lutheran rite into early Tudor England.

Post-Reformation, among ' the most widespread of imported stove-tiles found in southern Britain are the quadrangular panel-tiles moulded with portraits of the secular leaders of the Lutheran Reformation. Together these offer remarkable new evidence for the changes in religious and political loyalties among English consumers. The tiles are moulded after contemporary, broadsheets with the arcaded portraits of the Landgrave Philip I of Hesse (r.1509-67) and his consort Christine, daughter of George, Duke of Saxony. Philip I the Magnanimous was one or the political leaders of the Lutheran Reformation and after 1530 one of the leaders of the Schmalkaldic League of Protestant princes. Printed portraits of Philip and his allies, such as Johann Friedrich II, Elector of Saxony, along with their consorts, made popular motifs for stove-tiles made in the Lutheran centre and north of Germany and in the Baltic region for the duration of the Schmalkaldic League's political influence (c.153047).

A major find of these tiles was made during recent excavations at Camber Castle in east Sussex, a Henrician coastal artillery fort built between 1539 and 1542. The actual stove may have been located in the entrance bastion where there is evidence for a suite of rooms complete with garderobe on the first floor. All the Camber tiles are characterised by their explicitly Protestant iconography. The repertoire includes portrait busts Philip I of Hesse and Christine of Saxony, together with full-length portraits of Landsknecht soldiers and representations of the Temptation, both themes widely represented among earthenware stove-tiles of northern Germany at this time, and taken directly from the Lutheran visual catechism. The crest of the Camber stove was made up of facing doves or phoenixes, symbols of concord and the resurrection respectively. The spectrum of designs suggests that whoever commissioned the stove had strong Protestant sympathies. The fact that the tile fragments are associated with the 1539-43 construction phases of the castle may link the stove to the clerk of works, Stephen von Haschenperg, a Moravian German architect, who worked simultaneously at Sandgate and at other Henrician artillery forts from 1539 to 1544. He is recorded as having an office-come-residence at Camber, the 'devisours chamber', with accommodation for his servants and horses. It is tempting to speculate that von Haschenperg commissioned a German smokeless ceramic stove with a Lutheran iconographic scheme for use in his personal quarters.

Among the most common imported devotional miniature pipeclay figurines found on English sites are personifications of the Virgin and Child, the virgin martyr saints, the crucified Christ and the Christ Child. The predominance of the Virgin reflects the high position of the Marian cult in the popular religion of late medieval England. The domestic contexts of many of these finds reincorces the possibility that they were produced primarily for a female audience. The domestic locus associated with virtually all of these finds also illustrates the transfer of the cult of the saints from the church altar into the secular sphere. Manuscript illustrations of the fifteenth century depict such miniature devotional figures in prominent positions in the home.

The replacement of the cult of the saints by temporal authority and humanist imagery in moulded stove-tile design is mirrored to an extent in the appearance of secular and profane forms in the range of pipeclay figurines circulating in England from the middle of the sixteenth century. The post-medieval pipeclay figurines found in London and southern England are dominated by the figures of rulers and their consorts and by symbolic miniatures of humanist or secular armorial devices. Full-length-figurines of Stuart monarchs and female consorts may be moulded after commemorative seventeenth-century engravings, probably after Robert Walton's Set of Kings of the 1660s-80s. London finds include a small equestrian figure of a female monarch holding the Sword of State, possibly Elizabeth I, and a full-length figure of a late Stuart monarch in full armour, probably Charles II or William III. Other pipeclay finds in London of this date include the symbolic figure of Cupid holding a dove and olive branch and several lions in a low seated position. the lions may commemorate the Glorious Revolution after which William III placed the lion of Nassau in the centre of the royal arms of England.

What is crucial to the study of changes in taste, mentality and religious affiliation in early Tudor England, however, is the social context of these domestic ceramic finds. Apart from their appearance in a number of royal palaces, military installations and aristocratic residences, the ceramic imports discussed are mostly found in towns and cities. In this sense the archaeology matches the historical picture, which indicates that the Reformation was an urban phenomenon, at least initially. It is no coincidence that the archaeological locus of imported symbolic ceramics of the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries corresponds closely to the distribution of some of the largest communities of Low Country and German merchants and artisans in London and the southeast at this time. It is significant that these 'Stranger' communities, numbering some 5,000 individuals in London during the final years of Henry VIII's reign, particularly the resident Hanseatic merchant enclave at the Steelyard on the City waterfront, were instrumental to the introduction of Reformation ideology and the foundation of the first Protestant churches in the metropolis by the mid-sixteenth-century.

In contrast to the relative exclusivity of the written record, the diversity of surviving material evidence--churches, residential buildings, funerary monuments and burials, domestic objects and so on--may tell us more about attitudes to changes in doctrine and in the symbolic world, both within the elite and among the wider population. It seems, archaeology can add a vital dimension to the questions of pace and penetration of the English Reformation, and resistance to it, across town and country, parish and community, during the period of turmoil and in the years that followed.


David Gaimster and Roberta Gilchrist (eds.), The Archaeology of Reformation 1480-1580 (Maney Publishing, 2003); Richard Deacon & Philip Lindley, Image and Idol: Medieval Sculpture (Tate Britain, 2001); M. Biddle et al. (eds.), Henry VIII's Coastal Artillery Fort at Camber Castle, Rye, East Sussex (English Heritage/Oxford Archaeology, 2001); Eamon Duffy, The Striping of the Altars Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992); From the History Today Archive available via see Diarmaid Maculloch and Kari Konkola, 'People of the Book: Success in the English Reformation' HT, October 2003.

David Gaimster is General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.