Woodbridge , Boydell Press, 2018, ISBN: 9781783273096; 491pp.; Price: £60.00
The National Archives, Kew
Date accessed: 2 December, 2023
The recent celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the European Reformation have launched a steady stream of publications analysing almost every facet of the English Church at the start of the 16th century and beyond. While many thousands of words have been penned in the examination of English religion in the 1530s, the earlier period has been less well served, with the obvious exception of a few core studies.(1) The reputation of the pre-Reformation English Church is now generally characterised as a flourishing environment, as evidenced by the rebuilding or enlargement of parish churches throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, while regular corporations (namely monasteries and hospitals) revived and prospered despite losing substantial manpower during the Black Death, and secular (including collegiate) corporations found a new lease of life from the second half of the fourteenth century. Such a reputation, pioneered by Eamon Duffy in particular, reveals the popular response to Catholicism pre-Reformation, and this premise underpins Burgess’s study, a two-pronged argument of institutional vitality and religious commitment. Furthermore, Burgess seeks here to extend Duffy’s argument, particularly with regard to the ‘institutional framework within which formal and informal religious behaviour normally found expression’. ‘What was the context in which traditional religion flourished?’; ‘What constituted the institutional landscape for traditional Christians, and how did they forge an identity – ordinarily as parishioners – within this setting?’; ‘why did they respond with such enthusiasm?’ (pp 2–3). Burgess reflects on these questions through the analysis of one parish: All Saints’, Bristol.
Burgess’s use of a single parish to represent a national phenomenon will likely be contentious to some readers. Can one parish in the south of England – with an affluent, cosmopolitan outlook – really reflect wider trends and regional variations? Selected in part for its unusually extensive extant archive, All Saints’ may initially seem like an odd choice for the archetypal parish. As Burgess himself notes, the neighbouring parishes were both bigger than All Saints’, and attempted more ambitious regimes. All Saints’ was restricted in area and number of parishioners, but managed to achieve civic significance and notable wealth through good management of its resources, and also hosted an unusual institution, the Kalenders guild. For Burgess, however, such incidental details are of secondary importance, as ‘while other parishes, of course, differed from All Saints’ in significant respects, understanding how one community managed to fulfil various objectives offers guidelines as to the adaptive ambition that underpinned local achievements’ (p. 82). In doing so, Burgess treads the line between micro-study, and wider comparative study with considerable skill, although I suspect such an approach may not be universally accepted, perhaps with some justice. The extraordinary completeness and survival of All Saints’ archive is of key importance to this study. When studying local religion in this period, we often lack detailed understanding of the regimes functioning within parishes. Physical survival of a parish’s architectural structures can often be lacking, incomplete or warped by later works, while documentary evidence for parish administration generally does not survive. What evidence we have does not give a clear picture, and is generally based on testamentary evidence, which is problematic, as Burgess argues here and in previous publications (p. 54).(2) At All Saints’, however, a fuller archival picture is presented. In the absence of catastrophic fires in Bristol, and relatively little damage during the Second World War, the town generally has a good survival of both parish buildings and their associated documents, but All Saints’ in particular has particularly good documentary evidence including wills, churchwardens’ accounts, property deeds, the church book (detailed on p. 66), inventories and epitomes, and the Halleway chantry foundation, which features as a key case study (pp. 223–60). The volume also contains five illustrations (including three maps and plans of All Saints’ and its surroundings, and two illustrative images), a list of vicars, and notes on dates, money, weights and measures, and ecclesiastical terminology. It also includes five documents transcribed as appendices, which give extracts from the archives of All Saints’, including details of the Halleway’s endowments, and other bequests and gifts given to the parish church (425–30).
Throughout, Burgess paints a convincing picture of pre-Reformation English religion as a thriving institution at a local level. The key argument here is that All Saints’ reveals the form in which ‘emotional and spiritual resonances of late medieval Catholicism practical and creative expression’ could be expressed, both within and without a parish (p. 80). As Burgess acknowledges, as the third largest town in England Bristol was not commonplace, and ‘most other English parishes could not have emulated all aspects of All Saints’ accomplishment’. Crucially, the extant local archival material sheds light on what may have taken place elsewhere. Practices varied throughout the country, and might vary depending on local custom or even the will of a senior master or official, but Burgess presents a picture of the heights such accomplishments might reach.(3) Such endeavours were naturally focused around ideas of commemoration and care for one’s soul after death, for which we find comparative examples elsewhere, but viewing these commemorative priorities within a wider context may prove of interest to readers working within these fields of research. The argument is skilfully put forward with a combination of case-studies and chapters which provide a broader analysis. The case-studies are particularly interesting in Burgess’s argument of a pre-Reformation popular religious commitment. Chapter four – ‘”Since his decease”: The widows’ might’ (pp. 119–62) – for example provides an extended case study of four widowed parishioners, and the contributions such women might make to communal finances, amenities and devotional investment. Burgess notes that all four women were wealthy, and served well by the extant evidence, but argues that if these four women reflect anything like the picture at other parishes, ‘our evaluation of lay achievement before the Reformation would almost certainly need substantial ‘upward’ revision’ (p. 119).
In telling these four women’s stories, Burgess provides a deep analysis of the impact individuals could make on parish life, stories which have been lost elsewhere. Such case-studies give the reader a fascinating insight into daily life, and bring to life popular commitment to religion before the Reformation. They also make for interesting reading, particularly with regards to their possessions. We hear, for example, that the wealthy vowess, Joan Parnaunt, owned a pair of ‘playing tables’ among other household items including bed coverings and a selections of plate and rings (p. 151), while other widows contributed expensive draperies and vestments to the church (some examples are provided on pp. 144–5). Another fine example of a detailed case-study, serving to illustrate the religious environs at All Saints’, is the examination of the Halleway chantry, for which a large collection of archival material, produced in the process of managing and maintaining the chantry, survives (pp 223–60). While much of this archival collection has been published by Burgess previously, the discussion here focuses on the connection between parish and chantry foundation to ‘reveal how much care a parish might lavish on such a foundation, for it was clearly of the utmost importance to All Saints’ that it should flourish’ (p. 224).(4) The Halleway case-study sets out some of the problems a chantry community might experience in the long-term. Chantry foundations and the endowments which funded them often caused difficulties for the executors and managers of the foundation, All Saints’ was certainly not unique in this sense. It is rare, however, to find such a complete account of how problems were managed and dealt with by both the church and parish communities, and this study will be of significant interest as a comparison for those studying chantry foundations with depleted archives.
In the light of such rare survival of local material, however, it is slightly disappointing that Burgess appears to have ignored some of the extant material held in national collections, which would have shed further light on the question of All Saints’ uniqueness as a parish community. A cursory search of the online catalogue for material held at The National Archives (TNA) produces entries for two Inquisitions Ad Quod Damnum of land granted to the parish for post-mortem commemoration, an assessment for taxations in 1523 with named individuals, alongside the inventory of All Saints’ produced in the mid-16th century for which Burgess cites the published transcription.(5) A more detailed search would no doubt bring further results. While only a minor point, the latter of the two inquisitions is of particular importance as it relates to Thomas Halleway and others, acting as executors to one John Haddon, a chantry founder at All Saints’. These men are named by Burgess in the context that they ‘possibly [may] have been John [Haddon’s] executors’ (p. 173). Such a circumstance is explicitly detailed in TNA’s online catalogue, even without recourse to the original inquisition. The inclusion of evidence from the centrality is not – of course – strictly necessary: Burgess’ focus is on the local evidence throughout. Such forays, however, can provide a useful lens through which we can assess the parish of All Saints’ Bristol against the rest of the country, as well as providing supplementary evidence for the local documentary material, setting the scene for a wider national comparison and strengthening the argument put forward. Such a comparative approach is used to good effect at several points in chapter ten – ‘”Was but single and no thing of beauty”: enhancing the parish church’ (pp. 331–82) – to compare building efforts at All Saints’, and the church’s fixtures and fittings with examples from London and York, where comparable Church Books survive. On these occasions, the argument for national similarities is clearly demonstrated.
Overall, the book provides an exceptionally rich picture of pre-Reformation life within the parish of All Saints’, Bristol, which will surely become a firm fixture in the libraries and reading lists of those working on religious and parish history. The incredibly rare survival of a significant archive alongside evidence from extant buildings allows Burgess to examine in great detail the ways in which parish life functioned, and how commemoration, endowments and finances were managed (or mismanaged) by the parish and church communities. It paints a picture of personal religious commitment from parishioners, working hand-in-hand with parish administrators and clergy to enhance the parish’s divine liturgy, buildings, and finances. As Burgess notes in his conclusion, ‘the century that preceded the Reformation need not, therefore, be regarded as a time of stasis in English devotional life: it witnessed a wide-reaching transformation in the broader reaches of the secular Church’ (p. 414). Such a transformation was still ongoing at the point of the Reformation, but would be left fragmented during the reign of Edward VI. Burgess provides the much needed context in which this transformation – as identified by Duffy and others – took place, and at All Saints’, Bristol, at least, he is successful. Crucially, the book provides a framework and a focal point for the next generation of scholars to consider the wider geographical picture, using the parish of All Saints’ as a case study with which to compare parish communities where less evidence is extant. To date, such research has lacked a solid base on which to compare patchy archival or material collections. In The Right Ordering of Souls, researchers now have this base.
- Most notable amongst these is, of course, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, CT, 1992), although Martin Heale’s recent volume on the abbots of Medieval England is another recent and welcome addition to this list: Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England (Oxford, 2016).Back to (1)
- Clive Burgess, ‘By quick and by dead: wills and pious provision in late medieval Bristol’, in The English Historical Review, cii (1987).Back to (2)
- One example of the ways in which an individual master might influence practice amongst their local community can be seen in the efforts of the fifteenth century master John Wakeryng at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London: Euan C. Roger, ‘Blakberd’s Treasure: A Study in Fifteenth Century Hospital Administration at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London’, The Fifteenth Century XIII, ed. L. Clark (Woodbridge, 2014), pp. 81–107.Back to (3)
- The Pre-Reformation Records of All Saints’, Bristol: Part 3, ed. C. Burgess, Bristol Record Society’s Publications, 56 (2004), pp. 89–356.Back to (4)
- The National Archives (TNA), E 117/2/66; C 143/202/7; C 143/449/10; E 179/113/210.Back to (5)