Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Memory and the English Reformation

Brian Cummings, Alexandra Walsham, Bronwyn Wallace, Ceri Law

On my first outing in July into the centre of York after the lockdown I took my brother, whom I had not seen since Christmas last year, to admire the stained-glass windows in the Minster. Like everything in the time of Covid, the familiar was newly strange: you had to book a time slot, take a shot of sanitizer, wear a mask, follow the arrows. We went to see the East Window, of course, but we also stopped in the choir to view the St William of York window in the north transept. “There is the front cover of our new CUP book”, I said.

It seems a lifetime ago since we commissioned the essays for this volume, in pre-covid days, and indeed met up in York to hear the first versions and engage in stimulating discussions around them. Memory and the English Reformation arises from a major AHRC project entitled ‘Remembering the Reformation’, based jointly at the Universities of Cambridge and York, which ran from 2016-2019. The idea was to bring together a team of scholars, younger and older, to consider the complexity of the function of memory before and after the contested and protracted process that has become known as the English Reformation. Each contributor was asked to explore these resonant themes through the medium of a powerfully intimate case study. Ranging from the nailing of Luther’s theses to Thomas More’s hair-shirt; from children’s dolls to church silver; and from monumental tombs to ghost stories, the essays contain great variety both in subject material and in the kind of new reflection they make on the writing of cultural history. Many of the essays concern material objects and physical gestures, following the fact that quarrels over religious practice often concerned ritual and the body. Above all, the essays reflect a change in approach from tracing a linear narrative of events towards seeing how history is formed through the ways that people remember and forget the past, and indeed commemorate and reinvent it in later generations.

In that sense, the Reformation is all around us, especially in an old city like York, with nineteen surviving medieval churches. Yet rather than static objects, these buildings contain layers of practice and remembering. The stained glass shown on the front cover of this book forms part of a monumental window nearly 25 metres high, one of the largest extant pictorial life cycles of a saint, with ninety-five panels of the life and posthumous miracles of local hero William Fitzherbert, and five donor panels in the base, dedicated to the family of Beatrice, the Dowager Lady Ros of Helmsley. Elected archbishop in 1141, but denied the pallium after a political dispute, William travelled to Rome to reclaim his office personally with Pope Eugenius III, and then re-entered the city of York in triumph in 1154. It was not an altogether saintly life, but William’s canonization in 1226 has all the hallmarks of a local cult, so that hundreds of years later, the windows proudly depict sights of the city still to be admired today. Indeed, they provide some of the best visual memories of medieval York.

The windows were constructed in 1414/5 under the artistic supervision of John Thornton of Coventry. Our window features prominently the deep red colour typical of John’s work, as well as his masterful narrative design. Here, he renders beautifully in foreshortened space the architecture of the shrine itself. Yet the glass also shows something more eerie. On a rail alongside the tomb are displayed wax effigies of body parts: a woman’s face, the calf of a person’s leg, a hand, and a heart. Below, a monk sorts through some other leg fragments.

In 2020, maybe, we readily empathize with the image’s purpose: it is a site of healing, where prayers are said to cure the infected organs of the human body. What bit of my body should I lay there? My lungs, I suppose, although there are not many places in the human body immune to Covid. This shows how William’s window changes in meaning all the time. It is, indeed, an uncanny image in its own right, with its luminous beauty, and opaque reference to the body’s fragility and mortality. We are all feeling co-morbidity at the moment.

However, when we chose the image for our Cambridge University Press volume, we had not even heard of the demon corona. What it signified to us at that moment was a sense of the fractured time which separates us from the glass, rather than links us to it. That fracture is the Reformation, which brought the destruction of the shrine of William, as of so many other English saints. In this violent process, cults of healing or of bodily rites were especially vulnerable, as also was devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose Lady Chapel forms the backdrop to the north transept. The Reformation also separates the window from its own making, since the Minster is now part of the Church of England, which wrought the end of the very medievalism for which the building is widely prized. And yet local memory also saved this window: for when the Parliamentary army planned to smash the glass in July 1644 during the siege of York, its general, Sir Thomas Fairfax, a local citizen, intervened to save it.  

Memory and the English Reformation is dedicated to the exploration of these temporal anomalies, and also to the complex cultures of memory invested in a religious past. The Reformation involved remembering and forgetting, memorialising and denying, all at the same time. It is these memories, as much as doctrines or beliefs, that are embodied in the conflicts and processes we ascribe to it. So, whenever we enter into an English medieval church, before and after the Age of Covid, we encounter inevitably mixed emotions. For me, the hour in July I spent in York with my brother and St William was oddly restorative.

Memory and the English Reformation edited by Brian Cummings, Ceri Law, Bronwyn Wallace and Alexandra Walsham
Memory and the English Reformation edited by Brian Cummings, Ceri Law, Bronwyn Wallace and Alexandra Walsham

About The Authors

Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings is an Anniversary Professor in the Department of English and Related Literature, University of York. A Fellow of the British Academy, he is editor of The Book of Com...

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Alexandra Walsham

Alexandra Walsham is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of books including The Reformation of the Landscape (2011), which won the Wolfson...

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Bronwyn Wallace

Bronwyn Wallace was a Research Associate on the AHRC project, 'Remembering the Reformation', at the Department of English and Related Literature, University of York. She is the aut...

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Ceri Law

Ceri Law has worked at Queen Mary University of London, the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex. She is the author of Contested Reformations in the University of Ca...

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