Richard Taylor tries to understand the intense medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary and how this fuelled the anger of the Reformation that followed.
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On 15th of September 1538, in this church in Suffolk,
the priest, John Adryan, was performing a mass
to celebrate the feast of the birth of the Virgin Mary.
A member of his congregation, Robert Ward, sat down next to him
and began to heckle, saying, "That is nonsense".
Adryan responded by emphasising
various parts of the service that he thought that Ward
would find the most offensive, saying, "Is that nonsense too?
"And is that nonsense?"
The two men, priest and parishioner,
ended up wrestling with each other for possession of the service book.
This argument took place in a country that only a few years before had been
not just Catholic, but famously, sincerely Catholic.
Foreign visitors remarked on the religious devotion of the English,
with their brightly painted churches packed with images
of Jesus, Mary and the saints.
This was the one beautiful place in the village.
Make your church as beautiful as you can.
The 16th and 17th Centuries were an age of great destruction.
Someone has come along and poked through the face of God himself.
But it was also an age of great innovation,
that still shapes our churches today.
The altar was swept down into the congregation. It was a dining table.
I'm Richard Taylor.
I write books about the messages hidden in Britain's churches.
I believe that even these damaged and defaced medieval buildings can
connect us with our ancestors' deepest beliefs.
They reveal the startling new ideas about sin and salvation that would
turn the old world upside-down.
I've come to a church that was brand new when Robert Ward and
John Adryan came to blows.
I'm looking for signs of the practice that so outraged Ward -
the adoration of the Virgin Mary.
This is the Lady Chapel, actually the size of a small church,
and its sole purpose was the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
I wonder if anything's survived from those days.
Look at this. Here, there's a symbol of Jesus, I-H, and there
would have been a C here, which are the first letters of Jesus in Greek.
And then, even above it, there's letters for the name of Mary.
It's an M and an R joined together for Maria
Regina, Mary, Queen of Heaven.
And you are swept through the door into the court
of the Queen of Heaven.
These niches are empty but, once there would have been saints standing
in every one of them, looking down on the priests who are saying mass after
mass in praise and glory to Mary.
Everywhere is one of the most common symbols of Mary,
Often, it is shown as having a smooth stem.
Mary is called the 'rose without thorns' because she is thought
to be without sin.
And alongside is another flower that represents Mary.
The lily came to be Mary's symbol from the date of her major feast,
the Annunciation, when the birth of Jesus was announced to her.
Because people calculated the date as being nine months before Jesus
was born, 25th of December, back to the 25th of March, the springtime.
And so the scenes were always portrayed
surrounded with spring flowers, which over time became the lily.
And down below it is its heraldic version,
the fleur de lis, the flower of lily, a symbol taken up by royalty.
The coat of arms of the British Royal Family
is covered with symbols of the Virgin Mary.
Medieval images of Mary herself
are now hard to find, but those that survive were made
with care and devotion.
For a remarkable insight into the way that medieval craftsmen
depicted Mary, I'm with a lady doubly qualified for that task -
art historian, Sister Wendy Beckett.
East Harling has a magnificent window that shows scenes from Mary's life.
Many like it were destroyed.
This one only survived because it was hidden in a house nearby.
Still full of colour, it tells a powerful story.
This is Jesus the young man, just before he sets out on his mission
to teach. He and his mother have gone to a
wedding party, and the wine runs out and she notices and she tells him.
And he said, well it wasn't his business,
and she takes no notice of him.
She's saying to the stewards, whatever he tells you, do.
And he has that look of resignation on his face, but he's going to do it
and turn the water into the most wonderful red wine.
And it's a gesture of, oh, mother!
A mother being thoughtful about other
people, about another young couple.
It's this kind of event that made
people feel at home with Mary, you see.
And then you have the great central image
of the death, the Crucifixion.
And she's overcome with sorrow, with St John comforting her.
Often John's shown on the other side but here,
I like it that he's on her side with her.
And then you have what I think's the loveliest
of all these little vignettes,
Jesus taken down from the cross.
The image of holding the body of her dead son, that reflection with images
of Mary holding her baby, it's a powerful pairing.
And also because she's upright,
and he's horizontal.
In a way they're making a cross, the cross of humanity.
Everybody knew theologically that Jesus
was fully man as well as fully God.
But somehow they found it difficult to imagine this emotionally.
Whereas Mary was only human, the ordinary woman.
And does she feel flesh and blood, to you?
Oh, yes, very much so.
What else could she be?
She blessed this window, she does bless it.
From the middle of the 16th Century, images of Mary
began to disappear from our churches.
New ideas were sweeping Europe.
The catalyst was a German monk named Martin Luther, who argued that
the Bible showed that we didn't have to earn entry into heaven.
Jesus had already paid for our sins by his death, and the sacrifice
meant that Christians were justified before God by their faith alone.
Established church teaching on matters such as praying for the
dead, praying to saints and the role of a priest, were all challenged.
This reformation of the church meant
that the glorious chantry chapels, wall paintings, and venerated statues
of Mary and the saints, were all under threat.
In England, these radical ideas first came to the fore under Henry VIII.
Although he ordered some images to be taken down, very little changed
in his reign.
It is sometimes said that the destruction of the English
churches began under Henry VIII, but that's not really true.
Monasteries, yes, churches, no.
Henry unlatched the door to change, but the forces of destruction were
really unleashed under his son, Edward VI.
Edward came to the throne aged only nine.
But he soon outdid his father and his own advisors when it
came to Protestant fervour.
He wanted to create a new English church, free of the influence of the
Pope, who he called, "The true son of the devil".
The tools Edward used were two revolutionary books:
The Bible in English and the Book
of Common Prayer are now part of the furniture in every Anglican Church.
But during Edward's reign in the middle of the 16th Century,
they transformed the interiors of English churches.
I've come to Ranworth in search of old copies of these books.
Tudor Bibles and Prayer Books are now mostly
found in museums and libraries.
But many churches have some hidden
away that may not be as old, but are just as evocative.
-There we are, Richard.
-There they are.
What a pile!
Are these books all original to the church?
Yes, they are original. They were bought for the church.
I see. Oh!
The Book of Common Prayer. It's the parish book, isn't it?
Now what else? It's an old...it's a Bible, the Gospel of St Matthew.
You've had a bit of woodworm getting at these.
Well, bookworms, yes.
By Edward's reign, almost every church had a Bible in English.
Today, it's hard to grasp the thrill for people to be able to read the
prophets, the psalms and the gospels, all in their own language.
Just as striking, though, might have been what they didn't find here.
There was less than they might have expected for example, about Mary.
She appears in the early life of Jesus,
and she appears at the Crucifixion as a witness, but there were none of
the exciting stories about her life and about her role in the afterlife
that they might have expected. Which might lead them to conclude
that Mary didn't deserve quite the position
that she'd occupied in the church and in their affections to date.
From then on, scripture came
to occupy a place in the decoration of churches which it hadn't before.
Images were becoming a thing of the past.
The Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1549.
Its words, so familiar now, were revolutionary,
as they invited the congregation to take part for the first time in the
full drama of the church service.
Here you start the book,
with morning prayer.
And it starts with these words, "Dearly beloved brethren",
this drawing in of all of the people to pray together with the minister,
not separate from the minister.
There are so many words and phrases
in here that came to enter the English language permanently.
Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?
To live together after God's ordinance...
..earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
So how can you 'read' a church that was affected by Edward's reforms?
The Prayer Book's emphasis on involving the congregation
in the service brought about a fundamental change in the most sacred
Christian rite, the Eucharist, which became known as Holy Communion.
Gone was the belief
that the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ.
Now, the Prayer Book invited the
people to eat together with the priest, in remembrance.
Before, you had an altar made of stone at the far end of the sanctuary
behind a screen, and with the priest having his back to the congregation.
Now, the altar was swept down into the congregation itself.
No longer an altar, this was a communion table.
It was made of wood, it was a dining table.
It was the Prayer Book that brought about this change.
The 'Dearly beloved brethren,' gathering around the table to
share in this meal.
It's always worth keeping an eye out in churches for tables like this one,
often at the back, forgotten, covered in pamphlets and leaflets.
Because once, these were the most important ceremonial
site in the church, at the heart of the congregation.
The priest, now know as a minister, from the Latin for servant,
moved from his position by the altar, to be closer to the people.
This desk and seat are modern, but they show how things would have been,
even with the service book here and a copy of the Bible,
as the minister stood or sat and led the congregation in prayer.
As well as being a time of innovation, young Edward's reign
was a time of great destruction.
Stained glass windows were attacked, which had never happened before.
These images in glass were of great beauty,
but no-one actually venerated them.
The windows were smashed simply because of what they depicted.
Here there's an image of Jesus crucified and above him,
God the Father.
But someone has come along and poked through the face of God himself.
For centuries, rood screens had divided the sacred
space of the sanctuary from the nave.
In Edward's reign, many screens were cut down or disfigured.
This one is covered with saints.
In every case, someone has come along with a chisel
and they have hacked out the faces of each saint.
You can still recognise who some of them are, from what they're carrying.
This is St Jude with his boat.
And this is St Peter carrying the keys of Heaven.
It's like leaving the headless bodies on a battlefield, a symbol of
the victory of this new faith.
Not all rood screens were defaced, some were broken up.
In Needham Market, a minister's chair has been made out of the old screen.
It sends out a clear message of the triumph of new over old.
I think you've got a tremendous sense of loss when you look at this.
The loss of so much art and so much beauty.
That violence is still telling.
Hundreds of years later, it's some powerful propaganda that's going on.
But you also
get what they were getting at, the Bible is quite clear.
The second commandment: You shall not make a graven image.
The upheaval and confusion that faced the 16th Century
churchgoer wasn't over.
The Tudor rollercoaster showed no sign of stopping.
After a reign of just six years, Edward died and was succeeded
by his half-sister, Mary.
An ardent Catholic replaced that ardent Protestant.
Mary briefly reinstated the mass, processions
and veneration of the saints.
Here at Ludham is one of the few surviving
examples of Mary's vain attempt at a mini counter-reformation,
this crucifixion scene.
It's a pale imitation of past triumphs.
What this shows,
is that in many ways you couldn't turn the clock back.
What you've got here is something crude, something half-finished.
The figures blotted out, legs badly drawn.
The people of Ludham were doing their best, but it was going to
be very hard to recapture the glories of the Catholic past.
When Mary died and Protestant Elizabeth took the throne,
Catholics were finally outlawed.
Driven out of the church, their time-honoured images and
rituals gone, some families headed into the open fields.
Traditionally on All Saints Night, a mass had been said with bells
solemnly rung and prayers for the departed souls in purgatory.
Now, Catholics were reduced to marking their old belief
with what little came to hand.
One member of the group would take a pitch fork full of hay and light it,
and the others would kneel and pray for their
departed friends and relatives, for as long as the straw burned.
Nothing was going to tell the living not to pray for their dead.
While Protestant ideas were transforming the interiors
of English churches, in Scotland they were transforming
the shape of the building itself.
But with mixed results.
John Knox, a former Catholic priest, was a fiery preacher.
He and his fellow Protestants persuaded almost an entire nation
to make a clean break with its Papist past.
What this remarkable national experiment in faith needed
was a remarkable new kind of church.
Well, it looks like a square,
with a heavy, stubbed tower in the middle of it.
It's so solid, this was built to last.
And if it looks this different on the outside, I wonder what it
looks like on the inside.
That square shape just continues.
It's expressing physically what was so crucial about Knox's new church,
an organisation from the bottom up.
The congregation saying how they would be organised, not imposed from
the top down by bishops and kings.
Also, in the centre of all the people,
is the Lord's Table, from where the Lord's Supper would be celebrated.
But the Scots went that much further than the English.
You have to imagine this space as it was then, without these pews here.
And on Communion Sunday, they would bring in trestle tables, lay them up
with stools, and when the Lord's Supper was celebrated, it would be
celebrated as a communal meal.
They weren't going to kneel before some priest, they were going to sit
For 500 years, the pulpit here at Burntisland
has symbolised the centrality of the Word of God for Knox's church.
But what's it like to preach here?
It's actually a bit of a nightmare. The pulpit's too high for the size
of the building, so you're looking down at people
the whole time, and I don't think people will wear that any more.
They don't want to be preached at, they want to be spoken to.
And people will sit on all four sides, so on a Sunday morning you're
constantly sort of looking round to make sure everyone's still awake.
It must feel awfully grand being up there, though?
I suppose some people would find it reinforces the ego in you.
You're seven foot above contradiction but,
it doesn't work for me.
Burntisland is an example of theology dictating design, when really
if they had just spoken to Alan's 16th Century predecessor, they would
have found out that a square shaped church can blunt God's message.
By the 17th Century, England's Puritans matched their Scottish
neighbours in reformist fervour.
They were in a hurry.
They believed that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent,
and that they had to build a Godly society to receive Him.
This meant ridding every last church of any remaining Papist trappings.
In August 1644, at the height of the Civil War,
a Puritan by the name of William Dowsing arrived in Suffolk, with
orders from Parliament to destroy any Catholic imagery that he found.
He was very thorough, and kept a journal of his efforts.
In the chancel
up there, we break down an angel.
Three orate pro anima, pray for my soul, in the glass.
And above twenty stars on the roof.
Why would you break down stars?
Why would that happen?
And we break down the organ cases,
and we gave the wood to the poor to be burnt.
And then he says this.
There is a vainglorious cover over the font,
like a Pope's triple crown.
This 15th Century masterpiece is six metres high.
Each of these empty niches had its own carved saint.
Dowsing destroyed every one.
Once you'd cleared them out,
then it was just a bit of wood and,
here's a proposition, he demolished the organ
case rather than demolished this, which they were rather fond of,
and gave the wood to the poor, which was a good Puritan gesture.
Breaking up wood to give it to the poor,
preserving the font cover once he'd
done what he felt he needed to do, makes you almost begin to like him.
Well, at least you don't have
to say he was a vandal and ruthless, and had no purpose.
He really believed that doing
God's Will and Parliament's will would bring all sorts of benefits.
He would be completing the Reformation, he would be
producing churches in which it was fit for Puritans to worship.
In the heart of England, one man, an Anglican Royalist, was about to
build a church that defied William Dowsing and his fellow Puritans.
In its style and ornamentation,
it looks like a retreat to a Catholic past.
In fact, it was a pointer to an Anglican future.
This tablet takes up the story.
In the year 1653, when all things sacred were throughout the nation
either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded
this church whose singular praise it is to have done the best things
in the worst times.
He was flinging this church in the face of the Government.
What would have infuriated the Puritans is here in the chancel,
the holy end of the church.
This is no longer an ordinary space, it's screened off.
The altar has moved back to the far end of the church, raised on steps.
This is not a return to England's Catholic past.
The walls are whitewashed, the glass is clear,
there are no images of the saints.
In some respects, it's taking the best
of what the Reformation had achieved.
The ceiling is full of monsters and threatening clouds.
But as you walk towards the altar, light overcomes the darkness.
This is an attempt,
by Robert Shirley at least, to bring God's order to a world in chaos.
Shirley soon found that he couldn't withstand that chaos.
Oliver Cromwell said that if he could afford to build a church,
then he could provide him with a regiment of soldiers.
Shirley refused, and died in the Tower of London.
He never saw his church completed.
A tragic end, but Shirley's design pointed the way forward,
with its attempt to reconcile the old expressions of faith with the new.
A good place to reflect on my Reformation journey.
When I was looking at our medieval churches, I was finding myself
falling in love with the drama and the spectacle, and the sheer
rush of life that fills them.
And outraged that anyone could want to destroy that and all of those
images of faith and art.
But the truth is, that having seen now what it meant to
pull down those screens, to sweep the clergy into the heart of the
congregation at a level with them, all of this fuelled by the words of a
prayer book and the Bible in English, now so embedded in our language,
you realise that behind all of that
lies some beauty of thought and ideal.
In the next episode I'll be looking at what followed -
an extravagant blossoming of
church styles as people became free to worship as they wished.
Sometimes with touching simplicity,
sometimes with elegant sophistication.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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The late middle ages was a time of destruction that still leaves its mark on our churches today. With the help of art historian Sister Wendy Beckett and a spectacular stained glass window, Richard Taylor tries to understand the intense medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary and how this fuelled the anger of the Reformation that followed.
Richard 'reads' a ruined church and explains how it was not Henry VIII but his boy-king successor, Edward VI, who was responsible for the greatest changes in the Reformation. He also traces how the Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible into English transformed the way that the English worshipped and the appearance of their churches.
Richard travels to Burntisland in Fife, whose square-built church was a radical attempt by the Scots to break with their Catholic past.