When England Was Catholic

In the years before the Protestant Reformation, huge sums of money were raised to rebuild, enlarge and beautify parish churches.  In England today, large medieval churches can be found even in some of the smallest villages or settlements.

By Patrick Martin

Five hundred years ago, a visitor to an English village would have stepped into a devout Catholic world.  This, of course, would have been before King Henry VIII broke with Rome and the subsequent Protestant Reformation abruptly cut Catholic England off from her thousand year old root. After that, a five century-long amnesia would settle over what was once ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’.

What was England like before the Reformation? Reformers have long claimed that the reformation arose from a discontented people kept deliberately ignorant of their faith. Recently, historians have begun to dismantle this myth so deeply ingrained in the English psyche, and a surprising picture of the Faith of ordinary English people is beginning to emerge.

Here, Patrick Martin, an historian who teaches at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England takes us on a visit to this distant time, when England was Catholic.

THE PARISH CHURCH WAS THE CENTRE OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY.  Many activities took place there, secular as well as religious.  The main focus was the sacred liturgy, but parish churches also served as meeting places for the local community and venues for business transactions, plays and even for “church ales” — popular feasts held to raise church funds.  (Photo of St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, courtesy of Wikipedia)

ENTRANCE TO THE CHURCH WAS VIA THE PORCH, through which parents would carry their newly-born infants to the font for baptism, marking their entry as new members of the Church.  Porches were often large structures, sometimes with upper rooms which might be used as schoolrooms or other purposes.  (Saint Botolph’s, Boston, UK)

INSIDE, THE CHURCH WOULD BE DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS.  At the east end would be the chancel, containing the choir and the high Altar. (Photo of the Norman (Romanesque) chancel at Berkswell, near Coventry at http://berkswellchurch.org.uk/)

DIVIDING THE CHANCEL FROM THE REST OF THE CHURCH WOULD BE A WOODEN OR STONE ROOD SCREEN with an opening enabling the priest and the sacred ministers to process up to the sanctuary.  The screen also had window-like openings providing a view of the high Altar and sanctuary.  At the centre of the Church, above the rood screen there was a group of images with Christ on the cross in the centre, flanked by Our Lady and St John.  Illuminated by many lamps or candles, this was the main focus for devotion.  (Mid-19th century rood screen, St Birinus, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Photo by Lawrence Lew, OP)

BEYOND THE ROOD IMAGES, THERE WOULD BE A REPRESENTATION OF THE “DOOM”, depicting Our Lord at the Last Judgement determining who was to go heaven and who to hell (St Matthew 25:31-46).

ALMOST ALL ENGLISH MEDIEVAL CHURCH SILVER WAS MELTED DOWN DURING THE DISSOLUTION OF THE MONASTERIES. This beautiful censer is a unique survival; its design is similar to that of a Gothic building. It was discovered in 1850 in Whittlesea Mere, Huntingdonshire, which was being drained for conversion to farmland. It is not known whether the censer had been deliberately hidden in the mere during the Dissolution, or whether it had been lost there at some earlier date in a boat accident. (Photo & description courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum.)




THE LARGER PART OF THE CHURCH WAS THE PEOPLE’S PART, THE NAVE, where the congregation would gather for Mass and other services.  Ablaze with candles before effigies of Saints, the nave belonged to the parishioners who took loving care of it.  (St Mary the Virgin, Adderbury, Oxfordshire). (Kind permission by Lionel Wall).

THE CLIMAX OF THE WEEK WAS THE CELEBRATION OF HIGH MASS ON SUNDAY.  This was celebrated in Latin, a language which educated people throughout Europe understood, and which many of whom spoke.  For those who could read, books, such as the Lay Folks’ Mass Book, provided an English commentary on the action of the Mass, with prayers enabling private devotions to be made.

BUT THE NEEDS OF THE MANY WHO COULD NOT READ OR WRITE WERE NOT OVERLOOKED. The walls of the church and wooden panels were covered in brightly coloured paintings with scenes from sacred scripture  (such as the beheading of St John the Baptist, shown above), images of the saints and illustrations demonstrating virtuous moral conduct.

HIGH MASS ON SUNDAY WAS AN OCCASION OF GREAT DRAMA, WITH PROCESSIONS AND BEAUTIFUL VESTMENTS AND ARTEFACTS, accompanied by the sweet fragrance of incense and the mellifluous singing of Gregorian chant or perhaps in some of the larger churches new polyphonic compositions.   In accordance with ancient tradition, the priest would celebrate facing east, the expected direction of the parousia, the Lord’s Second Coming.  The congregation would have been very familiar with the Mass, to which they added their private devotions.   The high point, of course, was the consecration with the elevation of the Host, which all would clamour to see and revere.  Squints, small openings in the wall, would enable even passers-by outside the Church, to witness this special moment.

There were other ways in which the congregation would be involved.  During a sermon, the priest might read the Gospel in English and explain it or teach important elements of the Faith or morality, often using simple stories.  Before the sermon, there would often be bidding prayers in English, where the priest would pray for the Pope and clergy, the King and people, those in special need and the dead.

Perhaps because of the sense of great reverence for the Sacrament or fears of hygiene when plague was prevalent, parishioners rarely received Communion.  However, they were required to do so at least once a year, at Easter.  But two customs, sacramentals, reminded them of the unity that the Sacrament confers.  After receiving the Precious Blood, the priest would kiss a tablet made usually of metal or wood, the pax brede, which would then be passed to the other sacred ministers, and then to members of the congregation who would kiss it in turn.  One of the parishioners would bring up a “holy loaf” to be blessed: non-Eucharistic bread which after Mass was shared among those present.

PRIESTS AND PEOPLE: Before the Reformation, there were no seminaries and only a minority of priests were university graduates.  The priest would often be born and brought up in the local community,  learning his priestly duties “on the job”, in a form of apprenticeship.   He would thus know the parishioners well. He would be assisted in his priestly duties by those in minor orders, such as deacons, sub-deacons and “holy water clerks”.  In rural areas, he would often farm the glebe, the land allocated to support the priest, or would employ someone to do so on his behalf. 

MEDIEVAL ARISTOCRACY AND GENTRY RECOGNISED THAT THEY HAD A SERIOUS RESPONSIBILITY TO HELP THE LESS FORTUNATE.  The monasteries would also help those in need: for example, when harvests were poor and food was scarce.  Every parish would have one or more guilds, religious fraternities: voluntary bodies that would take care of their members and support the parish church.  Among other things, the guilds would organise Masses for the dead, the funding of lights in the church, and annual feasts.


ONE SIGN OF KEEN DEVOTION IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES WAS THE POPULARITY OF PILGRIMAGES to the great English shrines such as Our Lady of Walsingham or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

ANOTHER SIGN WAS THE IMMENSE POPULARITY AMONG EDUCATED PEOPLE OF “BOOKS OF HOURS”, A SHORTENED VERSION OF THE MONASTIC OFFICE, SUCH AS THE LITTLE OFFICE OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY.  Beautifully illustrated and often lavishly decorated with jewels, ivory, gold and silver, these were used for private prayer at home.  Many people continued to use these books when Catholic public worship became illegal after the Protestant Reformation.  This image of ‘Adoration of the Magi’ from an early 15th century French Book of Hours (MS13, Society of Antiquaries of London). Bequeathed to the Society in 1769 by the Revd Charles Lyttleton, Bishop of Carlisle and President of the Society (176 5-8).

The reformers suggested that people in the late medieval period were ignorant about their faith.  Evidence now suggests the very opposite: they not only understood their faith, but absorbed it into everyday life, striving (albeit imperfectly) to perform their duties to God and neighbour devoutly and conscientiously. 

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