Monday, May 18, 2009

The Last Divine Office

Here is another guest post by author Stephanie Mann, who has written a review of The Last Divine Office by Geoffrey Moorhouse about the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
This book serves as a companion to Geoffrey Moorhouse's history of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern reaction to the Dissolution. There is much to admire in this narrative of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, told through the story of Durham Cathedral and its Benedictine Priory. At the very end of the book, however, Moorhouse adopts a strange attitude about the changes that took place at Durham Cathedral because of the English Reformation, as though they really don't matter. I still give the book four stars, because he provides such an excellent overview of the monastic life, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the Henrician reformation.

The first chapter is evocative, describing the Last Divine Office chanted by the monks of Durham before their way of life is drastically changed, their number reduced, and their monastery surrendered to Henry VIII.

Moorhouse continues, examining the importance of St. Cuthbert, the honor paid to the Venerable Bede, and the beauty and order of the Benedictine Rule. Moorhouse introduces the last Roman Catholic Prince Bishop of Durham, Cuthbert Tunstall, and the last Roman Catholic Lord Prior of the Monastery, Hugh Whitehead, and describes their respective roles.

Moorhouse also very effectively describes how Henry VIII became the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England, displacing the Pope from that role by bullying the Convocation of Bishops with fines and other punishments. He describes how Henry's conservative approach, maintaining Catholicism without the Pope, conflicted with Thomas Cromwell's and Thomas Cranmer's Lutheran reforming tendencies (guess who won?). He also demonstrates Henry's demand that his subjects obey him absolutely in the matters of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and his sovereignty over the Church, recounting the executions of the Holy Maid of Kent, the Observant Franciscans, the Carthusians of the Charterhouse in London, Richard Reynolds, and of course, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and Sir Thomas More.

When discussing the process of the Visitation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Moorhouse is certainly willing to point out the duplicity of Henry and Cromwell, and the self-serving efforts of the visitors, all of whom soon saw the financial benefits of closing down the monasteries, selling the land and keeping the riches, to themselves and the Crown.

He also explains why the government closed down the friaries of the mendicant Dominicans and Franciscans--there was no money there because the friars were indeed living in poverty according to their rules--since the friars were preachers and teachers, urging the people to devotion and tradition. They had to go, whether or not Henry made any money in the process.

Turning to how Visitation and plans for Dissolution affected Durham, Moorhouse notes that Tunstall and Whitehead did all they could to stay on the good side of Henry and Cromwell. The inevitable finally occurred, however, and the Benedictines at Durham surrendered their monastery to the Crown in 1540. The Lord Prior became Dean of the Cathedral, and several of the former monks took up new roles, but a tremendous cycle of change had only begun.

The shrines of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede were desecrated and further iconoclasm would take place during the reign of Edward VI. Mary I restored some aspects of the old order, but her short reign did not have time to address the restoration of the monasteries. With the accession of Elizabeth I, new changes in religious worship, practice, and doctrine were legislated in Parliament. During another Northern rebellion in 1569, however, Catholics briefly took over the Cathedral, destroyed the Lord's Table, erected a stone Altar, and the erstwhile priests of the Abbey celebrated Catholic High Mass, with Latin chant and traditional vestments.

Moorhouse commends Tunstall and Whitehead for their acquiescence to the Tudor demands for religious conformity and uniformity. Their flexibility saved their lives and the Cathedral. They still struggled with the cycle of changes; Tunstall died under house arrest by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Whitehead died facing charges of not conforming completely to government commands. As Thomas More noted to one who remonstrated with him for risking his life to obey his conscience, the other's death was just as certain as his--his was just coming sooner and would be on an official schedule!

At the end, Moorhouse is just happy that Durham Cathedral survived (and I am too!), but he almost seems just as happy with the grounds of the compromise that saved the Norman monument--that men were willing to change not just their allegiance to a church hierarchy, but their very way of worshiping God. They didn't just pray the Last Divine Office; they also offered the Last Catholic Mass. The peace and the majesty of Durham have been preserved, but at what cost?


Donna Farley said...

thanks for a fascinating post-- I came upon this via a Google alert for Saint Cuthbert.

elena maria vidal said...

You're quite welcome. I'm grateful to Stephanie.

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you, Elena, for posting the review!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks for your insights, Stephanie!