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The Stripping of the Altars:
Traditional Religion in England, C. 1400 - C. 1580

By Eamon Duffy
December 1994
Yale University Press
ISBN 0-300060-76-9, paperback

Reviewed By Patricius

Duffy's 'Stripping of the Altars'

The Destruction of Catholicism in England

On a number of occasions the great historian, Hillaire Belloc, contended that the initial English break from Roman Catholicism could, in some ways, be interpreted as more of an "accident" than the result of any preconceived plan. While such an interpretation is certainly plausible, there can be little disagreement with Belloc and others' assertion that the schism was not a reaction generated from a groundswell of popular discontent with the ancient Faith. And, while the initial split may have been a spontaneous event, the ensuing years and the creation of "Anglicanism" was not an unintended consequence of mere chance, but a deliberate, and in many instances, a ruthless campaign to eradicate Roman Catholicism especially references, signs, and acknowledgments of the Church's hierarchy from the minds and memories of the English masses.

Written nearly a half century after Belloc's death, Eamon Duffy's masterful, The Stripping of the Altars, thoroughly bolsters Belloc's interpretation about English religious life prior to King Henry VIII's tragic rupture with Rome and the wanton destruction that later ensued of Church buildings, artwork, and most importantly, its sacred liturgy which had nurtured the Faith on the island for some thousand years. Working with a variety of primary sources, Duffy writes of the great health and vitality of the Faith throughout pre-"reformed" England:

[L]ate medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation. Traditional religion had about it no particular marks of exhaustion or decay, and indeed in a whole host of ways, from the multiplication of vernacular religious books to adaptations within the national and regional cult of the saints, was showing itself well able to meet needs and new conditions. [p.4]

Duffy fully supports his preceding assertion and vividly describes how English life from the remotest village to the royal household revolved around the Faith. The book reinforces the pre-Modernist/liberal interpretation of the purpose which led to the creation of the medieval world: to establish an environment which was to be as conducive as possible for the attainment of the beatific vision for as many souls as possible where the arts, literature, music, wealth creation, and even politics were not solely ends in themselves, but means to facilitate a heavenly end. While the ideal was never fully realized, it was, nevertheless, the prevailing ethos of the time and the standard which other Christian epochs have as yet to equal.

It was not long after Protestant revolutionaries had sown their divisive and erroneous doctrinal seeds that the focus of English society began to shift. The pursuit of national greatness in the form of exploration, the establishment of colonies, and eventually the creation of a mighty empire became some of society's "reformed" goals with the honoring of Almighty God pushed increasingly to the background. While Absolutism was on the rise prior to the splintering of Christendom, the rupture accelerated the centralizing trend in state power for lands that broke away and even in those that remained loyal although to a lesser extent.

While not a focus of the book, the evidence amassed does disprove the modern notion that a God-centered world is incompatible with material progress. The richly decorated interior structures of most churches and their well-supported services are just some of the signs that demonstrate that England, as with much of the rest of Western Europe, was well on the way to widespread prosperity prior to the Industrial Revolution. The work is but another case which undermines the contention of those, such as early 20th century German sociologist, Max Weber and his influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, who contended that the "Reformation" was the catalyst that unleashed the productive forces of modern capitalism and the resultant rise in living standards.

The last third of Duffy's weighty tome describes in words and with a welcome dose of photos the physical destruction maliciously carried out by Protestant "reformers" which even after 500 years raises the ire of the reader especially if one contemplates how much of the Faith was ruthlessly taken away from Englanders. Yet, the destruction did have a purpose and was largely aimed at the images that posed a challenge to the new Anglican order: the Catholic hierarchy, most importantly, the Holy See. Paintings and symbols of the popes, such as St. Gregory the Great, were often completely destroyed, replaced, or those that remained, defaced.

Ultimately, however, the destruction that did occur can be traced to King Henry VIII's own rejection of Papal Supremacy. The inability of the King to negate the more radical Protestant iconoclasts as he had done so effectively earlier in his reign which, in part, had earned him the august title of "Defender of the Faith," could no longer be invoked after the schism. While he had wanted to retain the Sacraments and the many venerable Catholic devotional practices, without full communion with Rome and thus to Apostolic Succession, the king no longer had the moral grounds to suppress heresy. The result, as Duffy so ably explains, was tremendous confusion among the laity and clergy which, in the end, worked to the advantage of the more radical elements.

While initially the English version of Throne and Altar profited tremendously from the break with Rome (in large measure due to the confiscation of Church property), it was really the beginning of a long decline for both institutions. Despite the eradication of "superstitious" practices of the Old Faith and defiantly declaring their "independence" from Papal authority, the Anglican church would eventually be swallowed up by the Crown. While the new religion became a mere appendage of the state, the monarchy, too, would eventually devolve into a powerless figurehead. The comeuppance for the Crown and its Church, however, was in a distant and unimaginable future, in the meantime, the king's action assured that Europe would remain divided and for his own realm the extinction of a once Catholic culture.

For those who seek to understand or imagine how a Catholic society existed in the past, there is no better place to start than The Stripping of the Altars. The immense scholarship contained within the pages explodes a number of fallacies held about the Faith prior to the "Reformation." It is also relevant for modern times as many of the same tactics that Cranmer and his cohorts used to overturn Catholicism 500 years ago in England have been largely employed by Novus Ordo revolutionaries today. Unfortunately, the present situation is worse because the destruction of the Faith is taking place from within while the enemies of the Church in the 16th century could be more easily seen.