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A sad reminder of the art lost in the years after the Reformation

A new exhibition at Tate Britain highlights the scale of destruction to artworks in the Tudor period – a staggering amount of books and music were also destroyed

By on Tuesday, 8 October 2013

'We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning'

'We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning'

The slashed and broken medieval images displayed in the new Art Under Attack exhibition at the Tate are a reminder of what we lost in the hundred and fifty years after the Reformation. Even now there is denial about the scale of the erasing of our medieval past. The Tate estimates we lost 90% of our religious art. It was probably even more than that. The destruction was on a scale that far outstrips the modern efforts of Islamist extremists. And it was not only art we lost, but also books and music.

We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, hailed the reign of his son, the boy king Edward VI, as that of a new Josiah, destroyer of idols. After his coronation an orgy of iconoclasm was launched. In churches rood screens, tombs with their prayers for the dead, and stain glass windows, were smashed. The Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow complained, some of this Christian Taliban “judged every image to be an idol”, so that not only religious art, but even the secular thirteenth century carvings of kings in Ludgate were broken.

Books too were burned on a vast scale. Earlier this year Melvyn Bragg was on TV telling us about William Tyndale during the reign of Henry VIII, and the forces of Catholic conservatism blocking publication of his English bible with its attached Lutheran commentaries. But conservatives were not alone in wishing to suppress books that contained ideas they did not agree with. When the monasteries were suppressed, their libraries were either pillaged or destroyed. How many works as great as the Lindisfarne gospels must have been lost? Out of six hundred books in the library of Worcester Priory only six remain. Three survived the destruction of the Augustinian Friars of York out of a total of six hundred and forty six volumes. And during the reign of Edward VI it was Tyndale’s ideological heirs and supporters who reduced almost every book in the Oxford university library to ashes.

Music in church was also disapproved of. Since it was largely then recorded in manuscripts, much of our early music vanished when libraries were burned. Organs were torn out of churches, and while in Elizabeth’s royal chapel you had the wonderful music of crypto Catholics like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, there were few opportunities for other such composers to find employment or be heard.

The civil war, and the further destruction it brought, took place two generations after England had gone through what has been described as a “cultural revolution designed to obliterate England’s memory of who and what she had been”. There was not much of that past left. In our cultural history the Reformation is nearly always depicted as a force that opened up England from a closed minded past. But it was our knowledge of that past that was closed and if one future opened to us, we will never know what might have been, not least in art.

  • NatOns

    The Catholic Church, alas, does not have the mayhem of protest against Romishness to cover up the last sixty years of brutal destruction .. which it launched against itself. So, that a Puritan desires the beauty of a Cistercian purity in his worship and life is, in a way, quite admirable; even if his iconoclasm is heresy. Or that a greedy tyrant seizes all that he can steal to advance his desire to be boss is hardly surprising, although it is sinful to the core; yet what the modernist ideologue – and the hierarchy held in his sway – has been allowed (and encouraged) to work upon the Catholic Church was (and must still be seen as) a complete shock; a blitzkreig assault not a window-opening reform.

    ‘The entertainment on today’s flight to Mars will include a free buffet of wine and crackers, a karaoke sing-a-long, and another chance to do the hokey-cokey to the strains of that olde tyme fav-rave cover version hit: I Am The Lord Of The Dance.’

  • Dave

    And it was not only art we lost, but also books and music“… and souls.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    What happened in England is peanuts compared with what happened in Scotland.

  • Apostolic

    “What happened in England is peanuts compared with what happened in Scotland.” Very true. But let’s not forget that what happened in both countries was equalled by the destruction in the name of Vatican II and at the hands – not of reformers but of Catholic prelates – of sanctuaries across these islands and beyond. In the last decade, fortunately, the laity of Cloyne Diocese in Co Cork fought Bishop Magee all the way to the secular planning board to prevent him wrecking the sanctuary of Cobh Cathedral, the last intact Catholic cathedral in Ireland. +Magee spend endless hours and litigation fees in an attempt to force the destruction on an unwilling laity, even after Rome had ruled that it was not mandated by Vatican II. Shortly afterwards, +Magee resigned amid a crisis in his diocese and manifest failures over the issue of child abuse cases. Had he spent a fraction of time spent on sanctuary destruction on this vital issue, Ireland would doubtless be a better place. As it stands, Cobh Cathedral was saved providentially by the secular power. Ironically, Cobh apart, those medieval Catholic churches ceded to the once-established (Anglican) Church of Ireland are more intact than Catholic churches and cathedrals built since penal legislation was relaxed. Not even Cromwell (both of them, come to think of it) could have gone about architectural destruction quite so systematically, with altars smashed and pews, often donated by poor people in harsh times, ending up in themed pubs. Meanwhile, in Killarney, Bishop Casey (who would later resign in no less publicised circumstances), authorised the chipping away of mosaics and destruction of altars in Pugin’s masterpiece. +Casey thought that by chipping away at the “fancy” mosaics the Cathedral would look more like the “simple” early Church! What a pity he too did not pay attention to more important elements of his priestly and episcopal ministry. I’m afraid that the 1960s and after largely lost us the moral high ground on Church destruction. Bad as the Protestant Reformation was, can you imagine how bad it would have been had these been in Catholic hands in the 1960s. We only have to look at France’s ancient churches to see what the result would have been.

  • Charles

    The great Cathedrals and works of art within were inspired by beauty which comes directly from God. The madmen that have been tearing those works down are influenced by ugliness which is the opposite of God. We must resist this evil in every diocese.

  • John R Schuh

    The Protestant Reformation was, of course, a revolution more violent than either the French or the Russian or the Chinese Revolutions. It shattered Christendom into two parts as different as East and West Europe were after World War II. Its iconoclasm was, of course, fundamentally doctrinal. It asserted that development was the same as corruption, and was driven by the same nostalgia or dispair that makes us wish we could turn back the clocks of our own lives and start over.

  • frjim.stmj

    can’t’ wait for Notre Dame prof moss to debunk the myth that books, manuscripts and music weren’t actually lost after the reformation. A good ‘historian’ will tell you they are in the secret chamber of dan brown & harry potter hidden in the Galapagos’s.

  • BXVI

    Anglicanism is the most bankrupt form of Protestantism. This is because it’s origins lay not in theological or doctrinal dispute but in the personal desires and ambition of a moral monster – King Henry VIII. The dissolution of the monasteries and doling out the properties to his loyal lords was only the beginning. What a tragedy for England this was – the almost complete erasure of its past in homage to Kings and Queens. The King as head of the Church? Really? This is why Anglicanism has played itself out. People realized it has no legitimate basis.

  • kentgeordie

    Henry VIII ruined England. We suffer every day from the consequences of his wickedness.

  • anarchicprune

    No wonder the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has gone to pot.

  • Atilla The Possum

    Those Tudor usurpers have a lot to answer for in their wanton destruction of Mary’s Dowry and her beautiful Christian gems which are lost forever.
    There is a book you can buy from Amazon (and from an online Catholic shop called Aquinas and More) called ‘Ugly As Sin’ – it details church architecture post-Vatican II in all its depressing, concrete-obsessed, teeth-gnashing ‘glory’.
    It is the RC church architectural equivalent of the ‘Crap Towns’ series.

  • chiaramonti

    William Byrd was hardly a “crypto catholic”. His faith was well known- not hidden – and demonstrated in his music. Elizabeth tolerated him because she rightly regarded him as a genius and he wrote music (with lyrics in English) for her chapel Royal. He
    was nevertheless frequently fined very large sums for refusing to attend services at his parish church. Some of his music was very explicitly pro catholic and regarded by at least one of Elizabeth’s ministers as “sedition set to music”.Note also how he often repeated the word ‘Catholicam’ in the creed when composing his masses – having a dig at the C of E!

  • kentgeordie

    Interesting comment. Can you point us to further reading?

  • Mr Grumpy

    I’ll pass on the book, thanks, I’ve seen more than enough of the real thing!

  • Atilla The Possum

    Me, too, Mr Grumpy. They are eyesores. Done on the cheap.
    At least the Gilbert-Scotts knew how to design decent churches!
    I’ll never forget sitting in a café with an old friend (who wasn’t a Catholic) one afternoon. I showed her an illustrated book about Lourdes because she was interested in a pilgrimage I made there with a friend.. She loved looking at the photos of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Lourdes … then, turning the page of the book to see the Basilica of Saint Pius X and other side chapels, her face dropped. Her reaction went from delight to ‘Ugh! They look like 1970′s car parks! Aircraft hangars! The Arndale Centre! WHY?!’
    The very question.
    Perhaps the book should be entitled ‘How NOT to Design a Catholic Church’ as essential reading to ecclesiastical architects.

  • chiaramonti

    I suggest you listen to his music. There is quite a lot on You Tube. The most “treasonous” piece is “Vide Domine afflictionem nostram” written in 1589 which undoubtedly compares the state of England at the time to the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a plea to God ‘not to forsake us in our time of adversity’. You can also obtain many CDs by Andrew Carwood and the ‘Cardinall’s Musick’.Well worth the effort.

  • 676aldhelmstown710

    The Tudor historian, John Leland records that such was the size of Malmesbury Abbey’s library that the town’s bakers had enough paper to feed their bread ovens for well over a year.
    English Acts of Parliament may be of limited duration or cease to have effect when an over riding situation has changed such War Time Acts that ceased to have effect when the War ended: the other type of Act is an open one that will remain in force until amended or repealed by later legislation. Henry V111 legitimised the Dissolution of the Monasteries by leaning on his compliant spineless parliament in obtaining The Suppression of Religious Houses Act 27 Hen. C.28 for smaller houses and for all the remaining houses by 31 Hen. 8 C.13. These two acts would remain as the law of the land for all time but for the fact that all sections of both acts have been repealed by a combination of the Statute Law Revision Acts 1948, 1969 and 1989. In effect with both acts of HenryV111 now being repealed there would appear to be no legal basis for the said Dissolution of England & Welsh Monasteries. Where next?

  • Guest


  • jking

    The reformation was no overnight event, it could be argued that it started when Henry VIII got heavily into debt in the 1520s and had to start thinking about money in the the church and religious houses. However, the process was a slow one, much going forwards and backwards, as late as the 1630s Archbishop Laud was attempting to rebuild some of the desecrated monesteries.

    And plenty of evidence proves that the Puritians did more damage in the 1640s, almost one hundred years later. There are reports of vestments being burnt, stained glass smashed, and old stone altars smashed. Many Anglicans anticipated what was about to happen. In some Cornish churches, medieval rood panels and carvings of saints where buried or hidden and have recently been found.

    I think that some of these Anglicans living on the fringes of England where ever hopeful for a reunion with Rome, and/or could never physically seperate themselves from the pulpit carving that great-grandad paid for.

    Anyhow its nice to read an article that does acknowledge this, even a cross, the sign of our salvation, and surely a fundamental symbol of Christianity, was illegal in an Anglican Church until about 1870.