William Byrd, Elizabeth’s
Well into Elizabeth’s reign, let’s say as late as the Armada in 1588, the majority of her subjects remained discretely, if not secretly, Catholics. This was not true for the capital however—the mercantile cities and especially London, had been quick to embrace the Reformation and were strongly committed to Protestantism. Max Weber, the 20th century German sociologist, well noted the link between Protestant—and especially Reformed (or Calvinist)—thought and capitalism. The merchants wanted their money to invest in business, not to squander on supporting monasteries or purchasing vestments or commissioning religious art. This is not to say that the Protestant merchants were stingy when it comes to God. Far from it. But with God, as with business, they wanted to put their money where it would reap a reward. They endowed schools and scholarships to the universities. They opened schools for poor children and orphans. They built hospitals for the indigent sick. They provided dowries for respectable young ladies from families that had fallen on hard times. They just didn’t want to sink their money into buildings and the accessories of ritual.
This led to a significant cultural change. Art and architecture had, to this point, been primarily at the service of religion, but with the Protestant preference for the stark in matters religious, the arts shift to the secular. We get far more portraits of solid prosperous English men and women and much fewer saints. We get still-lifes and some landscapes. Secular building projects take off as well. No more abbeys, but we start getting the great manor houses built from the ruins of those monasteries. Theatres and public buildings go up in London and other large cities. Society itself secularizes.
Secularization was not among the goals of the Protestant leadership, of course. They wanted a “godly realm of England.” But this is the trouble when you have a break in religious tradition, even a good break. Once the hold of religion over the culture, or indeed individuals, is broken and the ancient “givens” are called into question, the whole religious establishment collapses like a house of cards. When you see everything you once held sacred being discarded, nothing remains sacred in your eyes. But again, this is where Protestantism failed its own ideals—it devolved into religion with an emphasis on doctrine and discipline. Had Protestantism been able to reach its Evangelical goals and emphasized the conversion of life to which the Gospel shows us the way, secularism would never have gained the foothold in the culture that it did. But the forest of the Christian life was lost sight of as the Church got tangled in the innumerable trees of cold and abstract doctrine. Without the ways that medieval Christianity had been able to reach into the daily lives of the ordinary person with the stories of the saints and the feast days and the processions, there was nothing but secularism to fill the gap in people’s lives.
One area of art which remained at the service of the Church was music and the two great composers of the time, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, ironically were Roman Catholics. Tallis was Catholic from the old days before the split with Rome and even though he was a musician in the Chapel Royal of King Henry and later King Edward, he never gave up the old faith. Byrd was a convert to Catholicism during the reign of Elizabeth. Being Catholic did not stop them from writing music for the Anglican liturgy, though both wrote for the Catholic liturgy as well. Byrd was the music director Elizabeth’s chapel, an indication of how Elizabeth did not go looking for religious conflict as well as an indication of her preference of a more formal approach to liturgy.
The fact that the Church of England developed a fine musical tradition should not confuse us into thinking that the average English subject attending Sunday worship in his or her parish church was being exposed to good music. What happened in the chapel royal or in the occasional cathedral was one thing, but in the average parish the service was pretty drab, mostly read and not sung, and what little singing there might be was only the psalms, the Puritans considering hymns and anthems “too Catholic.” Indeed church wasn’t a lot of fun due to the strong puritan influence that was suspect of anything ritualistic. More about that in the next posting.
Back to where I started. London was Protestant. So was Norwich and the other larger towns of the south east, but there were Catholics aplenty in the countryside, and especially in the North where many of the great landowning families were still Catholic and with sufficient political clout, at least on the local level, to get away with it. But priests are funny people and the seminary priests returning from their education and ordination abroad were supposed to pass through London and head into the Catholic regions to support the remaining Catholic population. They didn’t. They stayed in London, or at least the majority of them did. They loved the big city and didn’t want to spend their years toiling away in the rural north. Historians think that had the clergy dispersed into the Catholic areas, not only would far fewer of them had to pay for their faith with their lives, but that the Catholic faith would have continued to hold on in the North and West of England. But you know, priests have always been known for liking a good restaurant and let’s face it, even in the sixteenth century you can’t beat London for the night life. How can you keep them down on the farm…?