Clare Asquith

The dying of the light

Calre Asquith on Geoffrey Moorhouse's new book

‘Tenebrae’ is the last office, the final prayer in the ritual day of the Benedictine monk. But there is a double finality to the Tenebrae evoked at the beginning of this book. This is the great cathedral church of Durham, and the date is 31 December 1539. ‘A few hours earlier, the Prior of Durham and his monks had surrendered their monastery to King Henry VIII, just as so many had done before them by then’. These monks are about to disperse, the church’s treasures will be appropriated and the ancient tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede will be broken up after hundreds of years of continuous tradition.

Though modestly billed in the foreword as a piece of local history, this exploration of the way Durham evolved under Reformation pressure from Benedictine monastery to Anglican cathedral forms just part of one of the most lucid and graphic accounts I have read of the opening stages of the English Reformation. Like Eamon Duffy’s celebrated portrait of Morebath, Geoffrey Morehouse’s story of Benedictine Durham’s struggle for survival forms a poignant microcosm of the human and social cost of the upheavals convulsing the country in the middle of the 16th century. As with Morebath, the study owes its detail and particularity to an unusually rich archive — the legacy, in Durham’s case, of the 15th- century monastery’s nervous response to five ruinous years under a scandalously incompetent Bursar.

Moorhouse begins by breathing life into these records, resurrecting the remote and orderly pre-Reformation priory with its peripatetic early history, its farms, schools, hospitals and almshouses, its elaborate liturgical traditions and curious practicalities (ale was used to wash the organ pipes which ‘in time appeared to have been varnished as a result’.)

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