This month George Austin examines the world into which Shakespeare was born

Shakespeare was born in 1564 into an England torn apart by the religious and political turmoil brought about in the 1530s and 1540s by Henry VIII’s actions against the Church. Before then the mass of English people were, according to Dom Gregory Dix in his great work, Shape of the Liturgy, ‘regular and even somewhat enthusiastic churchgoers.’

But then came the liturgical revision of 1549 with the first English Prayer Book so that ‘with an inexcusable suddenness, between a Saturday night and a Monday morning at Pentecost 1549, the English liturgical tradition of nearly a thousand years was altogether overturned.’ In spite of measures of compulsion, churchgoing never really recovered from the shock, so that ‘voluntary, and above all weekday, churchgoing – on the popularity of which in England most fifteenth century travellers had remarked – virtually disappeared.’

Unpopular reforms

In recent months I have come to feel that perhaps our perception of the Reformation is less clear-cut than we were brought up to believe, that its unpopularity among the great mass of English people was considerably greater than we might imagine.

If it is possible to make a modern comparison (and it may not be), we know that the introduction of modern language worship and bible translations was greeted with considerable opposition, not merely from those who might be dubbed by their enemies as dyed-in-the-wool fuddy-duddies or worse, but by many others for whom this had been part of their culture since childhood.

Why should it have been any different 450 years ago, especially as it was certainly done with what Dix rightly calls ‘an inexcusable suddenness’? But there was more to it than that, for economic considerations had also played a part some twelve or so years before the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and perhaps a more significant part. When Henry VIII’s commissioners toured the land dissolving monasteries and abbeys and seizing their assets for a greedy King, the support they had produced for the local residents, not least through employment, disappeared with an equally ‘inexcusable suddenness.’

It was not the age for establishing a Latin Mass Society as the ancient equivalent of the Prayer Book Society – to do so might have meant you would be hanged, drawn and quartered. But there were other means. The history of the Pilgrimage of Grace is well documented by Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book of the same name, and it is clear that in the latter months of 1536, opposition was growing so fast in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and then Lancashire and other parts of the north of England, that the authority of the King was seriously at risk.

Broken promises

Indeed, but for the fact that Henry VIII induced a false sense of security into Sir Richard Aske and the other conspirators – and Aske had always insisted that his rebellion had not been against the King but against his Commissioners – Henry might well have had to reach a more Catholic compromise to quell the revolt. In the end, Aske was butchered at Clifford’s Tower in York, his body left in chains to rot. We know today that solemn assurances were given to opponents of women’s ordination, promises almost universally broken.

Moreover, Aske’s was a rebellion of the ‘common’ people. While some of the nobility were forceful in their support of the King’s side, some did so reluctantly and under pressure, ready to turn their coats when the wind blew from another direction. Shakespeare himself has a telling phrase for this phenomenon, when Leontes declares, ‘I am a feather for each wind that blows.’

It was hardly going to be easy for commoners or the nobility, and nor for theologians. Evelyn Waugh, in his biography of Edmund Campion, commented that he and others did not ‘find it probable that the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed to a group of important Englishmen.’

How many today have been blown by the same wind?