Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Our Lady of Worcester

Whilst we are still in Worcestershire on the Marian spiritual pilgrimage it seems appropriate to take in another Marian shrine not included in the Stephenson booklet. That was the important one in the cathedral at Worcester and its destruction in 1538 is better recorded than that of many other such shrines.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that the celebrated image of Our Lady and the Holy Child was carved of wood and of a large size, and that it stood over the high altar and could be seen from all parts of the church. The narrative below would however suggest that it was in the Lady Chapel, east of the choir.

The excellent study by Diarmuid MacCulloch of ‘Worcester: A Cathedral City in the Reformation’ in Collinson and Craig (eds) The Reformation in English Towns 1500-1640 provides much of the context for these events.

In 1535 the enthusiastic reformer Hugh Latimer was appointed Bishop of Worcester and by the summer of 1536 he was inveighing against some local saints’ cults. He worked with the newly appointed Prior of Worcester, another enthusiastic Cambridge educated evangelical, Henry Holbeach, a protege of Cranmer, and later bishop of Rochester and Lincoln, to undermine the cult of Our Lady of Worcester. A year before the national assault on shrines, in August 1537, before the feast of the Assumption, they removed the draperies and adornments which decorated the statue. This provoked a bitter outcry and a defiantly ostentatious display of devotion on the eve of the Assumption by one Worcester man, Thomas Emans, when he saw the statue denuded of its rich trappings. He was denounced to the magistrates and hence to Cromwell by Latimer, Holbeach and the bailiffs of Worcester.

This can be read in Letters and Papers Henry VIII which is now very conveniently accessible online.

Thus on August 27 it is recorded as follows:

“The saying of the witnesses against Thos. Emans, servant to Mr. Evans. That he said, leaning upon Roger Crompe's shoulder, "Lady, art thon stripped now? I have seen the day that as clean men hath been stripped at a pair of gallows as were they that stripped thee." Then he entered the chapel, said his prayers, and kissed the image, and turned to the people, and said "Ye that be disposed to offer, the figure is no worse than it was before, and the lucre and profit of this town is decayed through this." Presten, the keeper of Our Lady, saith that he heard Thomas Emans say to the people, "This lady is now stripped, I trust to see the day that they shall be stripped as naked that stripped her."
This is followed by the confession of Thomas Emans, of the parish of All Saints, Worcester, made on August 19:

“That he entered the Lady chapel in the monastery of Worcester, on Our Lady even the Assumption, 1537, and said a Paternoster and an Ave, and kissed the image's feet, and then turned and said to the people: "Though our Lady's coat and her jewels be taken away from her, the similitude of this is no worse to pray unto, having a remors unto her above, then it was before." Spoke with the intent that the people should resort to her at Worcester as they had done before. Witnesses:—Hugh bp. of Worcester, Hen. Holbaghe, prior of St. Mary's Worcester, Walter Walshe, Robt. Acton, and Humfrey Burneforde and Wm. Mercer, bailiffs of Worcester.”
L&P Henry VIII xii (2) 587
What happened to Thomas Emans is not recorded beyond that he was committed to ward, but it does indicate genuine dissent at the episcopal action. Letters and Papers xii (2) 530 also indicates considerable hostility to Latimer in the diocese: one man was reported as saying he would walk seven miles carrying a faggot to burn Latimer at the stake. As it turned out he would have had to wait seventeen years and travel to Oxford for that particular pleasure.

The chronicler Edward Hall claims that to the delight of Latimer and his supporters at discovering that the statue itself, minus its draperies, was actually of a bishop rather than of the Virgin. Whatever the background to that story it seems to conflict with Emans’ deposition. What the account does show is that at least some late medieval English devotional images were dressed in fabrics and not just carved figures.

Latimer wrote to Thomas Cromwell from Hartlebury castle on June 13 1538 on various matters including his hope that 

“I trust your lordship will bestow our great Sibyll to some good purpose ut pereat memoria cum sonitu. She hath been the Devil’s instrument to bring many (I fear) to eternal fire: now she herself with her old sister of Walsingham, her young sister of Ipswich, with their other two sisters of Doncaster and Penrice, would make a jolly muster in Smithfield; they would not be all day in burning.”
Sermons and Remains of Hugh Latimer (1845), p395
The ‘Protestant work ethic’ was brought into play in a second letter from Latimer to Cromwell after the statue had been removed, on October 6th of the same year,

“Now Worcester is behind, an ancient and a poor city, and yet replenished with men of honesty, though not most wealthy; for years reason of their lady they have been given to much idleness; but now that she is gone they be turned to labouriouness, and from laziness to goodness.”
ibid, p403

showing the thirteenth century bell tower or leaden steeple which had been demolished in 1647
Image: Worcester Cathedral Library blog, reproduced there by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral

Our Lady of Worcester, pray for us


Patricius said...

Thank you for this most interesting post. Latimer's fate should serve as a warning to all iconoclaust clerics!

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

Thank you for your note.
It was enjoyable to be able to follow up Sir Diarmuid’s article and using the online access to L&P HVIII to quote the story in full.