The Terrific Tudors!

The Terrific Tudors!

The Terrible Tudors is a fabulous book in the Horrible Histories series, but I like Durham Cathedral’s version better- the Tudors were terrifically interesting. There’s a new exhibition just opening at the cathedral to show off some of the amazing objects in their collections while also explaining why the Tudor dynasty were so very important for the history of the region. Go see the exhibition- it has some of my very favourite things in it! Details are here.


One of the questions I’ve been asking myself recently is what effect would the immense changes of the sixteenth century have on people living in County Durham. I’ve been trying to think through the scraps of information we have to see what the vast changes did to people’s lives. There’s been lots written about charity and changing attitudes to the poor during this period, which would massively have affected people’s social safety nets. When Henry VIII got rid of monasteries, he was also getting rid of the almonries operated by monks, which provided care for people who needed it, often the sick and the elderly. At Durham Cathedral the almonry fell into disrepair quite quickly and removed one possible source of help in the city. Did other unofficial groups grow up to fulfil the need that the almonry had addressed? Did the new canons try to help? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question I’d like to think more about.


In addition to practical needs, I’ve also been thinking about the purpose of a cathedral. What did the orders from London about the Reformation do to people’s experiences of worship, both in the parish churches and at the cathedral? In 1536 the cathedral bought new service books with a slightly different order of service- could worshippers probably standing in the nave hear the difference in the Latin texts? Possibly not. From 1534 onwards, the bishop preached throughout the diocese against the Papacy. People would have heard about the new religious settlement, but it was not yet part of the common experience of worship. The Bible in English followed in 1536, as did the first of the dissolutions of the monasteries. St Cuthbert’s shrine was pulled down in 1538, what did that mean for visitors? After 1541, the cathedral would have felt very different with half of the monks gone, and the rest no longer wearing monastic habits in their new roles as cathedral canons. But the services would still have sounded much the same.


It was at some point after 1549 that Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer was introduced in Durham. That would have marked a completely different experience of worship- it was all in English, and it rearranged the material of the older services. It would have felt, I think, like a complete break from the past at that point. Mary’s reign from 1553 to 1558 saw a return to the old Latin mass books. Durham Cathedral didn’t bother to dig out their old copies, but instead bought completely new sets, maybe because the old ones had been burned or given away. Elizabeth’s regime went back to the Book of Common Prayer in 1559. As much as anything else, the 1549, 1553 and 1559 changes in the service books would have marked out to listeners in churches the changes in religion that were mandated by Henry VIII’s very different children.


If you do go see the exhibition in Durham Cathedral, stop by John Brimley’s tomb in the Galilee Chapel. He was master of the choristers from the 1540s until his death in 1576, and would have taught them very different music during each of the four reigns that he saw. We have payments for music to be bought for him and his singers from Westminster in Henry VIII’s reign. I would love to be able to ask him what he thought about the Tudors kings and queens and their impact on the city that he lived in.