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Now in Paperback: The Last Divine Office

The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

by Geoffrey Moorhouse

BlueRidge Books, 2012

Shortly after his burbling, chatty, brilliantly insightful book The Last Divine Office appeared in 2008, renowned historian, literary journalist, raconteur, and faithful correspondent Geoffrey Moorhouse died. The American paperback edition of that book is now here at long last (detailed ecclesiastical histories not having quite the same turnaround time as vampire mash-ups), and it’s almost impossible to read it without a reflective melancholy its author would have hated regardless of its sincerity. The reason would be easy to guess: the book should succeed or fail on its own.

It succeeds, and as wistful as the occasion may be for re-reading it, the realization only deepens as to how much it succeeds. We are living through an apparently open-ended boom in Tudor studies of all sorts, with scholars using odd and interesting angles of attack, often concentrating their focus on topics well to the side of the standard six-wives narrative processions. Moorhouse’s last three books are perfect examples of how such approaches can yield unexpected treasures of insight – on things like the construction and role of Henry VIII’s navy, or the Pilgrimage of Grace that briefly threatened the security in the north of his realm – or this book, a history of the ecclesiastical power-base of the north, the Durham monastery and cathedral. By concentrating on the effect Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church had on this one mighty religious fiefdom, Moorhouse shows us in some priceless ways just how fundamental an upheaval that break really was.

The bishops of Durham were literal princes of the Church, since Durham sat within one of England’s three palatinate districts, semi-autonomous holdings whose rulers held absolute power within their borders. Between Northumberland and Yorkshire, that power – both secular and spiritual, belonged to the bishop at Durham, sitting on the highest throne in the land and feeling every bit of the significance of that fact:

But any man sitting up there in all his episcopal glory, surrounded by acolytes and chaplains, together with an assortment of other priests and religious and deeply dutiful congregation of townsfolk, would find it very hard to hang on to any innate modesty as he contemplated his mortality. Some had been endowed with that particular virtue, but almost as many were supremely arrogant.

Moorhouse’s history is a thorough one and a generous one – at times too generous, as when he ascribes “a certain kind of courage” to one of the most craven churchmen England ever fielded, Cuthbert Tunstall, correspondent of Erasmus and More, who was bishop at Durham in the fateful year of 1539 when the hammer of Henry’s ‘reforms’ struck with full force. There was no scriptural or doctrinal basis for Henry’s brigandage, and for one trembling instant, Tunstall looked like he would stand his ground. But when Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell sent men to ransack Tunstall’s various homes, the divine caved in like a Los Angeles sinkhole, not only agreeing to all of Henry’s terms but offering Cromwell elaborate amounts of protection money. Moorhouse writes about the “climate of legalised violence and terrifying penalties” that existed when the machinery of Dissolution was formally assembled, but men could resist such terrors and did – the threat doesn’t mitigate the eager, effusive cowardice with which Tunstall met it.

And our author knows this, of course – the glimmer in his prose demonstrates clearly that he kept the fallibility of all his players right before him as he wrote. And for as thorough a job as he does, he maintains a winning sense of scholarly modesty throughout, a persistent note of optimism sounding in the book’s frequent (and frequently hilarious) footnotes:

The relationship between the Priory and the Archbishop of York had been a tricky one since the thirteenth century, when the latter disputed Durham’s rights of spiritual jurisdiction, visitation and other matters relating to the Priory’s Yorkshire possessions. This issue was a recurring vexation in Whitehead’s time and it never would be resolved, the paperwork still awaiting a conclusion in some probably forgotten corner of the York archives.

But even the thought of some young scholar finding such a trove (for instance, in an old Roman store room underneath what is now the Galilee Chapel) is also slightly melancholy, since everybody who ever had any contact with Geoffrey Moorhouse will reflexively wish it was that particular old scholar making the discovery – and writing a fun and nimble book about it.

We have The Last Divine Office, however, and BlueBridge Books is to be commended for making a paperback available with, it must sadly be assumed, only the most modest hope of sales. Anyone even remotely interested in Tudor studies is urged to order a copy of this wonderful book.

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