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Over Grinton Bridge: Riding into the Heart of Reformation

By (December 1, 2011) 2 Comments

At Aughton church, near Selby in Yorkshire, there is a curious feature on one of the external walls: a carved newt, or ‘asker,’ and near it a text which is usually translated as ‘Christopher, son of Sir Robert, ought not to forget the year AD 1536.’ This obscure brother of Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, was apparently busy rebuilding his parish church at the time of the rebellion. No doubt he never did forget 1536, the year of the greatest of all Tudor uprisings, a popular and widespread rebellion by the gentry and the people of the north against the King’s new-fangled religious reforms.

Hilda Prescott’s magnum opus, The Man on a Donkey (1952), ensures that we may never forget that year either. This is one of the most significant and yet most neglected historical novels of the twentieth century, as Diane Wallace has recently argued. Although it totals over a thousand pages, you can now read it comfortably in bed, in the bath, on the bus, on the beach: Loyola Classics has republished it in two substantial volumes. And it is well worth reading, rewarding your effort with a rich, sad, beautiful tapestry depicting the lives of a range of characters living through the early years of the sixteenth century. It’s War and Peace of the English Protestant Reformation.

The Man on a Donkey was not Prescott’s first foray into Tudor history nor into historical fiction. The daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott was born at Latchford in Cheshire in 1896. She studied history at Oxford and Manchester Universities, and taught in private schools and at Oxford before becoming a full-time writer in the early 1920s. A trilogy of historical novels set in medieval France laid the foundations for her reputation, but the book which first brought Prescott to the notice of the reading public was a biography of Mary Tudor, which was published in 1940, winning the James Tait Black Prize in the following year.

Tim Mason, Grinton Bridge

As well as an important staging post en route to her epic historical novel, Prescott’s life of the first Tudor queen was a notable milestone in the re-interpretation of ‘Bloody Mary’ and her reputation. Prescott’s defence of Mary could be summed up in the subtitle for the book, The Spanish Tudor. She argues that Mary’s entire reign, indeed her whole life, is best explained by the traumatic effects of the king’s ‘Great Matter,’ his divorce from Mary’s much-loved mother, Catherine of Aragon. In Prescott’s opinion, this left Mary with little trust for Englishmen and a profound commitment to her mother’s native country. Just like earlier female apologists for the queen, Prescott perceived Mary as the victim of calculating men. Her Mary is an honest, devout, homely woman, who passionately desires a husband and children, a poignant contrast to the wily, politically-poised and enigmatic Elizabeth. While melancholy Mary, seeking the protection of a man and naturally a Spaniard, marries her reluctant suitor, Philip of Spain – a disastrous and fruitless match for both her and her country – her successor shrewdly spins success out of spinsterhood, emerging as the iconic and powerful Virgin Queen. Only at the close of her life, as she dies in the dark dawn of a cold November morning, does Prescott’s protagonist finally understand her own nationality and her own countrymen, the English — a nation which had already abandoned her to bask in the rays of the rising red-haired sun.

It’s an interpretation which exonerates Mary, but also underestimates her as a Tudor monarch: Eamon Duffy’s recent Fires of Faith, by contrast, takes the emphasis off Mary’s relationship with Philip, the resulting involvement in his war with France, and the loss of Calais (the name of which town the dying Mary apparently declared to be carved upon her heart). Instead, Duffy invites us to consider her collaboration with the other key man in her later life, her ‘cousin’ Cardinal Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury. He re-interprets what Prescott sees as Mary’s nostalgic and doomed attempt to revive the church of her youth as instead a successful example of the implementation of up-to-date Counter-Reformation Catholicism, only imperilled by the sudden deaths of its two principal supporters. Nevertheless, Duffy’s revisionism would not have been possible without the empathetic determination of historians such as Prescott to recover the perspective and the passions of history’s perceived ‘losers’.

In The Man on a Donkey, Prescott once again shows her ability to understand the marginalised and defeated figures in the landscapes of the past. ‘Cast in the form of a chronicle’, as she describes it, her meandering narrative embraces the lives of six central characters, illustrating the terrible and disorientating impact of the English Protestant Reformation. This is the human story of a great historical upheaval: Prescott challenges the comfortable Whiggish assumption that all change is progressive and for the best, and demands our empathy for the dispossessed. This is not a simplistic story of villains, heroes, and victims: her central characters are flawed and multi-faceted beings, with mixed motivations and fully-developed backstories which embed them in their contexts (the novel opens in 1495). We certainly pity her people, but we also believe in them as genuine human beings, in whose early lives and experiences we have shared. Even the central figure, the devout and charismatic Robert Aske, who becomes the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, is flawed both physically and spiritually: he has lost one eye in a childhood accident, and conceals the guilty secret of his fornication with Margaret Cheyne, the mistress of his relation John Bulmer. On the side of the reformers, the irascible and conflicted Gilbert Dawe, failed priest and ferocious father of a son whom he shelters out of conscience but also loathes and abuses, is portrayed with both great insight and brutal honesty. Most evidently of all, the nuns of Marrick Priory, led by their shrewd and worldly prioress, Christabel Cowper, are by no means idealised: they gossip, squabble, hold petty grudges, exhibit small rivalries, daydream during prayers, and delight in little luxuries. These are no saints, but this does not diminish our empathy with their pain at the dissolution of their community and the loss of their livelihoods and way of life. Prescott makes it very clear to us that this gaggle of gossipy old women have been deprived of the shelter which the Church had given single women for centuries. And, in prioress Christina, an able housekeeper and a talented businesswoman has been deprived the sphere in which she can exercise her managerial and mercantile abilities.

Scenes from the lives of these three characters of middling conditions – the gentleman-lawyer, the prioress, the parish priest – are counterpoised with events at the highest level, in the court of Henry VIII. Here we are often at the shoulder of Lord Darcy, an ageing courtier who dreams of being at home in his northern manor. But this rural retirement is not to be: he increasingly becomes part of a group of pious conservative noblemen who move from unhappy, whispered conversations about Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ to open rebellion. The dilemma of Darcy and his contemporaries – torn between loyalty to the king and the church, pushed towards obedience by terrifying memories of the Wars of the Roses, pulled back by instinctive devotion to the ways and practices of the faith of their childhood – is ably portrayed. A range of historical figures are briefly but strikingly sketched: we encounter a tense, ambitious, acidly witty Anne Boleyn; a subtle and personable Cromwell; an aspiring, too helpful, too sensitive Cranmer; a resigned and resolute Thomas More; a bluff, bullying, but adaptable Norfolk.

Not unexpectedly, too, we overhear the conversations of the Princess Mary and her stout-hearted governess, the Countess of Salisbury, who tries unsuccessfully to prepare her charge for the political trial and martyrdom which await her:

She was a woman very strong in silence; therefore till she had resolved what to say she would not speak … She could not say, “Poor child”, because this child had been born too high for pity. She decided on something that must be said, and taking the Princess hard by the wrist, she spoke out at last.

“You must fear nothing, and you must yield nothing”.

Now that she touched Mary she knew the girl was shaking, but she only tightened her grasp.

“In Her Grace’s letter one thing is most true and most grave … it is ‘that you should keep your heart with a chaste mind, not thinking or desiring any husband.’”

“Yes”, said Mary, “yes”, but the countess knew that she turned her head away … staring into the garden which she could not now see.

“It is not any man. But I have thought of children—of a little child—a little boy best,” she said in a whisper.

The countess went away across the room till she stood beside the bed. She laid her hand on one of the curtains, and stared at it as though she learnt the pattern by heart.

“Your Grace,” she said at last, “Your Grace must put away such thoughts”.

The martyrdom was to be Lady Salisbury’s, not Mary’s: imprisoned as a traitor, she astounded her inquisitors by her resolute and emphatic declarations of innocence, leading one of them to declare her ‘rather a strong and constant man than a woman’. Her head was finally hacked off by a young trainee executioner in one of the most inept and horrifying of all Tudor executions.

Prescott’s outstanding achievement as a novelist of Reformation England is to understand the character of religious motivation and experience in the period. Unlike many historical novelists of her period and ours, she appreciates the centrality of Christian belief and practice to later medieval life, and the interweaving of the life of the church with the lives of people of every rank. The dissolution of the priory of Marrick, which is the opening scene of the novel, is a disaster not only for the nuns, but also for the surrounding community, as the priory is a central hub in the economy and society of this remote region of Yorkshire. On the day that the nuns are finally expelled, this destruction is embodied in the deserted table in the refectory, a sight which is at once mundane and sacred, the scene of a lesser Last Supper which symbolises a passing era:

There were eleven wooden trenchers set on the table, with crumbled bread and bits of eggshell on them. There were eleven horn drinking pots too, and several big platters, all empty, except that there was upon one a piece of broiled fish and on the other a honeycomb.

It is Prescott’s intent to carry us into so many corners of this lost world, to materialise for us the dense fabric of everyday Tudor life and then to let us see the rippling ramifications of this Reformation rending it asunder. Consider the wonderfully antiphonal conversation of two canons of St Paul’s Cathedral, when they receive a letter from the court, asking them to send their ancient and costly crucifix to the King:

“What does it mean?” said the old treasurer of Paul’s who had kept one of the three keys of the cathedral treasure for the last thirty years. He turned over the letter of Master Cromwell, the King’s chief Secretary, and peered at it upside down.

“Surely,” one of the canons told him, “it means that the King has been informed of this precious little crucifix of ours and hath taken a high affection and pleasure of the sight of the same, as the letter saith.”

“And,” said another canon, a big, gaunt man with a sour face, “It means seeings will be keepings.”

“Fie!” the first rebuked him, while the old treasurer looked from one to another. “It means that we shall tender the same to His Grace as a free gift, trusting in his charitable goodness toward our Church of St Paul.”

“And as little daring to refuse,” said the tall canon, “as any wayfaring traveller dare refuse a robber his desire.”

“Fie!” the first canon cried again … “To liken the King’s Grace to a robber!”

[The crucifix is brought out of the treasury, and]

… the old treasurer dandled it in his hands, trying, with his bleared old eyes, to see it by the light of the torch they had brought. It was very precious and beautiful, for it was of pure gold, with a rich ruby in the side, besides four great diamonds, four great emeralds, four great balases, and twelve orient pearls. The old man began to cry over it, because indeed he could not think that it was right that the king should have it, seeing that it belonged to God and to St Paul.

The mute distress of this unnamed old man, grieving for the loss of this shining symbol of customary worship, speaks through Prescott’s pellucid prose – uncluttered, unpretending, and yet resonant with the cadences of the King James Bible and full of the satisfying solidity of Tudor letters.

The reader of this review will no doubt have long been asking: who is the man on the donkey? This brings us to the more consolatory underpinnings of Prescott’s heart-harrowing tale, which culminates in the destruction of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the agonisingly slow death of Robert Aske, hanged in chains on the walls of York. But, for Prescott, Aske’s death – like the Passion of Christ, which it echoes – is not without significance in the deep, divine order of things. Throughout the novel, Prescott has shot a subtle subtext through her chronicle, a solitary gold thread amid the dark and splendid textures of her sad tale. It is spun from that great late medieval mystical treatise, Julian of Norwich’s The Revelations of Divine Love. Two characters carry Julian’s name. The first is Julian Savage, the plain, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Buckingham, who secretly loves Robert Aske, and in her passion for him, misses the love of her own husband; the second is Aske’s own spirited and loyal niece. Both attempt to serve, support, and save Aske: both fail. But it is the mysterious Malle, a humble servant, saved from the sea and subject to strange visions, who is the true Julian of the text, the seer of the sacred love woven within the fabric of everyday life. It is she who one morning sees Christ come over Grinton Bridge on a donkey (and why should he not be in that humble Yorkshire village?), and it is in her company that Prescott leaves us at the end of the novel. Gathering the pages of an illuminated copy of The Revelations, destroyed during the seizure of Marrick Priory, she makes them into boats to float away down the river. A kindly priest who has become Malle’s protector observes her, pondering as he does so on ‘God’s love, and his great work in redemption of the world’:

She had taken all the papers from under the stone, and now those which were not folded into boats lay in a bright litter at his feet; he looked down and read upon one the words:

It is true, that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

On another was written:

See I am God. See I am in all things; See I do all things: See I never left the hands of my works, ne [sic] never shall without end. See I lead all things to the end that I ordain it to, from without beginning, by the same might, wisdom, and love, that I made it with. How should anything be amiss?

And on another:

What, wouldest thou wit thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Wit it well: love was his meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. Wherefore sheweth he it thee? For love. Hold thee therein, thou shalt with more in the same. But never wit therein other without end.

… When Malle had made all the little ships ready to sail, she set them on the water, where it lapped, trembling and bright, close to her feet. They bobbed and curtseyed there, loitering a minute till the strength of the river caught them. Then they went dipping and dancing toward the sea.

And so, for the reader, there remains some little promise that the frail human vessels, whom we have watched ‘loitering a minute’ on the waters of time and seen tossed by the rough currents of the Reformation, have yet not lived nor strove in vain. By the grace of God, or Hilda Prescott, they now go ‘dipping and dancing’ towards some wider and more significant sea.

Rosemary Mitchell is Associate Principal Lecturer in History and Reader in Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University College, U.K; she used to work for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is interested in Victorian historical culture, and enjoys all varieties of Victorian historical novels, history books, and history paintings, particularly the bad ones.