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Having become a largely secular nation, it’s hard to comprehend the huge influence of the Church (yes, capital ‘C’) had on Medieval life. Religion formed its core in a manner unimaginable nowadays. Until the time of Luther, any criticism of the Catholic Church was ruthlessly suppressed. But popular literature shows just how aware of the inevitable corruption most people were. One only has to read a little Chaucer whose refined prioress wears a little bracelet with a cleverly two edged inscription declaring, “Amor vincit omnia” (Love conquers all), or Boccaccio with his sexually predatory monks and coquettish nuns. When one is conversant with the hypocrisy, simony and nepotism of popes such as Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici), one can feel far greater sympathy for Henry VIII’s rift with Rome, (after his pleas to have his marriage with Catherine of Aragon was refused), especially as his papal “opponent”, Clement VII, as an illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici, should have been debarred from the papacy! Corruption aside, the medieval Catholic Church provided most people with a stable and predictable faith, sometimes comforting, sometimes terrifying.

Until the Reformation. Medieval Europe, as part of the Roman Catholic church, was answerable to the pope in Rome (or Avignon during the schism of 1379-1409 depending on whether you supported Urban VI in Rome or Clement VII in Avignon: history is a messy business). All prayers and church services were said in Latin and it was not deemed necessary that “the masses” should understand them. In fact, when it was first mooted that the Bible be translated, it was feared that this might give rise to discussion of the Word of God and possible dissent - all highly dangerous! Hence all the trouble stirred up by John Wyclif (c. 1320-1384) who sought reform and translated the Bible into English.

However what everybody was expected to learn by rote and be able to recite were the Paternoster (Lord’s Prayer) and the Ave (Hail Mary). It was a distinct plus if you also knew your Credo (“I believe” - the statement of faith). These prayers would be drummed into young children by their parents and local priests, chaplains or clerks.

The cult of the Virgin, which reached its peak in the later Middle Ages, went hand in hand with concurrent ideals of chivalry but, by putting women “on a pedestal”, it also eroded much of the relative freedom they had enjoyed hitherto and made them more subservient to their menfolk. Amongst the literate, it lead to the use of a “Book of Hours” a book of daily private devotions to the Virgin Mary. These lovely books were often hand written and illuminated even after the development of printing. They were tailored to their wealthy owners’ particular fancies and requirements and were the layman's equivalent of a missal combined with regular daily prayers mirroring the monastic “Hours”  observed by those in Holy Orders.

From the early Middle Ages the use of the Rosary became widespread among all social classes. “The Rose” was a term used to describe the Virgin: since most of the prayers repeated are Aves or “Hail Marys”, this lead to the name Rosary for the string of beads used. For more information, see

The Rosary

The stormy progress of the Reformation deeply unsettled the population and led to many upheavals. Henry VIII remained, essentially, a Catholic, even subscribing to obituary masses for his soul. His son, Edward, was by education and inclination fiercely protestant. He, in turn, was succeeded by his equally fiercely Catholic sister whose forcible attempts to restore Catholicism earned her the name of “Bloody Mary”; Mary by Elizabeth whose gentle moderation laid the foundation of the Church of England as we know it. Elizabeth helped the common man to adjust to the new faith and she resisted the growing Puritanism she feared as being just as bigoted as her sister’s unbending belief in Rome.