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(p. 180). As the rest of this study aims to demonstrate, England™s post-
Reformation Catholics knew all about the potency of cheap verse and the
rallying powers of nostalgia.
1

Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives and the
Gothic imagination



The Catholic antiquary Charles Eyston, writing in The History and Antiq-
uities of Glastonbury, has a story to tell about the market house in the
town:

It is a neat Pile of Building, built of late Years with some Materials the Town had
from the old Abbey. But I was told by a Man of Credit, living in the Neighbourhood
of Glastonbury, that the Town hath lost, in a great measure, their Market since it™s
(sic) Building, which he imputed to it™s (sic) being built with Materials that belonged
to the Church; and whoever reads Sir Henry Spelman™s History of Sacrilege, will
not wonder, that such a Fate should attend it.1

This is one example of a sacrilege narrative, a story which demonstrates
God™s providence by showing the dire consequences of violating or demean-
ing a person, object or place publicly dedicated to the worship of God.
The notion that sacrilege provokes divine wrath has a long history; as
John Weever put it, ˜the depredation of Churches, Church robbing, or
Sacriledge, was in all ages held most damnable . . . he that steals any thing
from the Church, may be compared to Judas the traitour™.2 But Englishmen
after the Reformation had particular cause to be nervous, since Henry VIII™s
dissolution of religious houses was held by many to be the worst example of
sacrilege that England had ever seen. Eyston was a kinsman of the Edward
Francis Eyston quoted at the end of the introduction to this book, and
like him, he would have been aware that ˜the old wals of Churches and
Monasteries, the defaced ruines of Altars, images, and crosses do cry with
a loud voice, that the Romain Catholique faith of Christ Jesus did tread
this way™.3 In preserving this snippet of local gossip, he is giving a warning
that sacred stones cry out against sacrilege, calling down divine vengeance
on the perpetrator.
Though the secular landowners who acquired monastic property during
the Henrician Reformation had a legal title to their newly acquired land,

23
24 Oral Culture and Catholicism
their families™ moral claim on it, during the Reformation and for centuries
afterwards, was felt by many to be considerably more dubious. Not all such
families, one needs to remember, adhered to the reformed religion; though
many later became Protestant, others were more mixed in their allegiance
and some stayed Catholic, sometimes even receiving papal absolution for
any wrong done.4 But where they or their family had not personally bene-
¬ted from monastic impropriations, Catholics like Charles Eyston tended
to be happy to cite sacrilege narratives as instances of divine justice.5 In
addition, over the period covered by this study, many Protestants, espe-
cially High Churchmen and those of antiquarian interests, would have
tended to agree with Catholics on two points: that widespread sacrilege
had taken place during the English Reformation, especially at the time of
the dissolution of religious houses; and that divine vengeance for sacrilege
could be extremely long-term. The concern encompassed both land and
architecture, and especially at issue was the very common practice of using
the fabric of ecclesiastical properties for secular uses: as a basis for houses,
or as a quarry for building stone and lead.6
Many writers on the topic believed that the sacrilegious sins of the fathers
could be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, or
even beyond;7 and here, already, is one reason to try and span decades
and centuries when assessing the imaginative consequences of Reformation
thought. The long time span covered by this chapter, from the Reformation
to the growth of the Gothic novel in the late eighteenth century, is respond-
ing to the material in other ways too. As this chapter will argue, sacrilege
narratives have a certain similarity to ghost stories, and like oral tradition
itself, the ghost story is spectacularly diachronic; ghosts mean nothing if
not the de¬ance of time, and the impossibility of closure where a wrong
remains unrighted. The relentless periodisation of undergraduate courses
can sometimes obscure the relationships between English Reformation lit-
erature and later works;8 all the same, critics have long recognised that the
Gothic novel of late eighteenth-century England takes many of its imagina-
tive bearings from orally transmitted anecdote concerning the supernatural,
especially from those stories attached to ruined abbeys, martyrs™ relics, and
other highly visible signs of Reformation violence.9 But they have been so
much more interested in Gothic novels than in orally transmitted anecdote
that they have tended only to discuss one half of the equation. This chapter
is an attempt to invert the picture: ¬rstly by looking at sacrilege narratives
within conventionally literary texts such as Horace Walpole™s The Castle of
Otranto, the most trend-setting Gothic novel of them all; and secondly, by
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 25
discussing imaginative and antiquarian retellings of the sacrilege narrative
associated with Netley Abbey in Hampshire.10

sir h en ry spelm a n a n d th e s acri l eg e n ar rat ive
In the quotation with which this chapter began, it may at ¬rst seem sur-
prising to see a Catholic author citing a conformist, Sir Henry Spelman;
but there are two reasons why this gambit would have made sense. In
an attempt to disarm his non-Catholic readers, Eyston “ like many other
Catholic scholars “ used Protestant authorities wherever possible.11 But,
more than that, Spelman™s The History and Fate of Sacrilege (1698) was a
book which any believer in the ill consequences of monastic impropriations
would automatically have turned to. Spelman was an early seventeenth-
century antiquarian who became interested in the topic of sacrilege for
family reasons, after both he and an uncle had encountered dif¬culties
relating to their ownership of church lands; and it bulks so largely in
Spelman™s writings that it becomes an organisational principle of his
thought: ˜Sacrilege was the ¬rst sin, the Master-Sin, and the common Sin
at the beginning of the World, committed in Earth by Man in Corruption,
committed in Paradise by Man in Perfection, committed in Heaven it self by
the Angels in Glory . . . The Sacrilege [of Adam and Eve] was a Capital Sin,
that contained in it many other speci¬cal Sins, Pride, Ambition, Rebellion,
Hypocrisie, Malice, Robbery, and many other hellish Impieties.™12
The History of Sacrilege, compiled during the 1620s and 1630s, was by no
means the only work of Spelman™s to address the topic, but it had perhaps
the widest impact outside the circle of those interested in antiquarianism
and canon law. It combines his most extended and outspoken theoretical
exposition of sacrilege with a number of anecdotal case histories, demon-
strating the different ways in which Spelman believed Church lands had
proved unlucky to their owners. For a long time, it was not the easiest of
works to lay one™s hands on. Spelman himself kept the History in manuscript
form “ in itself a common practice among antiquarians of the era, but his
harsh words about many of England™s noble families would probably have
rendered the book too offensive to be printed during his lifetime. How-
ever, it seems to have circulated in manuscript while Spelman was alive
or just after his death in 1641, to judge by the comments below from
near-contemporary sources.13 Spelman™s literary executor Jeremy Stephens
made an abortive attempt to print it in 1663; but in a sequence of events
that defy providentialist exposition, the copy was thought to have been
26 Oral Culture and Catholicism
lost in the Fire of London, and then re-emerged in incomplete form among
Thomas Barlow™s manuscripts in the Bodleian.14 Edmund Gibson omitted
it from his 1698 edition of Spelman™s collected works, where Spelman™s writ-
ing on sacrilege is represented principally by the less personal, somewhat
more moderate De Non Temerandis Ecclesiis;15 but the ¬rst edition, bearing
a deliberately, tauntingly anonymous editorial preface, was published later
in the same year.16
The work had an extended afterlife, but Spelman™s legacy was never other
than controversial. Spelman himself certainly had enthusiastic advocates,
and his own restoration to the Church of England of an impropriation on
his estate was an action copied by several others:17 the High Churchman
Martin Lluelyn, in his elegy on Spelman™s death, declared, ˜No such confu-
sion now, now no rash Arme / Dares seize the Chappel to enlarge the Farme. /
Lest his offence his Issues Plague beget, / As th™poyson™d Spring infects the
Rivulet.™18 But not everyone agreed. In his Church-History, Thomas Fuller
briskly summarised Spelman™s argument and concluded, with a tongue
sharpened by the events of the Civil Wars, ˜this old and trite subject has
now grown out of fashion, men in our Age having got a new object to ¬x
their eyes, and observation thereon, taking notice how such Church-lands
doe thrive, which since hath been derived into the hands of new
possessors™.19 The school of thought Spelman represented was condemned
by the testy Low Churchman Edmund Hickeringill as ˜a most Theologi-
cal and Ecclesiastical Scare-Crow, to ™fright the Rooks and other Vermine
from feeding on Church-lands . . .™;20 yet the story of Walter Taylor, asso-
ciated with Netley Abbey and discussed below, illustrates how even some
nonconformists could have qualms about sacrilege.21
It became, though, most characteristic of High Churchmen to condemn
popery while abhorring the general principle of stealing from the Church,
and pointing to dreadful fates suffered by those individuals and families
who bene¬ted from the Dissolution.22 It was not the only topic that preoc-
cupied non-Catholic writers on sacrilege; they covered several issues, some
of which “ such as the right to tithes, and the manner in which clergymen
should be brought to trial “ are a long way from supernatural concerns.23
There is a considerable difference, too, between believing in principle that
sacrilege was likely to incur divine wrath, and identifying speci¬c instances
of this happening. Nevertheless, if one can use the term ˜superstition™ neu-
trally, then a belief in the male¬c consequences of sacrilege was a familiar
superstition in England for a very long time after the Reformation: com-
monly between the Dissolution itself and the age of the Gothic novel, and
long past that in some cases.
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 27
An interest in sacrilege had partisan overtones, tending as it did to coexist
with High Church clericalism, and one could be accused of popery or
impiety by one™s religious opponents, depending on one™s interpretation of
such stories. But rather as with ghost stories, nothing more than a free vote
was ever of¬cially demanded on the interpretation of sacrilege narratives.24
Spelman™s rhetoric was at its most widely compelling when it bypassed party
concerns, and recited plain lists of tragic events. This was partly fortuitous;
the History of Sacrilege has an undigested, provisional presentation only to
be expected in a book which the author himself never re¬ned for print. But
an anti-analytical stance, letting the facts speak for themselves, was also
crucial to the effect Spelman wished to create. As he himself said, ˜God™s
Judgments are his Secrets; I only tell Concurrences™, and his was perhaps
the greatest in¬‚uence on the studiedly neutral reportage that, even now,
the topic tends to invite.25
Particularly illustrative of this, and particularly relevant to the subject
matter of the rest of this chapter, is the expression of Spelman™s views on how
sacrilegious impropriators harm not only themselves, but their posterity.
An unusually laconic case history from the History of Sacrilege gives a fair
impression of the doom which Spelman believed the sacrilegious might
expect: ˜The Abbey of Radegundis at Bradefalk in Kent by Dover is now
Sir Tho. Edolph™s Knight, who did lately build a fair House upon the Site
of the Monastery, and it hath fallen down three times; his two Brothers
lunatique.™26 Recognising that by the nature of the subject fact may have
been contaminated by ¬ction, Spelman is anxious to present himself as
a responsible chronicler. ˜I urge nothing, as not medling with the secret
Judgments of Almighty God, but relate rem gestam only as I have privately
gotten notice of it, and observed living in these parts almost all my life, and
endeavouring faithfully to understand the truth, yet no doubt many things
have been mistaken by those who related them unto me; and therefore I
desire that wheresoever it so falleth out, my Credit may not be engaged
for it™ (p. 245). Thus, for every version of familial misfortune that Spelman
sets down, one can postulate rejected and irrecoverable anecdotal versions
that would have been a good deal less scrupulous: short on fact, heavy on
myth.
For the believer in sacrilege, if someone inherits monastic land, their
home is likely to fall down and their family to decay: thus, two potential
meanings of the word ˜house™ are being invoked. The implication is that
they have usurped: that, whatever the sins and idolatries of the monkish
occupants, they had a right to the land and the buildings which the present
owners do not. The author of Sacrilege a National Sin (1718), a tract heavily
28 Oral Culture and Catholicism
in¬‚uenced by Spelman, gives a comprehensive list of misfortunes which
the families of impropriators are liable to incur.

If those Persons and Families which have been, as we term them, Unfortunate,
since their Acquisition of Church-Spoils, would well consider [God™s forgiveness];
methinks they should be desirous to rid their Hands of them as soon as possi-
ble, . . . And therefore if his Hand lies heavy upon them in temporal Af¬‚ictions, in
Pains and Diseases of Body, or in Distractions, Troubles, Ill-bodings and Uneasi-
ness of Mind; if their Enterprizes are blasted; if their reasonable Expectations are
disappointed by calamitous Accidents; if their Name and Estates decay; if their
Children and Heirs are cut off in the Flower of their Age; or if they survive only
to increase their Grief . . . They would do well to consider whether they have not
made themselves justly liable to GOD™s Anger, by any sacrilegious Usurpation?
(p. 71)

Over a century earlier, according to Isaak Walton, Archbishop Whitgift
had declared to Elizabeth I: ˜Church land added to an ancient and just
inheritance, hath proved like a moth fretting a garment, and secretly con-
sumed both; or like the Eagle that stole a coal from the altar, and thereby
set her nest on ¬re, which consumed both her young eagles and herself
that stole it.™27 The emblem of the eagle unwittingly killing its young
was commonplace in the context of sacrilege, and received its most vivid
theoretical exposition in Ephraim Udall™s Noli Me Tangere (1642). Udall™s
remarkable engraved title page and frontispiece show an eagle bearing back
sacri¬cial ¬‚esh from an altar to his nest, destroying his chicks as a result
of the live coal still attached to the meat, with the motto Ardet carbone
nidus quo perit soboles impiae genetricis.28 In the text, he expounds the
emblem, and even recommends it for use in the interior decoration of stately
homes:

I could therefore wish, That all our Gentry that would preserve their Inheritances,
without ruine to their posterity; would beware they bring not any spoiles of the
Church into their Houses, lest they be spoyled by them: . . . And to preserve them
from this sin, That they would have a Tablet hung up alwaies in the Dining Roome,
where they ordinarily take their repast; in which should be drawne an Altar with
Flesh and Fire on it, for Sacri¬ce, with an Eagle ready to take wing, having in her
Talons a piece of Flesh, with a burning coale at it . . . and . . . a tall Tree, with an
Eagles Nest in it,, [sic] and the Heads of her young ones discovered above the Nest,
and the Nest ¬‚aming with a light ¬re about them, with this Inscription over the
Altar, Noli me Tangere, ne te & tuos perdam:29 For things belonging to the Altar,
will certainely prove a snare to the devourers of them . . . (pp. 32“3)
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 29




1. Ephraim Udall, Noli Me Tangere (1642), engraved title page.
30 Oral Culture and Catholicism

re ligiou s houses a nd se cu l a r occu pa nc y:
seven t een t h -cen t u ry at t i t u des
The sacrilege narrative, like the more conventional ghost story, demands
that its listeners engage with questions of ¬ctionality and belief. The fact
that neither kind of story was universally believed made them particularly
tempting subjects for ¬ctional treatment via individual authorship or collec-
tive anecdotal embroidery, though the term ˜¬ctional™ seems inadequate as
a description of all possible audience reactions; paradoxically, the audience
must have gained a frisson both from the suspension of disbelief, and a half-
entertained fear that the stories might be true after all. The link between the
two genres does not end there, since hauntings were consistently identi¬ed
by believers as being among the consequences of sacrilege.30 One of the
richest and most sustained traditions of English ghost story, long predating
the Gothic novel, is that where a new house is built on the site of a reli-
gious house, or with building materials from it, and strange things happen
as a result. In Pandaemonium, or the Devil™s Cloyster (1684) Richard Bovet
gives an anecdotal account of such a haunting: ˜About the year 1667. (sic)
being . . . at the House of a Nobleman in the West Country, which had
formerly been a Nunnery: I must confess I had often heard the Servants . . .
speak much of the noises, stirs, and Apparitions that frequently disturbed
the House . . .™ (p. 202). Bovet witnesses, among other strange sights,
¬ve spectral women who “ though he does not make the connection “
are veiled like nuns. But while stories like this instil a powerful sense of
the original owner™s continued presence, not all sacrilege narratives relate
ghostly manifestations in human form. Some, as with the story of Walter
Taylor below, relegate the spectre to a prophetic dream; others leave them
out altogether, telling tales of supernatural immanence as displayed in other
kinds of occult or providential activity.
But both the new inhabitants of the properties and their apologists felt
the necessity to assert the legitimacy of the new line against the remem-
bered presence of the buildings™ former occupants. Their responses to the
mute historical reproach represented by the building are often set up to show
them having the last word. By means of mottoes and other textual additions
to a building, a dialogue could be set up between the current and former
occupants of a house. Describing the house built on the site of Clerkenwell
Priory by Sir Thomas Challoner, John Weever “ himself a good example
of the nostalgic conformist “ quotes the verses from its frontispiece:
˜Does chaste faith survive, even though the veiled sisters are missing,
banished from this house? Now revered Hymen guards nuptial vows
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 31
here, and studies in his mind how to keep warm the vestal hearth.™31 The
motto can be seen as defusing the con¬‚ict of interest between the displaced
owners and the current ones, simply by admitting it. But more polemically,
an imaginative case could be made for the religious inhabitants having been
the wrongful owners all along. In ˜Upon Appleton House™, Andrew Marvell
gives a decadent allure to the notion of a house being built on the site of
a nunnery. Previously a Cistercian priory, Nun Appleton House had been
given to the Fairfax family at the Dissolution, and one of Marvell™s aims
in the poem is to stress the legitimacy of the descendants™ “ and thus his
employers™ “ claim to the property.
Retelling the story of how the early sixteenth-century heiress Isabel
Thwaites had been con¬ned within its walls by her guardian, the Pri-
oress, and seized by her betrothed, an ancestor of the Fairfaxes, Marvell
sketches the disreputable nature of the nuns™ existence.32 But the building
can still, Marvell assures the reader, be redeemed through the virtue of its
new occupants: ˜Though many a nun there made her vow, / ™Twas no reli-
gious house till now™ (279“80). This is only one of the tactful stratagems by
which Marvell de¬‚ects attention from the unpleasant circumstances of the
Dissolution. He begins his relation of the house™s history with a metaphor
which brilliantly combines a sense of genealogical inevitability and an anti-
Catholic sneer at nuns™ bastards “ ˜A nunnery ¬rst gave it birth / (For
virgin buildings oft brought forth)™ (85“6). A similar sense of inevitability,
narrative rather than historical, informs Marvell™s description of Fairfax™s
triumphant retreat with his beloved. Folk tale conventions dictate that the
enchanted castle fall into ruins when the spell is broken, and the con-
vent is in any case ˜dispossessed™ (272) now Isabel Thwaites has left it. The
˜demolishing™ (273) can, with deliberate ambiguity, be interpreted either as
referring to the above events or, more obliquely, to the Dissolution itself;33
and again, genealogical laws are invoked to commend the appropriateness
of the outcome.

Thenceforth (as when th™ enchantment ends,
The castle vanishes or rends)
The wasting cloister with the rest
Was in one instant dispossessed.
At the demolishing, this seat
To Fairfax fell as by escheat [i.e. reversion].
(269“74)

Marvell gives to the anxious Fairfax, waiting outside the convent walls,
a speech addressing the offending nuns, which asserts that even the
32 Oral Culture and Catholicism
building™s architecture has become infected by wrongful religious practice.
This deliberately inverts many of the sacrilege narrative™s commonplaces,
since to picture stones crying out in condemnation of the usurper was a
standard imaginative response to sacrilege directed against buildings.

Were there but, when this house was made,
One stone that a just hand had laid,
It must have fall™n upon her head
Who ¬rst thee from thy faith misled.34
And yet, how well soever meant,
With them ™twould soon grow fraudulent:
For like themselves they alter all,
And vice infects the very wall.
But sure those buildings last not long,
Founded by folly, kept by wrong . . .
(209“18)

Writing out of a sensibility affected by childhood Catholicism, Patrick Cary
uses the trope more straightforwardly, setting out the image of a house
built with gravestones to condemn the impiety of those who oppress the
defenceless. While money may be saved by reusing building materials, Cary
argues, such buildings will always be haunted by the ghosts of the oppressed.
Crucial to the poem™s effect is its invocation of the general correspondence
between sacrilegious despoilation and poverty. One did not have to be
Catholic to pick up the wider implication that to use any building material
salvaged from sacred sites was sacrilegious, or to understand that, while
the use of gravestones might not directly impoverish anyone, stones from
other sacred sites had only become available as a direct result of evicting
the previous occupants. Cary™s poem illustrates how the visual elements
of a landscape can bespeak changing ownership, and sometimes silently
complain at it:

Who, without Horrour, can that HOVSE behold
(Though n™ere soe fayre) which is with TOMBE-STONES made;
Whose Walls, fraught with INSCRIPTIONS writt of old,
Say still, Here underneath SOME-BODY™S layde.
Though such translated CHVRCH-YARDS shine with GOLD,
Yett They the BVILDER™S SACRILEDGE up-brayde;
And the wrong™d GHOSTS, there haunting uncontrol™d,
Follow Each-one his Monumentall Shade.
But They, that by the POORE-MAN™S DOWNE-FALL rise,
Have sadder EPITAPHES carv™d on their CHESTS:
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 33
As Here, the WIDDOW; Here, the ORPHAN lyes.
Who sees their WEALTH, their AVARICE detests;
Whilst th™Injured, for REVENGE urge HEAV™N with CRYES;
And, through Itt™s GVILT, th™Oppressour™s Mind n™ere rests.35


h orace wa lp ol e, h enry spel m a n a nd t h e
s acril eg e na rrati ve
To assert that Horace Walpole drew on fears about sacrilege when writing
The Castle of Otranto, more than a century after most of the writers quoted
above, may at ¬rst seem unexpected. Strawberry Hill, after all, incorporates
Gothic carving in its fabric;36 and looking at the biography of the author
who has been claimed as the ¬rst Gothic novelist, it is not hard to identify a
pronounced vein of anti-popery. Walpole™s fascination with Catholic ritual,
and deep imaginative involvement with Catholicism itself, coexisted with
an explicit, often hostile disengagement from it; he described himself as the
˜Protestant Goth™, and promoted anti-Catholicism both as author and as
patron.37 The Castle of Otranto, so often described as the founding text of
English Gothic ¬ction, is anti-Catholic in a way which, despite the novel™s
foreign setting, Walpole takes pains to locate in an English context. As part
of his authentication strategy, the very ¬rst sentence in the preface to the
¬rst edition says that the story comes from a black-letter book found in the

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