This is the third post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum.
Today I want to talk filthy lucre. One of the things I learnt at the RAMM was that Exeter was an important centre for the goldsmith trade from as early as the thirteenth century, and this set off a train of thought that ended up in the surprisingly short-term world of town planning. I’ll try to recreate the train here.
The goldsmiths golden age
Many of Exeter’s early modern artisans had their workshops in Goldsmith Street, an impressive thoroughfare that had a church at either end, almshouses, and a handsome hall used by the Company of Tailors. The exhibition houses a variety of related items, but the one that took my eye was a communion cup made by John Jones, one of the wealthiest goldsmiths in early modern Exeter. It is indicative of the fact that in this society, ‘fine art’ did not necessarily mean paintings (though there are some wonderful Holbeins in the exhibition, if that’s your thing). This cup, manufactured from silver with delicate engraving around the gilt-edged rim and foot, is extremely accomplished, in fact I was rather surprised by quite how fancy it was, given that this was over ten years into the Calvinist-inspired Elizabethan reign. The cup is still a thing of beauty, it could easily be a lot plainer and less ostentatious.
The uniqueness of the Church of England
My first thought was that perhaps this is proof that the Elizabethan Settlement acted as a ‘broad umbrella’, incorporating a number of different types of Protestants and a range of churchmanship? Christopher Haigh has argued that the adjustments made to the Prayer Book at the start of Elizabeth’s reign, particularly additions to the words used during the administration of the Lord’ Supper, deliberately introduced ambiguity into the ceremony, encouraging a range of opinion about what actually happened during the sacrament to survive or evolve. Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued along similar lines, suggesting that these changes were to bring the English Reformation in line with what was happening in the rest of Europe, particularly in Germany and Geneva. It is entirely plausible that the fancy cup could be a part of these processes – the use of a silver work of art, rather than a plain wooden cup, would have been deeply suggestive to a congregation versed in the ritual and symbolic importance of the liturgy.
The impact of the Reformation
Beyond the sometimes obscure and always complicated world of Reformation theology, the goldsmiths can also tell us much about the way in which changes in belief left a deep and enduring imprint on early modern society. For part of the reason for the continued success and prestige of the goldsmith community in Exeter was the dissolution of the City’s priory and friaries in 1538 and ongoing changes in religious policy that sent a lot of work their way. Historians have discovered that far from being isolated and cut off from their local communities, monasteries were in many ways integral to the social and economic functions of their local region, providing charity and education, and as producers and consumers. Following their abrupt closure, the shock waves were swift, reshaping the landscapes of local communities physically as well as spiritually. Large, imposing buildings were torn down or their functions changed, and Henry VIII quickly appropriated the vast riches of these institutions. This not only meant that the crown took control of church lands, they also seized their more moveable treasures. For the large group of goldsmiths in Exeter, this would have meant a very welcome steady source of work and income, as church plate was confiscated, some of which had to be melted down and reworked in a more acceptable shape, suitable to the new reformed liturgy. This was a lucrative business, as at each stage of the process the participants could take their cut, not to mention that the parishes had to buy new plate from the goldsmiths to replace the old throughout the Tudor era. Similar processes happened in parish churches – the RAMM’s information card tells us that the churchwarden accounts of St Petrock’s church in Exeter show that Jones was paid £1 15s 5d in 1572 for ‘converting’ this communion cup to make it suitable for Protestant worship. Thus the redistribution of wealth that the dissolution triggered is not restricted to the property market but bought benefits and profits to other groups that can easily be overlooked.
Heritage and Urban Planning
Finally, I was also interested to discover the fate of Goldsmith Street – the majority of the historic buildings there were demolished by the City Council in the 1970s to make way for redevelopment – today you will find Marks and Spencer and Millets where the goldsmiths used to ply their trade. Although one of our enduring national myths is that bombing raids in World War II were responsible for the destruction of much of our pre-modern urban architecture, more recently historians have begun to question this narrative. They have drawn attention to the fact that many cities were already undergoing a programme of redevelopment that included sweeping away inconveniently narrow medieval streets that were seen as obstacles to modern infrastructure and progress. Though the blitz did account for damage in many historic centres, our society’s own decision to prioritise the needs of economic and industrial advancement over our historic past may be the real explanation of urban change. A recent article on the BBC website revealed that this is even true of Coventry, which suffered devastating destruction in a terrible air raid in 1940, but where demolition had actually started before the war and continued after it. Exeter too suffered, in a severe raid in 1942 1,500 houses were destroyed, 2,700 were seriously damaged, and the Cathedral itself was hit, narrowly escaping the destruction of the nave. But much of value was left, though not all of it was subsequently retained – wiped away just as Goldsmiths was to make way for shopping centres and fast food joints.
The shock of the new
In many ways modern redevelopment of our urban landscapes is now just as shocking and significant as the deliberate destruction of the monasteries and the properties of the parish churches in the 1500s, and increasingly we are now beginning to see it that way. Each was an iconoclastic act, signalling a rejection of and moving away from the past. They were both inspired by a shift in the prevailing ideology and the emergence of something new: Protestantism, capitalism, modernity. Each are shocking to us now because these acts display a complete lack of respect for the past and for beautiful treasures which can now never be recreated. Each seems to have been driven by ‘the authorities’ in the face of limited public resistance, and in many cases the public seem unable to prevent the change even where they disagree with it. Perhaps this can helps us to understand the ‘compliance conundrum’ – the question of why there was a relative lack of any widespread resistance to the dissolution, despite the commitment that most English women and men had previously shown to the institutions. Perhaps they felt as helpless as we do in the face of development, perhaps they also felt a sense in which they were swimming against the tide in trying to preserve the past or stand in the way of state sponsored change. Or perhaps they came to terms with and even embraced the changes, regretting the passing of the old ways and the destruction of beautiful things, but eager to make the most of the opportunities that the new future offered them, and keen to create new and more beautiful – but different – things to replace those that had been lost.
In tomorrow’s post: the Spanish Armada arrives off the south west coast.
‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here.