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Research Questions

A persistent belief in angels as protectors and ministers was widespread throughout the period from 1480-1700, and the survival and mutation of belief therefore raises interesting questions about the pace, extent and nature of religious change. The English Reformation has long been a fruitful area of research, in recent years scholarship has progressed from an understandable preoccupation with the rate, geography and social distribution of conversions to Protestantism, to focus instead on the ways in which the populace as a whole was able to adjust to the fact of doctrinal change. Tessa Watt’s notion that later sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century culture comprised ‘a fusion of new and traditional elements’, resulting in ‘a patchwork of beliefs’ that were “distinctively ‘post-Reformation’, but not thoroughly Protestant” has proven a tremendously useful concept, and scholars have subsequently sought to pinpoint elements of continuity as well as change, recognising strategies and ‘accommodations’ adopted by reformers in order to secure the loyalty of the people.

The initial survival and later development of beliefs in and about angels over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth century will be examined in the context of this scholarship. The endurance and mutation of belief about angels has the potential to offer an insight into the ways in which doctrine and practice evolved in the years following the Reformation. To revisionist historians, angels might seem a symptom of the resilience of Catholic devotion, whilst others have suggested that they served the pastoral agenda of Protestantism, stepping in to replace the saints as the ‘ideologically appropriate friends of humanity’. However, neither of these explanations is entirely convincing. The intention of this thesis is to situate angelic beliefs with respect to revisionist and post-revisionist scholarship, recognising continuities in religious culture, albeit complex and contested ones. Recent research has shown that the reform of English religion was a long term, fluid process, where older assumptions and observances were assimilated and harnessed, and a study of angels potentially has much to say about how this worked at the level of belief and practice.

My thesis therefore disentangles and elucidates discourses about angels in a wide variety of early modern texts. However, the enquiry is not framed as an intellectual history that exclusively concentrates on patterns of thought at the expense of the interests they served and the social and cultural contexts in which they were conceived. It is not simply a narrative of the changing fortunes of angels set against the backdrop of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the fluctuating ‘popularity’ of the motif is not the main focus. Rather, this study principally examines angels in the light of the strategies and methods adopted by religious reformers seeking to persuade the laity that their innovative theology was in fact a return to the one true faith. The ways in which they took up and utilised the motif of angels, and the meanings they attached to them, reveal much about reformed mentalities and the ways in which change was implemented through the institution of the church. By investigating how the processes of reform affected the utilisation of angels, I intend to exploit the great flexibility and versatility of this aspect of representation and belief to engage with questions about the continuing evolution of the Church of England and religious mentalities more widely. A disparate range of confessional identities emerged and were hardened within the same physical and intellectual environment throughout this period, and this study will seek to utilise angels as a shared theoretical ‘space’ in which to understand these processes.

Annunciation, Hadzor, Hereford and Worcester

St Michael fights the dragon, St Leonards Church, Essex c.1000