Northern (Power)House of God


A photograph of the Angel of the North set against a dramatic sunset sky.

The Angel of the North, by Wilka Hudson (2008) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

Ahead of Gavin Wakefield’s upcoming Durham Book Festival event, The Northern Powerhouse and God: Searching for the Angel of the NorthGašper Jakovac discusses the religious roots of the North-South divide.

In the essay collection Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission, the editors Gavin Wakefield and Nigel Rooms, together with other contributors, ask what seems to be at first a rather straightforward and pragmatic question: how to re-evangelize the North of England? Since simply setting the North apart from the rest of England should not be taken for granted, it does not come as a surprise that the essays repeatedly reflect on the issue of cultural regionalization. In other words, the contributors strive to describe the essence of Northern identity in order to engage with the region in a meaningful dialogue.

The North, of course, exists – we can visit and experience it – but it is harder to define it. As Michael Sadgrove correctly claims in his chapter, it is ‘mostly relative rather than an absolute concept: it means north of where I am, though it is fed by the notion of an absolute north that lies beyond all these places’. Yet statistically and historically, the relativity of England’s North and, moreover, the stereotypic narratives surrounding it can be curbed. The North-South divide in England is painfully real and most obviously reflected in the stark economic inequality. But the North’s idiosyncrasies neither begin nor end with its alleged ‘grimness’; the North is in fact culturally distinct and rich in heritage. The formation of its separate identity stretches back to the Anglo-Saxon period, the Northumbrian Golden Age in the seventh and eight centuries. In this period, it was not the South but the North that was the ‘powerbase of the emerging English nation’. Gavin Wakefield’s contribution aptly leads us through the history of the region and its ebb and flow of power. Although the new invasion of Britain from the south, the Norman Conquest of 1066, shifted political and religious power to the South of England once and for all, in its wake the North East saw the establishment of its most iconic building, Durham Cathedral, home of the shrines of St Cuthbert and St Bede. Furthermore, as a county palatine, Durham remained a semi-autonomous political entity until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

A view of Durham Cathedral and castle dating from 1800.

Durham Cathedral and Castle, by Thomas Girtin (1800) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

It is precisely in this period of religious turmoil and schism where my interest in Northern identities really begins. Within the sphere of Elizabethan and Early Stuart high politics, the North was perceived – as well as being backward, poor, and lawless – staunchly Catholic. In 1596, William James, an Oxford graduate, who was born in Cheshire but spend most of his adult life in the south, was appointed Dean of Durham. He was not impressed with the North. In January 1597, he wrote a letter to the secretary of state Robert Cecil lamenting the sad state of the diocese: ‘This poor country & city (for I think it far exceedeth any other thrice so big in poverty) is in religion very backward.’ Although we sense pity in his outline of the decay of tillage ‘in this little Bishopric’, he cannot completely overcome his generally patronizing tone; ‘If corn were not brought in at Newcastle (which is now also visited with the plague), many thousands would for wont of bread perish. […] these great inconveniences, I fear, will not be redressed without help from afar.’ The North cannot help itself, so the South is summoned to the rescue.

A portrait of William James, Dean of Durham

William James, Dean of Durham (1617); in 1606, James was promoted to Bishop of Durham [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

But apart from crumbling agriculture and general misery, James is worried about the Catholics, ‘both esquires & gentlemen of good place & their families’ and ‘divers others of meaner calling’, who are not willing to amend their ways. ‘Their ignorance & blindness’, he claims, are ‘to be pitied, their pride & insolence may not be endured’. ‘It were better if there were not one of them left in England’, he finally states. And here we hit the blind spot of Northern Gospel’s Anglican perspective on the northern Church history. To me, the work of Bernard Gilpin seems as important in understanding the idiom of the North as the work of a generation younger Jesuit Richard Holtby, who is not mentioned in the volume. Reformation was clearly not easy in the North; it dragged on and it never really managed to overcome deeply rooted Catholic sentiments.

Northern Catholic identity did not manifest itself only through the formidable Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, a popular uprising against Henry VIII’s religious policies, but also a generation later in the short-lived Northern Rising of 1569, led by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland. The driving force behind the 1569 revolt was a promise of the restoration of the old faith. Prohibited ‘popish practices’ had been temporarily revived and people flocked to hear Mass either in Durham Cathedral or any of the other churches across County Durham and Yorkshire, which reintroduced traditional worship and church inventory. By December the rebellion was quenched and in February 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth. Afterwards, the persecution of Catholics in England, particularly priests, intensified.

A painting depicting the Pilgrimage of Grace, with monks and priests at a public gathering.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, by Fred Kirk Shaw (1913). via luminarium.org

The North, therefore, remained a Catholic ‘powerbase’ even after Elizabethan religious settlement; partly because of its remoteness, partly because of the stubbornness of its people. It is hard to say how relevant the Catholic subplot of the history of the North is for the mission today, but it is without any doubt, like so many other stories of resistance, woven into the fabric of Northern mentality.

I was surprised to learn from Stephen Croft’s wonderful piece that Anglican clergy are often reluctant to serve in the northern dioceses and that, particularly in the North, the Anglican Church remains detached from the artisan and working classes. Class is still, he claims, ‘a determining factor in churchgoing’ (18). When reading the passage, I immediately juxtaposed it with the issue of the misdistribution of Catholic clergy in late sixteenth-century England. Around 1580, only 18 per cent of priests active in England and Wales serviced the six northern counties where almost half of the country’s Catholics lived. More than half of the missionaries, on the other hand, worked in London, the Thames valley, and adjacent counties, where Catholic numbers were small (for details see the work of Christopher Haigh). The priests, most of them well educated sons of gentry families, clearly preferred the comfort and security of southern noble houses and were not at all attracted by precarious work among the poor in the harsh northern climate. Sounds familiar? The North-South divide was clearly a nuisance for the post-Reformation Catholic mission as well. Luckily, there are always exceptions who believe the North is not at all that grim and worth fighting for.

Gavin Wakefield will be discussing his edited anthology Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission at this year’s Durham Book Festival. Thursday 13 October, Durham Cathedral, 7pm.

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