Review: The Last Divine Office by Geoffrey Moorhouse

The Last Divine Office is a book that talks about the monastery at Durham, attached to the Durham Cathedral, from its history to its dissolution, and after. The book explores how the dissolution affected the lives of the monks, and how things changed for everyone, both within and outside the boundaries of the monastery. The book also touches on the laws passed with respect to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and goes into detail into some of the correspondence between the various actors, depicting exactly how the dissolution took place.

This book, unlike one would expect, talks from the viewpoint of how the Dissolution affected the Durham monastery, rather than how the Dissolution was worked and how it affected the public at large. The author has chosen to speak from a micro point of view in contrast to the larger picture most often shown by most historians. Moorhouse is impressive in the sheer detail provided of the monk’s lives and daily rituals that had been handed down from one generation to the other for centuries. Every aspect of the monastery life is explained, and after reading this book, no one can complain they don’t know the difference between a Cellarer and a Communar or how exactly an Easter ceremony was conducted or just how many and what kind of jewels were stuck to which cross. Detail in detail.

The book is divided in two parts; the first dealing with the history and practices of Durham, its cathedral, its monastery and its castle, while the second part directly discusses Henry VIII’s dissolution policies, and its effects on Durham and its monastery. However, by the end of the third chapter of the first part (there are 5 chapters), one gets tired of the wrangling between the different bishops and priors. While interesting, it just seems out of context and way too detailed for the theme of this book.

The Monks’ Dormitory in the Durham Monastery
Photograph by Jeffrey Veitch from Durham World Heritage Site

The second part of the book deals with the actual Great Matter and the Dissolution. Moorhouse has chosen to do a simplistic recital of the facts instead of delving deeper into it and on the first page itself, there are many myths reiterated about this period. Moorhouse claims that Henry may have had a son with Mary Boleyn, Henry VII would have made his son the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cromwell was executed for his involvement in the Anne of Cleves debacle, etc.

Moorhouse has not delved into all other aspects of the period, and frequently makes mistakes with the various different aspects of the reign, and unquestioningly accepts popular historical myths. But in the area he has chosen to write and research about, he gives a balanced and detailed representation of facts. As far as the dissolution and the laws, accounting and analysis related to it is concerned, there is no faulting the author.

Ground Plan of Durham Cathedral

The author has delved deep into the details of the accounts of the monastery and the letters sent to and forth between Cromwell and his various commissioners. The author unhesitatingly accepts that Cromwell and Henry had never intended to turn the monks out of their homes without making alternative arrangements. He also is quite clear that the destruction of some of the old monasteries were not officially sanctioned. He makes the point that while intentions were good, execution proved much more difficult than expected, leading to many of the problems commonly attributed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Whatever his feelings about the various actors of the event, he depicts a balanced and unbiased view of their actions. As such, Moorhouse provides a detailed and balanced account of the Dissolution.

The book is filled with small tidbits about life in the monastery, letters exchanged between Cromwell / Henry and the commissioners, obscure laws passed dealing with religion and commerce, squabbles between some of the people involved. The last couple of chapters discuss how the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I had impacted the worship rituals of the clergy.

This book is a great read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period. It is also a great read for those looking for some detailed history of the English reformation.

Rating: 4.5/5

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One thought on “Review: The Last Divine Office by Geoffrey Moorhouse

  1. Thank you for this review. It sounds like an interesting book and well worth reading for anybody wanting to find out more about the English Reformation and also about monastic life in general.

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