History: Sixth Form Tudor Conference 2013

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Bede's icon and member of the History Faculty John Berryman reports back from the recent Sixth Form Tudor Conference, which this year took place less than a mile from the school, at Michelham Priory.

Less than a mile from Bede's there exists a physical resource whose existence meaningfully and integrally resonates with students of Tudor History.

Michelham Priory, home to a select band of Augustine monks over a period of several hundred years until its untimely demise at the hands of 'hatchet man' Thomas Cromwell, with the approval of Henry VIII, in 1537.

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Despite its despoilment, much remains at Michelham, albeit restored in the Twentieth Century. Thus on March 18 our A Level students journeyed to the Priory for the annual Bede's Sixth Form Tudor Conference.

Immersed in the very fabric of the buildings, which are symptomatic both of the vibrant monasticism of the middle ages, and the calculated, wanton destruction of not only a building but a rational way of life, we enjoyed a day of discussion, investigation and lectures, ruminating on the destruction of the Priory instigated by an avaricious, power-hungry self-seeker.

Following an introduction and welcome to the day from Bede's Head of History Mrs Katy O'Hara and Michelham Priory's Head of Educational Services Mrs Alison Young, the seminar kicked off with a short BBC documentary on the Reformation Initiatives taken by Martin Luther in Germany. This included his theological premises and increasingly bitter spats with the Catholic Church.

The documentary served to reinforce the students' required study of the Continental Reformation and acted as an essential contextualisation of what was to happen under Henry in England in general, and at Michelham in particular.

Our friend, local academic and former Reader of History at Sussex University Dr Malcom Kitch was scheduled to lead us in a session devoted to an examination of the life, wealth, positives, negatives, security and insecurity in respect of the Tudor Monastery, with special reference to the priories at Michelham and Lewes. Sadly, Dr Kitch was ill and could not attend, however our disappointment was alleviated by two Bede's students, Katie Dale and James Baldwin, who seized the opportunity to take up the slack, grasp the nettle and lead the session.

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The two heroes rose to the occasion, offering a balanced, informative presentation on Monastic Life and alluding to its Augustinian and Cluniac variants as represented respectively by Michelham and Lewes Priories.

The students held the attention of their peers with style, having been prepared in advance by Mrs O'Hara.

Lunch was then taken, Tudor-style - although with manners more befitting the Twentieth Century. No throwing of chicken drumsticks or shooting marbles at table using the eyes of roasted geese!

The meal was beautifully prepared by the Bede's Catering Department, with appropriate meats, salads, bread, cakes and custard as befitting to the period as the occasion. Charlotte Collins even dressed in period costume.

After lunch we were privileged to having this year secured the services of Professor George Bernard of the University of Southampton to deliver the key-note address.

Professor Bernard has worked extensively on the Tudor Period and is well-known in particular through his books 'Henry VIII: A King's Reformation?" and "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions."

In his talk Professor Bernard focussed our minds, appropriately, on Henry's religious policy: its dynamic, the significance of the break with Rome, associated as it was with the Dissolution of the Monasteries Professor Bernard argued, as indeed did Professor Scarisbick last year, that the religious crisis of the 1520's and 30's was driven essentially by the dynastic and amorous preoccupations of a Rennaisance prince rather than as a spontaneous, popular, grass-roots expression of hostility to a Catholic Church in meltdown.

The King, asserted Professor Bernard, was very much in the driving seat in terms of his relationship with Anne Boleyn, both before and after the couples' marriage. In a revisionist twist on the traditional view that Anne's feisty charms manipulated Henry's judgement, Professor Bernard asserted that Henry was the more dominant partner.

The talk, followed by discussion, was then succeeded by a guided tour of the Priory itself, led by Mrs Young.

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Little remains now of the original medieval monastery: its despoliation in 1537 saw to that. Yet what does remain is impressive: the fine, fen-vaulted under-crofts and Prior Leem's lodgings directly above; the external walls of the dormitory and huge Gothic window around which later additions to the structure have been built; the outline of the multi-dimensional chapel can now be traced: the moat, the watermill, the herb garden, the gatehouse; all essential elements of the medieval monastery.

It was also evident that the former monastery experienced several reincarnations in terms of usage, consequent upon its dissolution.

At the end of the day we then gathered for a plenary debriefing and question and discussion session, the students happy in the knowledge that they had retraced footprints of History.

John Berryman

Teacher of History

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