In this blog, Dr Katy Gibbons, Senior Lecturer in History at Portsmouth, reports on a field trip undertaken as part of her Special Subject Module, ‘Conflict, Conspiracy, Consensus: Religious Identities in Elizabethan England’.
One of the challenges of researching a society that is several hundred years removed from our own is in understanding the physical and material aspects that seem so different – the places in which people lived and interacted with each other, the clothes they wore, the objects they owned, and the meanings that were invested in them. This might be particularly challenging when thinking our way into religion and religious experience, and grasping the ways in which religion (encompassing far more than attending church once a week) structured and influenced all aspects of life, in a number of complicated ways. One really useful way into this is to consider the material objects (large and small) that do survive, how they were put to use in religious activity, and what they suggest to us about contemporary approaches. This is something that students taking the final year Special Subject unit, ‘Conflict, Conspiracy, Consensus: Religious Identities in Elizabethan England’ got to grips with in a field trip. Seeing the physical remains of 16th century religion and society through the lens of a parish church and a ‘private’ house offered a fresh insight into a number of aspects of the unit, from the importance of parish identity to the role played by personal, familial and public display.
A few weeks into the unit, the seminar group took a trip to Southampton, in order to visit two adjacent sites rich in Tudor heritage: the parish church of St Michael’s (the city’s oldest building), and the Tudor House Museum and Garden, which stands opposite. The trip was funded by the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies, so free to students. We were lucky enough to benefit from the expertise and knowledge of church wardens and stewards in St Michael’s, and of a member of tour guide team at The Tudor House, who was an archaeologist and a key member of the team who restored the house and garden. We saw and thought about many aspects of life in the 16th century: here I will mention just a few examples.
St Michael’s gave us a good sense of what changed within an urban parish church in the course of the Reformation, and subsequently. The interior of the church in the 21st century looks very different to the 16th century! But there were some key features to consider, most notably the very fine tomb of Richard Lyster, a notable figure in the civic life of Southampton and a man who held important ‘national’ office, as well as the inhabitant of the Tudor House across the square. This was a useful insight into attitudes towards burial and remembrance in the 1560s, as Protestantism was reintroduced as the official faith of England, and of the close physical and material, and also emotional ties that parishioners might have to their parish church. Other highlights in the church included being able to view copies of the church wardens’ accounts and the records of baptisms and burials: mentions of those who were not native to the city serving as a useful reminder of the shifting and varied population of a port town such as Southampton.
In exploring the Tudor house, we benefitted hugely from the guided tour, which highlighted aspects (including the lofts and the original Tudor kitchen in the basement) that we would otherwise not have had access to. Amongst other things, we talked about cultures of display for wealthy families in an urban context; the presence of ‘witch’s marks’ in some of the rooms and the persistence of traditional beliefs about evil spirits and liminal spaces in the building, and the range of graffiti on the walls of one of the upstairs chambers.
All in all, this was an enjoyable and rewarding field trip. It offered plenty of food for thought, gave us the opportunity to think about the physical and material aspects of some of what we had read, and even gave some of us the chance for some dressing up! It also provided some material for the individual research that students went on to conduct for their assessment. Thank you to St Michael’s and the Tudor House and Gardens!