Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Sarum Rite I: A Brief History

Nave of Salisbury Cathedral, taken by the author.
"Henry VIII, we must remember, was a Roman Catholic." These uncomfortable words a tour guide uttered at an audience in St. Peter da Vincula in the Tower of London four years ago. At the time, I was reading Church History at university and enamored with the decentralized view of Christianity 19th century Tractarians offered. The guide's words tore that veil in two. He continued, "We must remember that in Henry's time, there was no Church of England, only the Church in England."

While the branding of all Western Christendom as "Roman Catholicism" was not yet accomplished in the 16th century, any pre-Reformation historian would be sorely tempted to call England the most "Roman" of all Catholic European nations. Both in the age of Henry VIII and before Hastings England situated herself spiritually very close to the Mother Church in central Italy. This is essential to understanding the origins of the Sarum rite, or usage, a variation of the pre-Tridentine liturgy that was in fact a three fold synthesis of the ancient Roman liturgy, the Norman liturgy, and the monastic liturgy. It is to the second Sarum owes its grandeur, the third to which she owes part of her ritual and architecture, but to the first she owes her birth.

As a province of the Roman Empire, Britannia presumably practiced the Christian faith in some capacity after the Edict of Milan in 313. Nearly three centuries later, St. Gregory the Great saw a man with pallor in a Roman square and inquired if he was an angel. A man replied to the pope "Non angelus, sed anglus." The Roman bishop then dispatched St. Augustine to the fallen away isle, where he planted the Church at Canterbury and became the first of many bishops in that see.

The Roman Church's liberation from Imperial persecution was followed by the collapse of the Eternal City and her Western Empire a century later, leaving the faith like water spilled on the floor, running over every smooth surface. Without considerable compulsion, churches throughout Europe deigned to imitate the practices of the Roman Church in their local settings. Of particular interest were the liturgies of the Lateran Cathedral and of St. Peter's Basilica, the former because it is the Papal cathedral and the latter because it was the most prominent destination for pilgrimages in Europe in the first millennium. Romanization was so prevalent that Msgr. Pierre Batiffol hypothesized that Europe would still have adopted the Roman tradition, albeit at a later time, if not for the efforts of Alcuin and Charlemagne. England itself engage in proactive Romanization. St. Bede the Venerable recounts that his mentor, Benedict Biscop, found a Benedictine abbot named John in Roman and brought him to Britain with the permission of Pope Agatho so that "at Wearmouth he might teach the monks in [Biscop's] monastery to sing the office as it was sung at St. Peter's in Rome."

Meanwhile, Pepin and the Frankish court requested of the pope a copy of the Roman Sacramentary for the celebration of Mass according to the Roman tradition as well as the Antiphonaries and Responsories for the celebration of the Office. In 809, Charlemagne made his friend, Amalarius, the Archbishop of Treves. Amalarius visited Pope Leo III in Rome in 795 and would visit Gregory IV in 831. Amalarius recounts various discrepancies in both text and music between the several editions of the Roman Office possessed by his clergy. Initially one is tempted to blame textual corruption, but further consideration adds multiplicity of sources, too. St. Peter's, the Lateran, the Papal Court, and the monasteries of Rome would all have sung the Office with some degree of variation just as the Frankish recipients of those Antiphonal and Responsorial books would have done. 

In the late first millennium the Roman liturgy was governed by a strong traditional taxis without the force of positive law or ritual ornament. While textually the books that traveled to Britain and the Frankish court were identical to those used by the Roman Church, the physical interpretation varied tremendously. The Roman liturgy was a communal affair by a self-consciously ancient and holy city wherein each person had his proper role. The responsorial psalm, which has little to do with its ill-named descendant in the Pauline Mass, was sung alternatively by the district subdeacons who ran a given parish church; the priests existed for sacramental expediency and the deacons handled administration in the Papal court. In northern Europe there was no ancient city, there were no district subdeacons, and there was no papal court. In turn, those in monastic orders or those studying for ecclesiastical life substitute their role with monastic choir ritual. In a like manner, the minimalist use of incense, the eschatological elements of the Papal rites, and the communal processions on great feasts were either done away with or interpreted according to local use. Europe, through Africa, learned to appreciate the use of incense in the manner of the Greek Church. Local churches of note substituted for the Roman stational churches on feasts, vigils, and the days of Lent. Everything un-written Roman element either fell away or was retained in a re-imagined local setting. While this sounds off putting, it means that the spirit of the ancient Roman rite, if not its words, diffused throughout northern Europe and remained alive there long after the Minorites succeeded in suppressing the grand rites of Roman in favor of the reduced Curial books. One could say that the Sarum use was just as Roman as St Pius V's Tridentine Missal and Breviary.

Tomb of St. Osmund, taken myself in 2011
After William the Conqueror won his victory at Hastings, he proceeded to replace, at the behest of Pope Alexander II, the corrupted Saxon clergy with his own Norman clerics (a successful, if inaccurate, attempt was made to explore this in the movie Becket). They brought their exuberant liturgical customs to a British Church which had long been practicing a version of the Roman rite. Among these clerics was a nobleman named Osmund, who, under St. Gregory VII, was appointed and consecrated the first bishop of the new and condensed diocese of Salisbury, where he was buried in the cathedral. St. Osmund's first cathedral, in the defunct city of Old Sarum, had six altars that reflect medieval devotion—the high altar of the church, one for St. Stephen, St. Martin, St. Nicholas, the Holy Cross, and All Saints—and hint at the origin of the processions before Mass codified in the Sarum Missal. A cloister adjoined both the Old Sarum and the Salisbury cathedrals through which processions typically passed.

It was in this environment that the Sarum liturgy grew until the Reformation. At the time of "the king's great matter" Sarum and its brother liturgy in York had become so deeply ingrained in the English Church's mind that they would not pass into memory until after the death of Elizabeth I. The Pilgrimage of Grace, when they had Mass available to them, would have heard Mass in the Sarum rite, refusing Prayer Book services. Decades later the Northumberland uprising of 1570 revived use of the Sarum rite as a spiritual element of a plot to depose Elizabeth and replace her with a faithful queen. After the death of Edward VI churches in London spontaneously began celebrating Mass, theoretically a forgotten ritual, according to the Sarum liturgy, temporarily given an official return to prominence during the brief reign of Queen Mary. Priests who wished to continue the old ways often continued to celebrate low Mass in their rectories according to the Sarum books. Missionaries who were not trained by the Jesuits were known to celebrate the Sarum Mass during Recusant days. Sarum was even considered for revival during the re-establishment of diocesan structure in the 19th century. Eventually, Sarum was passed on in favor of the Roman liturgy without adhering to the canonical norms of Quo primum tempore of St. Pius V, which requires both the approval of the bishop and the unanimous consent of the chapter of canons to jettison the local use for Roman books. Relics of Sarum can still be found in the Book of Common Prayer, which numbers its Sundays after Trinity, retains many readings and collects, and keeps some of the ritual in more "high church" settings. 

The loss of the Sarum rite to the Catholic Church is one of the great liturgical tragedies of the Counter-Reformation that has nothing to do with Ultramontanism, positive law, or minimalism. The loss of Sarum was Henry and Elizabeth's theft of England's great treasure, a theft beyond any form of taxation. It is my goal in this series to explore the Mass, Office, readings, feasts, and seasons of the liturgy of the Sarum church, to deepen our appreciation of the Church's patrimony, and to take these lessons, in some measure, to our own parishes.


  1. Curiously, the Missal of Evora shares the same nomenclature for the Sundays after Trinity.

  2. I would agree with Fr. Chadwick that you may be mistaken in your conclusion that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are responsible for the theft of the Sarum rite. In point of fact, Henry so venerated that rite that he signed a statute making the Sarum rite the sole one to be celebrated in England, thus supplanting the other local usages such as York, etc.

    On the other hand, it was not theft that Elizabeth committed, but rather, murder most foul: the murder, not only of the Sarum rite, but that of the thousands in England who were martyred by their devotion to that rite. And while it is perhaps an anachronism to do so, I believe that her acts constituted a genocide on the people of England, by depriving them of their traditional ways.

    Other than that, however, I found your history to be both thorough and well-written. I hope that you may continue with this series.

    1. Bernard,

      Thanks for the comment. The implication was not meant to be that Henry and Elizabeth changed the rite per se, but that their separation from the Roman Church severed England's connection with the broader Church that that country once sought to emulate. Instead they would pursue their own religion identity. The schism was the real crime, the loss of Sarum a major byproduct of it.

    2. I would agree with that implication.

    3. To spin off Bernard's point, it could be argued that it is also due to Henry's love of the rite, that the Sarum can be reconstructed (even if what he started ultimately resulted in its lack of real use). Another great crime which we can place on Henry's shoulders is the loss of the other English rites. Sarum seems to be the only one considered due it having more books available, but I don't think the Puseyites gave York or the others much consideration.

  3. Would that there are many more opportunities to replicate the last picture of your post!

    1. Only in the Twilight Zone, my friend.

    2. In a parish church in Yorkshire we used vestments of a rusty brown colour according to the "Ancient Use of Ebor".