England’s monastic past is evoked through a line in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It also reminds us of what happened to many monasteries and abbeys in Britain during and after the Reformation in England and Scotland.
Poetry generally possesses a unique character. However, because of the metaphorical language and the elusive allusions, we frequently have difficulty in deciphering the stories poems tell or the messages they convey. The same applies to William Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Although Sonnet 73 is no exception in this regard, a single line is particularly striking. We find it at the end of the first quatrain:
“That time of yeare thou maist in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange
Upon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.”
(This quatrain is taken from Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. P. 234.)
Here Shakespeare evokes England’s monastic past but also alludes to the monastic ruins in the post-Reformation period. In general, the one-line evocation gives a feeling of nostalgia. It permits the interpretation that Shakespeare arguably assumed a critical attitude towards the English Reformation, while he appeared to be in favour of late medieval monasticism and Catholicism.
During as well as after the Reformation in England and Scotland the overthrow of late medieval monasticism resulted in the dissolution, destruction and pillage of many monasteries, abbeys and other religious buildings. A large amount of church land was also transferred.
Today, we can still visit the romantic ruins. They are a reminder of a distant past. Examples are Battle Abbey, the partially ruined building on the alleged site of the famous Battle of Hastings, and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey beside the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, even though in the 17th century the demolished Augustinian monastery was rebuilt and fell into disrepair in the 18th century.
Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2012 and 2018.
Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.