Many tower houses had a private chapel. The east-facing window and layout of this room, including an “aumbry“ (a niche), suggests that it could have served as a chapel before Spenser took possession of the tower house. If so, then Spenser could have modified it for his own household use as a religious space.
Spenser was a Protestant, but what kind of Protestant is open to debate. To what extent did he sympathize with the rituals and doctrine of the Anglican, or “high” church, which had parallels with the older, Catholic faith? By contrast, how “puritanical,” and therefore mistrustful of vestigial Catholic ceremonies and doctrine, was he? How much did he desire continued radical reform of the church following Lutheran or Calvinist principles?
Furthermore, did he believe in structural as well as doctrinal reform in the church? To what degree for each? How did his opinions evolve? Was he a more hot-headed reformer as a young man, before he came to Ireland? Or was he sympathetic towards tolerant and syncretic religious practices?
As he grew older, how did Ireland’s religious politics influence him? One could argue that his status as a minority English Protestant hardened his militant anti-Catholic and apocalyptic beliefs, a logical reaction to the threats he found surrounding him. He exhibits such beliefs in works he wrote as a young man, for example in his first publication (1569), a translation of the work of Dutch reformer Jan van der Noot.
Spenser’s written works give us conflicting impressions concerning his beliefs and where he stood in relation to the current reform of England and Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic churches. We have therefore taken the controversial step of creating a modest but icon-filled chapel at Kilcolman. An image of the Christ hangs on the crucifix (many Protestants abhorred the idea of presenting an image of their god, preferring instead a plain crucifix), and a late-medieval mural of St Christopher brightens up the wall. It is imagined here as a visible remnant of the previous inhabitants of the same chapel, which Spenser chose not to white-wash. On the makeshift altar (a table and cloth) lies a Bible, chalice and crucifix. A cushion sits below for kneeling in prayer.
Which Bible was Spenser reading? We leave that unspecified although he likely owned a copy of the Book of Common Prayer (1559) for worship purposes.
Spenser seems to hate — he ridicules, satirizes and demonizes— the institution of the Catholic church, including the papacy, which he equates in The Faerie Queene Book I (for example) with the Whore of Babylon and the Antichrist. In this he follows the Calvinist commentary in the Geneva Bible (1560). He had political worries in this regard: the armies of the Catholic empire Spain regularly interfered in Ireland and the Netherlands, and tried to in England, a drama played out repeatedly in the allegories of Book V of The Faerie Queene and in other places in his poetry, such as the Orgoglio episode in Book I.
Nonetheless, without censure or irony, Spenser includes Catholic imagery and ideas in his House of Holiness episode in Book I.x of The Faerie Queene. Here the Red Crosse Knight undergoes a scourging of the flesh. That hero, the hero of holiness, then becomes St George, a saint from the old liturgy, also the patron saint of England, who undergoes a symbolic crucifixion fighting against the Dragon in canto xi. Saints were redolent of Catholicism, and George becomes an icon or image of Christ himself as we read along. Spenser describes him in words, not images, but Spenser’s words are highly imagistic. The 1590 Faerie Queene included one woodcut, an image of St George defeating the dragon: in other words, a sort of icon (this woodcut can be found hanging on the bookshelf in his study upstairs).
Spenser also appears to be anti-Catholic in his artistic temperament. At the end of Book II, for example, published in the same volume, the hero of temperance, Guyon, violently destroys the highly artistic, if luxurious and decadent, Bower of Bliss. Spenser therefore appears to promote iconoclasm (or image-destruction) at any cost: a radical Protestant idea.
Ireland itself Spenser admires for once being a “holy-Island” that “florished in fame/ Of wealths and goodnesse, far aboue the rest” (The Faerie Queene VII.vi.37.7, 38.1-2), a compliment to its ancient status as an island famed for its saints and scholars, long before the Protestant Reformation occured. Yet in Spenser’s day Ireland had —from his point of view— degenerated to a bad condition, occupied by rebellious papists and no-good, feckless Protestant church appointees (as we hear in A View of the Present State of Ireland).
For Spenser, the best cure for Ireland’s perillous spiritual condition was reformed, state-sponsored religion that would follow a political re-conquest and reformation of the country. Spenser would, presumably, uphold this religion at Kilcolman. In his poem, “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe,“ Spenser’s alter-ego Colin Clout, having visited London (to the east) and returned to Kilcolman (in the west), enthusiastically describes to his fellow shepherds the “lookes“ of “Cynthia,“ i.e., Queen Elizabeth I, whom he saw at court. Her looks and favor inspire religious devotion in him, and he compares her to the sun shining from the “windowes of the east“:
like beames of the morning Sun,
Forth looking through the windowes of the East:
When first the fleecie cattell haue begun
Vpon the perled grasse to make their feast.
Her thoughts are like the fume of Franckincence,
Which from a golden Censer forth doth rise:
And throwing forth sweet odours mounts fro thence
In rolling globes vp to the vauted skies. (lines 604-11)
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012): 33-50, 194-5, 208, 222-6, 326.
Carol Kaske, “Introduction.” The Faerie Queene, Book One. By Edmund Spenser. Ed. Carol Kaske (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006), ix-xxix.
John N. King, “sacraments.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1990), 623-4.
—, Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990).
http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/gutenberg/ [accessed 10/30/12]
[Harry Ransom Center exhibit on Gutenberg and the early printed Bible]