Through focusing on late Medieval material culture and microhistory, Cambridge historian Professor Eamon Duffy has produced a rich reinterpretation of the traditional role of religion in this enduringly popular – and turbulent – period of English history.

The heart of Eamon Duffy's achievement was to turn his own religious commitment into a scholarly strength.

Times Higher Education

By drawing on the visual arts, architecture and material culture alongside more conventional archival material, The Stripping of the Altars offered a more three-dimensional history of religious changes which also constituted a cultural revolution.

Professor Eamon Duffy

Tudor England – with its potent mix of intrigue, violence and religion – can lay claim to being this country's most popular period of history. From Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, the period continues to inspire writers and fascinate audiences. And, despite its popularity, it remains a fertile period for historical scholars like Cambridge's Professor Eamon Duffy.

For the past 25 years, Duffy has been fascinated by the transformations of religion in Reformation England. Unsatisfied by the prevailing view that the Reformation occurred against the backdrop of a Medieval church in decay and decline, he turned his attention to England's 11,000 Medieval churches to discover the tale they had to tell.

Although wary (like many historians) of the dangers of material culture as historical sources, he found that when combined with documentary evidence from parish records, wills and guilds, the churches told a different story. Lavishly endowed and often rebuilt in the century prior to the Reformation, the churches spoke of a thriving religious culture, deeply embedded in English life in both town and country.

It's a history Duffy described in his 1992 book The Stripping of the Altars. Offering a new take on the Tudor religious revolution which destroyed most of the art and many of the best buildings in England, and ranging widely across history, religion, art and literature, it became a bestseller and won the Longman History Today prize.

History in miniature

For the second part of his Tudor trilogy, Duffy focussed on the tiny Devon village of Morebath. Set on the southern slopes of Exmoor, this community of just 33 families affords a rich insight into sixteenth century life thanks to the astonishingly detailed records kept by its parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, from 1519 to 1574.

The records are well known among historians because of their publication in 1904 by former vicar J Erskine Binney. Duffy discovered, however, that Binney's transcription contained a vital error, which had concealed the fact that far from being sleepily conformist during the Reformation, the villagers had played an active part in the west country's armed  rebellion against Edward VI.

His 2001 book The Voices of Morebath: reformation and rebellion in an English Village, which won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature, brought the village and its tragedies vividly to life, and Morebath today has become a centre of pilgrimage marked by an English Heritage 'brown sign'.

And part three of his epic project saw Duffy examine the controversial reign of Queen Mary I. Published in 2009, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor helped rehabilitate a queen long remembered as 'Bloody Mary'.

Art, music and education

As well as the thousands of readers drawn to his books, Duffy's re-examination of traditional religion in Tudor England has influenced many other areas of English culture.

His work stimulated renewed interest in the visual culture of late medieval England, providing historical context for the Victoria & Albert Museum's major 2003 exhibition Gothic, Art for England, and more recently its travelling exhibition of English alabaster devotional sculpture Object of Devotion.

Produced in their thousands for churches and private chapels by Nottingham craftsmen, these alabasters remain the period's most distinctive artistic products. The exhibition, which toured a dozen North American museums and galleries between 2010 and 2013, gave 57,000 visitors a truer understanding of devotional practices in the late Middle Ages.

Together with his influence on art historians, Duffy's work has also influenced public perception of Tudor England through the performing arts and in schools. In 2010 and 2011, he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their productions of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Written on the Heart, a play by David Edgar marking the 250th anniversary of the King James Bible. In 2008 and 2010 he worked with well-known choir The Sixteen on their sacred music tours.

And inspired by The Voices of Morebath, Cambridgeshire primary schools are now gaining an intimate insight into traditional religion in Reformation England through a pioneering history syllabus based on the experiences of this west country village.