The Church and Religion I

"In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:…"

(Merchant of Venice, 3.2)


The Church of England

bulletToday in the Western World, churches are voluntary associations of people who chose to worship a particular God. Churches are private, spiritual and basically non-political. None of this was true of Shakespeare's England.
bulletThe Church of England was a state institution, governed by the monarch who appointed its Archbishops, Bishops, Deans, and Court of High Commission.
bulletAttendance at church services was compulsory and enforced by fines.

"…all and every person and persons inhabiting within this realm, or any other the queen's majesty's dominions, shall diligently and faithfully, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent, endeavour themselves to resort to their parish church or chapel accustomed, or upon reasonable let thereof, to some usual place where Common Prayer and such service of God shall be used in such time of let, upon every Sunday and other days ordained and used to be kept as holy days, and then and there to abide orderly and soberly during the time of the Common Prayer, preachings, or other service of God there to be used and ministered; upon pain of punishment by the censures of the Church, and also upon pain that every person so offending shall forfeit for every such offence twelve pence, to be levied by the churchwardens of the parish where such offence shall be done, to the use of the poor of the same parish, ."

Act of Uniformity (1559).

Church Courts enforced religious and moral standards by excommunication (and, in the case of High Commission, by fines and imprisonment.) In theory, excommunication had serious civil consequences since an excommunicate could not make a valid oath and therefore could not testify in court or bring a civil case for damages.

bulletThe captive audience each week at Church afforded a wonderful opportunity for propaganda, and early-modern governments did their best to seize it.


In 1562, a Book of Homilies was issued to be read by ministers to their flocks. It taught such useful doctrines as that:
let us all mark diligently, that it is not lawful for inferiors and subjects, in any case to resist and stand against the superior powers: for Saint Paul’s words be plain, that whosoever withstandeth, shall get to themselves damnation:…’
and that:
‘Thus we learn by the word of God, to yield to our king, that is due to our king: that is, honour, obedience, payments of due taxes, customs, tributes, subsidies, love, and fear.’


bulletMuch of the content of sermons was, of course, simply good moral advice and basic Christian instruction. [A typical sermon of the period.]
bulletThe Crown also brought its influence to bear on the Bishops to ensure that they promoted ministers who preached acceptable views and punished those who got out of line.

The Seven Bishops who refused to read James II's Declaration of Indulgence

The Bishops were not always completely pliable. In 1577, Elizabeth was forced to suspend Archbishop Edmund Grindal (1519-83) when he refused to suppress  meetings of puritan preachers to discuss ecclesiastical policy - which Elizabeth felt should be under her own exclusive control. The disobedience of the "Seven Bishops" in 1688 helped provoke the Glorious Revolution that toppled James II from his throne.


bulletEveryone was obliged to support the Church by paying tithes (a tenth of their income)

"We cheated the parson, we'll cheat him again;
For why should the vicar have one in ten? …
For staying while dinner is cold and hot,
And pudding and dumpling's burnt to pot; …"

(Traditional English song)
In practice, very few parsons or rectors directly received one tenth of their parishioners' income. Many tithes had been commuted to cash payments or impropriated by others who then paid the vicar an annual salary.


bulletThe Church also acted as a state censor. Books had to be licensed for the press by Bishops or their delegates who inspected them to ensure that only orthodox doctrines and opinions were expressed.

Shakespeare's schoolroom in Stratford on Avon


bulletThe Church largely controlled education. Most elementary education was given by local clergymen, schoolteachers had to be licensed by the church, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were also largely controlled by the clergy. The Inns of Court (where common lawyers qualified) were the only institutions of higher learning under lay control.
bulletThe Court of High Commission which consisted of officials appointed by the Monarch (mostly bishops, and also some of the Roman or Civil lawyers who staffed the church courts; the church's law was canon law, which was heavily influenced by ancient Roman law), held the power to fine and imprison, and intervened in a broad range of spiritual and ecclesiastical cases.
William Laud (1573-1645) Elizabeth I used High Commission to attack the radical puritans who printed the Marprelate tracts. Under Charles I,  Archbishop William Laud used it to punish his puritan opponents.



Uniformity, non-conformity & heresy


bulletReligion was a very serious matter in Shakespearian England - a few years before Shakespeare's birth, Mary Tudor burnt about 300 Protestants for heresy during her five year reign. Elizabeth I executed scores of Roman Catholic priests for treason. The governments of both Elizabeth and James fined and imprisoned both nonconformist Protestants and Catholics for  their dissent.
bulletThe notion that all religious opinions should be tolerated was rare and unpopular. Even those religious minorities who asked for toleration for themselves generally denied it to others. The puritans who fled persecution in England denied it to dissenters in New England.
bulletThe Bible prescribed the punishment of blasphemers and it was generally believed that providential punishment would descend on a monarch who failed to uphold the true religion.
bulletThere were, in any case, many tactical reasons for denying toleration. Religious feelings ran high, and inter-communal violence was common in countries where Catholics and Protestants lived side-by-side.

Medal struck by Pope Gregory XIII to celebrate the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre

In France, the Catholics killed about 20,000 Protestants in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacres of 1572. In 1641, Irish Catholics murdered 5,000 or more Protestant settlers in the uprising of 1641.


bulletMonarchs themselves were the particular targets of religious violence. Both Elizabeth I and James I were the targets of Catholic assassination attempts. William the Silent, leader of Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain, was assassinated in 1584 by a Catholic fanatic, Henry III of France died at the hands of a monk in 1589, and Henry IV was killed in 1610 by another Catholic zealot, François Ravaillac. Mary Queen of Scots lost her throne in 1567 after Protestant nobles defeated her, and Czech Protestants revolted against their Catholic Hapsburg ruler in 1618.
Religious diversity seemed a dangerous as well as an impious policy to most early-modern Europeans.


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