The Church and Religion


Anglicanism and Puritanism

Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on Avon where Shakespeare was baptized.
By law, the minister baptizing William should have worn a surplice and made the sign of the cross - both ceremonies to which puritans deeply objected.


bulletFrom the accession of Elizabeth I, the Church of England was Protestant in doctrine, but retained many Catholic ceremonies. Its ecclesiastical hierarchy was basically the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church (minus Pope and Cardinals).


"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."

(Article VI of the 39 Articles)

 "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine…"

(Article XI of the 39 Articles)

bulletThe Church of England preached the doctrine of justification by faith (crucial to Luther's reformation) and insisted that doctrine should be based only on Scripture (not on tradition or authority). Unlike the Catholic Church, the Church of England acknowledged only two sacraments (the Eucharist and Baptism). The Eucharist was given in both kinds (bread and wine) and the doctrine of transubstantiation was rejected.
bulletMany English Protestants looked to the European Continent - and to Calvin's Geneva in particular - for their idea of the best Church. In Geneva, Jean Calvin and his successor, Theodore Beza instituted a far more sweeping purge of traditional Catholic elements. They eliminated all "popish" observances and centered church services on preaching with little or no ceremonial. The whole Catholic hierarchy was also abolished and replaced with the Scriptural offices of presbyter, deacon and teacher. A council of elders, elected by adult male members of the congregation, chose the ministers and disciplined the congregation.
bulletThis Presbyterian system was established in Scotland after 1560 and many English puritans (especially in London and the South-East) hoped for similar reforms in England. Puritans  favored strong ecclesiastical discipline to control immorality and discourage the mass of the population from superstition, popery and frivolity.

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

(Twelfth Night, 2.3)



Alternative views

bulletMost of those who refused to accept the Elizabethan settlement of religion were Roman Catholics. Those who refused to attend their local parish church services were known as recusants.

A so-called spiritual last will and testament redolent of Catholicism was found in eighteenth-century Stratford; it may be (but probably is not) that of William's father, John Shakespeare; it is a translation from a work by the Italian Saint Charles Borromeo.
In 1606, Shakespeare's daughter Susannah was cited for recusancy, but the charge was later dropped.


bulletRoman Catholic recusants were subject to heavy fines, and to restrictions on their legal status: - They could not, for example, attend Oxford of Cambridge Universities, sit in Parliament or bear arms. In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, when England was threatened by Spanish invasion to restore Catholicism, about 140 priests and a few of those who harbored them were executed as traitors.
bulletAt the opposite extreme from Roman Catholics were anti-Trinitarians or Arians such as Bartholomew Legat and Edward Wightman, the last  two heretics to be burnt in England (1612). The weak Scriptural foundations for belief in the Trinity and the apparent irrationality of the concept, led others (such as Sir Isaac Newton and John Biddle) to adopt Unitarian beliefs. However, it was risky to express open doubt about the Trinity in early-modern England.
bulletDenying the existence of any God was so shocking and dangerous that it is difficult to find reliable records of any early-modern thinker having done so. Thomas Hobbes' theories amounted to atheism in the view of many of his contemporaries (and most readers since) but he always denied the charge.


Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)

Thomas Hariot, a mathematician and astronomer was widely suspected of atheism.

"He did not like (or valued not) the old story of the Creation of the world. He could not believe the old position; he would say ex nihilo nihil fit [nothing comes from nothing]. But a nihilum [nothing] killed him at last: for in the top of his nose came a little red speck (exceeding small) which grew bigger and bigger, and at last killed him."

(Aubrey, Brief Lives).


bullet Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), Shakespeare's contemporary and also a brilliant playwright, was also suspected of atheism.


LUCIUS: Who should I swear by? thou believest no god:
That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?

AARON : What if I do not? as, indeed, I do not;
Yet, for I know thou art religious
And hast a thing within thee called conscience,
With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies,
Which I have seen thee careful to observe,
Therefore I urge thy oath; for that I know
An idiot holds his bauble for a god
And keeps the oath which by that god he swears,
To that I'll urge him:"

(Titus Andronicus, 5.1)


The ecclesiastical hierarchy

York minster

bulletThe monarch was the Supreme Governor of the Church in England.
bulletThe Church of England was divided into two Provinces - Canterbury and York. (York is the junior).
[Canterbury included Wales, but Ireland was divided the archdioceses of Armagh, Tuam, Cashel and Dublin].
bulletEach archdiocese was divided into dioceses governed by a Bishop. Henry VIII's government reorganized these and created six new dioceses. The center of the diocese was its cathedral, and this was ruled by a dean and chapter.
bulletBishops sat in the House of Lords, and had noble status. (This profoundly annoyed puritan critics, who thought that high social status was not appropriate for Christian ministers).
bulletEach diocese was divided into administrative areas controlled by an archdeacon.
bulletThe basic unit of ecclesiastical organization was the parish. The minister of the parish was called a rector if he personally retained the right to to tithes. If a minister  was employed as a substitute for a parish rector (or for some gentleman, cathedral or college, that had appropriated the tithes), he was called a vicar. The vicar could himself appoint a substitute to take care of the spiritual needs of the parish and this person, who held the "cure" on a purely temporary basis, was known as a curate. The curate stood at the bottom of the ecclesiastical career structure.
Parishes and their ministers varied greatly in wealth. A poor vicar might receive as little as £10 per annum, whilst the rectorship of Wigan was worth £600 a year.


Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)
Bishop of Winchester from 1618 to 1626

Bishoprics also varied considerably in wealth. The Welsh bishoprics in general were very poor. The bishopric of Bangor was valued at £66 in1559, whilst the Bishopric of Winchester (one of the wealthiest) was worth about £2500 p.a. at the same period.
Bishops were naturally eager to be promoted to richer bishoprics. One candidate offered a bribe of £15,000 to obtain the bishopric of Winchester on Andrewes' demise.


bulletBy Elizabeth's reign, the ministry was made up almost entirely of graduates. These graduates not only had to find a Bishop willing to ordain them, but a patron willing to appoint them to a benefice (also known as a living).
bulletThe person or institution with the right to chose the parish minister was said to have the advowson. The advowson was a valuable asset, since clergymen and their relatives were willing to pay for the lifetime's income that a benefice represented. Advowsons were held by the crown, bishops, laymen and corporations.

Richard Rich, sketched by Hans Holbein

Major landowners often owned a number of advowsons in one area and so could dictate the religious tone of the district. Richard Rich (1490-1567) held thirty advowsons at his death, mostly in Essex, and his descendants ensured a puritan bent in that area for the next century.


bulletLocal landowners and their clergy were not immune from royal or episcopal control, for bishops could deprive ministers who failed to conform. In the first years of the seventeenth century, Archbishop Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) deprived 200 clergymen who refused to subscribe to official doctrine.
bulletDuring the 1630's, Charles I and Archbishop William Laud tried to enforce changes in church ritual that were widely unpopular. In 1640, the conflict came to a head in the Long Parliament. The Commons condemned these "ecclesiastical innovations", attacked the clergy, and (some MPs at least) demanded fundamental "Root and Branch" changes in the Church.

"…Our Lord Bishops (I say) as John [Whitgift] of Canterbury, Thomas [Cooper] of Winchester, (I will spare John [Aylmer] of London for this time, for it may be he is at bowls, and it is pity to trouble my good brother, lest he should swear too bad) my reverend Prelate [William Overton] of Lichfield, with the rest of that swinish rabble are petty Antichrists, petty popes, proud prelates, intolerable withstanders of reformation, enemies of the Gospel, and most covetous wretched priests."

From Oh read over D. John Bridges (1588) - one of the Marprelate tracts [spelling modernized].


John Milton (1608-74)

Religious anarchy


bulletThe Long Parliament abolished the Bishops but put no new ecclesiastical system in place.  The system of Church Courts collapsed as did press censorship. A vast range of new and radical political and religious ideas emerged.
bulletFrightened at the publication of ideas that seemed blasphemous and even lunatic, Parliament tried to institute its own system of censorship. This provoked the poet John Milton (who himself held extraordinary views on the Trinity and divorce) to publish Areopagitica (1644).
[Read Milton's poem of complaint against attempts to reintroduce religious uniformity and national church government].
bulletParliament's attempts to impose censorship were not effective. The 1640's and 1650's saw the emergence of radical political and religious ideas. Levellers asked for the franchise to be extended to adult male heads of household; Diggers demanded a return to primitive Christian communism. Baptists rejected infant baptism; Quakers rejected a graduate ministry, tithes, deference to social superiors, oaths and military service; Ranters argued that everyone one should follow the biddings of the Holy Spirit (however licentious or immoral its purported instructions seemed to straight-laced Christians).
bulletThe religious free-for-all ended in 1660. The Restoration restored not only the monarchy but the Church of England and episcopal government. Protestant radicals once again faced fines and imprisonment for nonconformity and preaching heterodox beliefs.


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