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Providence, prayer and prophecy

Albrecht Dürer, Lot fleeing Sodom


Popular and elite culture


The classical literature of Greece and Rome was an important element in elite culture. Mastering Latin was essential to an early-modern gentleman's education.
In contrast, the mass of the population of Elizabethan and Stuart England were illiterate even in English.


Popular culture was largely oral. Printers did produce "penny merriments" and "penny godlies" -cheap broadsides and ballads aimed at the low end of the market - but most people listened, not read. They attended sermons and plays and heard pamphlets read aloud.
However, almost all the evidence that survives of popular beliefs was written down by educated observers, This must almost inevitably have produced some degree of distortion.


The degree to which ordinary people and the educated minority shared the same beliefs varied during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; by the end of the period, elite and popular attitudes to witchcraft had begun to diverge quite sharply, for example..



Faydherbe, God casting a thunderbolt

"And, sith there's no justice in earth nor hell,
We will solicit heaven and move the gods
To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs"

(Titus Andronicus 4.3)



When Shakespeare was writing, the belief that God intervened in the world to punish individuals or nations for their sins was held throughout the social scale. The Protestant Reformation emphasized the authority of Scripture and it contained many examples of direct divine providence: - the Deluge and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were two of the most cited examples.

"Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all"

(Hamlet 5.2)

"Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows."

(Luke 12:6-7)



John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (commonly known as the Book of Martyrs) (1563) - one of the most popular works of Protestant piety - took as its main theme God's defense of true religion in England.


The defeat of the Spanish Armada was caused in part by a storm. This commemorative medal struck in the Netherlands reads Flavit [Jehovah] et dissipati sunt 1588 - "God blew and they were scattered". The storm was seen as a providential as much as a meteorological event.
George Carleton's Thankful remembrance of God's mercies (1624) included the Armada amongst various other failed Catholic plots and schemes.



Parliamentarian propagandists and Oliver Cromwell repeatedly called on providence to explain why their victories in the field over Royalist forces represented God's will for England.


"… consider the great workings of God, in the severall dispensations of his providence, for the preservation of the present Government. What is of God will stand in despight of men, and we have reason to believe this of God, since he hath sealed to the establishment of it, by a continued Series of many miraculous Victories and Successes"

(Mercurius Politicus, September 1650)



Naturally enough, the Royalists countered by insisting that the Restoration of Charles II to the throne was the real demonstration of divine intervention.



"In the true Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty Charles the Second, it appears, that by God this king reigns, in that he hath exercised those providences over him, that are hardly exercised over ten thousands of us: that star in the East, at his highness’ birth, speaks much this way … His escape at Worcester was almost miraculous"

(Ambrose, Three great ordinances )

Charles II escaped after defeat at the Battle of Worcester by hiding in an oak tree



During the late seventeenth century, books still appeared listing instances of God's intervention in the world in general, and in English political affairs in particular. Sir Henry Spelman's History and fate of sacrilege (1698) was a particularly influential instance of this genre.


But by this period, this view was on the defensive amongst England's educated classes. Anticlericalism, skepticism, deism and growing scientific knowledge were amongst the most important factors in undermining belief in God's direct intervention in his Creation.
The view of God as a great watchmaker, who created the universe of matter and then left it to operate by regular natural laws, gradually replaced the reactive, interventionist God of Scripture.


Belief in providential punishment of sins did survive in a diluted form, but was now seen as acting through natural mechanisms - venereal disease afflicted the rake, poverty the gambler, and gout the drunkard. In contrast, religion made people healthy and wealthy.




The belief in God's regular and direct intervention in the world encouraged petitionary prayer - prayer petitioning God to grant us things.


The governments of Elizabeth, James and Charles tried to keep prayer within the limits of set forms - the Anglican Prayer Book provided prayers for the various services. In contrast, Puritans preferred to make up prayers for each particular occasion - this was known as praying ex tempore, and if performed skillfully could earn a minister a reputation for inspiration.

During the Civil War, Parliament regularly ordered days of prayer, fasting and humiliation. Victories were regarded as answers to these prayers - defeats as proof that more fasting and humiliation were required.



Chance and lots

Georges de la Tour, The dice players



Puritan moralists often insisted that nothing happened by random chance - God controlled all the events in the world.

"… losses and crosses arise not out of the earth, happen not by chance and fortune as some idiots conceive; they be either plagues, punishments, or chastisements for sin, for omission of some good or commission of some evil, or else they be trials of our faith, whether we will rely on God and his promises, …"

(Bernard, The Ready way, 1635)



One of the reasons that puritans condemned gambling was because the casting of lots or dice was seen as an appeal to God. The drawing of lots was meant to be reserved for serious matters, just as in the Book of Acts, the Apostles "gave forth their lots" to select Judas' replacement.


Thomas Gataker in Of the nature and use of lots (1619) argued that such matters were beneath the divine radar, but his arguments did not convince the pious.


Lots were used by the Parliamentary authorities to decide which regiments should be sent for service in Ireland and to pick those to be executed for the pro-Leveller  Burford mutiny.


"seven groats in mill-sixpences, and two Edward shovel-boards, that cost me two shilling and two pence apiece"

(Merry Wives 1.1)
[The "shovel-boards" were shillings used for playing at shovel-board or shove-groat].



The  puritanical regimes of the Interregnum disapproved of all forms of gambling and tried to discourage them, but time changed on the Restoration of Charles II.

"And be it further enacted the authority aforesaid, That if any person or persons at any time after the first day of August which shall be in the year of our Lord, One thousand six hundred fifty seven, shall by playing at cards, dice, tables, tennis, bowls or shovel-board, cock-fighting, or by horse races or any game or games, or by bearing any part in the adventure, or by betting on the sides or hands of such as do or shall play as aforesaid - directly or indirectly, win or gain unto him or themselves any sum or sums of money or other thing valuable whatsoever, that then every person or persons so winning or gaining as aforesaid shall forfeit double the sum or value so won or gained"

(Statute of 26 June 1657)

"This evening (according to custom) His Majesty [Charles II] opened the Revels of that night by throwing the dice himself in the Privy Chamber where was a table set on purpose; and lost £100: the year before he won £150. The ladies also played very deep. I came away when the Duke of Ormond had won about £1,000 and left them still at passage - cards &c. at other tables; both there and at the Groome-porters, observing the wicked folly, vanity and monstrous excess of passion amongst some losers. And sorry I am that such a wretched custom as play to that excess should be countenanced in a Court which should be an example of virtue to the rest of the kingdom."

(John Evelyn, Diary, 6 January 1662).




Caravaggio, Christ raising Lazarus



Protestants believed in divine intervention in the world, but they also held that the age of miracles was past. God had performed miracles to confirm the truth of his  Prophets and Apostles, but now that the faith was established there was no longer any need for such signs.

"It must be so; for miracles are ceased;
And therefore we must needs admit the means
How things are perfected"

(Henry V 1.1)



Roman Catholics continued to believe that God could and did perform miracles at the request of his saints. (Indeed, the canonization process required at least one miracle as proof of the candidate saint's direct line to God).


At the opposite end of the religious spectrum, biblical literalism led some extreme puritans to believe that prayers for cures, exorcisms and inspiration would be answered.

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues"

(Mark 16:17)

"For whereas some, and that not a few, say that miracles are ceased, and thereupon will have it that none can be possessed now, and that these possessions were in the time of Christ and his Apostles only, with some few years after whilst miracles lasted, to the end that by the miraculous dispossession of Satan, the divinity and Gospel of Christ might be confirmed, it is but words only without proof: and herein they are wise above that which is written."

(John Darrell, An apologie or defence, 1599)



In 1591, William Hacket, an unbalanced illiterate with links to London's puritans, proclaimed himself the Messiah and attempted to raise a rebellion against Elizabeth I.

Hacket "began with counterfeit holiness to set out himself (amongst such of the simpler sort as had zeal without knowledge) to be a man endued with an extraordinary and singular spirit, such as (in old time) the prophets and holy men of God were: making show withall, as if he had some peculiar gifts and qualities, to be able even to tell secrets and work miracles, which many believed: whereof some did attribute them to sorcery and enchantments, but the simpler sort unto his rare spirit and holiness."

(Cosin, Conspiracie for pretended reformation, 1592)



Hacket attracted little or no support and was soon executed.


James Naylor, a leading Quaker, behaved in similarly outrageous ways in the 1650s. Preceded by a number of devoted women strewing palm leaves in his path, he entered Bristol in what the majority of contemporaries regarded as a blasphemous parody of Christ's entry into Jerusalem.
Naylor suffered violent corporal punishment at the hands of the enraged Parliament, but escaped with his life.



The Restoration establishment was deeply hostile to any claim to miraculous powers whether in Puritan enthusiasts or Roman Catholic mystics. They viewed such claims as indicative of mental instability or fraudulent deception.


"It is true, miracles are now ceased among Christians, our religion being sufficiently established by those that were wrought at first; and now the greatest miracle in these latter ages, is a good man, a true and sincere Christian."

(Archbishop John Tillotson, Sermon)





Mathias Withoos, Grave at night




In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the belief that astrology might be used to predict future events was widespread in all social classes.


Hubert: My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight;
          Four fixed, and the fifth did whirl about
          The other four in wondrous motion
John: Five moons!
Hubert: Old men and beldams in the streets
          Do prophesy upon it dangerously


(King John 4,2)



Prophets not only claimed to foretell future events, but to do so by God's help. Biblical Prophets had exhorted, warned, and led God's people, and during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a number of English men and women felt inspired to do the same.


The Church of England's authorities believed that Scripture contained everything necessary to salvation and regarded such claims as false and dangerous. In 1636, for example, two weavers claiming divinely inspired knowledge of the future were imprisoned by High Commission. (They died in prison years later still asserting they would rise again and reign eternally).


The Unitarian Edward Wightman not only denied the Trinity but claimed to be the Prophet Elijah. He was burnt in 1612 - the last person to suffer this punishment for heresy in England.


Eleanor Davies (1590-1652), wife of Sir John Davies, made a number of strange predictions (including that the world would end in 1644). The letters of her name (almost) formed "Reveal O Daniel", confirming her in the belief that she was possessed by the spirit of the Prophet Daniel. Not only did Davies criticize Charles I for marrying a Catholic wife, she published without license numerous lengthy pamphlets expounding her prophecies. She was arrested and fined, but in 1636 with some other women committed acts of desecration in Lichfield Cathedral. For this she was confined in Bedlam: - when later released she showered apocalyptic advice on Parliament.



John Traske (c.1585-1636) also made claims to being a prophet - in his case a new Elijah. (Elijah was an especially popular choice because The Book of Malachi contained a promise to send Elijah to warn of the world's end]. Traske also believed that he could perform miraculous cures. For his view (later recanted) that Christians were still bound by the Judicial Law including its dietary laws (no black-pudding), in 1618 he was whipped and the letter J burnt on his forehead.

"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."

(Malachi 4:5-6)



Prophesying the monarch's death was a peculiarly dangerous form of prediction. Elizabeth Barton "the Nun of Kent" claimed that the Virgin Mary spoke to her during her numerous trances; she predicted that Henry VIII would die a miserable death if he persisted in his attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Instead she was executed, without a trial, in April 1534, having been attainted by Parliament.


"In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets"

(Hamlet 1.1)



The English Civil War stimulated millenarian expectations and led to still more prophesy. Even educated clergymen considered the possibility that God might be shedding "New Light" in such stirring times.
George Fox encouraged prophesying in all, and the Quakers became known for their "revelations."

"When the Quakers first rose here, their societies began like witches, with quaking, and vomiting, and infecting others, with breathing on them, and tying ribbons on their hands. And their actions as well as their doctrine showed their master. When some, as prophesying, walked through the streets of cities naked; and some vainly undertook to raise the dead (as Susan Pierson at Worcester:) And usually they disturbed and publicly reviled the most godly ministers worse than the most debauched of the rabble did."

(Baxter Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits)



The Restoration brought a clamp-down on prophetic activity. Educated men treated all claims to spiritual inspiration as signs of madness.


Although many sixteenth and seventeenth century prophets certainly seem unbalanced, it is also true that claims to prophesy received attention and even respect. This allowed people from groups otherwise excluded from expressing their opinions (the poor and uneducated, women and children) to command an audience and speak authoritatively.


Ancient prophecies



English society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was deeply conservative. Even revolutionaries who wanted to change government and society couched their claims as attempts to recreate a past golden age. The Levellers and Diggers, for example, looked back to an ideal society that had existed in England before the Norman Conquest.


So powerful was the appeal of the past that even prophecies of future events were often credited with ancient authors. A favorite prophet was Merlin - the wise wizard of King Arthur's court.

"The Cornish Bore shall fill with his devotion
The Christian world: the islands of the ocean
He shall subdue: the Flower de Lyes plant
In his own garden and prove paramount,
The two-necked Roman eagle he shall make
To flag her plumes and her faint feathers quake.
Pagans shall strive in vain to bend or break him,
Who shall be meat to all the mouths that speak him.
Yet shall his end be doubtful: Him six kings
Shall orderly succeed, but when their wings
Are clipped by death, a German worm shall rise.
Who shall the British state anatomize.
Him, shall a she-wolf waited on by woods
From Afric' brought to pass St. George's floods
Advance on high:  then shall religion fail
And then shall London's clergy honor veil.
To Dorobernia:  he that seventy shall sit.
In th'Eboracensic Sea: be forced to flit
Into Armorica: Menevia sad
Shall with the Legion cities pall be clad,
And they that in thilk days shall live, may see
That all these changes in the Kirk shall be."

One of Merlin's prophecies as presented by Thomas Heywood in 1641 in his Chronographical History "With the life and predictions of Merlin (surnamed Ambrosius) the ancient British Prophet; his prophecies interpreted and their truth made good by our English Annals."


Henry VII's son,
 Arthur (1486-1502)

King Arthur was credited with uniting Britain after the departure of the Romans in defense against barbarian invaders. He held a special place in popular affection and King Henry VII was trying to tap this when he called his eldest son, Arthur.



The Tudors not only traced their ancestry to King Arthur, but still further into distant and legendary history - to Brutus, the son of Æneas of Troy.


Thomas Campion (1567-1620) used both the Merlin myth and the Arthur legend in framing a flowery compliment for James I.

James I himself used the legend of Arthur for propaganda purposes, calling himself "King of Great Britain."

"Merlin, the great King Arthur being slain,
Foretold that he should come to life again,
And long time after wield great Britain's state
More powerful ten-fold, and more fortunate.
Prophet - 'tis true, and well we find the same,
Save only that thou didst mistake the name"



Yet ancient prophecies were also used to subvert the established government.
Cornish rebels under Henry VII called on Merlin's prediction that Celts (i.e. the Cornish) would successfully overthrow Anglo-Saxon (English) domination.


Surveyor He was brought to this
By a vain prophecy of Nicholas Hopkins.
KING HENRY VIII What was that Hopkins?
Surveyor Sir, a Chartreux friar,
His confessor, who fed him every minute
With words of sovereignty.
(Henry VIII 1.2)



Ancient prophecies were used by Thomas Wyatt and his accomplices in the plot to overthrow Mary I, and in the Duke of Norfolk's plot against Elizabeth in 1572.


A common theme of prophecies was that some ancient hero (Arthur, Edward VI, Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell) was not really dead but sleeping and would eventually return to dispense justice and overthrow oppressors.


The same secularization and science that undermined belief in divinely-inspired prophets also decreased the belief of the educated in ancient prophecies. Furthermore, better historical scholarship exploded many of the British myths  as it became apparent that they had been invented by much later authors such as Geoffrey of Monmouth.


Scientific progress also helped encourage the belief that human history was a story of progress and that the future would be better than the past - the Golden Age of the distant past was replaced by the Brave New World of a future Utopia.

"This is a brave night to cool a courtesan.
I'll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors' tutors;
No heretics burned, but wenches' suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues;
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i' the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see't,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time."

(King Lear, 3.2)

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