AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
There is no end in sight to historical squabbles about the speed, impact and enduring cultural and ecclesiastical legacies of the English Reformation. The past two decades have witnessed a lively and stimulating debate about the reception and entrenchment of Protestant belief and practice in local contexts. Over the same period we have seen a series of heated and animated exchanges about the developments taking place within the early Stuart Church and the role they played in triggering the outbreak of hostilities between Charles I and Parliament in 1642. While the focus of the first controversy has been the relationship between zealous Protestantism and the vast mass of the ordinary people, the second has been conducted almost exclusively at the level of the learned polemical literature of the clerical elite. So far little attempt has been made to bridge and span the gap. This is hardly surprising-sensible scholars think twice before venturing into two historiographical minefields simultaneously. Nevertheless the problem of reconciling these parallel but largely discrete bodies of interpretation and evidence remains, and it is one which historians like myself, whose interests straddle the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century divide and the Catholic-Protestant confessional fence, can no longer afford to sidestep and ignore. This essay represents a set of tentative reflections and speculations on recent research, a cautious exploration of three clusters of inter-related issues and themes.
First, did the ecclesiastical policies implemented by Archbishop William Laud and his episcopal allies in the 1630s have parochial appeal and roots? Did Caroline ceremonialism and Arminian theology strike chords with the populace at large, especially the laity below the rank of the landed gentry?
Secondly, is it feasible to link this potential constituency of support for Laud and his colleagues with those individuals who actively or passively resisted the mid sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and became members of the Church of England almost by default? Can we trace a direct line of descent from the residually 'popish' congregations who clashed with Puritan preachers in the reign of Elizabeth I to those subjects of her Stuart successors who may have welcomed the reaction against high Calvinist tenets and Genevan liturgical emphases?
Thirdly, can any connection be established between the long-term recoil from Calvinism and the shadowy world of Catholic recusancy and occasional conformity? How far did the priorities of the ecclesiastical regime which rose to prominence during the Personal Rule assist and influence the process of winning converts from the Church of Rome? And was there a sliver of truth in the claim that the Laudian programme amounted to a kind of Counter-Reformation by stealth?
Such intriguing and challenging questions are far easier to formulate than answer. The task is complicated by the continuing lack of dialogue between historians of Protestantism and Catholicism and the resilience of sectarian paradigms. The aim of this article is simply to open up some fresh lines of enquiry and expose a few preliminary ideas to the light and air.
The shape and contours of the continuing debate about early seventeenth-century ecclesiastical developments are beginning to change. There is no need to review the dispute about the origins and impact of Laudianism in any detail here: its main outlines are all too familiar to scholars working in this crowded field. Suffice it to say that Nicholas Tyacke's powerful thesis about the rise of an innovating Arminian clique which destroyed a Calvinist 'consensus' held together by belief in the dogma of double predestination has proved to be highly contentious.(1) So too have the views of Peter White, who denies the existence of any such ideological cement and stresses instead a broad spectrum of standpoints and attitudes in which no one group monopolised ecclesiastical office under Elizabeth and James.(2) Buttressed by the work of Kevin Sharpe, George Bernard and Julian Davies, this model presents Laud as a mild-mannered administrator who eschewed discussion of thorny issues and dedicated his career to upholding an 'Anglican via media' - to steering a middle path between the Scylla and Charybdis of popery and Presbyterianism. The policies enforced during the Personal Rule were simply a conservative extension of the objectives of earlier archbishops such as Matthew Parker, John Whitgift and Richard Bancroft, and their chief author and architect was not Laud but the king.(3) Peter Lake and others, by contrast, find the Tyackeian paradigm more compelling, but are nevertheless anxious to highlight the frictions and tensions inherent and evolving within the Calvinist camp.(4) Perhaps the most persuasive interpretation to date is that embodied in the important recent monograph by Anthony Milton. For Milton Laudianism was a novel and distinctive synthesis of strands and patterns of thought embedded in a unified intellectual tradition which was gradually dissolving of its own accord.(5)
Moreover, whereas for some time historians were locked in combat about doctrines of grace, now interest is swinging towards other items on the Laudian agenda: the altar policy, the campaign for order and conformity, the shift towards a more sensuous and sacramental style of worship, the enhancement of clerical authority and wealth, the assault on the Puritan sabbath, and changing attitudes towards Christian history and the status of the Church of England vis-a-vis Rome and Reformed congregations on the continent. Not all these trends can be explained as by-products of Arminian modifications of the dogma of predestination: theological precepts and liturgical preferences were not always inextricably linked. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that soteriology was not the chief source of discord in the 1630s and early 1640s: ceremony, discipline and ecclesiology were far more important in igniting and stoking the conflict.(6)
If excessive emphasis on doctrinal disagreements produces a distorted and lopsided picture, so too does over-concentration on one set of contenders within the early Stuart Church. It would be quite wrong to lay the blame for destabilising the religious status quo entirely at the Laudians' door. As Tyacke and Lake are insisting with ever more vigour, early seventeenth-century Puritanism had distinctly subversive potential. Its radical character was not simply the consequence of aggressive confrontation with Laudian clerics, but a legacy of the militant Presbyterian movement of the 1580s and 90s, which, far from fizzling out completely by the end of the Elizabethan period, had survived underground.(7) Having swung away from the 'Puritan Revolution' of Whig tradition to the Laudian coup championed by the revisionists, the pendulum is gradually coming to rest somewhere in the middle.
Most of those involved in this controversy carefully restrict themselves to considering the culture and thought of educated, literate Protestants, in particular that of ordained ministers and university divines. Likewise, the ideological rationale behind Laudian policies has elicited more attention than how they impinged on parochial life. The voices and opinions of lay people who were at the receiving end are very rarely heard. Both of these biases can be partly explained by the inadequacy and scarcity of the available evidence. It is intractably difficult to plumb the depths of the popular mind and generalisations about reactions in the localities founder in the face of the startling variety of circumstances prevailing in different parts of the country.(8) Some historians are understandably sceptical about the relevance of high-flown scholastic debates about sub- and supralapsarianism to the average parishioner.(9) Others argue that partisan commitment to a cause does not necessarily require a sophisticated understanding of all its arcana: academic infighting could find a ready and interesting echo in the perceptions and actions of the broader populace. Thus, though a cockney audience at Paul's Cross in 1601 had probably never read a word of Theodore Beza or Cardinal Bellarmine and evidently failed to grasp the polemical subtleties of the preacher's exposition, they none the less knew who to root for ('Bezer') and who to boo ('Bellamy').(10) Even so, railing off altars, reinstalling religious images, bowing to the east and condoning traditional games after Sunday evensong clearly had more tangible repercussions in the villages and towns of early modern England.
We should not ignore Keith Thomas's claim that many contemporaries were immune to the pull of any form of organised religion and remained utterly ignorant of the rudiments of Christianity until their dying day. Along with Peter Clark's 'Third World' of excommunicates, these individuals may well have regarded Laudian changes in ritual and liturgy with careless indifference and wondered why rearranging church furniture (among other things) was causing such a fuss.(11) But how did regular churchgoers respond? The godly Puritan minority is both vociferous and conspicuous, especially after the collapse of the Personal Rule: people like the 15,000 Londoners who signed the Root and Branch petition in December 1640 calling for the abolition of episcopacy; the crowds who cheered for Prynne, Bastwick and Burton as their cars were cropped by order of the court of Star Chamber and purchased the hagiographical prints of their heroes which circulated after their public mutilation in 1637; and the Northampton woman presented before officials of the diocese of Peterborough for scolding some youths she caught playing sport one Sunday afternoon with the words 'they might choose whether the king should hang them for not obeying him or the devil burn them for so breaking the sabbath'.(12) Nor can we neglect those who participated in demolishing crucifixes, pictures and other Caroline 'idols' and in tearing down Cheapside Cross in 1643, lamented the suspension of stipendiary lecturers, or voted with their feet and left for America. Others seem to have objected to Caroline schemes for refurbishing churches for more practical reasons: their expense, resentment of the removal of family pews or profound distaste for neoclerical and sacerdotal pretensions.(18) It may be worth remarking that opposition to one element of the Laudian programme does not necessarily mean antagonism to all: individuals are rarely as logical and consistent as the 'isms' and 'ologies' historians dissect with the benefit of hindsight.
Evidence of positive approval for the episcopal initiatives and theological emphases of the 1630s is equally impressionistic, inferential and elusive. One might point to the anti-Puritan aldermen of Great Yarmouth whose views coincided with the priorities of local conformist divines;(14) the city father of Coventry who energetically defended Arminian tenets over the council house dinner table,(15) and to gentlemen and noblemen like Sir Robert Bannastre and Viscount Scudamore who thoroughly endorsed the renewed emphasis on reverence, ritual and the aesthetic and personally financed lavish restorations of their parish churches and private chapels.(16) It could also be argued that in some areas official action merely spurred on and sanctioned architectural improvements that were already well underway. Churchwardens' accounts index a significant rise in expenditure on interiors which predates the Caroline campaign by several decades; and Diarmaid MacCulloch, Julia Merritt and Ian Archer have drawn attention to the 'minor building revolution' that was gathering momentum in both city and country parishes from the last years of the sixteenth century. As both MacCulloch and Merritt note, however, the priorities of these late Elizabethan and Jacobean schemes to restore church fabrics often seem to have clashed rather than concurred with the alterations later dictated by Archbishops Laud and Neile. Not all the supporters of such beautification programmes fit neatly into a Laudian or proto-Laudian mould.(17) Yet a sensitive reading of the same records suggests to Kevin Sharpe that at least some parishioners regarded the altar rails their neighbours hated with a passion as objects of communal pride. Why else, he asks, would they describe such items as 'comely', 'handsome' and 'fine'?(18) George Bernard maintains that the erection of such enclosures is a better test of commitment than their demolition, while Dr Sharpe insists that a willingness to pay for controversial furnishings, elaborate surplices, gilt candlesticks and communion plate implies sympathy if not enthusiasm for Laudian strategies.(19) Here, however, we confront 'a conundrum of compliance' no less puzzling than the one which has long exercised revisionist scholars of the English Reformation.(20) Does silence and compliance really mean consent?
It is certainly striking that scholars such as Kevin Sharpe who suspect Laudianism may have had popular appeal are usually also those who reject the notion that it represented a radical break with the Elizabethan and Jacobean past. Historians like Nicholas Tyacke who see it as a radical challenge to established trends, on the other hand, are more inclined implicitly to dismiss this possibility or at least to reserve judgement discreetly. The underlying presupposition seems to be that the English people adhere, barnacle-like, to whatever represents established 'tradition'. But the two issues should not be confused. The unpopularity of archiepiscopal policies in the 1630s is not a corollary of their novelty: even if the activities of Laud and his adherents disrupted settled parochial patterns it would be wrong to assume automatically that they aroused discontent. Changes ordained from above are sometimes warmly embraced by those upon whom they are imposed - a fact Reformation historians have perhaps been prone to forget. The most likely scenario is surely a deeply divided society, a society fractured along fault lines which may help us account for the structure of popular allegiance after the fighting began in 1642. Of course, as Ian Green has observed, there are hazards in trying to interpret the reign of Charles I merely as a prelude to the Civil War.(21) It may be more useful to analyse it as the tail-end of attempts to turn England into a Protestant nation.
This was the perspective adopted by Christopher Haigh in a provocative essay on the Elizabethan Church, the Catholics and the people published in 1984. Working from within a tradition which sees the Reformation not as a Protestant walkover but as a prolonged and uphill struggle against conservative sentiment, Haigh argued that perhaps the majority of Englishmen and women remained unmoved by the missionary fervour of Calvinist pastors and preachers. Reluctant to surrender the Old Religion in 1559 and insulated from change by Marian priests who prudently subscribed to the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, by 1603 many were still subconsciously attached to 'popish' practices and beliefs. Absorbed into the new order through apathy, inertia and the attrition of time, these conformists …