According to one very influential modern view of the Reformation era, the heart was ripped out of English popular religion by the measures introduced under Edward VI (r. 1547-53) and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), when altars and images were destroyed and the Catholic mass was abolished. This is Eamon Duffy's argument in his famous book The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the findings of which have been broadly endorsed by Christopher Haigh and Ronald Hutton among others; in their view the Reformation was imposed from above on an unwilling people. Another group of historians, led by John Morrill, also claim that when some eighty years later altars were restored under Charles I (r. 1625-49) and Archbishop Laud (in office from 1633-45) the move was equally unpopular.
What is the explanation for this seeming contradiction? Was it simply that with the passage of time parishioners had been won over to the new Protestant forms of worship? Or do we require a more sophisticated model of religious change? Instead of Reformation imposed from above or in response to pressure from below, perhaps we should think about the authorities and parishioners actively collaborating either to push for change or to reverse it. Historians have increasingly focused on the laity in the parishes in this respect. But how do we best recover their varied experiences?
The late A.G. Dickens pioneered the study of wills and what they can tell us about the religious views of their makers, while other historians have investigated the literature produced for the more popular end of the market. But both these approaches run into difficulties.
The religious language of wills turns out to be full of ambiguity and not readily translatable into either Protestant or Catholic categories. As for cheap print, there are no easy answers as to who the consumers were or what the impact of it was upon them. A more promising approach is to investigate the alterations in parish churches and who was responsible for these. We can also illuminate the process of religious change by studying artefacts of material culture--communion tables, rails, chalices, stained glass and so on--which survive in some number and which most historians have been reluctant to incorporate into their document-centred accounts.
There is growing evidence of local initiatives during the early stages of the English Reformation. At least eighteen London parishes under Edward VI demolished their altars in advance of official instructions in 1550 and a similar pattern is revealed in eleven other English counties. This was the work of individuals variously described as brewers, butchers, cloth workers, cooks, and grocers. The fate of altars is a particularly sensitive indicator of religious attitudes, due to their association with the Catholic concept of the sacrifice of the mass. As the reformer Bishop John Hooper put it, 'as long as the altars remain, both the ignorant people and the evil-persuaded priests will dream always of sacrifice'.
Revolutions are not normally the work of majorities. Nevertheless they do require the active involvement of committed minorities. During the reign of Henry VIII, from the 1520s onwards, the ideas of continental reformers had begun to circulate in England. Initially these consisted mainly of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his followers, mediated most obviously via William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. Increasingly, however, Lutheranism was overtaken by the more radical doctrines emanating from Zurich and deriving especially from Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). A major difference between these two reforming camps was their attitudes towards images, the Zurichers unlike the Lutherans being thoroughgoing iconoclasts. As a consequence, in the minds of reformers Catholicism became synonymous above all with idolatry, not just on account of the alleged 'worship' of images but also because of the adoration of the bread and wine as consecrated by the priest. An official ban on all images in churches came into force in February 1548, a year after the accession of Edward VI. It would appear from various proclamations issued by the Edwardian authorities that would-be reformers in the parishes had been straining at the leash from the beginning of the reign. During the months preceding the ban many churchwardens and others had taken the law into their own hands, removing images without authorization especially in London and Norwich. The unofficial demolition of altars is traceable from October 1548, only becoming government policy in November 1550. Altars of stone or brick were replaced by wooden tables aligned east and west (lengthwise down the nave or chancel), in order to emphasize the difference. With this went the conversion of chalices into cups and the sale of now redundant vestments.
Although the restoration of Catholicism by Mary I in 1553 and the return of the altars in a traditional north-south orientation, and of images, was without doubt widely welcomed across the nation, the Edwardian experience left a legacy of division in many parishes. This helps to explain the willingness with which Protestantism was again embraced under Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) from 1559 onwards. However, it is striking that despite the comparative conservatism of the new queen it was essentially Edwardian Protestantism which came back. If Elizabeth had had her way the altars restored under Mary would have remained undisturbed.
Instead what turned out to be a short-lived Elizabethan compromise was agreed, whereby communion tables were supposedly positioned on the site of the demolished Marian altars--but moved further down the chancel and reorientated (east and west) for celebration of the eucharist. In the event, as the years passed, communion tables came to rest permanently in this eucharistic position. Elizabeth was similarly defeated in her attempt to retain at least some images in parish churches. Meanwhile Puritans--Protestants bent on pushing reform further--won at least temporary control of some parishes, demolishing fonts because of their allegedly idolatrous associations. Puritans also spearheaded an unofficial attack on organs and church music. As a result organs disappeared almost completely in London at this time.
Yet the iconoclastic ascendancy under Elizabeth did not go unchallenged. As well as continuing Catholic resistance, more moderate Protestant voices were coming to the fore by the end of the reign. A particularly well-documented example is that of the parish of Christ Church Newgate, in London, where in 1593-94 the congregation was split over whether or not to retain the so-called 'idoll pictures' in the windows, along with the choir and organ. In 1602 the government itself intervened, and a royal proclamation was issued against the general 'pulling down of images and pictures' in churches. By 1613 some parishes were commissioning new stained glass windows containing religious imagery; first in the field apparently was St Stephen Walbrook, London, where nine windows cost nearly 50 [pounds sterling]. Among those moderates were two laymen, the chronicler Edmund Howes at Christ Church and Stephen Langton, fishmonger, at St Stephen Walbrook. At Oxford, in the early 1620s Sir John Strangeways donated the east window of Wadham College Chapel, containing scenes from the life and death of Christ, including the crucifixion. Such beautification was part of a much more widespread refurbishment of churches from the turn of the century, which took some of its impetus from an official survey of the state of churches instigated by Archbishop Whitgift in 1602--the same year as the proclamation concerning images. A leading lay campaigner in these years for the restoration of St Paul's cathedral was the scrivener Henry Farley.
Nevertheless, few, if any, parish churches seem by the beginning of the seventeenth century to have had communion tables placed altarwise (i.e. north-south) at the ends of chancels. These are only known to have survived in the royal chapels and collegiate churches such as Westminster Abbey, and possibly also in some cathedrals. Signs of change are first discernible at the cathedral level in 1617, when at both Gloucester and Durham William Laud and Richard Neile, future archbishops of Canterbury and York respectively, secured the removal of the communion table to the east end of the choir and its reorientation north-south. This clerical initiative was inspired by the example of the royal chapel and the arrangements in the private chapel of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, bishop of Winchester and dean of the Chapel Royal, 1618-1626, and mentor to both Laud and Neile. It anticipated what was to become a central plank in the Laudian reformation of the 1630s. Lack of enthusiasm from James I (r.1603-25), however, probably explains why these moves were not followed up elsewhere until after his death in 1625. Indeed there is not much sign of changes being made to communion tables at the parish level until the late 1620s. When it came it was mostly the work of local clergy but usually with the support of some of their parishioners, as at Grantham in Lincolnshire when the vicar Peter Titley re-positioned the communion table altarwise, or Bishop Wearmouth, in Durham diocese, where Francis Burgoyne actually erected a stone altar. However, we often only learn about such cases from the complaints of opponents, their voices threatening to drown out any alternative views.
Both Titley and Burgoyne cited the royal chapels as a precedent for the repositioning of communion tables. But it was not until 1633 that a national policy began to emerge, with a test case involving the church of St Gregory by St Paul's in London and adjudicated by Charles I sitting in Privy Council. In this instance the original moving spirit behind setting up the communion table altarwise appears to have been the churchwarden and lawyer John Hart. But Laud, recently translated from London to Canterbury, clearly grasped the wider implications of the St Gregory's case and pushed for a royal ruling in favour of a permanently-positioned altarwise table. He only obtained a partial victory: the king found in favour of Hart and his codefendants, but did not insist that altarwise tables be erected elsewhere. Two years later, in 1635, Laud felt sufficiently confident of royal support to make the enforcement of altarwise communion tables, encompassed by a rail, a central feature of his visitations across southern England. Although he and his episcopal allies were to meet with some notable resistance, for example at Beckington in Somerset, it is striking how much money some parishes were willing to spend towards beautifying their church interiors. For instance at St Dionis Backchurch in London almost 40 [pounds sterling] was spent on 'laying the chancel with 3 steps of black and white marble', while a new organ at St Mary Taunton cost 200 [pounds sterling]. Elsewhere, again and again we find evidence of pious members of the laity working together with the ecclesiastical authorities. Prominent names are Sir Robert Banastre, Sir Paul Pindar, and Viscount Scudamore, but there was a host of relatively humble people as well.
Underlying these Laudian changes in the outward forms of worship was also a doctrinal shift, involving a challenge to the previously dominant Calvinism. This was notably the case as regards attitudes towards the sacraments and especially the eucharist. In the Calvinist sacramental scheme baptism and holy communion were regarded as 'seals' or confirmation of an individual's existing state of grace, rather than the means of spiritual renewal or recovery. One result of this shift was Laud's demotion of the importance of preaching. As he famously expressed it, 'the altar is the greatest place of God's residence upon earth, greater than the pulpit'.
Critics of Calvinist teaching had been gathering strength from the late sixteenth century but came into their own under Charles I. Although clerics such as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who died in 1626, provided much of the intellectual leadership, there had always been a lay following. The latter probably included John Parker, merchant tailor and executor of Andrewes' will. Much better recorded, however, is the ease of the royalist Edward Hyde (1609-74), future earl of Clarendon, whose History of the Rebellion makes plain both his anti-Calvinism and his support for the Laudian altar. Indeed when the Short Parliament met in April 1640 Hyde emerged as a defender of altarwise communion tables and at least five other MPs are recorded to the same effect. This is important testimony because after the Long Parliament convened the following November, proceedings were essentially hijacked by a vociferous Puritan lobby, who successfully exploited the defeat of the king at the hands of his rebellious Scottish subjects. Modern historians have been too ready to take at face value the claim of these Puritans to speak for the nation at large in their condemnation of Laudianism.
During the 1640s not just the Laudian altar but bishops and the prayer book as well were abolished. Alongside the official purging of churches there is evidence too of widespread popular iconoclasm. Nevertheless in numerous instances altar rails and stained glass windows depicting images were hidden away by parishioners, just as outlawed Catholic items had been secreted during the reigns of Edward and Elizabeth, in the hope of better days ahead.
Archbishop Laud himself was put on trial and executed in 1645. The Puritans, however, overreached themselves with their claim that the archbishop was a crypto-papist and that the Caroline Church over which he had presided was a form of English popery. By the 1650s the reputation of Laud was well on the way to recovery in episcopalian circles, his collected sermons and book of devotions appearing in print and his key role in the restoration of St Paul's cathedral under Charles I celebrated by William Dugdale in a handsomely illustrated volume. The period also saw the publication of works from the pen of Andrewes as well as by a younger Laudian generation, including the clergyman Henry Hammond. Meanwhile Laudian forms of worship were kept alive in the royal chapel, first by Charles I at his Civil War headquarters in Oxford and then by Charles II in exile. Clandestine prayer book services continued to be performed in England more generally. Whereas the victorious Puritans in practice celebrated communion less frequently than in the past, the Laudians and their episcopalian allies increasingly called for at least monthly celebrations of the eucharist. Above all, however, in this time of adversity support by lay families such as the Shirleys of Staunton Harold in Leicestershire proved absolutely vital and this was also a major reason for the Laudian revival after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Laudian clergy proved well placed after the Restoration to influence the direction of religious change, coming to control key posts in the English Church. They also had an ally in Charles II (r.1660-85) to the extent that the royal chapel and its elaborate ceremonial continued, as before the Civil War, to provide a template for religious worship. An early straw in the wind was the introduction of a new consecration rubric in the revised Prayer Book of 1662. This represented a triumph for the teachings of the Laudians John Cosin, bishop of Durham and Matthew Wren, who held that consecration produced a permanent change in the elements of bread and wine. The 1660s also saw active lay involvement in the renewed beautification of cathedrals and parish churches. For example, at Norwich cathedral Mary Hobart gave 'three peeces of tapestry hangings for the high altar place' and the parishioners of St Giles Cripplegate underwrote the costs of black marble steps on which a railed and altarwise communion table was placed.
The central church authorities played only a gradual role in pushing for such changes, initially contenting themselves with the reintroduction of altarwise communion tables at the cathedral level. A turning point was the aftermath of the fire of London in 1666, which necessitated the rebuilding of churches. All fifty-one of the new churches were equipped with altarwise and railed communion tables, positioned on steps. Archbishop Sheldon appears to have liaised over this with Bishop Henchman of London and the chief architect Christopher Wren--the last-named being both the son and nephew of leading Laudian clerics.
Taking their lead from the capital, from the 1680s bishops can increasingly be found enforcing altarwise and railed communion tables in their dioceses, while Wren's church interiors also began to be copied in the localities--including their elaborate altar pieces. The growing London fashion for installing organs was also influential. Some parishes went further, as at Moulton in Lincolnshire, where a group of parishioners had one wall of the chancel painted with images, despite opposition from both their minister and their bishop, the Calvinist Thomas Barlow. Objections to railed altars especially were more muted than in the past partly because many erstwhile Puritans had been driven out of the established church and into the ranks of Dissenters. Unlike in the 1630s, there was no general directive on the subject of communion tables; nor, as previously, were communicants forced to receive communion at the newly installed rails. An important role at the parish level was also played by a new generation of Laudian or, more accurately, High Church clergy coming out of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, especially the latter, who worked hand in hand with members of their congregations. At the same time a prolific devotional literature, consisting of works such as The Whole Duty of Man, probably by Richard Allestree, fostered the idea that the frequent receiving of communion was at the very core of Christian life. One indication of the acceptance of this new scheme of things is the widespread employment of the term 'altar table' to describe communion tables positioned at the east end of chancels and aligned north and south, by the end of the seventeenth century, 'altar' and 'table' no longer being regarded as incompatible.
Divisions remained, however, as use of the description High Church itself implies. Moreover individuals were confronted with a potentially bewildering range of religious choice, particularly after the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689. Apart from continuing disagreements within the ranks of the established church, Baptist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Quaker alternatives were all now legally on offer. The origin of this state of affairs is traceable to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when medieval heresy metamorphosed into competing varieties of Protestantism. The Roman Catholic monopoly having been broken, it proved in practice impossible to replace this with a Protestant equivalent. Freedom to choose or refuse in religious matters became much more of a reality than had hitherto been the case.
In order to understand the changes in worship occurring at the parish level, therefore, we need to grasp the role played by members of the laity. Parishioners were rarely the passive recipients of changes decided elsewhere; rather they were often active participants in the events themselves. The enduring tug of war over altars and tables in England during the early modern period is a powerful demonstration of this fact.
E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992); C. Haigh, ed. The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987); J. Morrill, The Nature of the English Revolution (Longman, 1993); N. Tyacke, Aspects of English Protestantism c. 1530-1700 (Manchester, 2001); K. Fincham and N. Tyacke, Altars Restored: the Changing Nature of English Religious Worship 1547-c. 1700 (Oxford, 2007)
Treasures of the English Church Sacred Gold and Silver 800-2000
May 30th to July 12th
Goldsmiths' Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2V 6BN
Telephone: 020 7367 5913
The tumultuous changes discussed on these pages are vividly embodied in the sacred objects made for churches over the centuries, not least in the church plate that furnished the holy table as an integral part of the communion service.
A magnificent new exhibition at Goldsmiths' Hall offers a chance to get close to a wealth of gold and silver objects that survived and post-date the Reformation; it explores the history, and celebrates the craftsmanship, of precious ecclesiastical artefacts dating from medieval times right up to the twenty-first century. The exhibits, which are often hard to view or locked away altogether in their respective churches, will be displayed so that they may be closely appreciated as works of art.
Visitors will be able to trace the various transformations affecting the communion cup--or chalice--since the Middle Ages, for instance. An early example is Bishop Waiter's highly decorative silver-gilt chalice, of c. 1160. It was buried with him at Canterbury, along with many other objects, and thus preserved from being melted down at the Reformation. A cup of the late 1560s from Eton College, on the other hand, illustrates the more secular, simple style demanded of the post-Reformation era. There are also secular objects given to churches, and preserved by them, by wealthy lay people, including a cup once belonging to Elizabeth I, a gift from her mother Anne Boleyn, and passed on by Elizabeth to her physician Richard Masters who donated it, in turn, to a Cirencester church.
In the largest exhibition of its kind, more than 300 exhibits have been lent from over 150 parish churches and cathedrals across the country. It is both a historic and artistic survey, as well as a celebration of the vibrancy of the craft on which the Goldsmiths' Company is founded and which it actively continues to promote.
Kenneth Fincham is Professor of History at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Nicholas Tyacke is honorary Professor of History at University College London.…