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Sermons at Court. Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching/Government by Polemic. James I, the King's Preachers, and the Rhetorics of Conformity, 1603-1625

By Milton, Anthony | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Sermons at Court. Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching/Government by Polemic. James I, the King's Preachers, and the Rhetorics of Conformity, 1603-1625


Milton, Anthony, Anglican and Episcopal History


PETER E. MCCULLOUGH. Sermons at Court. Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xv + 209, appendix, bibliography, index, diskette. $64.95. LORI ANNE FERRELL. Government by Polemic. James I, the King's Preachers, and the Rhetorics of Conformity, 1603-1625. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xiii + 176, endnotes, bibliography, index. $49.50.

Sermons delivered at the courts of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs have never been entirely neglected sources. While court historians have been extraordinarily neglectful of the religious institutions and activities in royal courts, religious and political historians have occasionally plundered published court sermons for apt quotations, or reports of their contents in newsletters, in order either to explain what government policy was, or what the monarch might have been hearing. But these have generally been magpie raids, uninformed by even such basic information as how the court pulpits and chapels were stalled, or the circumstances in which sermons were delivered, and it has therefore been extremely difficult to identify the precise nature of their influence on court culture and national politics.

In his excellent Sermons at Court, Peter McCullough sets out to rectify these deficiencies, and he succeeds brilliantly. The surviving records of the chapel royal are notoriously sparse and unhelpful. But through astute analysis of an enormous and imaginatively wide range of sources-letters, diaries, treasurers' and King's Works accounts, household ordinances, and surviving architectural fragments-combined with a remarkably imaginative visual sense and a keen eye for the implications of abstruse passing remarks, McCullough manages convincingly to reconstruct the elaborate physical and iconographical settings in which court sermons were delivered. This is an extraordinary feat of historical scholarship in its own right, but McCullough then uses his remarkable findings to throw floods of new light on the meaning, content and impact of sermons delivered in the royal chapels, which emerge as "one of the most important...political theatres in early modern England." Two lengthy chapters provide what are in essence religio-political histories of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, but these are histories viewed from the newly-discovered angle of court religion, and the results are endlessly fascinating. Familiar events appear in new and surprising lights, supplemented by an often unfamiliar cast of characters and range of issues, and some remarkable new texts, while phrases suddenly leap out of familiar sermon texts imbued with new meaning and significance. Year by year, and even week by week, McCullough shows how court sermons both reflected but also fed into the changing ecclesiastical politics of the two monarchs.

A broad series of changes emerge from this analysis. Where Elizabeth's reign was generally marked by a heterogeneity of preachers, sermons and messages (with many highly critical of the ecclesiastical status quo), by the later 1580s and 1590s the sermons were less controversial, and more forthright in their praise of a settled, disciplined church polity, reflecting the conservative reaction of those years. Under James, there were fewer channels open to aspirant court preachers, and clerical control was more complete, yet it was under the sermon-loving James that preaching became one of the dominant forms of court culture. McCullough paints a subtle and fascinating picture of how the Jacobean court pulpit provided a battle ground for those expounding very different forms of churchmanship-one emphasizing the importance of preaching, Calvinist doctrine and anti-Catholicism, the other urging the importance of sacraments and the institutional church, and deploring Puritanism and the contemporary obsession with preaching. There is a neat irony in the fact that Lancelot Andrewes deployed his consummate preaching skills in the newly prominent court pulpit in order to denigrate the significance that his opponents attached to preaching in comparison with the sacraments.

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