The Elizabethan church

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Even if Queen Mary Tudor (1553-8) had reigned as long as her father, she could never have undone all the religious changes he had made since 1529. For instance, it would have been impossible to give the monasteries and priories back to the monks and 
friars.

Yet just as the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and later the wife of the king of Spain could not be any other than a Roman Catholic, so her younger sister, Elizabeth, the daughter of Ann Boleyn, could never be other than Protestant. Nevertheless, in November 1558, at Elizabeth’s succession, the official faith of the people, which depended ultimately on that of the monarch, was still confused and inconclusive.

In the event, whatever Elizabeth’s own personal preferences, she was caught in the middle of a conflict between conservative English Catholics who wanted a return to her father’s church, and the Protestant reformers who wanted a settlement similar to that of her brother, Edward. As much a political as a religious decision, the result was an uneasy compromise and a hybrid Church of England.

One thing was certain, however: there could be no going back to Rome. The Act of Supremacy of 1559 rejected the “bondage” of the Pope and declared the queen Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Also, there was no question of toleration, of freedom of worship. The Act of Uniformity imposed the Edwardian Prayer Book of 1552 and introduced severe penalties on priests who did not use it and parishioners who refused to attend church on Sundays and holy days. Subsequently, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 were essentially a statement of Protestant belief and practice.

Once again, priests could lawfully marry; parish churches were to have English Bibles; the communion table was to be placed in the middle of the church for services; there were to be sermons at least every month; and all shrines and images were to be removed.

Yet as gestures to tradition, there were many Catholic survivals: candles and crucifixes, the sign of the cross in baptism, the ring in marriage, and bowing to the altar were all allowed and the so-called priest was required to wear the long, white vestment. And it would take more than one generation, particularly in the “backward” North, before the beliefs and practices of the old faith died out.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s judicious compromises were defeated by international power politics and religious fundamentalism. Protestantism in one country could not be tolerated by Europe’s dominant Catholic rulers. In 1569, a Catholic rising led by the earls of Westmorland and Northumberland received no significant support in Yorkshire and soon collapsed, but the following year the Pope’s denunciation of Elizabeth as a bastard usurper and heretic was the opening salvo in a religious war. Now English Catholics were compelled to choose between their faith and the state.

Soon the first missionary Catholic priest landed at Whitby from the Netherlands.

Simultaneously, Edmund Grindal, the new Protestant Archbishop of York, arrived in Yorkshire only to be told by Sir Henry Gate of Seamer that “the greatest part of our gentlemen are not well affected to Godly religion”. So it became Grindal’s purpose and duty to investigate the religious conduct of his archdiocese and to implement the terms of the Elizabethan settlement.

The archbishop soon discovered that not only gentlemen were reluctant to conform to the new ways and abandon the old. Critically, the parish clergy were both miserably poor and profoundly ignorant: many of them could not even 
recite the Lord’s Prayer and few were able to deliver sermons.

But no such reservations could be made of Scarborough’s new vicar, Henry Langdale. He had spent four years at St Benedict’s, later Corpus Christi, College, Cambridge.

After graduation, he had assisted the university’s professor of Greek. When examined at York, he had excelled in Latin and there was granted a licence to teach grammar to boys anywhere in the archdiocese. It was Langdale who revived Scarborough’s medieval high school and became its headmaster from 1563 until his retirement in 1597. He was vicar at St Mary’s from 1559 until his death in 1602.

Nevertheless, Grindal’s second visitation at Scarborough in 1575 showed that even there a well-educated Protestant vicar with a healthy income of £40 a year had much less than full control of his adult parishioners. Several of them were “abhominable adulterers”, married men living with women who were not their wives; one couple were suspected of harbouring “evell livers”; there was one case reported of incest; and one woman was accused of aborting her bastard.

As far as the churchwardens at St Mary’s could judge, 33 men were named “for cominge slowlie to the churche, [Sunday] morninge praier beinge half doone” and refusing to pay their fines, and 28 men were reported for refusing to contribute to the poor. William Trott, the elder, Lawrence Hodgson and John Rostell were on both lists, and James Garston, who lived in sin and harboured “incestuous persons” would not put money in the poor box. Fourteen men and a woman had been “shootinge” when they should have been in church. Six more had been playing cards instead of attending evening prayers 
and John Dickinson had broken the sabbath by delivering malt on horseback to a boat.

By 1575, St Mary’s had an effective monopoly in Scarborough. The Holy Sepulchre had been demolished and St Thomas the Martyr was little more than a shell for occasional sermons, but enforcing the laws on Sunday observance depended on the active cooperation of the parish officers. In 1575, one churchwarden, Gregory Peacock, had been late for morning prayers; Robert Lacie, one of the bailiffs, had given “evell example” for late arrival and not paying his fine; and Nicholas Wolfe, a former bailiff, was one of the shooters. What Grindal’s visitation did not reveal was how many of these absentees were merely infirm, idle or pagan and which were hostile to Elizabeth’s church on religious principle.