Religion in Shakespeare's England
From The England of Shakespeare by Edwin Goadby. London: Cassell.
Protestantism had been finally established as the national religion the year before Shakespeare was born. Hence, from his earliest days, he would be
familiar with its rites and ceremonies. The images would have been torn from the church by the gentle
river Avon, and the fires of the Marian martyrdom, as well as the burning of Marys and Johns, would
be memories of the past. John Fox, the author of the "Acts and Monuments," had published the first
volume of his history before the poet's birth, and he had been tutor to the children of Sir Thomas Lucy
The accession of Elizabeth, November 17, 1558,
had lifted a dark cloud from the country. Bells rang,
bonfires lit up the sky, imprisoned priests and people
experienced the throbbing of a new hope, and far-off
exiles gathered themselves together to take ship for
their old homes, bringing with them the leaven of the
Genevan theology. More anticipations were indulged
than could ever be realised. The picture of the time
has all the light and darkness of a work of Rembrandt. The Protestants were strong in the large
towns and the seaports, but, in the north, the ennobled families were nearly all Catholics, though the
common people had espoused the cause of England
against the encroachments of Rome.
Many churches were closed, and there were hundreds of parishes without incumbents, devoting the
Sunday to sports and licentiousness. The windows
of the sacred edifices were broken, the doors were unhinged, the walls in decay, the very roofs stripped of
their lead. "The Book of God," says Stubbes, "was
rent, ragged, and all be-torn." Aisles, naves, and
chancels, were used for stabling horses. Armed men
met in the churchyard, and wrangled, or shot pigeons
with hand-guns. Pedlars sold their wares in the
church porches during service. Morrice-dancers excited inattention and wantonness by their presence in
costume, so as to be ready for the frolics which
generally followed prayers. "Many there are," said
Sandys, preaching before Elizabeth even after her
reforms, "that hear not a sermon in seven years, I
might say in seventeen." Several towns and cities
were notoriously irreligious. In the city of York,
according to Drake, the Reformation "went so far as
almost to put an end to religion."
The friends of the new doctrine expected that all
the evils of the time would be instantly remedied.
But the work of reform was extremely gradual.
Until a month after her accession, Elizabeth did not interfere. Camden has pithily described the successive steps:
"The 27th of December it was tolerated to have the Epistles and Gospels, the Ten Commandments, the Symbols, the Litany, and the
Lord's Prayer, in the vulgar tongue. The 22nd of March, the Parliament being assembled, the order of Edward VI was re-established,
and by Act of the same the whole use of the Lord's Supper granted under both kinds. The 24th of June, by the authority of that which
concerned the uniformity of public prayers and the administration of
the Sacrament, the Sacrifice of the Mass was abolished, and the Liturgy
in the English tongue more and more established. In the month of July the Oath of Allegiance was proposed to the Bishops and other
persons; and in August images were thrown out of the temples and churches, and broken or burnt."
The fervour of the last part, carried out by the
common people, filled the streets with bonfires and
crowds. The proceedings in London are described as
being "like the sacking of some hostile city." Vestments, Popish Bibles and books, ornaments, and rood-screens, were ruthlessly destroyed. The Articles, revised and reduced from forty-two to thirty-nine, the changes in them being chiefly of a Lutheran character,
were sanctioned and published in 1563.
The dispossessed Catholics strove to regain their
place and power by resorting to artifice and intrigue.
Some remained in England sheltered in the houses of
the nobles. Others fled the country, taking the pay
of the monarchs who were hostile to England. The
charms of a freebooter's life on the open seas overcame
others. The more desperate plotted against Elizabeth's
person, or for the elevation of Mary Queen of Scots to
the English throne, even taking arms, as in Northumberland and Yorkshire, for her cause. Elizabeth
herself wavered. She was fond of an imposing ritual.
Though she had been persecuted for her faith, she
still leaned more to Rome than to Geneva. She restored the Carnival. At times it seemed as if little
were required to make her a Catholic after the Pope's
own heart. One of the matters which troubled her
greatly was the marriage of the clergy. On her visit
into Essex and Suffolk she found many of them had
availed themselves of the altered law, and had given
up celibacy. Accordingly she issued her injunction
to Archbishop Parker against the marriages of deans
and canons. Mr. Froude's picture of cathedral establishments is worth giving:
"Deans and canons, by the rules of their foundations, were directed to dine and keep hospitality in their common hall. Those among them
who had married broke up into their separate houses, where, in spite of Elizabeth, they maintained their families. The unmarried 'tabled
abroad at the ale-houses.' The singing men of the choir became the prebend's private servants, 'having the Church stipend for their
wages.' The cathedral plate adorned the prebendal sideboards and dinner-tables. The organ-pipes were melted into dishes for their kitchens; the organ-frames were carved into bedsteads, where the wives reposed beside their reverend lords; while the copes and vestments
were coveted for their gilded embroidery, and were slit into gowns and bodices. Having children to provide for, and only a life-interest in
their revenues, the chapter, like the bishops, cut down their woods, and worked their fines, their leases, their escheats and wardships, for
the benefit of their own generation. Sharing their annual plunder, they ate and drank and enjoyed themselves while their opportunity remained; for the times were dangerous, 'and none could tell who should be after them.'"
The Protestant party was growing in strength, but
the Queen manifested her dislike of their proceedings, at times, in a very irritating manner. It was
considered disorderly for any State affairs to be mentioned from the pulpit. Subservient archbishops and
bishops were instructed to admonish any clerks daring
enough to discuss ecclesiastical changes and necessities.
When Dean Nowell was preaching before Elizabeth at
St. Paul's he rather "roughly handled" so un-Protestant
a subject as images. The Queen got excited, and cried
out from her seat, "To your text, Mr. Dean! Leave that; we have heard enough of that! To your
subject." Of course the preacher was unable to proceed. The Queen and De Silva, the Spanish Ambassador, left in a hurry, and some of the Protestants
present burst into tears.
In the southern churches the Protestant clergy
held informal meetings for a service, in which preaching was the prominent feature. These meetings were
known as " prophesyings," and afterwards as " Grindalisings," because Archbishop Grindal had encouraged
them in the north, and, when promoted to Canterbury,
had addressed a remonstrance to the Queen on the subject, against her wish to cut down the number of
preachers. For his freedom Grindal was sequestrated. "We admit no man to the office," he had said, "that
either professeth Papistry or Puritanism. Generally the graduates of the Universities are only admitted
to be preachers, unless it be some few which have excellent gifts of knowledge in the Scriptures, joined
with good utterance and godly persuasion."
In vain he assured her that they were loyal subjects, and that
in the Catholic rebellion in the north "one poor parish
in Yorkshire, which, by continual preaching, had been
better instructed than the rest - Halifax, I mean - was
ready to bring three or four thousand men into the
field to serve against the said rebels." The prophesiers, sometimes termed lecturers, had to be restrained, as
their sermons were often three hours in length. Modern statesmen would have judged it prudent to leave
them liberty to weary out their hearers and themselves. But, as it was, when the preacher turned his
hour-glass, saying, "one glass more," the people
murmured their delight, such was the eagerness of
many of them to receive spiritual edification. There
were objections, however, and worldly-wise Selden
states them. "They ran away with the affections
of the people, as well as with the bounty that should
be bestowed on the minister."
Preaching at St. Paul's Cross in London was
carefully regulated. When not a Londoner, the
preacher was lodged in the Shunamites' House hard by. It was at this house that Richard Hooker
asked the lady to find him a wife, and Mrs. Churchman successfully recommended her daughter Joan,
whose peculiarities afterwards tortured the "judicious" mind of her husband, without preventing
him from writing his exposition of ecclesiastical polity.
The services in the church were indeed uniform in
certain externals, but they varied greatly, according
to the amount of Protestantism in the bishop of the
diocese, or the incumbent of the parish. Congregational singing was one of the conspicuous changes
made by the reform-movement. Psalm-singing and
heresy were both supposed to be of foreign origin.
Free living and free thinking were common in Italy,
and hence to be "Italianate," or "Italionated," was
equivalent to being styled an atheist, a republican,
or a worldling. To sing psalms was to be strongly
Lutheran, but not Puritanic. According to Neale,
the Puritans allowed congregational singing in a
plain tune, but not of "tossing the psalms from one
side to another, with intermingling of organs." Time
and tune seem to have made the difference between
the two schools of song.
The Puritans drawled
their tunes and psalms, Geneva-fashion; the Protestants sang them in a lively and tossing style. The
clown in the Winter's Tale was thus speaking
ironically when he says of the singers coming to the
sheep-shearing feast, "but one Puritan amongst
them, and he sings psalms to hornpipes." The other
Shakespearean reference to the services of the time is
also put into the mouth of this privileged character.
"Though honesty be no Puritan," says the clown to
the Countess of Rousillon, in All's Well that Ends
Well, "it will wear the surplice of humility over the
black gown of a big heart." Considering how
freely he touched the life of his time, it augurs either
absolute indifference, or calm neutrality, on his part,
that so little was said by Shakespeare that could be
considered offensive to reasonable hearers, or that can
now be tortured by sectaries into proof of his special
leaning and faith. Besides the references just given
two others may be quoted, if single passages mean
anything. "I'll have thee burned," says Leontes to
Paulina, in the Winter s Tale, one of his latest plays.
She replies -
"I care not.
On the opposite side there is a slap at the Norwich
divine, when Sir Andrew Aguecheek confesses, in Twelfth Night, he would "as lief be a Brownist as a
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in it."
Pews did not make their appearance in the parish churches until the reign of James I. They were then stuck about immediately under the pulpit, or anywhere, as may still be seen in some out-of-the-way
village churches. The pews were of oak, and they
were built in the first instance by the families sitting
in them. "The faculty pew," intended for the
medical men for the time being, appears, in one or two instances we have noticed, to have been constructed at the expense of the parish. Green baize from Norwich was used to line them, and hence some very suggestive entries in churchwardens' books
for such interesting curative arts as "salting the fleas."
The Puritan movement received its highest expression in the allegorical poem of the "Fairy Queen."
The Red Cross Knight is the Church militant, and when Arthur gives him the diamond-box, holding the
water of life,
"The Red-cross Knight him gave
Una is Elizabeth symbolised, and the scarlet-clad Duessa is Catholicism, as typified in Mary Queen of
Scots. Puritanism, to his poetic mind, was simply the ideal religion invested with the grace of chivalry,
and informed with a tender Platonism. It is not for us to write the history of this great movement. It
welled up, like a fine spring, and ran its rippling way
in many directions, not always as pure as its source,
or to be recognised as coming from its original impulse. Earnest and intense religion could hardly be
bright and cheerful when gaiety of heart was associated with fine clothing and loose manners. Hence
it became poor in dress, plain in ceremony, austere in
temper, and Calvinistic in theology.
A book, wherein his Saviour's testament
Was writ with golden letters, rich and brave,
A work of wondrous grace, and able souls to save."
It was a revolt
against luxury and a certain intellectual effeminacy -
preaching duty against pleasure, and the attractions of
a life beyond the grave to compensate men for what
they were required to surrender in sublunary things.
It branched out in many forms. With the intellectual few it was purely philosophic. With the many
it ran into Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and
other non-conforming varieties. Meetings were held in
private houses. Wealthy persons sheltered its notable
leaders, and endowed chapels and charities. The
growing middle classes were charmed by it. It was
healthy, vigorous, and pronounced. The Protestantism of Elizabeth was at best a compromise. The
Puritans wanted a discernible change, an earnest ritual, powerful preaching, a New Testament Church.
They were ready to suffer for their faith, and when James succeeded Elizabeth, they were haled to prison
with painful care. Bishops grew bold and judges
Closely connected with religion was the new Poor Law. Settlement dates back, as Professor Stubbs shows, to the Statute of Labourers, and the Acts by
which it was confirmed and amended. Henry VIII compelled the respective parishes to keep their own
poor. Edward VI had beggars branded with the
letter V, and Elizabeth was severe as to "stalwart
and valiant" mendicants, who flooded the country.
No doubt the dissolution of the religious houses had
made the question of pauperism more pressing. If the monks gave too little to the poor, still it was possible to say, as Selden did, that " now where XX. pound was yearly given to the poore, in more than c. places in Ingeland is not one meale's meate given."
Trade guilds had assisted in providing for their own
poor. Compulsory alms were ordered by Elizabeth,
and a three years' residence was made a settlement.
But her two most notable reforms were the Act of 1575 and the final Act of 1601. The first ordered
corporate towns to deliver wool, flax, and iron, to the
overseers of the poor, "so that, when poore and needy,
persons, willing to work, may be set on work.'" The
second transformed the annual poor collection of the
parish church into a fixed burden to be levied on the
parish itself, and the churchwardens, who had hitherto
had the care of the poor, were to be assisted by over-seers, nominated annually in Easter week, with power
to elect a special body for large parishes. Support
was to be provided for the disabled poor, and work for the rest. Entries of flax in the parish books are, in
many instances, the only records of this change; the
Poor-House, or Workhouse, being of later date.
Apparently, there are only two allusions in Shakespeare to such things. The "working-house of thought," in the chorus to the fifth act of Henry V is doubtful, because the play is usually dated before 1601. But the second is clear, and it has a touch of
satire in it. Pericles was written after the "43rd of Elizabeth" that Carlyle so studiously reviles. The
second fisherman drawing up his net in Act ii. scene I,
says, "Help, master, help! here's a fish hangs in the
net like a poor man's right in the law; 'twill hardly
How to cite this article:
Goadby, Edwin. The England of Shakespeare. London: Cassell, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearereligion.html >.
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