From 1643, in the time of the English Civil Wars (1642-51), in the areas they occupied the Parliamentarian forces instigated tribunals to screen local clergy for their suitability to carry on ministering.
Their religious agenda was expressed in what became the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and Westminster Directory for Worship (1644), closely allied to the Solemn League and Covenant (1643). They favoured implementation of the tenets of the radical Protestant reformation, in particular the extirpation of popery, abolishment of the (arch)episcopalian hierarchy and the primacy of scriptural precedent in determining religious beliefs and practices.
Leicestershire, in the English Midlands, provides an apt context for examining this as it was an area where tensions between the Parliamentarian-Royalist antagonists, who largely backed the Established Church in England in preference to Puritan dissenters, were particularly acute. And extant documentary evidence enables some insight into the content and outcome of hearings.
It is a tiny corner of English church history. Yet, this period where people’s allegiances, beliefs, practices and consciences were severely tested, has many echoes in debates and challenges across churches today.
Up to three-quarters of the around 230 clergy in Leicestershire appeared before a Parliamentarian committee. Examination judged whether individuals were ‘delinquents’ (i.e. political opponents), practised errant churchmanship (non-adherence to the newly prescribed Parliamentarian forms and content of services), and whether they possessed sufficient moral rectitude to hold office (centred on strict observance of the Ten Commandments). Evidence against them came predominantly from complaints by their parishioners.
For serious misdemeanours – principally political dissent, ‘popish’ behaviour, or obduracy following an earlier warning – offenders could expect to be deprived of their living and face exile or custodial sentences. Lesser contraventions attracted fines or cautions. Committees could drop or commute charges if clergy acquiesced and signed the Solemn League and Covenant.
There were around seventy-five removals in the county from 1643 to 1660 – 1660 being the date of the restoration of the monarchy – chiefly for cases of delinquency. These included contraventions such as acting as an accomplice to Royalist forces in identifying homes of Parliamentarian sympathisers to raid, and individuals to imprison, supplying arms, provisions and recruits, extorting money from parishioners to bolster the Royalist war effort, or simply for broadcasting Royalist propaganda from the pulpit.
Michael Crosley of Whitwick, for instance, had preached that Parliamentarians were worse than Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plotters. Sequestration followed in absentia for those who preemptively chose exile in territories more tolerant of their doctrinal position and for clergy who joined Royalist regiments as scouts, chaplains, or even took up arms themselves. Several died fighting.
Incrimination came not just from words proclaimed from the pulpit. Several were ensnared by statements they had written, often long before the wars started. Archdeacon Ferne, for instance, had claimed in his book Resolving of Conscience, ‘Lamentable are the distractions of this Kingdom … because they gather strength from … Parliament … and pretended defence of … Religion.’ The rector of Bottesford who licensed Ferne’s book was also indicted. Foston’s rector was condemned by penning in the introduction to a published sermon that he was ‘a long sufferer for fearing God and honouring the King’.
Ejections did not always proceed peacefully. In 1649 in Knighton ‘a very foul riot’ took place in the struggle between sympathisers of Royalist curate Inge and the Parliamentary intruder Harding. Similar disturbances occurred in Kibworth, and Thomas Pestell of Packington was ousted mid-service by men who held a gun to his chest and tore away his Book of Common Prayer. Some ministers were evicted by armed bands in the night, with their wife, children, servants and possessions dumped ignominiously on the street to make space for the replacement minister.
Even for those remaining in post there could be intimidation. Opponents shouted them down during sermons, in some instances shots were fired; the disallowed Book of Common Prayer was snatched from them; worshippers arranged boycotts, attending a church instead where they heard the politically preferred message.
Complaints of errant churchmanship centred on violations of church layout and ritual that infringed the prevailing Puritan directives. So, for example, retaining stone altars at the east end of the sanctuary (worse still if elevated and railed in) and harbouring statues, candles and other accoutrements hinting at superstition unjustified in the scriptures brought condemnation.
So too did observance of disallowed featsdays, wearing proscribed vestments, and using outlawed gestures such as bowing, making the sign of the cross, or enforcing kneeling for communion. Not switching from the Book of Common Prayer to the new Directory for Public Worship invited censure. Parishioners criticised Earl Shilton’s curate, William Holdsworth, and Higham-on-the-Hill’s Thomas Sturges for delivering the same sermons for twenty years and reading homilies from a book – the insinuations being that these must be old, now disapproved teachings.
Many exploited subterfuges to dodge complaints and spare their conscience. They prayed ambiguously for the ‘great counsellors of the land’, not wanting to alienate their Royalist flock by praying for Cromwell, nor rile the Committees by praying for the King. During the period in the 1650s when it became illegal for clergy to solemnise marriages (only a civic justice of the peace could officiate), Joseph Holt of Stonton Wyville continued conducting ceremonies, arguing they were legal because his civic justice friend was sitting in church.
Others steadfastly defended their position. They claimed they were terrorised, scared or tricked into supporting the Royalist cause. More defiantly, people like Theophilus Russet/Rusted of Dalby stated he did not care if he were replaced, he would not compromise or switch to the Parliamentary Directory – a work Jem Rice of Husbands Bosworth boldly branded as ‘a shallow thing’ devised by ‘a company of green heads’. Andrew Lamont of Claybrook meanwhile declared the Church had been fine for 1500 years. Why do ‘some giddy heads’ now want to alter things?!
The standard accusations against moral standards are summed up in the case against Thomas Bird of Somerby whom villagers described as a ‘drunkard, swearer and profaner of the Sabbath’. Aiding and abetting others to violate the Sabbath by attending alehouses, playing games, singing ribald songs, and doing menial work likewise attracted opprobrium. John Hubbock of Nailstone was blamed for allegedly buying a football, quoits and shovelboard. Andrew Lamont purportedly permitted games on Sundays. Others were accused of gambling while a few faced more serious charges of womanising, fornication, adultery, burglary and grievous bodily harm. Between 1650 and 1660 the Adultery Act threatened offenders with the death penalty for adultery (and incest) and three months’ imprisonment for fornication.
The above events affected clergy who refused to toe the Parliamentary line. However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660 the boot was on the other foot. Through a series of Acts, Royalist supporters engaged in equally discriminative practices to rebuild the established church. They sought reparations from parliamentary plants, expelled them, sometimes forcefully, from their parishes and generally aimed to stem the tide of nonconformity. The anti-presbyterian Act of Uniformity (1662) provoked the Great Ejection that became a landmark juncture in English church history when thousands of clergy nationwide felt unable to compromise their principles by swearing allegiance to the monarch and having to be ordained by a Church of England bishop.
These were disturbing times and a vision of what can happen when determined and uncompromising cliques gain ascendancy and how far people of faith can stray from godliness in the name of doctrinaire principles. Of course, they were different times and different mores, and one should not judge an epoch by the values of another place and age. Some may reflect though, that the situation is not so removed from contemporary debates and factionalism.
Today many clergy, and their congregations, are struggling with their beliefs, whether to remain faithful to long held traditions and teachings, or betray their consciences by acquiescing to what they see as unjustified dictates imposed by misguided factions. Individuals have found themselves pilloried, hounded, victimised or cancelled simply for raising debate or in reaction to what they said or did many years ago. Schism and suppression linger threateningly close. Maybe this tiny corner of English church history is not so remote after all.
Much more detail on the above events and the whole arc of church history in Leicestershire from earliest times until the late 20th century is related in a new book by Nick Miller, “Church History in Leicestershire”, published by Book Guild ISBN 9781916668065.