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The Reformation: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Pastoral care

Image of Sutton's Hospital at Clerkenwell in London
Sutton's Hospital - established by Henry VIII - Clerkenwell, London  
Aside from the destruction of the religious community, the suppression of the monasteries had a profound effect on society in general as, at a stroke, England was deprived of most of its schools, hospitals and almshouses.

The pastoral care that had formerly been a religious task now fell upon the laity, and was devolved to the parochial level of the parish. The seeds of local government were thus sown in the decades following the Reformation.

'Many buildings that today are considered secular actually have distinctly ecclesiastical origins.'

Formerly, monasteries had cared for the sick in their infirmaries and provided lodging for travellers, whilst many chantries had established hospitals, schools and almshouses to provide for their members. At the Dissolution, all of this stopped. Individuals or corporations sometimes picked up the pieces.

In Stratford-on-Avon, the Guild of the Holy Cross had run a school, hospital and almshouse. All these were disbanded. However the town acquired the school in 1553, and it was reopened as the King Edward VI grammar school. William Shakespeare attended as a pupil there only a few years later. Many buildings that today are considered secular actually have distinctly ecclesiastical origins.

Such efforts were not sufficient to cope with the complete dismemberment of the monastic system of pastoral care, and in 1547 every parish was required to set up a Poor Box. In 1594 this became the Poor Rate, a tax on every house in the parish.

'... money collected in the parish was only to be used for the 'deserving poor' ...'

The Statutes of 1547 also required parishes to keep records of all the births, marriages and deaths within the parish. This was the real beginning of the parish as a secular, as well as a religious, body, as it began to inherit greater secular responsibility for local administration, such as maintaining sewers and roads, which passed to the Vestry.

In the 16th century, there was concern that some people would try to take advantage of the new system. Consequently money collected in the parish was only to be used for the 'deserving poor', like old soldiers and the blind or lame. People who seemed able to work were not eligible.

These concerns extended to private charities as well. In 1611, Thomas Sutton founded a boys school and an almshouse for distressed gentlemen in the Charterhouse in Clerkenwell, near London. The occupants were required to supply '... good testimony and Certificate of their good behaviour and soundness in religion.'

Therefore a direct consequence of the Reformation was the secularisation of hospitals, schools, almsgiving and local administration. The parish had started to become an extension of the state, with the introduction of parish registers to record ‘the journey of life’, a direct forbear of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1837.

Published: 2005-02-07

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