The Reformation: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
The Reformation changed almost everything about community life - from the decor of parish churches, to care for the sick, the old and the poor.
Bishops lead Catholic faithful on Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536 

Parochial revolution

The reaction of ordinary people to the Reformation is perhaps one of the most difficult to gauge. Despite the popular protest in 1536, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, there was a general acceptance of the Dissolution. Indeed, the way in which society embraced Protestant doctrine suggests that there was a majority who thought the Church was ripe for change.

'New parish churches built after the Civil War embraced some of the radical ideas that had found expression in the Commonwealth ...'

The way in which reform was expressed can be seen today, in churches stripped of ornamentation, imagery, colour and decoration. The absence of these items reflects the impact of liturgical practice on the way people worshipped, and how the architectural barriers were brought down.

Once the Catholic mystery of the sacrament had been removed, the way interior space was used inside churches altered forever. New parish churches built after the Civil War embraced some of the radical ideas that had found expression in the Commonwealth, whilst a growing number of 'secular' religions abandoned churches altogether in favour of meeting houses.

However, the Reformation had another far-reaching consequence, which was to shift the burden of pastoral care from monastic institutions onto the parishes. The seeds for the secular takeover of the ‘journey of life’ were sown in this period, when care for the poor, sick and needy were embraced by the parish, and records noting births, marriages and deaths were kept locally.

Church interiors

Image of late medieval statue-niche canopy
Late medieval statue-niche canopy, South Cerney
Within 20 years of the Reformation, parish churches were stripped of almost all of their ornaments, images, and liturgy - and the parishioners had made most of the changes themselves.

Furthermore, the new liturgy revolutionised the way space inside the parish church was used, as many of the physical barriers between priest and congregation were removed. Consequently the interiors of local churches took on the appearance that many have retained today.

'Anything valuable found its way into the King's Treasury, with the remainder simply smashed or burned.'

'Superstitious images' were the first to come under attack. Up and down England, pictures of saints, roods, relics and miracle-working statues were ripped out of parish churches and destroyed. Vestments, crucifixes, candlesticks, and altar plates soon followed. Even church bells weren't safe.

Anything valuable found its way into the King's Treasury, with the remainder simply smashed or burned. The effect on church interiors was catastrophic - having been brightly coloured and highly decorated, they suddenly became plain, white and unadorned.

The only image left was new - a large painted or carved royal coat of arms, on top of the screen where the rood had stood. Some traditionalists questioned whether it was appropriate to:

'... setteth up a dog and dragon [the supporters of Elizabeth I’s coat of arms] in place of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God and St John the Evangelist.'

But this was a very clear reminder of royal power over the Church, which now dictated the way people worshipped in their local parishes and the images they were permitted to view. In essence, the state had embarked on a programme of religious censorship over the people.

Liturgy and the Church

Image of the first page of the Book of Common Prayer
'An Ordre for Mattyns' from first Book of Common Prayer, 1549
Edward VI’s most important change - and one which still guides worship in Anglican churches today - was to have the liturgy translated into English as the Book of Common Prayer, in 1549.

This necessitated a complete rethinking of church interiors, because the benefit of having the service in English was lost if the people couldn't hear the words.

'... the mystery of the sacrament was removed ...'

Thus, the revised 1552 Prayer Book required that services, except the Eucharist itself, were to be performed where the people could see and hear. The priest now was to come out of the chancel into the east end of the nave for prayers and readings at the beginning of the service, and the people were to go into the chancel during the Communion.

This revolutionised the relationship between the congregation and the priest, as the mystery of the Sacrament was removed and the ‘sacred’ areas of the church were opened up to the parishioners.

To accommodate the new way of doing things, a reading desk for the priest to read the service from was put at the east end of the nave. This was often combined with a pulpit for sermons and/or a desk for the parish clerk to make a double- or triple-decker pulpit. In the chancel, wooden tables replaced stone altars so that during the Communion it could be moved into the middle of the chancel for everybody to kneel around.

Some reformers wanted to go further and get rid of separate chancels altogether, simply having the altar in the middle of the nave. This measure was too extreme for most people, and the 1552 Prayer Book required a separate chancel or choir, separated from the nave by a screen.

This remained the practice for another four centuries, and it was only in the late 20th century that altars were moved out of the chancel and into the nave.

Struggle for control

Image of screen from St John's Chapel in Leeds
The choir screen at St John's, Leeds - an example of Laudian principles
In the early 17th century, the position of the altar table continued to cause considerable controversy, as more extreme Protestants or Puritans wanted to move it into the nave.

This was in direct contrast to the desires of a more conservative faction, embodied by Archbishop Laud, who wanted to leave it permanently against the east wall of the chancel. Laud also wanted to surround the altar with a set of rails at which people would kneel during communion.

'A few churches built during the reign of Charles I did ... follow Laudian principles.'

The battle for supremacy of these directly opposed ideals was resolved during the Civil War, when even more radical ideas (the complete secularisation of places of worship) about church-based religion were aired.

A few churches built during the reign of Charles I did, however, follow Laudian principles. St John's, Leeds (built 1632-34), is the most impressive. It has an almost complete set of original fittings, including communion rails, two-decker pulpit and an elaborately carved screen incorporating the royal coat of arms.

The style of the building is a version of Perpendicular known as Gothic Survival. This term does not really explain the significance of the architecture. It was not an accidental hangover of Gothic styles, but a deliberate looking back to the traditional symbolism of the old order.

Early Nonconformists

Image of St Nicholas Meeting House in Ipswich
Unitarian chapel, St Nicholas meeting house, Ipswich
The importance of space in Laudian churches is in direct contrast to the Puritans' approach, where emphasis was placed on the participation of the congregation.

During the Commonwealth, these radical ideas found expression in sects such as the Ranters and Diggers, who favoured an approach to worship more akin to modern street preachers. Services were no longer reliant on the symbolism of the building in which it was held, which meant any secular space was available - the congregation could be as large as the room in which it met. They even met outdoors, if necessary.

'... the period did pave the way ... for preaching- and gospel-based religions...'

Consequently Nonconformist chapels were built along functional rather than symbolic lines, resembling secular meeting rooms rather than churches. Classical styles of architecture, which did not have the strong connotations of popery associated with Gothic, were particularly favoured. Galleries were provided so that as many people as possible could be accommodated, and towers were rarely, if ever, used, as bell ringing was not a part of Puritan worship.

The very extreme Protestants such as the Ranters and Diggers eventually proved unpalatable to the post-Civil War regime because of their implied rejection of state control. But the period did pave the way, later in the 17th and 18th centuries for preaching- and gospel-based religions, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), Plymouth Brethren and Unitarians. In effect, they were the pioneers of secular religion, using non-ecclesiastical places to conduct worship.

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.

London churches

Image of St Bride's spire at Fleet Street in London
St Bride's, Fleet Street, London - a 'madrigal in stone'
The late 17th and 18th centuries were a period of great vitality in parish church building. In London, the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 provided an impetus, when over 50 parish churches out of the 87 burnt were rebuilt.

Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for most of them. Because these were parish churches for lay worship, and therefore had a practical use, he was able to use some of the more radical ideas that had been rejected for his design of St Paul's Cathedral.

'The exteriors were kept quite plain, except for their famous spires.'

Almost all the new churches had an auditory plan with a tiny chancel, or indeed none at all. There was no screen, and galleries on three sides. The ceilings were flat to improve the acoustics during the sermon. The exteriors were kept quite plain, except for their famous spires. These clearly marked them as Anglican churches, not Nonconformist chapels.

Wren's London churches are often compared to Roman basilicas, but there is another parallel closer to home - English Perpendicular glass-box churches. St Bride's Fleet Street is a good example of this. By the 15th century, St Bride's had developed into a fully aisled rectangle with a west tower.

Wren's rebuild incorporated a virtually identical ground plan. Inside, though, the space for the laity in the nave was extended eastwards into the space once occupied by the long chancel. The barrier between nave and chancel, people and priest had gone.

At St Martin-in-the-Fields (rebuilt between 1722 and 1726), James Gibbs took a slightly different approach to the same problem. Inside the effect was much the same as in Wren's churches, with aisles, galleries, a large pulpit and a shallow niche for the altar. But instead of a gigantic nave, Gibbs designed a huge choir. The tall portico with the royal coat of arms in its pediment can be read as a choir screen separating the nave/world from the choir/interior.

The steeple above the west end of the nave represents the central tower over the crossing. The impact of the building is diminished now that it has been encroached upon by Trafalgar Square, but it still makes a very strong statement about the 18th-century ties between Church and state.

'Gothick' fantasy

Image of Victorian interior of St John the Evangelist
18th-century rococo interior, St John the Evangelist, Herefordshire
From the mid-18th century, there was a conscious revival of medieval forms, especially as picturesque features in landscapes. The gardens of Studley Royal house were designed so that the ruins of Fountains Abbey formed a main feature.

Where an existing ruin wasn’t available, one could always be created. At Shobdon, in Herefordshire, Richard Bateman pulled down most of the medieval church so that three of its arches (probably the doors and chancel arch) could be re-erected on a nearby hill to form an ‘eye-catcher’ in the views from his garden.

'... Bateman’s new church adopted a kind of fantasy style called Gothick.'

Having demolished all of the old church except the tower, Bateman had a new nave and chancel built between 1752-56. Rather than use a classical style as many church builders were doing around this time, Bateman’s new church adopted a kind of fantasy style called Gothick.

Gothick was a mix of medieval and rococo elements, with a hefty dose of Moorish thrown in. It drew heavily on late medieval buildings such as the Henry VII chapel at Westminster. Perhaps Bateman felt such a style would be more appropriate because the new church was attached to a genuinely medieval tower, or perhaps he just had a Romantic turn of mind and liked the style.

Churches like Shobdon and Croome d’Abitot (Worcestershire) of 1763 (another Gothick eye-catcher church designed to go with a house and gardens by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown), set a precedent for the revival in the 19th century of traditional Gothic forms in Anglican church architecture.

It is important to note, though, that Gothic had never been completely lost in the Anglican church, as most of the 10,000 or so medieval parish churches remained in use. Therefore, there were plenty of original medieval buildings for later architects to study.

Changing times

Image of tower at St Philips in Birmingham
The distinctive tower of the Anglican Cathedral of St Philip's, Birmingham
By the early 19th century, the old parish system was on the verge of collapse. Its boundaries had been set in the 12th century, and the landscape of England had changed enormously since then.

Growing cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester were particularly badly served, especially around their formerly rural fringes. Even if there was a church nearby, there was no guarantee that you could get a seat. In most churches, the pews were rented out to individual families - often a pew belonged to a house.

'Only an act of Parliament could create new parishes ...'

This placed a great pressure on space, as no one else could sit there. Galleries along the sides and back of the nave for free seating were built to try and cope with this problem, but even this often was insufficient to meet the expanding population.

Only an act of Parliament could create new parishes, as the parish was regarded as a unit of civil, as well as ecclesiastical, jurisdiction and therefore under secular control. Such acts were sometimes obtained, as in 1708 for St Philip's in Birmingham (now the cathedral), but this was a difficult procedure.

New chapels could be built within existing parishes, but as the funds often came from selling pews in advance, these 'proprietary' churches did not alleviate a shortage of seats. The situation was not necessarily any better in rural areas. In the north-west, for instance, old parishes were often huge and inadequately staffed.

'The ecclesiastical world had finally succumbed to the secular one ...'

Where established churches failed to meet people’s religious needs, Nonconformists often stepped into the breach. Both ‘old dissent’ and new forms like Methodism, made huge gains in England (and Wales) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Act for Promoting the Building of Additional Churches in Populous Parishes, passed in 1818, made £1,000,000 of government money available for new churches. It also made it much easier to sub-divide existing parishes. The churches built with this money kicked off a programme of church building in the 19th century on a scale not seen in England since the 12th century.

It also led to a complete rethinking of the way Anglican churches were designed and how they were used. The ecclesiastical world had finally succumbed to the secular one, and now the state gained complete control of people’s hearts, minds and souls as they progressed through the journey of life.

Parish churches today

Image of the exterior of St Mary's at Tedburn St Mary in Devon
A feature of the landscape - St Mary's, Tedburn St Mary, Devon
A 21st-century visitor to an Anglican parish church does not see the church as it was in the Middle Ages - all that was swept away at the Reformation. But neither does he or she see it as it would have been in the 17th or 18th centuries - almost all post-Reformation changes were swept away in the 19th century.

There is no doubt that many churches were in need of attention and repair in the early 19th century, but restoration could go too far. At St Mary-in-Castro, Leicester, for instance, a medieval arcade and aisle were taken down and replaced in 1850 by George Gilbert Scott, on the highly questionable grounds that they didn't 'go' with the rest of the church. From the late 19th century, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) has advocated a more sensitive approach to historic buildings.

'The future of the parish church is, in many ways, as uncertain now as it was after the Reformation.'

Since the 20th century, the Anglican Church has slowly moved away from its past. A new Common Worship service has recently been introduced, although technically the 1662 Book of Common Prayer still remains in use. Many parish churches now have altars in the nave, so the services can be seen and heard by the congregation.

The future of the parish church is, in many ways, as uncertain now as it was after the Reformation (although for very different reasons). Church attendance has fallen by about a third since 1970, and many parish churches are now too big, in the wrong place, or simply an unsuitable arrangement for modern congregations.

As a consequence, some have found other uses, others have simply been abandoned. The decline in church-going bears testimony to the breaking down of the community ties which previously centred on the local church.

However, parish churches can still provide an amazingly vivid picture of the twists and turns of religious history since the Reformation. The buildings contain countless clues about the past, and richly reward a visitor's close attention.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-07
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