University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Church and People in Interregnum Britain

In this post, UoP senior lecturer in history Dr Fiona McCall talks about her new book Church and People in Interregnum Britain, bringing together new research from scholars across Britain and further afield on the profound religious changes which took place after the British Civil Wars and how people responded to  them.

From 1642-5, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, endured the first in a series of devastating civil wars, which split communities ideologically, politically and religiously.  These wars have been termed ‘the last of the wars of religion’ by leading Civil War historian John Morrill.[1]  In 1645, as the first Civil War approached its end, and the religious reformists gained the upper hand, a second Reformation took place which profoundly changed British society.  Before 1640, there had been only one religion allowed in England, and that was the Church of England. After 1645 the Church was effectively dis-established, and Godly puritan practices promoted in parish churches and everyday ordinary life. The aim was to make the Church in England more like other Calvinist ‘reformed’ churches in places like Scotland and Geneva. Some people welcomed these changes, like Lady Brilliana Harley, who wrote in a letter to her son in 1641, that she looked forward to those things being reformed which burdened the conscience of God’s children and had ‘longe trubeled the peace of the church. [2] Others sought even more radical religious change. New religious beliefs and practices emerged, horrifying traditionalists, who experienced these as times of madness and trouble. Historians continue to debate the extent of the social disruption that resulted, and the impact of Godly ideals.

My first book, Baal’s Priests, the Loyalist Clergy and the English Revolution (2013) looked at the impact of the Civil Wars on the clergy who supported the losing side.[3] In 2015 I gained British Academy funding for a project looking at traditionalist resistance to religious change. Included in that funding were funds to run a conference, ‘The people all changed: religion and society in Britain during the 1650s’, held at the University of Portsmouth on 15-16 July 2016. Because of the significance of the political changes and military events of this period, the social and religious aspects of the period tend to be neglected by historians. Social historians often prefer to concentrate on what the Annales school of history termed the longue durée, centuries rather than decades, and there has become a tendency for research projects to either end in 1640 or start in 1660, or to treat the seventeenth century as if the disruptions of its middle years hardly mattered.  The aim of the conference had been to help to change this, by drawing together researchers working on the records of this period. These tend to require specialist knowledge because political and religious administrative structures were not the same as before 1640, and kept altering still further, another reason why research into the interregnum has been more limited than it might be.

We were really lucky to attract the pre-eminent social historian of the period, Professor Bernard Capp from the University of Warwick, to give one of the keynote papers at the conference.[4] When thinking about publishing the papers presented at the conference, we also benefitted greatly from a suggestion made by Professor Dave Andress, to put forward a proposal to the Institute of Historical Research New Perspectives series. This is a book series commissioned and edited by the Royal Historical Society and published for the  Institute of Historical Research by the University of London Press.  It specialises in publishing the work of early career historians. Many of the contributors to our conference fell into that category.  Happily, Bernard agreed to write an introduction for the volume, and took a very hands-on attitude throughout the process by commenting on and even editing the different contributions. I also had considerably assistance from Dr Andrew Foster, now at the University of Kent but formerly at the University of Chichester, who runs an early modern studies group based in Chichester in which I participate. Andrew and Helen Whittle, another member of the group, both contributed chapters for the book.  I also found two additional contributors to the volume amongst fellow-attendees at two 2017 conferences I attended: the British Churches 1603-1707, at the University of Kent, and Religion and Conflict in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, at Nottingham Trent University.

The final volume includes chapters from eleven contributors. Some relate to the administration of the interregnum church, the role of Oliver Cromwell in ecclesiastical affairs, efforts to survey parish churches with a view to reform, and on the problems of parish record keeping during this period. There were chapters on the clergy of Sussex, Dorset, Warwickshire and Wales, and on moral discipline in Scotland. Contributors came from the Victoria County History, and from the Universities of Warwick, Kent, Leicester, West of England and as far afield as Sydney, as well as my own. My own chapter looked at how the regime, having abolished the church courts, turned to the secular courts to police religious matters.[5]

Dutch engraving satireosing on Oliver Cromwell's role in the church, 1651.

Dutch engraving satirising Oliver Cromwell’s role in the church, 1651, British Museum, 1871,1209.975.

What will the volume contribute to our understanding of the period? Firstly individual chapters show how committed the reformers were to bringing in their own particular brand of religion. In appointing clergy to parishes, Cromwell had a very active role, assuming the powers of the king, and taking them even further.[6] The regime had very high ideals, setting out to improve the way churches were run and to get rid of anything they considered ‘superstitious’, or similar to the Catholic church, like bishops, the book of common prayer, religious imagery, organs and choirs. They made changes in the way baptisms, funerals and particularly marriages were conducted, bringing in laws to say people could only be married by a justice of the peace, and not by the clergy. But many people opposed these changes. Keeping things under control politically via a large army made the regime hard-pressed for money; funding religious improvements often meant taking money from ex-royalists, who naturally were not too happy about this.[7] To make the changes work, the regime had to remove a significant proportion of the clergy who supported the King or traditional ways.[8] Parishioners did not necessarily like the changes either: those who supported reform were probably only a minority, if a significant and determined one.  The reformers were particularly keen to enforce sabbatarianism, where everyone went to church twice on Sunday, with no working, dancing or playing sports. In Bristol they even turned off the water supply on Sundays to prevent people using it.[9] I found plenty of evidence of resistance to this policy, whether from groups of boys playing football or walking on Scarborough beaches, or weavers in Exeter working on Sunday behind locked doors.[10] Quite frequently physical violence was involved. Some groups, like the Quakers, who emerged in this period, were opposed to any form of religious organisation, to clergy and to churches, and caused problems by interrupting and disrupting church services.  All this led to a lot of turbulence and instability: one of the most interesting findings for me was the high turnover of clergy, indicative of a somewhat troubled parish life.[11] Although the majority of clergy survived in post, many had to deal with attempts to displace them, or otherwise make their life difficult.

Interior of Southwick church.

Southwick church, north of Portsmouth, 16th-18c interior.

All this challenges the impression, which I still find repeated in history books, that religious life continued on pretty much the same as normal despite the reforms. Yes, some things didn’t change: parish churches were administered by churchwardens as they had been before, for example. Where parishes had previously been served by puritan clergy, services wouldn’t have looked so different to what people were used to. Other aspects were quite different. The Book of Common Prayer, previously required to be used in church services, was banned; a few churches may have tried to continue using it, but there’s little evidence it was used widely, at least in public. Private baptisms became more common in this period, probably because people wanted to have Common Prayer used for this important religious rite.[12] In places like Suffolk, where there had been an organised campaign to remove images and break stained glass windows, churches would have looked different.[13] Cathedrals and larger churches were often in a sorry state, as were those churches which had been involved in civil war fighting, including several in Hampshire.  Portsmouth Cathedral had its tower destroyed by Parliamentarians firing from Gosport during the siege of Portsmouth at the start of the Civil War; at Alton the church was the centre of a civil war siege, ending with the royalist commander being killed in the pulpit.[14]



Stained glass windows of the sun and moon, Clare, Suffolk.

The only stained glass left after the visit of iconoclasts to the church of Clare in Suffolk were these images of the sun and moon, probably left because they were non-religious images.

To quote Bernard Capp’s final conclusion, the interregnum church, fond of controversy, assailed by both traditionalists and radicals in religion, with its many vacant parishes and dilapidated churches, was ‘not one to inspire enthusiasm’.[15] Yet it did mark a watershed for the state of religion and morality in Britain. Attempts by the puritans to tighten moral order proved counter-productive, permanently damaging the system of moral control previously in place. There was a democratization of religious belief which made it very difficult for the state to continue to tell people what to believe. The return of the Church of England after the Restoration of 1660 restored traditionalist ways, but non-conformists, confirmed and solidified in their own groupings and religious beliefs which had flowered under the turbulence of the interregnum, were resolved to have little part in it.

[1] J. S. Morrill, The Nature of the English Revolution (London: Longman, 1993), 68.

[2] The Letters of the Lady Brilliana Harley (London: Camden Society, 1854), 110.

[3] F. McCall, Baal’s Priests: The Loyalist Clergy and the English Revolution (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

[4] B. Capp, England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649-1660 (Oxford, 2012).

[5] F. McCall, “Breaching the Laws of God and Man: Secular Prosecutions of Religious Offences in the Interregnum Parish, 1645-1660”, in F. McCall (ed.), Church and People in Interregnum Britain (London: University of London Press, 2021), 137-170.

[6] R. Warren, “The Ecclesiastical Patronage of Oliver Cromwell, c. 1654-60, in McCall, Church and People, 65-86.

[7] A. Craven, “Soe good and godly a worke’: the surveys of ecclesiastical livings and parochial reform during the English Revolution”, in McCall, Church and People, 41-64.

[8] McCall, Baal’s Priests, 130-31.

[9] Bristol Record Office, JQS/M/4 1653-71, Quarter Session Minute Book, Epiphany 1655.

[10] M.Y. Ashcroft (ed.), Scarborough Records 1640–1660 (Northallerton, 1991), 261; Devon Heritage Centre, ECA, quarter sessions order book, 1642-60, fo. 351v, 23 March 1656/7.

[11] See Helen Whittle’s chapter on the Sussex clergy, H. M. Whittle, “The clergy of Sussex: the impact of change, 1635– 65”, McCall (ed.), Church and People, 111-136.

[12] P.M. Kitson, ‘Religious change and the timing of baptism in England, 1538-1750’, Historical Journal, 52 (2009): 292.

[13] The Journal of William Dowsing, ed. T. Cooper, (Woodbridge: The Ecclesiological Society, 2001).

[14] G.N. Goodwin, The Civil War in Hampshire, 1642-45 and the story of Basing House (Alresford: Laurence Oxley, 1873).

[15] B. Capp, “Introduction: Stability and flux: the Church in the interregnum”, McCall (ed.), Church and People, 18.

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