The Vicar of Chippenham

Christopher Haigh

  • Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy
    Oxford, 641 pp, £25.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 19 820168 0

For most of us, rites of passage are chaotic family events, with crying babies, cranky children, bored teenagers, tipsy fathers and complaining grandmothers – an excuse for a party, a reception or a wake. For the clergy, however, ritual is a serious business. They want their ceremonies to be tidy, dignified and meaningful – no photographs in church, no confetti in the churchyard. They prefer not to christen the babies of non-churchgoers, nor to heap hypocrisies on the coffins of people they have never known.

This conflict of priorities is not a new one. Bishop Coverdale complained about weddings in 1552: there was too much dressing up, showing off, music, dancing, drinking, flirting, bawdy singing and raucous jollification; not enough sober religion. An Admonition to the Parliament, published twenty years later, similarly complained about guests who threw corn-ears at the bridal pair (no confetti, please), and all who made ‘rather a May game of marriage, than a holy institution of God’. William Gouge, a London minister, was a little more relaxed: in 1622 he allowed ‘all those lawful customs that are used for the setting forth of the outward solemnity thereof, as meeting of friends, accompanying the bridegroom and bride both to and from the church, putting on best apparel, feasting, with other tokens of joy, for which we have express warrant out of God’s word’ – but not ‘gluttony and drunkenness’ or ‘unchaste songs’.

The sensitive relationship between priests and people is now a prominent theme in studies of Early Modern England. Was the Reformation caused by lay resentment of the institutional privileges and personal failings of churchmen? Did the emergence of a graduate profession preaching novelties to the illiterate cause popular hostility? How far did attempts to improve the incomes, status and authority of the clergy alienate influential laymen and contribute to the origins of the Civil War? In short, was there anticlericalism? And if so, when (1520s, 1580s or 1630s)? Why (Wolsey, Calvin or Laud)? From whom (lawyers, peasants or gentry)? And did it matter? We have counted ordinations, bequests, tithe refusals, fee payments, visitation complaints and defamation suits, and the answers have always been ‘it all depends.’ David Cressy’s excellent book suggests a different approach, examining conflicts over ritual and offering stories rather than statistics.

Despite Coverdale, Gouge and the Admonition, a wedding was not only a religious ceremony, but the culmination of weeks or months of courtship, gift-giving and negotiation. John Hayne of Exeter pursued Susan Henley with godly vigour in 1634: his presents included Arthur Hildersham’s Lectures upon the Fourth of John, a Bible and two books of sermons, as well as ribbons, gloves and green silk garters. A wedding was more than a private transaction: the banns were asked three times before the assembled congregation, seeking public endorsement for a proposed union. Marriages celebrated in private or without announcement were ‘clandestine’, valid but punishable. When married, young people became independent householders with authority, obligations and social credit. William Gouge observed that by marriage ‘men and women are made husbands and wives. It is the only lawful means to make them fathers and mothers. It is the ordinary means to make them masters and mistresses.’

So whose weddings were they? Did rites of passage belong to the priests, who might follow the Prayer Book, canon law or their own liturgical inclinations, or did they belong to families and communities, who paid the clerical piper and wanted to call the ritual tune? The clergy usually tried to keep control, prescribing conditions for their services. They were presumably encouraged in this by the introduction of parish registers in 1538 (a surprising omission from Cressy’s book). The compulsory recording of baptisms, marriages and burials made the officiating priest a bureaucratic executive, carrying out his instructions and doing the paperwork afterwards. Ritual acts became formal outlines, with registers to prove they took place as they should and the priest had done his job.

From 1571, the Church of England officially refused (pace Cressy) to marry couples who could not answer basic questions on the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments (fortunately, priests took little notice). Some clergy would not christen babies whose parents could not recite the catechism; others would pray with the dying only if they were known as good Christians. (Usually there were neighbouring ministers who were less scrupulous and more charitable.) In 1604, emergency baptisms by midwives were forbidden. Although a marriage without a priest was binding in law (Cressy is wrong about this, too), it was difficult to prove and participants could be punished. There might have been sound theological and practical reasons for such measures, but no doubt they looked like arrant clericalism. And when the Church banned marriages in Lent, but then sold exemptions freely, it must have looked like arrant greed.

The opportunities for friction were endless, and new occasions could be invented. After Protestantism had discredited some Catholic ceremonies, godly ministers might refuse to use a ring at weddings or to sign with a cross at baptisms: without these details, were couples properly married, or children properly christened? Couples themselves might object to a ring, or parents to a cross – and a conscientious minister might then report them to the Church courts. A pamphlet of 1642 told of A Strange and Lamentable Accident that happened lately at Mears Ashby in Northamptonshire. Mary Wilmore thought crossing at baptism was ‘pernicious, popish and idolatrous’, and wished her baby would be born without a head rather than have it crossed: she was duly delivered of a headless monster, which bore a cross on its breast. God had declared himself: he and his ceremonies would not be mocked. (And, incidentally, the King and the bishops were right and their Parliamentary critics proved wrong.)

By 1642 ritual acts were more controversial than ever. English parishioners had long been used to ministers who rejected traditional ceremonies, but some now endured a clergy which insisted on novelties. When, in 1584, the vicar of Preston Capes refused to perform the ‘churching’ (or thanksgiving service) prescribed in the Prayer Book for new mothers, he was beaten up by a butcher whose wife wanted to be churched as usual. In 1620, Bishop Harsnett of Norwich began to insist that women wore veils for their churching, and in the following year Elizabeth Shipden refused: she was excommunicated by the chancellor of the diocese, but then sued him in King’s Bench, claiming that a veil was required by neither custom nor canon. The judges consulted a committee of bishops, who declared it customary for women to be veiled for their churchings. Perhaps it was, but up until then the wearing of veils had not been enforced. Elizabeth Shipden lost her case.

There were new demands over marriages, too. By the 1630s, bishops were searching out those ministers who refused to marry couples with a ring. Some bishops also began to insist that husband and wife be married at the rail before the altar, and then receive communion. Cressy suggests that Elizabethan and Jacobean bishops were generally tolerant of liturgical variation. But the Laudian ‘ceremonialist disciplinarians’ made customary, though sometimes contentious, rituals into tests of ecclesiastical loyalty, and new requirements were imposed.

These liturgical contests relate to two other debates – the impact of the Reformation and the causes of the Civil War. Cressy’s material seems to show that both Protestants and Laudians had a hard time, that there was a determined retention of old rituals and a determined resistance to new ones. The punters wanted what was in the Prayer Book, no less and no more. There is no doubt that ceremonial squabbles were widespread under Elizabeth I and James I: nonconformist ministers hit trouble with their parishioners, and parents went off to neighbouring churches to ensure their babies were crossed. The evidence for clashes in the 1630s is less convincing. ‘High ceremonialists’, such as Cosin, Montague and Wren, made new demands, but how much notice was taken? Did parish priests bother much with fancy new ways and, if they did, how many of their people protested? The courts were not packed with Elizabeth Shipdens.

These tensions between the official providers of ceremony and their lay customers are central to Cressy’s study. His interests are broader, however, encompassing the ritual history of major life-events, and the ceremonies by which people prepared for, marked and coped with them – an ambitious research agenda to say the least. In other respects this is a modest book. The tone is measured, and arguments are advanced cautiously, primarily in two pages of initial ‘positions’ and in five pages of the Conclusion. There is no polemical thrust, few references to contested opinions, little obvious debate. Instead, Cressy tells fascinating stories, and comments with restraint on their significance. The punch is in the detail.

The Archers: an everyday story of countryfolk, or more tragedy than any family should bear? Isaac Archer was the Restoration vicar of Chippenham in Cambridgeshire and Freckenham in Suffolk, and kept a diary. Isaac married Anne in 1667, and things started well (from his point of view, anyway): ‘I found my wife perfectly devoted to please me, and I bless God for giving me one with a meek and quiet spirit, and well-disposed.’ During the next 17 years Anne had at least 12 pregnancies: four were miscarriages; two babies died at birth, another soon after, three in infancy, and one aged six. Each pregnancy brought fears: Anne came near to death at least twice. Each death and near-death brought distress and troubled Isaac’s conscience – but there is no sign of any conjugal restraint on the part of the parents. By 1684, after all Anne’s painful labours, Isaac’s anxieties and his prayers for a son, the couple had one daughter that survived. Isaac baptised and buried their children and churched his wife: at least they saved on fees.

The long-suffering Anne Archer is the heroine in Cressy’s stories of births. The villains are the absent fathers. Poor Agnes Bowker of Market Harborough, deserted by Randall Dowley and Hugh Brady, blamed a monster for her pregnancy in 1569 and claimed to have given birth to a cat. The champion cad was Francis Lane, who in 1608 promised to marry Rose Arnold, got her pregnant, tried to push her down a well and claimed another man was the father. Rose ‘wandered up and down in Northamptonshire until I was delivered of childbirth’: she lost the baby, but still wanted Lane to marry her.

The hero of marriages is the yeoman Leonard Wheatcroft, who pursued Elizabeth Hawley (‘very fortunate, besides beautiful’) for two years – it took a year of love-letters and months of hand-holding to get Elizabeth’s consent, men weeks of haggling with her father to get his. Arrangements almost broke down just before the wedding in 1657; Wheatcroft forced a conclusion by threatening to emigrate to Jamaica. ‘How many times I went a-wooing you shall find so many slashes upon an ash tree at Winter town end, and how many miles I travelled for her sake was 440 and odd.’ The coward in the marriage stakes is William Ashcombe. At the age of 17, he ‘was much importuned to marry my Lady Garrard’s daughter’ – ‘I saw her and no more.’ At 18, he was offered Kate Howard, but ‘being half afraid of the greatness of her spirit I did not’. At 19, ‘I was wished unto a fine gentlewoman’ – ‘upon further acquaintance I disliked, and did not proceed.’ Finally, in 1613, when he was 22, he took the step (it hardly sounds like a plunge): ‘I, seeing so much wickedness in the world and so much casualty among men, thought good to choose out a companion for me in an honest course and took a wife.’

The misanthrope of mortality is Anthony Armitage, vicar of Ellington in 1602. He wouldn’t meet funeral parties at the churchyard gate, refused to bury two children, and had the parish clerk ‘put them into the earth’. On the day of the funeral of Mary Hale he went off to Huntingdon, kept everyone waiting two hours, and then wouldn’t say the service in church because it was too dark. More considerate was John Coult, who left instructions in 1561 for ‘a solemn drinking’ at his funeral, with ‘three fat sheep, three barrels of beer, and six dozen of bread’. The hero of death is the hefty Richard Dawson of Malpas in Cheshire, who died of the plague in 1625. He knew that he was too heavy for his nephew and a servant-girl to bury, so he dug his own grave and climbed in to die.

Birth, Marriage and Death is packed with such tales. It has 20 chapters: for the hatches, there are four chapters on birth (from pregnancy to suckling), four on baptism, and one on churching; for the matches, two on courtship and five on weddings; and for the dispatches, four on death (from the deathbed to the grave). They are based primarily on regulations and conduct books (which tell what educated males wanted people to do); Church court and visitation records (which show what went wrong); and autobiographical materials (which are weighted towards the middle ranks of society, the pious conscience-watchers, and the end of the period). Much of the evidence was produced by men, and can tell us little about the women-only occasions such as births and the party ‘gossipings’ which followed births and churchings – though in 1633 Thomas Salmon of Great Tew dressed up as a woman so that he could join the female fun after a delivery. Advice for mothers and midwives, and the offences and disputes which arose over births, can, however, open even the door of the birthroom to curious historians.

Cressy has read enough social theory and anthropological description to see what questions might be asked, and understands his sources well enough to know which can be usefully answered. A few anecdotes are recycled, sometimes verbatim, sometimes with changed and incompatible emphases. There is only one serious defect: the Index deals almost exclusively with proper names, and the few thematic entries give less information than the Contents page. Perhaps this was a deliberate stratagem, to prevent the rest of us from quarrying for examples. Although he seeks to range from the reign of Henry VIII to the reign of Queen Anne, Cressy admits a concentration on the period from 1559 to 1689, ‘encompassing Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution, and Restoration’. It seems overall that these four Rs had little impact on life-cycle rituals, with the exception of the successful Protestant campaign against prayers for the dead. For all their efforts, godly Protestant ministers failed to destroy customary observances and Laudian innovators failed to impose new ones. On the whole, the laity tended to get what they wanted, no matter what the professionals thought was good for them.

Cressy exaggerates the shifts he identifies after 1642, when orthodox churchmen became more anxious about deviants. There was more continuity of celebration, and less rebellion against ritual, than he suggests. Nonconformists could duck ceremonies with impunity, but they had separated off into marginal sects; parish communities continued with their traditions. Conformists conformed, and the nonconformists went their own ways. Cressy is probably right that after the Restoration the social élite withdrew from grand public shows to more private ceremonies for family and friends: their rituals were no longer shared with their social inferiors.