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.’

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