A shilling for Queen Elizabeth: the era of state regulation of church attendance in England, 1552-1969.

Author:Field, Clive D.

Throughout Christian history, churchgoing has been widely regarded as one of the most important and tangible expressions of religious observance. Yet, before the Reformation, failure to attend services was subject solely to ecclesiastical sanctions, such as admonition, penance, and excommunication, as applied by the Episcopal courts. Partly as a consequence, despite some evidence of action by these courts in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, (1) "Many pre-Reformation English men and women probably did not go to church very regularly, and some hardly ever or not at all." (2) In England, for four centuries after the birth of Protestantism, the situation changed dramatically. From that time forward, regular attendance at religious services on Sundays and holy days was, under statute law, technically mandatory for every person, and enforceable through civil as well as ecclesiastical judicial procedures, by the mechanism of constables and justices of the peace, and churchwardens and officers of the church courts. The primary intention behind the legislation was to promote uniformity to the Church of England by targeting popish recusants and, later, Protestant sectaries, but it was also designed to curtail those branded as "practical atheists. This article has a threefold objective: to trace the development of the specific corpus of legislation on non-attendance at church between 1552 and 1969 (as opposed to the broader canvass of laws affecting Sunday observance as a whole); (3) to investigate the extent to which the law was enforced on the ground; and to assemble evidence about churchgoing levels, recognizing that, as Margaret Spufford has argued, it is very difficult to quantify religious belief and practice in the pre-industrial age. (4) A particular focus will be on the long eighteenth century, a period that remains unstudied systematically in terms of church attendance. Despite this, William Jacob, not with standing evidence he concedes to be "mostly circumstantial and haphazard" and "difficult to evaluate," has recently made some rather large claims for the first half of the century when the Church of England perhaps reached the zenith of its allegiance among the population of England and Wales." (5) In this way, the essay complements Donald J. Withrington's pioneering work on non-churchgoing in Scotland. (6)


The obligation to attend the established Church was initially laid down, on pain of punishment by ecclesiastical censures, in the uniformity act of 1552 (5 & 6 Edw. VI cap, 1, sn. 1-2), in response to a situation in which:

a great number of people in divers parts of this realm, following their own sensuality, and living either without knowledge or due fear of God, do wilfully and damnably before Almighty God abstain and refuse to come to their parish churches and other places where common prayer, administration of the sacraments and preaching of the word of God is used upon Sundays and other days ordained to be holy days. (7)

In consequence, the statute determined:

That from and after the feast of All Saints next coming all and every person and persons inhabiting within this realm, or any other the king's majesty's dominions, shall diligently and faithfully (having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent) endeavour themselves to resort to their parish church or chapel accustomed; (2) or upon reasonable let thereof, to some usual place where common prayer and such service of God shall be used in such time of lett; (3) upon every Sunday, and other days ordained and used to be kept as holydays. (8)

In 1553, 1 Mary I sess. 2 cap. 2, (9) repealed this Edwardian legislation, which was seen to penalize Catholics, but, following Mary's death and the state's reversion to Protestantism, the churchgoing provision soon reappeared in the Elizabethan uniformity code of 1558-59 (1 Eliz. I cap. 2 and associated injunctions), thus bringing Edward's statute back into force. The Edwardian wording was repeated, but spiritual punishment for failure to attend worship was now supplemented with a fine of twelve pence (one shilling) for each offense, to believed by the churchwardens on the defaulter's property, the proceeds to be applied to the relief of the parochial poor (sn. 14). The officers of the Church (sn. 16), justices of the peace (sn. 17), and mayors and officers of towns and boroughs (sn. 29.) were given full authority to enforce the law. (10)

The population, and the relevant civil and ecclesiastical officers, was evidently slow to comply with Elizabeth's requirements, as is suggested by the obligation-placed on all churchwardens in England and Wales, in 1561 and 1566, to prepare, respectively, monthly and quarterly lists of those parishioners who would not pay the shilling fine for non-attendance. (11) In 1563, the Lord Keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, asked Parliament: "Howe commeth it to passe that the common people in the country universallie come so seldome to common prayer and devine service ... ?" He bemoaned the failure to implement the law on churchgoing: "hitherto noe man, no, hoe man--or verye fewe--hath scene it executed." (12) Some evidently felt that the threshold of expectation needed to be revised, so that in 1571, Parliament debated a bill to fine those who did not come to church on a quarterly, and to partake of Holy Communion on an annual, basis. During the deliberations, Sir Owen Hopton noted that churchwardens, being simple men and fearing to offend, would rather incurre the danger of periurie then displease some of their neighbours" by presenting them for absence from church. (13) Perhaps the situation described by the new wardens of Sawston in 1579 was typical:

We doubt not but that manic have deserved by reason of wilfullness and otherwise to have paid the for future ... how be we cannot learned that it bathe been taken with us of long time, for if it had been twelve taken ... either the poore mens boxe shoulde have ben better stowed with money, or wells our church many times better filled with people. (14)

With Roman Catholics specifically in mind, the peceuniary and other penalties for persistent absenteeism were significantly stiffened in subsequent legislation: 23 Eliz. I cap. 1, sn. 5 of 1581, which introduced a 20 [pounds sterling] fine for a month's absence; (15) 29 Eliz. I cap. 6, sn. 4 of 1587, which provided for forfeiture of property in the event of non-payment of the fine; (16) and 35 Eliz. I cap. 2, sn. 2 of 1593, which prescribed banishment from the realm-for those who failed to conform for However, the continuing prevalence of a more general laxity, over and above ideological recusancy, was exemple lifted in the series of bills on non-churchgoing which came before the 1601 Parliament, two of which were only narrowly defeated. The debates on all of them showed that the existing law had by then mostly fallen into disuse. (18)

The actual evidence of compliance on the ground in the later Tudor years is patchy, not wholly consistent and often difficult to interpret, not least because of the exaggerated rhetoric of some contemporary commentators. (19) Of modern historians, only Clark has been brave enough to put a figure on Elizabethan churchgoing: "Probably something like a fifth of the population of Kent stayed away from church on a regular basis in the late sixteenth century." This estimate was predicated upon the numbers of unabsolved excommunicates (who were barred from church), tramps and the suburban poor, and people living in extra-parochial areas of the county. (20) Certainly, as Christopher High has observed, in large and o populations parishes with man michaels, such as existed in Lancashire, it would have been almost impossible for wardens to know who attended church and who did not. (21) Recusants and sectaries apart, it seems dear that anybody under the age of sixteen, servants, the poor, the sick, and the elderly usually all stood beyond the scope of prosecution for casual attendance (indeed, not necessarily even expected to come to church). Such periodic efforts as were made in the Elizabethan era to present absentees from church in the ecclesiastical courts often tended to concentrate on the main transgressors, to serve as examples to others. As William Sorrell of Great Bardfield complained in 1599 on being reported by the wardens for his absence from Sunday worship: "With-in the time of their presentment there was not above 20 or 40 people at church, he being present, being 200 of houseling people in the parish." (22) The number of presentments for non-attendance before the courts, therefore, probably constitutes only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Elizabethan non-churchgoing Moreover, even when cases did come to court, many were either dismissed immediately on the defendant s production o a certificate from the clergyman stating that the offense had been rectified, or dealt with by admonishment, or adjourned (perhaps several times) to afford an opportunity for reformation, or dismissed on acceptance of a reasonable excuse such as old age or sickness. Some defendants failed to appear in court and were automatically excommunicated, the ultimate ecclesiastical sanction to carry civil penalties and disabilities until 1813.

Compulsory attendance at Anglican services was restated following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, as part of 3 Jac. I cap. 4 and 3 Jac. I cap. 5, both acts specifically directed at popish recusants. Sn. 27 of the former provided for a single justice to warrant churchwardens to levy the twelve pence fine and, in the event of non-payment, for the justice to order imprisonment until payment was made. (23) But Elizabethan habits persisted, one Jacobean preacher deploring "what cold and carelesse coming to Church there is ... sometimes not halle the people in a parish present at holy exercises upon the Sabbath day, so hard a thing it is to drawe them to the meanes of their salvation." (24)...

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