Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Religious Upheaval during 17th Century England

by Katherine Pym

Many centuries plod along with not much happening. But when you come into the 17th Century, it is a minefield of tempestuous action--all due to religion.

From the initial fear James Stuart was Catholic to Charles I being a Protestant but too popish, the century jogged at a furious pace into religious revolt. Churches were gutted of their musical pieces, their gilded altars, and their stained-glass windows.

The country dived into three civil wars, and a king’s beheading, then settled for a quiet moment into the staid, dark Commonwealth years. 

Color all but disappeared. Men, women and children wore black with no lace or ribbons. Mayday was no longer sanctioned. Bartholomew’s Fair or bear baiting could not be stopped, but drama, song, and dance were. Theatres were closed and the Globe pulled down.

Under the Commonwealth, the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed as being too popish. Ministers in the Church of England lost their vocations. Many ended up in debtor’s prison.

Religious intolerance sidestepped for a moment when King Charles II returned from exile. He wiped the slate clean with the Declaration of Breda, and people in all faiths breathed a sigh of relief. The king would bring a state of sensibility to England.

They were misguided.

Within months of King Charles II coronation, new laws were put into place that switched the tide from Anglican suppression to Presbyterian suppression. A group of restrictive statutes called the Clarendon Code, (which Clarendon did not author), took effect during the years of 1661-1665 that intended to strengthen the power of the Church of England.

Within these five years, the Cavalier Parliament rejected the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and quelled all nonconformist activity. To hold office, you had to prove you supported the Church of England and take Holy Communion.

By mid 1662, the Act of Uniformity installed the Book of Common Prayer back into church services. Those Presbyterian clergy who refused were cast out of their vocations. Considered the Great Ejection, two thousand Presbyterian ministers walked away from their pulpits. Many ended up in debtor’s prison as their Anglican counterparts before them.

In 1664, the Conventicle Act disallowed more than five Presbyters to meet at one time for unauthorized worship. In 1665, the Five Mile Act forbade nonconformist ministers to come within five miles of any incorporated town, nor were they allowed to teach in schools.

While London burned during a conflagration in September 1666, Frenchmen were accused of being papists and setting the town afire. Several were hanged from lampposts throughout the city. The king and his brother had to ride out amidst people burned out of their homes to reassure them the French did not start the fire. God’s hand did it.

In 1678, Titus Oates set forth an early version of McCarthyism with the Popish Plot where, in a fit of frenzy, innocent men and women accused of being Catholic were imprisoned and/or executed.

King Charles II did not let slip he converted to Catholicism, but King James II broadcast it the width and breadth of England. After the Glorious Revolution, James was drummed out of the country, and finally, after so much angst and shedding of tears, his daughter and son-in-law--avowed Protestants--were brought to England as joint ruling monarchs.

England finally set a calmer course toward religion.

For more information on Anglican ministers going to debtor's prison, please see my historical novel, Viola A Woeful Tale of Marriage; for Catholics in London, please see TWINS, a 2012 EPIC finalist, and for more on the Act of Uniformity, you can read it in Of Carrion Feathers, all set in London during the 1660's . 

You'll find them at or and the NOOK.


  1. Many thanks to Katherine Pym, author of TWINS, a 2012 EPIC finalist, for sharing this fine overview of Religious Upheaval during 17th Century England.

  2. I am fascinated by this. As a Catholic with some English as well as Irish and Scottish heritage, I wonder what my relatives rent through during that time of upheaval.

  3. Teresa, thanks very much.
    Jennifer, if your ancestors were openly Catholic, they would not have been allowed to live within 10 miles of London, nor could they hold public office. It was a difficult time for them. It would be great if you found anything about their difficulties. It would make a wonderful book, I think. K

  4. Katherine, what a fine post! Even Samuel Pepys, as a secretary in the Admiralty, lived in terror then, fearing someone might think his wife was a Catholic. These comments are becoming a fine way to get a view of the nooks and corners of English history.

  5. I was unaware of the repression under Charles II as I always thought of his reign as a rather tolerant time. Good info!

    Thanks for the post!

  6. How informative and beautifully presented. Thank you for the inspiration !

  7. Ever read Orwell's 1984 as a history of The Catholic Church in England.. look for all the clues such as the names of the charter's, oranges and lemons, re-writing history, the new dictionary, etc etc.


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