Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The "great shaft of Cornehill" and the Origins of English Puritanism

By Mark Patton.

The Church of Saint Andrew Undershaft, at the heart of the City of London, is one of very few churches in the city to have survived both the Great Fire of 1666, and the Blitz of the Second World War. The current building dates back to 1532, but there has been a church on the site, dedicated to Saint Andrew, since the Twelfth Century. To what, however, does the word "Undershaft" refer? Certainly not the tower of Saint Mary Axe (otherwise known as "The Gherkin") which now looms over it.

The Church of Saint Andrew Undershaft. Photo: Elisa.rolle (licensed under CCA)

We find a clue in the work of no less a writer than Geoffrey Chaucer:

"Right well aloft, and high ye beare your heade,
The weather cocke, with flying, as ye would kill,
When ye be stuffed, bet of wine than brede,
Then looke ye, when your wombe doth fill,
As ye would beare the great shaft of Cornehill,
Lorde, so merrily crowdeth than your croke,
That all the streete may heare your body cloke."

The "shaft" in question, was a may-pole, erected each year in the street opposite Saint Andrew's Church, and was presumably taller than the church tower, hence the church was to be found "under the shaft."

Dancing around the may-pole, from Isaiah Thomas, "A Little Pretty Pocket-Book," 1767 (image is in the Public Domain).
Mayday in England, by Otto von Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, 1863 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Sixteenth Century chronicler, John Stow (who, incidentally, lies buried in the church, where he worshipped), tells us that:

"This shaft was not raised at any time since evil May-day (so called of an insurrection made by apprentices and other young persons against aliens in the year 1517); but the said shaft was laid along over the doors, and under the pentises of one row of houses and alley gate, called of the shaft Shaft Alley ... in the Ward of Lime Street. It was there, I say, hung on iron hooks many years, till the third of King Edward VI [1547], that one Sir Stephen, Curate of Saint Katherine's Christ Church [Creechurch], preaching at Saint Paul's Cross, said that this shaft was made an idol, by naming the church of Saint Andrew with the addition of "under that shaft."

Sermon preached from Saint Paul's Cross, 1614, by John Gipkyn, Society Of Antiquaries (image is in the Public Domain).

"I have oft-time seen this man," Stow continues, "forsaking the pulpit of his said parish church, preach out of a high elm tree in the midst of the churchyard, and then entering the church, forsaking the altar, to have sung his high mass in English upon a tomb of the dead towards the north. I heard his sermon at Paul's Cross, and I saw the effect that followed ... Thus was the idol, as he termed it, mangled, and after burned."

The curate in question seems to have been implicated in a "commotion of the commons in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and other shires," and, betrayed by a man about to be executed at Aldgate, "left the city, and was never heard of since."

Sir Stephen's actions (we need not assume that he was either a knight or a baronet - the title was used in a purely honorific sense for churchmen) are remarkably similar to acts of iconoclasm undertaken a hundred years later by people described as "Puritans" (the word was most often used as a term of reproach by others - the iconoclasts typically thought of themselves as Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Baptists or Anabaptists).

In 1547, the Protestant Reformation was well established in England, but, for an increasing vocal minority, taking their inspiration from the French Huguenots, and from John Knox's Church of Scotland, it had not gone nearly far enough. For these English Calvinists, Archbishop Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer still had a whiff of "Popery" about it, a view reinforced by the hierarchy of Anglican bishops, and the use of church vestments.

Popular caricature of Calvinists, c 1650 (image is in the Public Domain).

The word "Puritan" seems not yet to have existed, but it, perhaps, needed to be invented. It appears first to have been used in 1565. In 1572, the Anglican Archbishop, John Whitgift, wrote contemptuously:

"This name Puritane is very aptely given to these men, not bicause they be pure no more than were the Heretikes called Cathari, but bicause they think them selues to be mundiores ceteris, more pure than others, as Cathari did, and separate them selues from all other Churches and congregations as spotted and defyled."

Shakespeare uses the word in Twelfth Night (1601-1602), the servant, Maria, referring to the pompous steward, Malvolio, as "a kind of puritan." The riotous knight, Sir Toby Belch, has previously rebuked Malvolio: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" We might almost see this as the first literary confrontation between characters recognisable (in terms yet to be coined) as a "cavalier" and a "round-head" (the latter, another term used mainly as a reproach).

Twelfth Nigh, the First Folio Edition (image is in the Public Domain).

One unintended consequence of the Reformation, as churchmen were newly free to marry, was that an ecclesiastical career became a far more attractive option for the younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry, who did not stand to inherit. Since many "benefices" were in the gift of wealthy families, a young churchman fresh out of Oxford or Cambridge, might accumulate several of them, to very considerable financial advantage. Such a churchman, if he had one "living" in Kent, another in Essex, and another in London, had few incentives to spend time amid the noise and filth of the city, with the effect that many city parishes found themselves in the "care" of an absentee priest. The city vestries did not lack money, so many hired "lecturers" or preachers, and the men who came forward, typically from much more humble backgrounds, the graduates of grammar schools, rather than universities, were often the fundamentalist Presbyterians, Baptists, Anabaptists and Evangelicals, whose fiery iconoclastic sermons would soon be ringing out across the city louder than the peal of Bow Bells.

Sir Stephen's destruction of the "great shaft of Cornehill" was a presage of things to come, and I have the sense that both John Stow and William Shakespeare had at least some notion that this might be the case.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk. His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. That explains so much. Court and aristocratic life was in a "bubble" and didn't hear this growing cry for reformation for 100 years, and completely underestimated its force. They let the genie out of the bottle, and thought they controlled the genie. I wonder if we're living in a similar bubble now ...

  2. Fascinating post! The battle raged for so many years ...under different names such as Evangelicalism and Tractarianism.... to name just two!


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