Abbey, court and community 1525–1640
Author: J. F. Merritt

Early modern Westminster is familiar as the location of the Royal Court at Whitehall, parliament, the law courts and the emerging West End, yet it has never been studied in its own right. This book reveals the often problematic relations between the diverse groups of people who constituted local society - the Court, the aristocracy, the Abbey, the middling sort and the poor - and the competing visions of Westminster's identity which their presence engendered. There were four parishes in Westminster at the turn of the sixteenth century. The parishes of St Martin's and St Margaret's have been identified as two of only eighteen English parishes for which continuous and detailed parish records survive for the turbulent period 1535-1570. Differences in social organization, administrative structure and corporate life in the two parishes also provide a study in contrasts. These crucial differences partly shaped forms of lay piety in each parish as well as their very different responses to the religious reformations of Henry VIII and his children. The death of Henry VIII heralded important changes in Westminster. Most strikingly, however, this was a period of major religious change, in stark contrast to the piecemeal changes of Henry's reign. The dissolution of Westminster's abbey gave rise to special problems. The book examines individuals who wielded the most influence at the local government; as well as the social identity of these parish elites. Finally, it explores the interaction of religion with the social and political developments observed in the post-Reformation town.

A royal city in a time of revolution
Author: J. F. Merritt

This book examines the varied and fascinating ways in which the series of non-monarchical regimes of England’s civil wars and interregnum interacted with the unique locality and community of Westminster. Westminster (as opposed to London) was traditionally viewed as the ‘royal’ city – the site of Whitehall Palace and the royal courts of justice, its Abbey reputed to be the ‘house of kings’, and its inhabitants assumed to be instinctive followers of the monarch and the royal court. Westminster emerges in this study as a site of extraordinary ambiguities and juxtapositions. The promoters of vigorous moral reformation and a sustained and often intrusive military presence coexisted uneasily with the area’s distinctive forms of elite sociability and luxury. The state’s foremost godly preachers performed in close proximity to royalist churchmen. More generally, the forces of political, religious and cultural conservatism can be observed on the very doorstep of parliament and non-monarchical regimes. Yet for Westminster as a whole, this was the time when the locality became tied to the state more tightly than ever before, while at key moments the town’s distinctive geography and local government played a significant role in shaping the political crises of the period. Chapters analyse the crisis of 1640-42, the use of Westminster’s iconic buildings and spaces by the non-monarchical regimes, the sustained military occupation of the locality, the problems of political allegiance and local government, the religious divisions and practices of the period, and the problematic revival of fashionable society in a time of political tension.

J. F. Merritt

The study of how Westminster society responded to poverty enables us to examine issues that highlighted fundamental questions of communal identity in Westminster, at both ends of the social scale. The Abbey was a source of some charitable provision in medieval Westminster, and the charitable activities of the Westminster monks may have been more carefully targeted, and the alms more effectively distributed, than has sometimes been thought. Whatever the extent of the monks' personal involvement in the town, the amount of alms which the Abbey distributed could still be significant. Westminster's political significance, and the socially elevated character of many of its inhabitants, meant that Westminster was expected to act with especial vigilance towards plague. For this reason, the Westminster parishes were often in the vanguard in introducing policies intended to control the disease, including the use of pesthouses.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
J. F. Merritt

This chapter explores the interaction of religion with the social and political developments that we have observed in the post-Reformation town. It investigates whether the newly emergent parish oligarchies, who played a decisive role in local government, also brought a distinctive religious agenda to their management of parochial affairs. St Martin's emerged as a parish with a vigorously Protestant evangelizing profile. Of Westminster's post-Reformation parishes, the one that distinguished itself by its conservatism and attachment to ceremony was St Margaret's, where the influence of the Abbey church made itself most felt. Beliefs in magic and witchcraft are often treated as essentially rural phenomena, yet they also appear among Westminster's residents. It was a feature of English religious life in the 1620s and 1630s that religion became increasingly politicized. Fears of Catholicism were exacerbated by the pro-Spanish policies of the Crown.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
J. F. Merritt

This chapter focuses on the practicalities of the emergent fashionable society. It traces the manner in which both visiting and resident gentry and aristocracy lived in Westminster, how they acquired accommodation, what sort of households they maintained and amenities they required and, how far the locality was able to provide them. In the early seventeenth century, Westminster's aristocratic credentials were most impressively conveyed by the great townhouses which lined the Strand. Letters written by gentry in Westminster to friends in the country constantly recount the varying price of lodgings, the difficulty of finding them and rumours of soon-to-be-vacant houses. In the early modern period new imported luxuries, easier access to the capital for entire families and new patterns of consumption made shopping one of the more important activities taking place within the Westminster parishes.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
J. F. Merritt

This chapter shows the use of land and space in Westminster involved a constant series of negotiations between shifting interest groups and individuals. By the sixteenth century, open fields within Westminster began to be used for brickmaking, a smoky process which disfigured the landscape. Although these suburban activities continued to flourish into the seventeenth century, their coexistence with aristocratic urban development became increasingly problematic. The chapter examines the Crown's direct impact on the use of space. The Crown intervened in Westminster as part of its broader policy towards new building and the expansion of the capital. The building of new houses suitable for the gentry and aristocracy was undoubtedly one of the most significant developments to take place in modern Westminster. The role of parishes is a particularly important one, because disputes over the deployment of space gave rise to claims about the nature of the community and local society.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
J. F. Merritt

The dissolution of Westminster's abbey gave rise to special problems, given the earlier prominence of the abbot in the medieval government of the town. Relations between Abbey, Crown and townspeople were certainly redefined during the century following the Reformation. In the Elizabethan period, power in Westminster was largely concentrated in the hands of the Crown and the Cecil family. The growing volatility of town politics and patronage in the early Stuart period partly reflected the collapse of the Cecil patronage that had earlier dominated the town. Jacobean Westminster was marked by a degree of continuity and stability, as Cecil patronage continued to operate on many levels within Westminster. In 1607, King James approved a bill for the incorporation of Westminster. Expenses incurred by St Margaret's parish in promoting the bill reveal the prominent, but ambiguous role played by members of the Cecil family.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
Abstract only
J. F. Merritt

Historians have long seen the sixteenth century as a key period in the development of the English parish. Both the growth of the state and the policing of Reformation religious policy required parishes to assume new powers and responsibilities. Throughout the country, the post-Reformation period witnessed the development of parish vestries, which concentrated power in the hands of a small elite. As Westminster's vestries were to become a byword, either for oligarchic corruption or lay intrusion, it is particularly important to trace their disputed origins, and to uncover the manner of their development. By the 1620s and 1630s, St Martin's vestrymen shared less in terms of occupation and patronage, even if they operated as a tightly knit group. The fragmentation of the Cecil patronage removed one unifying factor and it is not clear that any of Westminster's later High Stewards achieved the same concentration of local influence.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
Neighbourhood, disorder and urban expansion—225
J. F. Merritt

The 1585 Act formally established a Court of Burgesses, with the stated intention that this new body would tackle problems of disorder and provide the town with a means to ensure 'good government' more generally in the locality. In order to discuss the impact of the court on Westminster residents, it is important to understand the historical framework within which the Court of Burgesses operated. Market regulation was an important part of the court's function and one that derived from the powers formerly exercised by the abbot of Westminster. Created to address the problems generated by a burgeoning population, and increasing levels of poverty, immigration, and immoral conduct, the Court of Burgesses sought to combat the anonymity that might be seen as the inevitable consequence of urban growth.

in The social world of early modern Westminster
Abstract only
J. F. Merritt

The decade of the 1530s was a climacteric in Westminster's history, ushering in dramatic changes that would crucially affect its later development. Entrenched in a busy urban centre, the Crown's increasing sensitivities as a Westminster 'householder' led to royal attempts to regulate the disease, new building and pollution that characterized the suburb in which it was located. Westminster's parish officials were responsible for an administrative unit whose responsibilities were becoming increasingly complex and burdensome. The period between the Reformation and the Civil War was a time when the Westminster parishes' governing elites became narrower, and the parish community was defined more restrictively, with emphasis upon residential and moral criteria. The Abbey was able to cling on to its remaining powers with remarkable resilience in the century after the Reformation.

in The social world of early modern Westminster