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- Author: R. C. Richardson x
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When originally published in 1972 this book – chiefly thematic in approach and based on the author’s doctoral thesis - was hailed as the first regional study and micro analysis of the development of English Puritanism to appear in print. Leading scholars like Patrick Collinson welcomed its appearance. Internal contrasts within the huge, sprawling diocese of Chester and its large parishes are drawn out as are comparisons with the religious situation in other parts of the country. The ways in which, for much of the period under review, Puritanism in this region was actively supported, and not persecuted, by the authorities is a key distinctive feature which receives careful attention. So do the activism of puritan laity and gender dynamics. Puritan clergy provide only part of the story which is documented in these pages though often it is most conspicuous (not least because clergy tend to be the principal narrators). There is much here on women’s distinctive roles and contributions within households and congregations and as patrons. Analysis is offered of the reading habits of puritan clergy and laymen as a major example of the ways in which puritans in this region were closely connected with the wider world. Contributions made to Puritanism in this diocese by clergy from outside it are also assessed. The ways in which individual and corporate patronage was brought to bear in favour of Puritanism receives a whole chapter of its own. Tensions and conflicts between puritans and Roman Catholics in the North West are carefully reviewed in what was in effect a frontier region.
Controlling an unusually large diocese stretching from North Wales to Cumberland, Westmorland and parts of Yorkshire was a supremely difficult task for bishops and archbishops. Large parishes contributed to the general unmanageability and enabled Puritanism to take root and develop especially in quasi-independent chapelries and areas where marketing and industrial activity were well established. Manchester was simultaneously the most prosperous and most puritan town in the North-west, the main distributing centre for the textile industry of the region and the one most closely linked in two-way traffic with London, the epi-centre of Puritanism in the country as a whole. In the countryside Puritanism took root most readily in weakly manorialised, industrialising pastoral areas – as Joan Thirsk had earlier suggested for other parts of England. The heartland of Catholicism, by contrast, was in the more isolated west of Lancashire, with stronger ties to Ireland than to London.
The educational background of the puritan clergy in this region and their sense of brotherhood are important themes here. In this respect the fact that more than half of them were university-trained is surely significant. That there were conformist as well as nonconformist puritan clergy here as elsewhere in the country is made clear. But it was nonconformists who drew attention to themselves by their actions or by being most complained about by those who opposed them and it these who occupy centre-stage in this chapter. Failing to wear the surplice, refusing to use the sign of the cross in baptism, opposition to kneeling at the name of Jesus and at communion, organising conventicles, devising alternative catechisms as indicators of clerical nonconformity are amply covered. So too is ministers’ emphasis on the centrality of edifying sermons in church services and their preference for extempore rather than set forms of prayer. Puritan clergy are depicted here as leaders and as agents in the setting up of the ‘godly discipline’ in promoting Sabbatariansim and the furtherance of reformation.
Though puritan clergy were instigators, leaders, figureheads and agents in this region as elsewhere the growth of Puritanism would have been inconceivable without lay support and involvement from women as well as men. Indeed it is clear that puritan laity could and did sometimes act independently and could actually set the pace in their parishes and chapelries. Far from uneducated and becoming firmly grounded in the scriptures laymen could become religious proselytisers in their own right. Expressions of clerical nonconformity, sometimes at least, came about in response to lay urging and pressures and if they found their own minister did not meet their own standards laymen did not hesitate to go elsewhere for spiritual refreshment. ‘Gadding to sermons’ to satisfy their thirst for edifying preaching was common practice. Lay puritans’ own households, however, were their own preserves for religious devotions and the setting up of the puritan godly discipline, a church in their own homes. Conventicles often had their origin in this way. The ways in which John Bruen of Stapleford, Cheshire, and his cultivation of good religious practice became a model for others to imitate in his own lifetime and after provides a revealing case study of such trends. Choosing suitable marriage partners for his children and other relatives and recruiting like-minded servants are integral parts of his story. Bruen’s sister, Katherine Brettergh, provides a no less eloquent case study of lay puritanism, and specifically of women’s religiosity, in action. So numerous were women among the earliest Quakers that they were at first taken to be a female religious sect.
Patronage coming from members of the aristocracy, gentry, merchants and municipalities, and from wealthy women comes under review in this chapter. Gentry patronage in the form of financial support to individual clergymen, sometimes as bequests in their wills, and in the use of presentations to and augmentation of church livings was more conspicuous than that offered by aristocrats in this part of the country. John Bruen, featured already in the previous chapter, is again drawn on here to illustrate ways in which his social standing, financial backing, and direct interventions (including his iconoclasm) in local religious life could have a major impact. Another case study incorporated into this chapter is the Cheshire parish of Bunbury and the succession of godly puritan ministers introduced there through the good offices of the London Haberdashers’ Company which controlled the advowson of the church living. Other London-based merchants whose origins were in Lancashire and Cheshire also contributed in similar ways and were sometimes deliberately targeted by fund-raisers. Wealthy women, normally widows and spinsters, received high praise from puritan publicists for the good work they were doing in promoting the consolidation of church livings and extending financial support to needy ministers. Elsewhere, in Congleton, Nantwich and Liverpool, for example, municipal patronage was being used to good effect in promoting puritan preachers and preaching, sometimes by means of endowed lectureships. More generally, the alliance between patrons and preachers did much to promote the establishment and spread of the puritan ‘godly discipline’. Though to succeed it needed to grow roots, imposing it from above could often be the essential preliminary.
Western parts of Lancashire especially were renowned for their deep-seated Catholicism. Head-on collisions with Puritanism were inevitable and are documented in this chapter partly through the use of individual parish case studies of Garstang, Poulton, Kirkham, Prescot, and one from Cheshire (Bunbury) and by examining the efforts of individual puritan clergymen like Edward Fleetwood of Wigan and his later namesake from Kirkham and Richard Heyricke in Manchester. The Gunpowder Plot sparked both immediate responses and vivid and unforgiving memorialisation later from puritan clergy in the diocese of Chester. Where Catholicism was most firmly entrenched puritan opposition to it was most noticeable. The evidence for all this, admittedly, centres chiefly on the puritan clergy, the front-line opponents. The extent to which such opposition to Catholics became bound up in the 1630s with resistance to Laudian innovations remains an interesting question. So is the extent to which puritan laymen were in accord with this unrelenting hostility from their pastors shown to Roman Catholics. Certainly it is too simplistic to extrapolate puritan/Roman Catholic divisions into the Civil War parties of Parliamentarians and Royalists.
The final chapter summarises the principal findings of the book concerning the distribution and development of Puritanism and the interlocking roles within it of clergy, congregational laity, and patrons (both individual and corporate). Household devotions, in this part of the country, as elsewhere, formed the basis of the molecular structure of Puritanism. It also emphasises the limited validity of the notion of a monolithic national ‘Puritan Movement’ despite obvious common denominators such as the university background of the preachers, shared reading habits, and the considerable influence of London. Regional and chronological variations in its patterns render this term unhelpful, not least on account of the frontier zone collisions between puritans and Roman Catholics in the North West and the expedient moderation and often encouragement of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities towards the puritan presence. But that national and local strands in the history of Puritanism could and did come together is eloquently demonstrated by the enthusiastic reception given to puritan ‘martyr’ William Prynne in Chester in 1637 on his way to imprisonment in Caernarvon castle. Though puritanism in this region has its own history it was, most definitely not self-contained.