The social world of early modern Westminster
HUS far we have examined the degree to which political power in Westminster
was wielded by the Crown, the Abbey and powerful courtier families such as the
Cecils. As we have seen, the exact balance of power might vary, but the net effect was
to leave Westminster without larger civic institutions to govern its increasingly diverse
and expanding population. The ‘townspeople’ have so far appeared as a frustrated,
amorphous voice – villified as a group seeking the incorporation of the town
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.
focus of local identity.
Parishelites reflected both old and new forces in Westminster. St Margaret’s
parish officials embodied the older social and economic interests of the medieval ‘vill’,
with those connected to the Abbey, law courts, government bureaucracy and the
victualling trade prominent among parishelites. By contrast, St Martin’s officials partly
reflected newer trends in courtly politics and urban development, with a greater
gentry contingent, and an especially prominent body of officials from the King’s Works.
But these parishelites
Place, practice and identity in eighteenth-century rural England
parish office holding in
the identity of the parishelite. He notes that ‘there can be little doubt
either that parish office was the administrative experience par excellence of the “middling”, or that it reinforced certain values’.4 However,
he tells us very little about the content of this experience. By contrast,
Keith Snell has explored the role of the parish overseer in some detail,
albeit for the nineteenth century. This is part of an agenda to ‘infuse
cultural meaning into administrative history, to extend such history
to show how it has many cultural and social
, ‘Local impact’, pp. 131–2; R. Whiting, ‘ “For the health of my soul”: prayers for the dead
in the Tudor south-west’, Southern History 5 (1983), pp. 75–7, 83–4; C. Burgess, ‘ “By quick and
by dead”: wills and pious provision in late medieval Bristol’, EHR 405 (1987), pp. 856–7. In
London, the only fraternity to be refounded was that of the Name of Jesus, which met in the
Shrouds of St Paul’s; see Brigden, pp. 581–3.
83 See below, ch. 4 on parishelites.
84 Cf. P. Marshall, Reformation England 1480–1642 (2003), pp. 99–100; Marshall, Beliefs and the
Dead in Reformation
and to regulate attendance at communion.
This rise in population did not lead parish authorities to write off its poorer
parishioners, nor did it result in a diminution of evangelical fervour. Indeed as we
shall see, the 1620s and 1630s saw St Martin’s vestry lend support to a range of
extreme puritan preachers. What is most striking is the lengths to which St Martin’s
parishelite went to provide greater access to church services for the parish’s rapidly
expanding population. The parish made several attempts to establish chapels of ease
for its parishioners, even
paid for the rebuilding of St Margaret’s at the start of the sixteenth
century. The amount of local support that this work commanded is certainly impressive. The parish received no fewer than eighty-seven donations to fund the work, representing about twelve per cent of the communicants recorded in 1548 or about a quarter
of the adult male population. The sums donated ranged from 12d from one ‘kyng the
porter’ to 40s, but, not surprisingly, the parishelite dominated, with fifteen of those
contributing to the works having served or later serving as churchwarden
154 Certainly rising costs was a major concern in the 1620s, when the parish was suffering a crippling
debt from the 1625 plague rate: in 1629 the vestry ordered that the perambulation costs should
not exceed £5: WAC, F2002, f. 68v. Other factors may have been concerns about keeping such a
large procession in order and perhaps a desire of parishelites to distance themselves from the poor.
155 WAC, F2001, f. 168a, italics mine. See also F3, ff. 6v–7; (1627–28), f. 97; (1629–30), n.f.
156 Note the insistence on this by St Martin’s puritan lecturer Robert Hill