Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1550-1642

Pages 109-112

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.

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RELIGION, 1550-1642


The Henrician reformation had been received in Chester with acquiescence tempered by conservatism and expediency. Prominent townsmen who bought or rented ecclesiastical property included William Sneyd, Hugh Aldersey, and William Goodman, all former mayors, and the Dutton family. (fn. 1) The more extreme official line taken under Edward VI was also accepted. At the cathedral Dean William Cliffe (1547-58) quickly ordered the destruction of traditional fittings, while some of the vestments may have been handed over for use in the Whitsun plays. (fn. 2) The poorer parish churches, including St. Peter's, had little to lose, but the effects on the richest parishes were severe. St. John's, formerly a well endowed college, became a rather poor parish church, while Holy Trinity, where many leading citizens worshipped, and St. Mary's lost many ornaments, sacred vessels, and vestments. The abolition of chantries resulted in fewer clergy, and many city benefices were too poor to allow stipendiary curates to be recruited. (fn. 3)

There is little indication of enthusiasm for new doctrines in Chester, which contained no notable protestant laymen, and whose overseas trade was not with ports where protestantism was entrenched. John Bradford, a renowned protestant proselytizer, preached in the city during the 1550s, and John Bird, bishop of Chester 1541-54, took a strongly protestant line, but in general the clergy probably remained conservative and compliant. (fn. 4) The Marian reaction in the city was thus limited. The married incumbent of St. Mary's and Bishop Bird were deprived. The latter's two successors, George Coates (1554-5) and Cuthbert Scott (1556-9), reorganized the church courts to revitalize Catholic worship throughout the diocese. Parishioners rebuilt altars, set up roods and images of the Virgin anew, and replaced vestments and vessels. (fn. 5) Changes at the cathedral were modest. Two canons resigned. (fn. 6) The only indication of lay resistance came in 1555, when one of the sheriffs, John Cowper, led an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a heretic, George Marsh, from being burnt at Spital Boughton on the outskirts of the liberties. (fn. 7)

There was apparently little overt opposition to the Elizabethan settlement, but the interregnum between the deprivation of Bishop Scott in June 1559 and the appointment of Bishop William Downham in May 1561 left the diocesan machinery in the hands of Marian officials. (fn. 8) The cathedral chapter was scarcely affected: Dean Cliffe died in 1558 and was replaced by Richard Walker, the last dean of St. John's, a conformer since 1540; two of the Henrician canons remained, along with four from Mary's reign. The Palm Sunday liturgical observances continued at first, but the cathedral soon acquired the Prayer Book of 1559 and the Psalter, and set up a table of the Commandments. (fn. 9) In the parishes the Marian alterations were undone, sometimes reluctantly. (fn. 10) The heavy cost of making church buildings suitable for protestant worship hampered the maintenance of cathedral and parish churches alike, notably at St. John's, which became partly ruinous. The churchyard of St. Oswald's was desecrated by its use as a rubbish dump. (fn. 11) Many problems remained in the 1580s. St. Oswald's and St. Michael's, and St. Martin's and St. Bridget's were obliged to share ministers because of their poverty, while several parishes sometimes needed to levy Easter rates to pay their ministers and parish clerks. (fn. 12) In 1592 six out of nine lacked the Book of Homilies and Bishop Jewell's Reply, there was no catechizing at St. John's and St. Michael's, and no sermons at St. Mary's; and at St. Peter's and Holy Trinity there were complaints about clerical absenteeism and negligence. (fn. 13) Nevertheless, some important senior clergymen held office in Elizabethan Chester, among them Bishops William Chadderton and Richard Vaughan (later promoted to Lincoln and London respectively), Dean John Piers (eventually archbishop of York), and Dean William Cliffe, a member of the commission which drew up the Henrician King's Book. (fn. 14)


Initial efforts to enforce conformity were less than urgent under the lax regime of Bishop Downham, but in 1564 he presented a report, not wholly accurate, which cast doubt on the religious loyalties of several aldermen, including the mayor (Richard Poole) and three of his predecessors (John Smith, William Aldersey, and Randle Bamvill). There were also a few suspect absentees from church services, notably Fulk Aldersey and his wife, but open recusancy was clearly negligible. (fn. 15) During the later 1560s heavier pressure was brought to bear on conservatives, and by 1580 a score of recusants had been dealt with. About the same time convicted Cheshire recusants and priests were moved from Chester castle to Manchester, partly because Chester was thought more sympathetic. The decision was later reversed, mistakenly, because supervision at the castle proved to be slack. (fn. 16) There were few recusants in the city, and the authorities' main concern was that Catholics were entering Chester in order to escape by ship to Ireland. (fn. 17)

Enthusiastic protestantism developed only slowly. During the 1560s and 1570s there were attempts to promote good behaviour in church and some agitation against the Whitsun plays, (fn. 18) but the turning point came only in the 1580s, when Bishop Chadderton (1579-95) established monthly exercises, dominated by puritans, and encouraged clergy to attend. Among the participants was the Revd. Christopher Goodman, who returned to Chester in 1584 and soon gathered influential support among the laity. Active at the cathedral at the same time were Prebendary John Nutter as a preacher and Thomas Hitchens as a lecturer. (fn. 19) In 1583 the corporation established a weekly Friday lecture at St. Peter's, which became a centre of puritan preaching. After Goodman associated himself with St. Bridget's it too displayed puritan leanings, and in other parishes, Holy Trinity for example, there were complaints about incumbents who failed to preach regularly. (fn. 20) The growing attachment to puritan teachings was both reflected in, and encouraged by, the corporation's eventual concern with personal behaviour. It repeatedly attempted to curb excessive drinking and vice, attacking church ales, Welsh weddings, unlawful games, bowling, football, and bull and bear baiting. In 1583 the authorities banned Sunday trading and exhorted Cestrians to attend church whenever sermons were preached and twice on Sundays and holy days; the corporation set an example by attending services with due formality. Opposition to Mayor Henry Hardware's interference with the Midsummer show in 1600, however, suggests that the citizens' enthusiasm for high-minded reforms was limited. (fn. 21)

The 'godly' and more conservative elements continued to differ during the early 17th century about the Midsummer show and visiting players. (fn. 22) From 1610 to 1612 successive mayors ordered strict observance of the Sabbath, encouraged the corporation to attend sermons at St. Peter's, and took control of the races on St. George's Day in order to prevent misbehaviour. (fn. 23) A distinctive lay puritan temper thus steadily developed before 1620, and it was not effectively countered by openly conservative opinion or by outright recusancy.

Clerical support for puritanism is not easy to measure. William Barlow, dean 1603-5, was a prominent and strongly anti-puritan member of the Hampton Court conference in 1604, (fn. 24) but Bishop Richard Vaughan (1597-1604) sympathized with many puritan opinions. (fn. 25) The next bishop, George Lloyd (1604-15), a former divinity lecturer at the cathedral, was an active preacher and apparently a moderate who tolerated puritan clergy in Chester. (fn. 26) His successor, Thomas Morton (1616-19), however, was of firmly Anglican views and pressed the puritans to conform. (fn. 27) His task was made more difficult by the ministrations of Nicholas Byfield, a Calvinist polemicist and a powerful preacher, who was rector of St. Peter's 1608-15, where his congregation included the well known puritan gentleman John Bruen of Bruen Stapleford, a supporter of private prayer meetings in the parish. (fn. 28) Members of the corporation attended Byfield's services, and the mayor of 1611-12, John Ratcliffe, had his official pew in the church until it was removed on the orders of Bishop Lloyd. (fn. 29) Besides Byfield there were two or three special sermons every week by lecturers funded at different times by the corporation, guilds, and private gifts. (fn. 30) Their work and the sermons of visiting ministers made St. Peter's the main preaching centre in Jacobean Chester. (fn. 31) Otherwise the parish churches suffered from neglect and petty dissension. The poorer ones were served only by reading ministers, often pluralists, some of whom were also petty canons in the cathedral and had a well founded reputation for laxity in their duties. (fn. 32)


John Bridgeman's early years as bishop were marked by attempts to improve the conduct of the cathedral clergy, (fn. 33) but he was not fully supported by the dean, Thomas Mallory (1607-44), and perhaps achieved little. Moreover Bridgeman soon became embroiled in a triangular dispute involving the dean and chapter and the corporation. There had already been a symbolic clash between corporation and cathedral in 1607, when the mayor had tried to enter the cathedral with the city's sword erect, according to custom, and a scuffle ensued when a prebendary endeavoured to lower the sword. Soon afterwards the swordbearer died and his funeral cortège, headed by civic dignitaries, was refused entry at the west door. A court judgement in the corporation's favour strengthened its position in the cathedral. (fn. 34) A new dispute about pews, pulpits, and sermons in St. Oswald's, the parish church occupying the south transept, lasted from 1624 to 1638. (fn. 35)

Contention also arose about Abbey Court, long a source of friction because unfree craftsmen could set up shop there exempt from the city's trading regulations. In 1630 Prebendary William Case, pursuing a private dispute, sought permission for a stranger to keep a stationer's shop in Abbey Court and later threatened to arrange for more shops to be opened there. Case was a quarrelsome man who neglected his cure, and whose incumbency of St. Oswald's (1626- 34) can have done little to assuage the conflict there. (fn. 36) Bridgeman himself wished to reserve buildings in the Court for the cathedral's officers, but the dean and chapter complied only in 1638 after intervention by Archbishop Laud. (fn. 37)

Eventually Bridgeman's campaign for 'beautification' brought about changes in the fabric of the cathedral and most of the city's churches, where repairs were accompanied by new paving, uniform seating, altars, and rails. (fn. 38) At first he showed little inclination to interfere with services in the city churches (fn. 39) even though several were not conducted to his satisfaction. As a result puritan teaching became more thoroughly entrenched. (fn. 40) Outstanding among the puritan clergy was John Ley, an active pamphleteer, a prebendary by 1627, and later subdean at the cathedral, who was appointed city preacher at St. Peter's in 1630. Ley was on good terms with Bridgeman and James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, and was himself a moderate reformer, though a strong Sabbatarian whose sermons in defence of Byfield's teachings led to his temporary removal from the lectureship. (fn. 41) Ley had three close allies: John Glendal, chosen and paid by the parishioners of St. Peter's as a stipendiary preacher; John Bruen's nephew Nathaniel Lancaster, a follower of Byfield and a lecturer at St. Peter's who also preached at St. Michael's and St. Olave's; and Nicholas Conney, divinity lecturer at the cathedral, vicar of both St. John's and (after 1634) St. Oswald's. The work at St. Peter's enhanced its status as the main puritan church in the city, enjoying civic support during the conflict at St. Oswald's and attracting larger congregations. (fn. 42)

For some time puritan clergy and laity were not harried, not only because of the bishop's lenience but also because some churchwardens were in collusion with their ministers. Pressure mounted when the diocesan authorities were spurred on by Richard Neile, archbishop of York from 1632, who was convinced that Chester was a hotbed of puritanism. The bishop and his officers therefore took a closer interest in both services and clergy, singling out lecturers for ignoring the prescribed liturgy, attempting to enforce ritual observances, presenting clergy for nonconformity or neglect of duty, and pressing for improvements to church fabrics. (fn. 43) Episcopal pressure seems to have had little effect, and the growing acceptance of puritan convictions was demonstrated in the welcome given to the radical puritan William Prynne in 1637, when, on his way to prison at Caernarfon, he was entertained by local sympathizers, including Calvin Bruen and Robert Ince (both former sheriffs), Alderman Thomas Aldersey, and Peter Ince, a stationer. The ecclesiastical authorities reacted sharply: sermons against Prynne were ordered in all the city churches, his alleged supporters were examined, the home of Peter Ince (who was suspected of distributing puritan literature) was searched, and heavy fines and public penances were handed down. (fn. 44)

The severe punishments imposed on Prynne's supporters helped to polarize religious attitudes in the city. Soon afterwards, when the bishop visited St. John's he was met with a show of disapproval by the churchwardens, who were then belatedly obliged to 'beautify' the church. There was controversy about the incumbents of St. Martin's and St. Mary's and further ill feeling about Dean Mallory's behaviour over the mayor's stall in the cathedral choir. Despite the bishop's opposition to the Ratcliffes' brewery in Abbey Court, Ley praised the work of John Ratcliffe, the Sabbatarian mayor and patron of Byfield, at his wife's funeral. When a visiting puritan preacher, Thomas Holford, found himself before the consistory court in 1638 for expressing extreme views in a Friday lecture at St. Peter's, clerical opinion was divided. Holford escaped punishment and later preached unhindered. The levy of a clerical assessment to help fund the war against the Scottish Covenanters revealed further divisions: some clergy paid (including the dean and chapter), but others refused. (fn. 45)

During 1640-1, as the bishop's authority weakened, the city's puritans developed a more radical edge, popular, anti-episcopal, and nonconforming. Puritan publications were distributed. John Ley issued Sabbatarian addresses, but also, paradoxically, a defence of Bridgeman's use of a supposedly popish altar in the cathedral. (fn. 46) Other puritan clergy were less balanced, encouraging citizens to attack Laudian furnishings: altar rails, screens, and other costly fittings were swept away in parish churches; there and at the cathedral walls were whitened, images were obliterated, and painted glass was removed. Calvin Bruen toured the churches in order to report on the destruction to the mayor. (fn. 47) Simultaneously Prayer Book services were abandoned and in 1641 Samuel Eaton, recently returned from New England, preached an inflammatory sermon at St. John's in favour of congregationalism, (fn. 48) to which a preacher at the cathedral replied attacking puritans and popish innovators alike. Conney and the subdean, William Bispham, signed a petition against innovations in religion, but Conney also joined in a moderate puritan petition regretting the king's estrangement from parliament. Sir Thomas Aston's counter-petition in favour of episcopacy and the liturgy was supported in the city, but Calvin Bruen alleged that he had secured signatures by deceitfully pretending to favour reform. (fn. 49) Whatever their impact on the townspeople at large, however, by 1642 such exchanges were subsumed in wider political argument.


  • 1. Above, Later Medieval Chester: Religion (The Dissolution); Burne, Monks, 173; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 175, 177; Cal. of Lancs. and Ches. Exchequer Depositions (R.S.L.C. xi), 108-10.
  • 2. Burne, Chester Cath. 19, 22-6; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 28; J. Beck, Tudor Ches. 87; S. E. Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 116, 178-80; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Cathedral and Close: Cathedral Church from 1541.
  • 3. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 4. C. Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancs. 169; F. Sanders, 'John Bird, D.D., Bishop of Chester 1541-54', J.C.A.S. xiii. 110-26; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 16-18.
  • 5. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 18-19; Haigh, Reformation and Resistance, 196-7; J. R. Beresford, 'Churchwardens' Accts. of Holy Trinity, 1532-1633', J.C.A.S. xxxviii. 98, 115-20; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 28; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 6. Burne, Chester Cath. 19, 29, 33; Beck, Tudor Ches. 87-8; Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 129-30.
  • 7. Haigh, Reformation and Resistance, 183-5; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 17; Beck, Tudor Ches. 88.
  • 8. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 20; Ch. and Society in Eng.: Henry VIII to James I, ed. F. Heal and R. O'Day, 46, 111.
  • 9. Burne, Chester Cath. 35-40; Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 150-2; REED: Chester, p. viii.
  • 10. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 11. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Cathedral and Close: Cathedral Church from 1541; ibid. Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 12. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches; Parish, Church, and People, ed. Wright, 92.
  • 13. W. F. Irvine, 'Bishop of Chester's Visitation Book, 1592', J.C.A.S. N.S. v. 408-12.
  • 14. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 188; Burne, Chester Cath. 3, 19, 29-30, 37, 60, 67; J.C.A.S. lxiii. 56.
  • 15. K. R. Wark, Elizabethan Recusancy in Ches. chapter 1 passim; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 20-1.
  • 16. Wark, Eliz. Recusancy, chapters 2-4 passim and pp. 67-8, 106, 123; Haigh, Reformation and Resistance, 250-1; B. Coward, 'Lieutenancy of Lancs. and Ches. in 16th and Early 17th Cent.' T.H.S.L.C. cxix. 59, 63-4.
  • 17. Wark, Eliz. Recusancy, 56, 70, 72-3, 82, 85, 88-101, 108, 114-18, 132.
  • 18. R. H. Morris, Chester (Diocesan Histories ser.), 133; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 162v.-163, 165v.-166; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Plays, Sports, and Customs before 1700: Chester Plays.
  • 19. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 23-4; P. Collinson, Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 65-6, 170, 210-11; R. C. Richardson, 'Puritanism and Ecclesiastical Authorities', Politics, Religion, and Eng. Civil War, ed. B. Manning, 5; Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 162, 277.
  • 20. Johnson, 'Aspects', 16; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 28, 30; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 21. Morris, Chester, 331-6, 359, 425-31; R. C. Richardson, Puritanism in NW. Eng. 147-8; Urban Hist. Yearbook, xviii. 11- 13; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Plays, Sports, and Customs before 1700.
  • 22. P. Collinson, Birthpangs of Protestant Eng. 58; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Plays, Sports, and Customs before 1700; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 79-80.
  • 23. C.C.A.L.S., ZML 2/242; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 50, 52, 55.
  • 24. D.N.B.
  • 25. K. Fincham, Prelate as Pastor: The Episcopate of James I, 272.
  • 26. Ibid. 193, 272; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 26-7.
  • 27. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 28-9; Fincham, Prelate as Pastor, 227, 253, 257, 260.
  • 28. P. Collinson, Religion of Protestants: The Church in Eng. Society, 1559-1625, 243; Richardson, Puritanism in NW. 147.
  • 29. Richardson, Puritanism in NW. 147; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 52; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 30. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 246, 279; ZAF 10/61; ZML 6/88; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 21, 31 n., 78, 82; Wark, Eliz. Recusancy, 127.
  • 31. Collinson, Religion of Protestants, 146 n.; M. J. Crossley Evans, 'Clergy of City of Chester, 1630-72', J.C.A.S. lxviii. 97, 105-6.
  • 32. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 98-100.
  • 33. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 29-30; Fincham, Prelate as Pastor, 76-7, 171-2; Burne, Chester Cath. 99-100; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 99, 103.
  • 34. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 27; Burne, Chester Cath. 87-8; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 101.
  • 35. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches: St. Oswald.
  • 36. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 15/34; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603- 42, 160-1; Burne, Chester Cath. 97, 100, 108-11; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 102-3.
  • 37. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Cathedral and Close: Precinct from 1541.
  • 38. Burne, Chester Cath. 107, 116-17; E. Barber, 'Chester Cath.: Jacobean Work', J.C.A.S. N.S. xii. 5-21; M. H. Ridgway, 'Coloured Window-Glass in Ches. 1550-1850', ibid. xlix. 15; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 108; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 39. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 104-5.
  • 40. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 29, 31-3; B. W. Quintrell, 'Lancs. Ills, the King's Will, and the Troubling of Bishop Bridgeman', T.H.S.L.C. cxxxii. 67-102.
  • 41. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 3, ff. 133v.-134; ZML 2/273-4; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1631-3, 279; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 160; J. S. Morrill, Ches. 1630-60: County Government and Society, 20; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 106-8.
  • 42. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 102-3, 105; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 43. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1633-4, 443; Politics, Religion, and Eng. Civil War, ed. Manning, 26; Richardson, Puritanism in NW. 39, 82-3; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 31-5; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 108.
  • 44. Ches. Hist. xxxvii. 26-35; Politics, Religion, and Eng. Civil War, ed. Manning, 25; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 195; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 35; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 108-9.
  • 45. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 104, 108-10; Burne, Chester Cath. 112; Parish, Church, and People, ed. Wright, 115-16.
  • 46. Burne, Chester Cath. 117-19; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 111-12.
  • 47. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 111; Burne, Chester Cath. 123-4; Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 36; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 48. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 111; Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 37.
  • 49. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 112; A. Fletcher, Outbreak of Eng. Civil War, 289-90.