Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1662-1762

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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, 'Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1662-1762', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, (London, 2003) pp. 126-129. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp126-129 [accessed 18 May 2024].

. "Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1662-1762", in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, (London, 2003) 126-129. British History Online, accessed May 18, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp126-129.

. "Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1662-1762", A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, (London, 2003). 126-129. British History Online. Web. 18 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp126-129.

RELIGION, 1662-1762

The cathedral chapter, whose finances were deteriorating in the later 17th century, (fn. 1) needed to borrow money, first for major repairs to the dilapidated cathedral and palace, and later for ordinary expenses. In 1701 it obtained a royal brief to meet some costs. (fn. 2) Episcopal visitations were infrequent and found little wrong, (fn. 3) and relations between the dean and prebendaries, who mostly came from outside Chester after 1660, (fn. 4) were generally harmonious. Occasionally, however, the chapter took exception to the behaviour of the bedesmen (who were royal nominees), disrespectful vergers, or the petty canons, the reduction in whose numbers from six to three or four restricted their availability for parochial work. (fn. 5) From the 1670s a single Sunday morning sermon was preached in the south transept (St. Oswald's parish church), to avoid having simultaneous sermons there and in the choir. (fn. 6)

The chapter remained a stronghold of the High Church in the earlier 18th century, (fn. 7) apprehensive when threatened, as in 1707, with the prospect of a bishop appointed by a Whig government. (fn. 8) It was not until the 1730s that the deaths of several longestablished prebendaries gave the Whiggish bishops appointed since 1726 an opportunity to alter the chapter's ecclesiastical complexion. The chapter contained few men of any distinction, although William Smith, dean 1758-87, was a noted translator from the Greek. (fn. 9) Despite difficulties with indolent, disorderly, or incompetent organists and choirmen, (fn. 10) the canons maintained the usual round of choral services, and in the 1740s refurbished the choir, where the need for galleries in 1745 and 1749 suggests a sizeable regular congregation. (fn. 11) They also established a theological library in the newly repaired chapter house in 1728, including books bequeathed by Dean James Arderne in 1691 and others bought from a canon's widow in 1730. (fn. 12)

In the city churches the restoration of the books, vessels, and ornaments essential for Anglican worship after 1660 went slowly, through poverty at St. Olave's and St. Martin's and nonconformist sympathies at St. Oswald's and St. Peter's. (fn. 13) Most of the churches required extensive repairs or rebuilding: at St. Mary's they were not put into effect until after 1676, and in the 1690s the poor condition of St. Bridget's justified the issue of a brief to collect funds for repairs. (fn. 14) The pace of rebuilding picked up after 1700, despite continuing protestations of poverty. The ruinous parts of St. John's were repaired c. 1720, and towers were rebuilt at St. Peter's, St. Michael's, and Holy Trinity. (fn. 15) The erection of galleries in some of the larger churches (St. John's in 1727 and 1741, St. Mary's three times between 1703 and 1756, and Holy Trinity in 1750 and 1761) (fn. 16) suggests that church attendance rose at least in line with the gradual increase in the city's population. (fn. 17)

In some parishes clerical stipends posed a problem throughout the century after the Restoration: St. Olave's, for example, was too poor to have a minister until 1693, and even St. Oswald's was in financial straits when its outlying townships failed to pay their dues. (fn. 18) In 1675 Bishop John Pearson drew the mayor's attention to a scheme for uniting parishes in Exeter as a possible model, but the Assembly decided against the idea. (fn. 19) The reduction in the number of petty canons at the cathedral also contributed to vacancies in the smaller churches and the discontinuance of services. (fn. 20) About 1720 only three benefices were worth over £30 a year, and some derived half or more of their income from voluntary contributions. Only two or three had houses for their clergy. (fn. 21) The best endowed, St. Mary's and Holy Trinity, were frequently held by cathedral dignitaries or aristocratic pluralists. The Wilbrahams, patrons of St. Mary's, sometimes treated it as a family benefice. At St. Peter's the minister saw his house taken over from the 1690s for the city archives. Not surprisingly some city livings were held together, such as St. Martin's with St. Bridget's until 1725, and then with St. Peter's 1739-76. (fn. 22)

Among the conforming clergy in the 1660s, the incumbents of St. Oswald's and St. Peter's allegedly neglected services, and the vicar of St. John's was accused of scandalous living. (fn. 23) The others exhibited no sign of their puritan predecessors' fervour. The limitations of the clergy partly explain the deepening religious divisions in the city, reflected also in parish disputes. At St. Olave's, for example, there were refusals to pay church rates and a lawsuit between incoming and retiring churchwardens, (fn. 24) and in 1663 at Holy Trinity disputatious parishioners destroyed the royal arms and disrupted the Prayer Book funeral service of a displaced alderman, Jonathan Ridge. (fn. 25)

The cathedral clergy who held many of the city's livings at least had dwellings in Chester, but as several simultaneously held country livings they were not likely to perform much more than the minimum of services legally required. (fn. 26) In the years before 1720 two sermons were normally preached each Sunday in the cathedral and the largest churches. (fn. 27) The cathedral was often well filled, with up to 200 people attending the sacrament. (fn. 28) The preaching at St. Martin's favourably impressed John Wesley in 1752. (fn. 29)

The Tory-dominated corporation did its part towards upholding the Church, for instance maintaining aldermanic seats in most of the parish churches for the occasions when the mayor or corporation attended in state. (fn. 30) After the dean and chapter recovered effective control of St. Oswald's in 1662, the main corporation church was St. Peter's. The corporation rebuilt its seats there in 1701, (fn. 31) provided stone from the quarry at Hough Green for repairs, (fn. 32) and from 1704 contributed to the organist's salary. (fn. 33) Some ministers there were favoured with the virtually sinecure chaplaincy of St. John's hospital, which required only an occasional sermon and the consolation of condemned prisoners in the Northgate gaol. (fn. 34)

Some of the Presbyterian and Independent clergy ejected in 1662 stayed in the city and held their congregations together in difficult circumstances, aided on occasion by itinerant preachers. (fn. 35) There were also a few Baptists and Quakers, some of the latter in trouble before the end of 1660 for refusing the oath of allegiance or trying to distribute pamphlets. (fn. 36)

After Sir Geoffrey Shakerley's appointment as governor in 1663 action against conventicles became more vigorous, with arrests, fines, and imprisonment used against all the main groups. (fn. 37) A pause in the campaign, possibly because Bishop John Wilkins (1668-72) supported concessions to nonconformity, (fn. 38) was followed by renewed persecution, directed mainly against Baptists and Quakers. (fn. 39) A further respite accompanied the appointment of Bishop John Pearson (1672-86) (fn. 40) and the royal Declaration of Indulgence, under which licences were issued for meetings in private houses, mostly Presbyterian, some Independent, and a few seemingly for both. At least seven nonconformist preachers were licensed in the city, including some of those ejected in 1662: John Glendal, Ralph Hall, and William Jones as Presbyterians; Thomas Harrison as an Independent; and William Cook and John Wilson for congregations of both persuasions. The main meetings were in White Friars, Northgate Street, and Grange Lane. (fn. 41)

The number of recusants in Chester remained small, but the mayor and governor received orders to watch for suspected papist travellers. The discovery that five men arrested when passing through Chester at the time of the Popish Plot in 1678 were Roman Catholic ex-officers from the king's army added to the hysteria, in the middle of which a captured priest, John Plessington, was executed at Boughton in July 1679. (fn. 42)

Charles II's persecution of nonconformists began again in 1682; (fn. 43) dissenting preachers were haled before the magistrates, and the Whiggish mayor, George Mainwaring, was blamed for protecting them. (fn. 44) Religious tensions were heightened by the duke of Monmouth's visit in September, when a mob damaged the cathedral, while at St. Peter's rioters hostile to the incumbent broke into the church and rang the bells. (fn. 45) The renewal of toleration under the Declaration of Indulgence of 1687 allowed the Presbyterian congregation led by Matthew Henry to establish strong roots in the city. (fn. 46)

The appointment of Bishop Thomas Cartwright (1686-9) brought to Chester an active supporter of James II, tainted for loyal Anglicans by suspicions of popish sympathies. (fn. 47) He was a vigorous diocesan administrator, holding ordinations and confirmations in the cathedral, preaching to large congregations, and monitoring the sermons given by his cathedral clergy. (fn. 48) Cartwright mixed socially with certain aldermen and especially recusant gentry, and was in frequent contact with the papal vicar-apostolic, Father John Leyburn. (fn. 49) James II's visit to Chester at the end of August 1687 was the signal for more open popish activity: the king attended service in the cathedral but also worshipped privately at the castle, where the garrison had its own Catholic chaplain; other priests were seen in the streets; and the bishop himself offered to find a chapel in the city for Roman Catholic worship. (fn. 50) Sir Thomas Grosvenor of Eaton Hall was also sympathetic to recusants, holding meetings with them at his house in the city. (fn. 51)

The nonconformists, too, relaxed their guard. William Penn himself spoke in the city during the king's visit, and during the 1690s Quaker activity grew. (fn. 52) Both of the leading dissenting ministers in Chester, Matthew Henry and John Harvey, supported the address presented to James II, thanking him for the renewal of the Indulgence, but a year later Henry refused a royal invitation to suggest names for the city's remodelled corporation, and when nominated anyway he and other dissenters declined to serve. (fn. 53) In the more favourable conditions from 1689 new places for nonconformist worship were licensed, though Henry's congregation continued to be the largest. (fn. 54) At that time the Cheshire classis was formed, with Henry and Harvey as members. (fn. 55)

The only clerical nonjuror after the Revolution was Bishop Cartwright. (fn. 56) His successor, Nicholas Stratford (1689-1707), was a High Churchman who revitalized the diocesan administration, aided the repair of the cathedral, and shared in the foundation of the Blue Coat school. He and Dean Lawrence Fogge (1692-1718) also promoted a local Society for the Reformation of Manners, and despite some opposition from both Anglicans and dissenters, secured the co-operation of Matthew Henry, a further sign of more harmonious relations between differing religious groups. (fn. 57)

Dissent remained vigorous in the early 18th century. Besides the established sects, rooms were frequently registered for worship by unidentified denominations, at least 15 between 1700 and 1710, (fn. 58) and another 14 by 1726, (fn. 59) though few thereafter. (fn. 60) Although the Quakers opened a meeting house in 1703 big enough for hundreds of people, their numbers later declined, (fn. 61) and a 'French church' briefly established in the 1710s disappeared when its Huguenot members moved on to Ireland. (fn. 62) By the 1730s Chester nonconformity was concentrated in the Presbyterian congregation, united under Matthew Henry in 1707, which was regarded with some friendliness by the minister of Holy Trinity parish, in which it stood. By 1750 strains were appearing between the more orthodox members and those inclined to Unitarianism, foreshadowing a schism in 1768. (fn. 63) Meanwhile dissent was revivified in the late 1740s by Methodists, attracting large and mostly respectful audiences, especially after John Wesley's first preaching in 1752. (fn. 64) Roman Catholicism, despite its relative strength in neighbouring parts of Lancashire, remained weak within the city. Investigations in 1741 and 1743 revealed no more than 45 Catholic householders, mostly craftsmen and journeymen. (fn. 65)


  • 1. For this para. and next: V.C.H. Ches. iii. 190-3.
  • 2. Burne, Chester Cath. 132-8, 150-1, 157, 164-5, 168-70; J.C.A.S. xlix. 15; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 37, 42, 192.
  • 3. Burne, Chester Cath. 99-101, 141, 148.
  • 4. Ibid. 120, 128-9, 131, 144, 146, 148-9, 158, 161, 177-8.
  • 5. Ibid. 130-1, 143; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 191; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 118.
  • 6. Burne, Chester Cath. 131, 136, 147-8; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 191.
  • 7. Burne, Chester Cath. 166-210.
  • 8. e.g. Diary of Henry Prescott, i. 133-6, 147, 149-50, 172-3.
  • 9. Burne, Chester Cath. 142, 160-1, 167, 177-8, 190-1, 197, 216-19; D.N.B. s.vv. Fogg, Laur.; Smith, Wm. (1711-87).
  • 10. Burne, Chester Cath. 175, 179-80, 194-5, 208.
  • 11. Ibid. 203-6. Plate 17.
  • 12. Ibid. 159-60, 185, 188-9. Plate 18.
  • 13. J.C.A.S. N.S. iii. 66-7; lxviii. 118-19; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 14. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches; C.C.A.L.S., ZML 4/532.
  • 15. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. But cf. J. Wesley, Works (1872 edn.), iii. 457.
  • 18. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches.
  • 19. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, f. 180; ZML 4/493.
  • 20. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 118; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches: St. Bridget, St. Martin, St. Michael, St. Olave.
  • 21. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches; cf. Gastrell, Not. Cest. 98-120.
  • 22. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches; TS. lists of incumbents, compiled by A. T. Thacker (copy at C.C.A.L.S.).
  • 23. J.C.A.S. lxviii. 119, 122; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 41.
  • 24. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, f. 166; ZAF 40B/27.
  • 25. J.C.A.S. xxi. 164-5; lxviii. 120.
  • 26. Burne, Chester Cath. 142, 160-1, 177-8, 191, 197, 217- 18; cf. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, i. 74 (Jn. Baldwin), 228 (Thos. Brooke); ii. 154 (Arthur Fogg), 353 (Chas. Henchman), 457 (Ric. Jackson); iii. 127 (Edw. Mainwaring); iv. 183 (Chas. Sudell); Alum. Oxon. 1500-1714, iii. 1687 (Ric. Wright).
  • 27. e.g. Diary of Henry Prescott, i. 15, 28, 30, 91, 100, 107, 125, 181, 250, 287; ii. 317, 330, 357, 367, 446, 459; cf. ibid. i. 38, 79, 117.
  • 28. Ibid. i. 120, 135, 152; ii. 354-5, 397, 572.
  • 29. Wesley, Works (1872 edn.), ii. 269.
  • 30. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, f. 101; ZAB 4, f. 35; ZTAB 3, f. 58v.
  • 31. Ibid. ZAB 3, ff. 94v., 106v.; cf. Diary of Henry Prescott, i. 36-8.
  • 32. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, ff. 163v., 213.
  • 33. Ibid. ff. 116v.-117, 155, 251v.; ZAB 4, ff. 3, 37.
  • 34. Ibid. ZAB 3, ff. 115, 179v., 185, 221; ZAB 4, f. 30.
  • 35. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents.
  • 36. Ibid.: Baptists, Quakers; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 104-5; Hutton, Restoration, 156.
  • 37. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents, Baptists, Quakers.
  • 38. Spurr, Restoration Ch. 57, 59, 317; Swatland, House of Lords, 276-7; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 43.
  • 39. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Baptists, Quakers.
  • 40. Spurr, Restoration Ch. 158, 317; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 44.
  • 41. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents; G. L. Turner, Original Recs. of Early Nonconf. ii. 691-2, 696-7; Calamy Revised, s.nn.; Roberts, Matthew Henry, 72-4; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 122; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 43, 105. There are no surviving returns for Chester from the religious census of 1676: Compton Census, ed. A. Whiteman, 631.
  • 42. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, ff. 191v., 196v.; ZML 4/495-6, 498-501, 508, 514; M. W. Sturman, Catholicism in Chester, 1875-1975, 11-12; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 88-92; P. J. Challinor, 'Restoration and Exclusion in Ches.' Bull. John Rylands Libr. lxiv. 369.
  • 43. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents, Quakers.
  • 44. C.C.A.L.S., ZQSF 82; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1682, 67, 92, 107, 110, 120, 157-8.
  • 45. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1682, 313-14, 342-3, 387-9, 393-4; Jan.- June 1683, 11; July-Sept. 1683, 409; Burne, Chester Cath. 151-3.
  • 46. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents.
  • 47. F. Sanders, 'Thomas Cartwright, D.D.' J.C.A.S. N.S. iv. 6- 7, 12-14, 18-20, 22-3; Spurr, Restoration Ch. 9, 89, 92; Burne, Chester Cath. 157; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 45.
  • 48. Diary of Dr. Thomas Cartwright (Camd. Soc. [1st ser.], xxii), 16, 19, 21-2, 29-32, 35; Burne, Chester Cath. 154-5, 157; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 45.
  • 49. Diary of Thos. Cartwright, esp. 15-19, 81; J.C.A.S. N.S. iv. 12; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 45.
  • 50. Diary of Thos. Cartwright, 74-6; Burne, Chester Cath. 155; J. Childs, The Army, James II, and the Glorious Revolution, 24.
  • 51. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1689-90, 238-9; Sturman, Catholicism, 17-18.
  • 52. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Quakers.
  • 53. Roberts, Matthew Henry, 84-6.
  • 54. Ibid. 81-2; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 122; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: esp. Early Presbyterians and Independents. Plate 36.
  • 55. Ches. Classis Mins. 1691-1745, ed. A. Gordon, 6, 106, 122- 3; Roberts, Matthew Henry, 88.
  • 56. J. H. Overton, The Nonjurors, 475.
  • 57. W. W. Taylor, 'Matthew Henry's Chapel', J.C.A.S. xxii. 180-2; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 45-6; Burne, Chester Cath. 170-1; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, f. 80v.
  • 58. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZQSF 90/3/229, 243, 245, 248, 252; ZQSF 91/2/127, 138, 149-50, 176-8, 180-1; ZQSF 91/3/274.
  • 59. e.g. ibid. ZQSF 91/3/234-6, 267; ZQSF 92/2/136, 158; ZQSF 93/1/27, 48, 50; ZQSF 93/2/215; ZQSF 94/1/9; ZQSF 94/2/233.
  • 60. Ibid. ZQSF 95/1/72; ZQSF 97/1/5.
  • 61. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Quakers.
  • 62. Ibid. Other Churches: Huguenots.
  • 63. Ibid. Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents; cf. J.C.A.S. xxii. 177-8.
  • 64. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Protestant Nonconformity: Methodists (Wesleyans); cf. Wesley, Works (1872 edn.), ii. 267, 282-3, 384.
  • 65. C.C.A.L.S., ZQSF 98/1/74; ZQSF 98/2/145.