Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Religious life

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Religious life ', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 121-132. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp121-132 [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Religious life ", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 121-132. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp121-132.

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Religious life ", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 121-132. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp121-132.

In this section


The Reformation

Traditional forms of religious observance focusing upon the parish church were still in the ascendant among the majority of townspeople in the early 16th century. Bequests were made for the maintenance of chapels, guilds, chantries, altars, statues and for requiem masses and prayers for the dead. (fn. 1) In 1506, for example, alderman John Bardfield endowed an obit for himself, his parents, his two wives and all Christians for 100 years. (fn. 2) Three perpetual chantries were established in the late 15th century and another as late as 1523; major work was carried out on several parish churches c. 1500, (fn. 3) and the town granted land to the Crutched friars in 1516 to endow a mass 'for the further prosperity of the town'. (fn. 4)

Nevertheless, the town had been a centre of Lollardy in the early 15th century (fn. 5) and the heresy reappeared c. 1500 when it revived nationally. Six Colchester men did penance at St. Paul's Cross in 1506 and two abjured Colchester heretics were burnt at Smithfield in 1511. (fn. 6) In 1527 a heretical group in north-east Essex included 19 men and 14 women from Colchester, many of them from the upper levels of town society. They preached in each others' houses and read English books, including Wyclif's Bible and the New Testament, which they obtained from London. (fn. 7) Such groups provided a ready-made organization for the early reception and distribution of Lutheran books in Colchester, (fn. 8) although the identification of the author of the Mathews Bible with Thomas Mathews, a Lollard fishmonger from the town, seems unlikely. (fn. 9)

St. Botolph's priory was dissolved in 1536, the two friaries in 1538, and St. John's abbey in 1539. Most of their lands were acquired by Thomas Audley, later Lord Audley, Francis Jobson, and John Lucas. (fn. 10) Through Audley's intervention the town gained the lands of St. Helen's guild and Eleanor's chantry in St. Mary's church to refound the grammar school. (fn. 11) At St. John's in 1534 some monks temporarily refused to take the oath of fealty and the sub-prior called the King's council heretics. The abbot, Thomas Marshall or Beche, took little care to conceal his views against the royal supremacy and the abbey's possible dissolution and was executed at Colchester in 1539. (fn. 12)

Many priests were also hostile to the Henrician Reformation. John Wayne, rector of St. James's, and Dr. Thyrstell, at the Grey friars, urged their hearers in 1534 to ignore new books 'of the king's print', probably the propaganda tracts The Glass of Truth and the Articles of the Council. (fn. 13) In 1535 the curate of St. Nicholas's was presented in the borough court for praying for the pope and cardinals and reading a book in church called 'le sentence' which emphasized the authority of Rome. (fn. 14) That year at Lexden the rector was fined for stating that 'the blood of Hailes is the blood of Jesus Christ', and the curate in 1538 for teaching the 'paternoster'. Other clergy were presented between 1527 and 1545 for loose morals and not proclaiming royal statutes. (fn. 15)

In contrast, the townspeople appear to have readily accepted government policy. Church goods had been sold by 1534 at St. Mary's-at-the-Walls and by 1548 at St. Botolph's, St. James's, and St. Martin's. (fn. 16) A will of 1538 contained a protestant preamble and there was a swift decline in bequests to parish churches and the high altar, as gifts to the poor became more important. Requiem masses had apparently lost much of their popularity before 1547, the townspeople increasingly favouring funeral sermons. (fn. 17) By 1548 only two guilds or chantries remained at Colchester, Haynes's and Barwick's, the others having been already dissolved illegally by their patrons. Their lands were sold to the borough in 1550. (fn. 18) Audley's influence was probably an important factor in the town's attitude, his own support for reform being indicated by his endowment in his will dated 1544 of a Good Friday sermon in St. Peter's church. (fn. 19)

Among the more radical townspeople, old Lollard ideas appear to have merged with new protestant teaching on the sacraments. (fn. 20) In 1535 a group of Colchester people denied the sacrament of the altar, one man claiming that the doctrine of transubstantiation was akin to believing 'that the moon is made of a green cheese'; he also believed that gutter water was as good as holy water and that he might as well be buried in the highway as in the churchyard. In the same year the parish clerk of St. Peter's refused to go to confession, and in 1539 he was accused with four others of heretical beliefs about the sacraments. (fn. 21) Similar views continued to be propagated in Colchester in the 1540s. (fn. 22) In 1546 three Colchester heretics were executed 'to the example and terror of others', a fourth was burnt later, and another would not submit even when faced with the rack. (fn. 23)

Colchester was a focal point of opposition to Mary's Catholic government. In 1555 the town was described as 'a harbourer of heretics and ever was' and subjected to diligent searches for protestants. (fn. 24) During Mary's reign a total of 23 people were burnt in Colchester, including 15 townspeople. Two other local protestants were martyred elsewhere and two more died in prison. The repression at the town was greater than anywhere except London and Canterbury. (fn. 25) The burnings consolidated protestant feeling, the ugly disturbances accompanying one set of executions being described as a 'slight insurrection' by the Venetian ambassador in 1555. A local Catholic priest reported that 'The rebels are stout in the town of Colchester. The ministers of the church are hemmed at in the open streets, and called knaves. The blessed sacrament of the alter is blasphemed and railed upon in every alehouse and tavern. Prayer and fasting is not regarded. Seditious talks and news are rife'. (fn. 26)

Mary's government was particularly concerned about the activities of protestant clergy and lay preachers in the Colchester district. As early as 1554 some people had been actively dissuading others from attendance at the newly restored mass. (fn. 27) One of those responsible was probably Thomas Putto, an Anabaptist tanner of Berechurch and a lay preacher during Edward's reign, who had recanted in 1549 and who had been ordained by Ridley in 1552. At the start of Mary's reign in 1554 he led a group of 20 or more heretics and sacramentarians who mustered on Mile End heath in opposition to the papacy. (fn. 28) More dangerous was George Eagles, nicknamed Trudgeover or Trudgeover-the-world, a tailor who became an itinerant preacher in the reign of Edward VI. The heaths around Colchester provided secure hiding places until he was finally apprehended at Colchester at St. Mary Magdalen's fair in 1557. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Chelmsford one week later, one of his quarters being sent for display in Colchester market place. (fn. 29) Most notable of all was John Pulleyne, who had been deprived of St. Peter-upon-Cornhill in London in 1555 and had then preached secretly in Colchester until he fled to Geneva in 1557. (fn. 30)

The bailiffs and aldermen were thanked by the Privy Council for their assistance at executions and in the apprehending of Trudgeover, (fn. 31) but that help was probably given as much out of prudence as religious conviction. Some aldermen were vigorous Catholics, such as Robert Maynard, bailiff 1552-3 and 1556-7, 'a special enemy to God's gospel'. (fn. 32) Others were protestant in sympathy, such as the bailiff Thomas Dibney, who was brought before the Privy Council for his 'evil behaviour in matters of religion', and had to do penance in two parish churches. (fn. 33) Yet other members of the local élite were more circumspect in their religious behaviour, the master and rector of St. Mary Magdalen's hospital combining both protestant and Catholic tenets in his 1557 will. (fn. 34) While outwardly complying with government instructions the magistrates were evidently afraid of pressing the persecution too hard lest there should be repercussions after Mary's death. Most of those martyred or presented by town juries came from the middling or lower orders particularly in the cloth trades. In 1557 the bailiffs were criticized for delaying the execution of heretics. (fn. 35)

The town apparently polarized into sectarian groups, rival alehouses identifying with the protestant or Catholic cause. (fn. 36) There is little sign, however, that Mary's policies reversed the preference of the majority of Colchester's townspeople for religious reform. Most wills in the period 1554-8 had neutral preambles and they contained no requests for requiem masses and few bequests of traditional form. (fn. 37) Indeed, the proximity of the Continent provided both a haven for threatened protestants and an entry point for more radical ideas. When Christopher Vittels of the Family of Love arrived from Delft in 1555 he found a ready audience and allegedly debated the divinity of Christ with servants and husbandmen at a Colchester inn. (fn. 38)

The authorities acted with extreme caution after Mary's death. It was not until the day before Elizabeth's coronation that eight people held in the castle gaol on suspicion of supporting Trudgeover were released on bail, except for one man 'very evil in matters of religion'. Elizabeth's ban on unauthorized preaching led Peter Walker, Catholic rector of St. Leonard's church, to be pilloried 'for false seditious tales' early in 1559, (fn. 39) and to the arrest of the protestant preachers Pulleyne and Dodman shortly afterwards. Pulleyne and other preachers had swiftly returned from exile to provide protestant services in a town where there was popular demand for the adoption of Reformation principles. From Hock Day 1559 the borough court presented people for non-attendance at divine service, and after Pulleyne was appointed archdeacon of Colchester in December 1559, and rector of Copford in 1560, the borough assembly admitted him to the freedom, waiving the customary fine. (fn. 40)

The Elizabethan Settlement

A major problem for the ecclesiastical authorities c. 1560 was the lack of an effective protestant ministry for the town. Although a suffragan bishopric of Colchester had been created by Henry VIII, only two bishops were appointed, William More 1536-40 and John Sterne 1592-1607. (fn. 41) The loss of income from chantries, confessions, obits and soul-masses, which had improved clerical incomes before the Reformation, meant that Colchester's livings were very poor and often attracted pluralists or poorly qualified priests. (fn. 42) A scheme to unify town benefices put forward in 1549 had come to nothing, and several parishes remained vacant after the deprivations of 1554. In November 1560 there was not a single beneficed incumbent in the town, but only two curates at St. Leonard's and St. Peter's. By 1561 there were beneficed incumbents at Mile End and Lexden and 3 curates and 5 lectors. (fn. 43) Clerical provision had improved by the 1580s and prophesyings, at first suppressed, had been transformed into exercises for the instruction of Colchester's less learned clergy by 1586, as elsewhere in the diocese. (fn. 44) Most of Colchester's parishes remained poor, however, and another plan in 1581 to increase stipends by combining a number of Colchester's parishes came to nothing. (fn. 45)

The progress of reform in the first decades of Elizabeth's reign was greatly influenced by the opinions of the townspeople. Pressure from the lower and middling social groups, probably encouraged by Pulleyne, led the assembly to vote for the establishment of a borough preachership in 1562. The post was initially funded by voluntary contributions, both large and small, from a very broad range of Colchester society. (fn. 46) The post was held by a succession of influential but extreme protestants, the first of whom, William Cole, in office by 1564, was a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a Marian exile whose protestant credentials were impeccable. (fn. 47) After 1568 Cole was succeeded in the preachership by George Withers, former preacher at Bury St. Edmunds, and then by Nicholas Challoner from 1573. Pulleyne was succeeded in the archdeaconry by James Calfhill in 1565 and then by Withers in 1570. All were in the vanguard of reformed opinion and under their powerful influence the Colchester assembly set about creating a 'godly' civic commonwealth. (fn. 48)

In 1562 the assembly, probably prompted by Pulleyne and Cole, appointed overseers of church attendance and the borough court attempted to prohibit activities such as trading, gambling, and playing games during divine service. Those measures were probably not sabbatarian in nature but were aimed at largely traditional moral ends, and their widespread acceptance may partly be explained by the reformers' use of the traditional structure of the borough court. (fn. 49) Pulleyne did meet with opposition from some townspeople who, while regarding themselves as protestant, objected to his emphasis upon the reform of their personal lives. One woman, angered by the length of protestant sermons and the new subjects on which they touched, claimed that Pulleyne had preached away all the pavements and gravestones in St. Martin's churchyard. (fn. 50) Nevertheless, the magistrates' rapid assimilation of the reformers' message is indicated by the special tribunal against fornication, presided over by the bailiffs, aldermen, and archdeacon, held in 1566. (fn. 51)

The regulations for behaviour introduced by protestant reformers appear to have been more strictly enforced from the late 1570s, when Colchester entered a new phase of reformation under the guidance of Challoner and Withers. (fn. 52) Greater emphasis was placed upon the sanctity of the Lord's day rather than just the control of activity during divine service. In 1578 the assembly prohibited business or revelry on pardon Sunday (the fair day of St. Dennis's fair). As sabbatarianism was a subject of dispute in the Dedham classis in the late 1580s, and did not become a firm mark of the Calvinist tradition in England until 1600, it appears to have developed relatively early at Colchester. (fn. 53) In the same period the regulation of moral behaviour, especially sexual misconduct, grew more intense in the town. From 1576 new tribunals enquired into both the consumption of meat in Lent and the offences of prostitutes and fornicators. Persons convicted of adultery frequently received the traditional punishment of being paraded through the streets in a tumbrel. Persistent sexual delinquents were whipped, while drunkards and blasphemers were placed in the stocks. (fn. 54) By the 1580s alehouses had come under strict regulation, and searches were made to identify people engaged in profane activities. (fn. 55)

Many of the local clergy and townspeople adopted advanced protestant opinions that went beyond the Elizabethan settlement. Thomas Upcher, the extreme protestant incumbent of St. Leonard's, defended his refusal to wear a surplice by claiming that his congregation opposed its use, (fn. 56) and Robert Holmes, rector of St. James's, was presented before the borough court for stating that the surplice was 'a superstitious thing from the pope'. (fn. 57) Several Colchester incumbents became members of the clandestine Dedham classis, formed in 1582, which sometimes met in the town. (fn. 58) Zealous laymen abandoned their parish churches for others where the doctrine was more to their taste: three parishioners of St. Nicholas's went elsewhere for instruction because of the 'simplicity' of their minister, while another incumbent appealed to the Dedham classis for a ruling 'that a pastor should have his own people' after he had lost his congregation to the rival attraction of the common preacher. (fn. 59) By the turn of the century refusals to attend church, to have children baptized, or to kneel for communion were common, while many of the parish churches were in poor repair, lacking equipment, fittings, vestments, and books. (fn. 60)

The new protestant morality was probably popular in nature rather than imposed from above. Wills from the late 16th century frequently record gifts for the town preacher, for funeral and other sermons, and for the poor. (fn. 61) Yet there had been far more of a consensus in the town during the first decade of Elizabeth's reign than during the late 1570s and the 1580s. The 'godly' party received a considerable setback when Benjamin Clere and his supporters were displaced from the town government after their dispute with John Lone in 1576, which had revealed their own weaknesses in learning and conformity and highlighted Clere's role in the Marian persecution. (fn. 62) The dispute revealed a division within the protestant ranks between the extremists and the moderates who emphasized Christian charity. (fn. 63) The reformers continued to be opposed by townspeople who could probably be classified as among the profane, such as the two men caught playing cards in the King's Head at the time of divine service in 1589. (fn. 64)

Another source of opposition came from those townspeople who remained faithful to Catholicism. The Audleys' house at Berechurch became an important recusant centre; another prominent recusant was Richard Cousins, keeper of the White Hart. (fn. 65) In 1578, as the repression of Catholics in East Anglia gathered momentum, the bailiffs wrote to the Privy Council warning of obstinate recusants in Colchester. (fn. 66) Both Catholics and protestants energetically attempted to undermine each other's cause. A London sadler sheltering at Berechurch gave poor men money to persuade them not to attend lectures, presumably those given by Colchester's preacher, (fn. 67) while in 1587 a captured Catholic priest was forced to take part in a disputation in the moot hall with the town preacher in order to reveal the superiority of protestant learning. (fn. 68)

A few cases of witchcraft had been reported before the Reformation: in 1532, for example, a smith's wife was accused of practising magic 'to make folks believe they should have a silly (lucky) plough'. (fn. 69) By Elizabeth's reign the potentially malevolent aspects of such activity were more greatly feared. At least a dozen accusations were made against Colchester people, mostly women, who were thought to have harmed people or animals through magic. (fn. 70) Although one woman admitted diabolic possession, many cases apparently derived from popular reliance upon white magic and cunning folk. In 1573 one man confessed he had sent to 'Mother Humfrey' to lift a curse on his hogs, while in 1582 a woman who denied witchcraft admitted she had learnt a counter-spell from Goodwife George of Abberton. Specialist magical assistance was available in the town: in 1590 a couple from Lawford made a magic ointment to cure their children's sickness on the advice of a Colchester physician and in 1598 another Lawford man sent his wife to a cunning man, 'Goodin of Colchester', to help find a stolen horse. (fn. 71)

The 17th Century

The growth of separatist sects in Colchester presented a challenge both to the local incumbents and to the common preacher. In 1604 a group of Brownists clashed with Richard Harris, the preacher, whom they denounced as a non-resident and persecutor of God's people. The Brownists may have had some support from within the town government for Harris regarded one alderman as 'a spiteful enemy' and the assembly eventually dismissed him. (fn. 72) By the 1610s several separatist congregations existed in the town, among them the conventicle headed by John Wilkinson, who wrote a treatise denouncing infant baptism while in prison in 1613. (fn. 73) Nevertheless, the total number of separatists may still have been small, only 11 people in the town being presented for absenting themselves from divine service in 1618. (fn. 74) By the 1620s the rise of the Arminian party within the Church of England polarized religious differences in the town. The king's Directions for Preachers of 1622, limiting puritan evangelism, apparently caused a dispute over the choice of common preacher. The bishop's commissary, Dr. Robert Aylett, complained of the factious multitude, 'who will allow no minister but of their own calling and choice' (fn. 75) Two years later a complaint was made to the bailiffs by a townsman that extreme protestants had been arrested and sent away as rebels or soldiers. (fn. 76) The archdeaconry court attempted to enforce attendance at church and conformity to Laudian doctrine: a number of people were charged for refusing to kneel at communion, (fn. 77) and a Greenstead man was presented in 1627 as an excommunicate, Brownist, and Congregationalist. (fn. 78)

Archbishop Laud's orders for the relocation of the communion table and erection of rails were moderately successful: by May 1636 as many as 9 of Colchester's 12 churches had complied and another did so later in the year. (fn. 79) Although a number of incumbents had initially refused to give communion at the altar rail, many others supported Laud, and by 1637 only John Knowles, the common preacher, refused to conform and receive communion at the archdeacon's visitation. (fn. 80) In contrast, Laud's attempt to undermine the membership of the Dutch reformed church, which had associated itself with the 'godly' or puritan opposition, appears to have failed. (fn. 81) Neither were the protestant townspeople easily intimidated. James Wheeler, churchwarden of St. Botolph's, refused to rail in the altar, but was excommunicated and imprisoned. He later escaped and fled into exile. (fn. 82) About 1635 scandalous verses circulated against Theophilus Roberts, rector of St. Nicholas's, who had erected an altar rail and prosecuted persons refusing to contribute to the cost. The verses suggested that he preached only once a month to little effect, and accused other Laudian clergy, Thomas Newcomen, rector of Holy Trinity, Gabriel Honifold, rector of St. Mary Magdalen's, and William Eyres, rector of Great Horkesley and formerly common preacher, of popery and dissolute life. (fn. 83) Clergy who did conform to Laud's injunctions were liable to lose their congregations, the disaffected protestants attending lectures elsewhere. (fn. 84) Laud's policies apparently failed to undermine the growth of extremist ideas. As a result the Calvinist Dutch church felt it necessary to reinforce its discipline. (fn. 85) In 1640 two Colchester weavers claimed to be the prophets mentioned in Zachariah 4:4 and to have the power to stop rain, turn waters to blood, and smite the earth with plagues. They both died in London of the plague in 1642. (fn. 86)

Thomas Newcomen frequently clashed with prominent Colchester puritans, including Samuel Burrows who attempted to prosecute Newcomen for undermining the Elizabethan settlement by refusing to administer the sacrament other than at the altar rail. Burrows was later excommunicated after he had distributed a scandalous libel in three Colchester churches on a Sunday morning, and when Newcomen publicized the sentence shots were fired outside his church. (fn. 87) Newcomen was also associated with the High Commission's investigation of John Bastwick in 1634, perhaps because Bastwick had described Newcomen as 'a mad parson' two years earlier. (fn. 88) The trial and his subsequent imprisonment turned Bastwick into a reckless pamphleteer, a career which eventually brought him before Star Chamber with Henry Burton and William Prynne in 1637, and a further fine, imprisonment, and the loss of his ears in the pillory. (fn. 89) The harsh sentences rebounded on the Laudian party: in Colchester in 1641 a nonconforming linendraper prosecuted before Aylett informed the court 'it were good or better for the church if there were a thousand more such as Bastwick was', (fn. 90) and Newcomen only narrowly escaped being beaten to death by Colchester rioters in 1642. (fn. 91)

The Civil War committees for scandalous and plundered ministers apparently sequestrated six Colchester incumbents: Cock at St. Giles's, Jarvis at Greenstead, Nettles at Lexden, Honifold at St. Mary Magdalen's, Newcomen at Holy Trinity, and Goffe at St. Leonard's. Thomas Eyres was stripped of Great Horkesley but allowed to keep Mile End. (fn. 92) Under presbyterian organization the town constituted one of the four sub-divisions of Thurstable classis, but only three ministers, from 1648, are known: Robert Harmer, the town preacher, Alexander Piggot at St. Leonard's, and James Wyersdale at Lexden. (fn. 93) There was by then little support for presbyterianism among the townspeople, who apparently preferred the independent congregational churches. Even incumbents not sequestered by parliament received rough treatment; in 1647 there were tumults all day in Lexden church when a group of extremists sang all 176 verses of Psalm 119 to stop the presbyterian minister, James Wyersdale, from preaching. (fn. 94) By 1652 the elders of the Dutch church believed that most of the inhabitants of Colchester were great Independents who despised presbyterian government, (fn. 95) and in 1656 Evelyn described Colchester as 'swarming with sectaries'. (fn. 96)

When Henry Barrington's 'godly' Cromwellian party took control of borough government in 1647 they ordered the constables to enforce strict sabbatarianism. (fn. 97) Henry Batchelor, by will proved c. 1647, gave to trustees rents of £60 charged on lands in Southminster to augment the stipends of three 'common preachers of God's word resident in Colchester'. (fn. 98) In the same year all property holders were asked to contribute a rate of 1s. in the pound towards the maintenance of 'godly, orthodox ministers'. Similar rates were charged in 1650, 1651, 1653, and 1654, but the system apparently lapsed after the Restoration. (fn. 99) To ensure frequent sermons the town authorities brought in ministers such as Ralph Josselin, rector of Earls Colne, who preached in 1646, 1650, and 1652. A plan of 1650 to reduce the number of parishes in the town from 12 to 4, each with a preaching minister, had apparently been abandoned by 1660. (fn. 100) Religious radicals visited the town, such as Lawrence Clarkson, the Baptist seeker, in the late 1640s, the Quaker James Parnell in 1650, 1652, and 1655, and the Baptist Thomas Tillam and the Fifth Monarchist Henry Jessey in 1655. (fn. 101) Some moderates were prosecuted: John Vickers was imprisoned for a sermon in Holy Trinity against regicide in 1654. (fn. 102)

During the disturbed years of the interregnum there appears to have been an increase in witchcraft accusations. A man who cut the tail off a neighbour's cat in 1651 was released from possession only after a lock of his hair had been burnt. (fn. 103) The same year John Locke, a 'practitioner of physic' from Ipswich, claimed to be able to recover goods 'by a figure in an almanac'. He also cured John Lawcell by 'some inward medicines', although Lawcell's wife had already paid £5 to a baymaker who made the strange claim that he had killed one man already and must kill another before he could cure Lawcell. (fn. 104)

In 1676 there were said to be 170 nonconformists and 2 papists as against 1,891 conformists, about twice the national average of dissenters. (fn. 105) Several post-Restoration aldermen and other members of influential Colchester families retained strong nonconformist sympathies. (fn. 106) In 1684 the families of the aldermen Ralph Creffield and Nathaniel Laurence were alleged to attend conventicles. At the bishop's visitation Creffield was reported to have encouraged the crowd to shout 'here comes the pope in his lawn sleeves' and to have refused to prosecute those who did not attend divine service. (fn. 107) In 1663 the Colchester Quakers, having been locked out of their meeting house by the mayor, held illegal meetings in private houses, led by the former alderman John Furley. (fn. 108) The following year a Quaker gathering was dispersed, with great difficulty, by the militia. (fn. 109) As late as 1686 Furley was fined £20 for preaching at a meeting house in St. Martin's, an offence for which 10 others were also indicted, including a gentleman, 4 baymakers, 2 merchants, and a labourer. (fn. 110) A loyal address to the king in 1696 was signed by 126 Colchester Quakers. (fn. 111)

The Common Preacher

The preachership was initially maintained by voluntary contributions from a wide cross-section of Colchester society. There were at least 45 contributors in 1564 and 89 in 1568, giving amounts varying from 1d. a month to 40s. a year. By 1573 a rent of £20 a year from Kingswood heath had been assigned to the preacher's stipend, and later lecturers were maintained by the town, as at Ipswich. (fn. 112) The stipend, which soon outstripped the incomes of local incumbents, was probably necessary to attract good candidates from Cambridge. In 1575 Nicholas Challoner was allotted a rent of £40, as was his successor, George Northey. (fn. 113) The stipend was raised to £66 13s. 4d. in 1593 on the appointment of Richard Harris and that year an additional preacher at St. Peter's church was maintained by a collection of £20 in South and East wards. (fn. 114) The stipend was raised to £100 in 1619, but was often halved in the 17th century when the preacher held a local living and gave one lecture a week in Colchester instead of the normal two. (fn. 115) Preachers were sometimes able to negotiate additional annual payments, such as the £10 received by William Eyres for accommodation in 1610 and the £10 granted to Richard Pulley in 1663 to pay him, or an assistant, to read the Prayer Book before the sermon. (fn. 116) In the mid 1680s the sermons were provided by a 'combination' of three beneficed town clergy who were paid £1 a sermon. (fn. 117) A new preacher appointed in 1700 was financed that year by the £50 fine for the fishery lease. (fn. 118)

From the late 16th century or earlier regular weekly sermons were given on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday mornings. (fn. 119) In 1620 a curate also read prayers before the Wednesday sermon. (fn. 120) At least 30 sermons were given in 1684 by the 'combination' of three local clergymen. (fn. 121) In 1597 St. Botolph's was regarded as 'the most convenient and fittest place' for the sermon. (fn. 122) By 1610 the sermons were at St. James's on Sundays and St. Botolph's on Wednesdays, but the Wednesday sermon was transferred to St. Peter's when the preacher was appointed to that living in 1630. (fn. 123) Although the Wednesday sermon was at St. Nicholas's in 1658 it was more usually at St. Peter's in the later 17th century, while St. James's retained the Sunday sermon. (fn. 124)

The assembly's freedom of action in the selection of preachers was affected both by popular demand and by deference to the opinion of the retiring preacher. The extreme protestant George Northey was recommended by Nicholas Challoner on his deathbed in 1580, and in 1635 the outgoing preacher Richard Maden favoured John Knowles, who was duly appointed. (fn. 125) Most Colchester preachers were Cambridge-educated puritans, often college fellows. By 1618 a candidate had to be a graduate and was nominated and presented to the bishop of London. (fn. 126) The town did take some precautions; for Northey the bailiffs obtained a reference from Clare Hall, Cambridge, while Richard Harris, chaplain to the earl of Essex, had to preach to the assembly before his appointment in 1593. (fn. 127) Interested parties lobbied for particular candidates, as did Harbottle Grimston and John Duke, of Ipswich, in favour of Christopher Scott in 1627, (fn. 128) but the views of eminent Cambridge divines evidently carried much weight. In 1627 one of the bailiffs travelled to Cambridge to enquire after a 'learned divine' to be common preacher, and other officers were sent on similar errands in 1631, 1632, and 1635. (fn. 129)

The pressing need for an effective protestant ministry in Colchester led Bishop Grindal to allow Colchester's first preachers, Cole, Withers, and Challoner, some latitude in matters of conformity. In the 1580s, however, the new bishop, John Aylmer, took a much harder line, and George Northey was suspended and imprisoned for nonconformity in 1583 soon after his appointment. Aylmer recommended a replacement but between 1583 and 1585 the bailiffs attempted to secure Northey's freedom through the influence of William Cole, Sir Thomas Heneage, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the earls of Leicester and Warwick. A compromise seems to have been reached as Northey was apparently restored before his death in 1593. (fn. 130)

The stipend of Northey's successor, Richard Harris, was reduced after he had fallen out with some aldermen and he was dismissed in 1608. (fn. 131) In 1609-10 the bishop urged the bailiffs to appoint one of the existing underfunded incumbents, but they defiantly selected William Ames, an extreme Calvinist who was already suspended at Cambridge. Ames was forbidden to preach by the bishop and forced into exile in Holland. (fn. 132) His replacement, William Eyres, was apparently more acceptable to the bishop but less popular with the townspeople. He continued to claim the preachership after he became rector of Great Horkesley in 1618, interfering with the sermons and leading the local incumbents in opposition to his replacement Francis Liddell. (fn. 133) As late as 1627 Richard Maden wanted the matter settled before he would accept the preachership. (fn. 134)

Maden's appointment was also complicated by the unsuccessful attempt of the earl of Warwick and Harbottle Grimston, the recorder, to secure the appointment of a presbyterian candidate. In 1631 Maden was temporarily replaced by William Bridge, who was forced to flee to Holland after being excommunicated for puritanism. (fn. 135) To comply with Laud's regulation that lecturers must hold a benefice in their towns, Maden was presented to St. Peter's vicarage. (fn. 136) In 1633 the preachership was one of only three in Essex that survived Laud's inquiry into the conformity of lecturers. (fn. 137) On Maden's death that year Laud pressed, perhaps as a conciliatory gesture, the claims of two prominent London puritans associated with the earl of Warwick, but Maden's own choice, John Knowles, succeeded him. Knowles was a Cambridge puritan with considerable public influence, and he clashed with Laud in 1637 over the vacant mastership of Colchester grammar school. At a visitation that year it was reported that Knowles did not wear a surplice, say prayers for the king, or take and give communion. Soon afterwards Laud revoked his licence and Knowles left for New England in 1639. (fn. 138) The preachership was apparently less influential in the later 17th century, although it was held by the presbyterian divine Owen Stockton (1657-62). (fn. 139)

Colchester's common preachers played a pivotal role in the religious and cultural life of the community and bore much responsibility for the town's continuing tradition of nonconformity. As the majority of church livings were in the gift of local families such as the Audleys and Lucases, the preachership was the only way that the townspeople could guarantee themselves godly instruction. (fn. 140) The preachers' popularity is revealed by the many small legacies they received in wills and by the frequent accompanying request that they provide a funeral sermon. (fn. 141) Some preachers apparently became well integrated into the social life of the town: Withers married into a Colchester family shortly before his appointment; Challoner married the daughter of alderman Benjamin Clere; and Northey later married Challoner's widow. (fn. 142) The preachers' views met with some opposition: in 1566 a man claimed that Cole should be deprived because he did not wear a tippet and square cap; another disagreed with Challoner about predestination. (fn. 143) Such doctrinal disputes may have grown sharper with the growth of separatist sects in Colchester during the 17th century. Preachers were also criticized when they addressed non-religious matters from the pulpit, and their involvement in reforming the town's moral life led to disputes with those townspeople who objected to the stricter regulation and harsher punishments that accompanied 'godly' rule. (fn. 144)


  • 1. Above, Med. Colch. (Townspeople); L. Higgs, 'Lay Piety in the Borough of Colch., 1485-1558' (Univ. of Michigan Ph.D. thesis, 1983), 141-54.
  • 2. P.R.O., PROB 11/15, f. 139v.
  • 3. Higgs, 'Lay Piety', 104-5; below, Churches.
  • 4. E.R. xlvi. 85-6; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr87, rot. 8.
  • 5. Above, Med. Colch. (Townspeople).
  • 6. J. E. Oxley, Reformation in Essex to the Death of Mary, 5-6.
  • 7. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 21; L. & P. Hen. VIII, iv (2), pp. 1481, 1788-91, 1844-5, 1859, 1869, 1875, 1984; A. Hudson, Premature Reformation, 477-9; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 84-5; Oxley, Reformation in Essex, 7-10.
  • 8. A. G. Dickens, Reformation Studies, 376-7.
  • 9. E.R. xliii. 1-6, 82-7, 155-62, 227-34; xliv. 40-2; lvi. 73-4; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 85.
  • 10. Above, this chapter, Introduction; below, Religious Houses; Outlying Parts (West Donyland).
  • 11. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), p. 222; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 502; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 86-7; below, Education.
  • 12. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 97-100; Bull. Inst. Hist. Res. xxxiii. 115-21.
  • 13. L. & P. Hen. VIII, vii. 170; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 85.
  • 14. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr104, rot. 3.
  • 15. Ibid. rot. 2d.; Cr105, rot. 5; Cr108, rot. 8d; Cr 112, rot. 5; Cr114, rott. 2-3; E.R. xlix. 165; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 87.
  • 16. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 26-7; below, Churches.
  • 17. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 88-9.
  • 18. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 22-3; Cal. Pat. 1549-51, 420-1.
  • 19. P.R.O., PROB 11/31, f. 4; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 87.
  • 20. Cf. C. Cross, Church and People 1450-1660, 70-5; Dickens, Reformation Studies, 381-2.
  • 21. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr104, rot. 3; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), pp. 462-3.
  • 22. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr111, rot. 3; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xviii (2), p. 331; E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 90.
  • 23. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xviii (2), p. 331; xxi (1), pp. 417, 550-1, 586, 648; Acts of P.C. 1542-7, 418, 464, 485.
  • 24. Narratives of the Days of the Reformation (Camd. Soc. [1st ser.] lxxvii), 212.
  • 25. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 92; M. Byford, 'The Price of Protestantism: Assessing the Impact of Religious Change on Elizabethan Essex: the Cases of Heydon and Colch. 1558-94' (Oxford Univ. D. Phil. thesis, 1988), 100, 115-17.
  • 26. Cal. S.P. Venetian, vi (i), p. 45; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 115.
  • 27. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 32; Acts of P.C. 1552-4, 395.
  • 28. Chron. of the Grey Friars of London (Camd. Soc. [1st ser.] liii), 59; Wriothesley's Chron. (Camd. 2nd ser. xx), 12; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 113; Acts of P.C. 1550-52, 81; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr122, rot. 4d.; E.R. l. 157-62.
  • 29. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 113-14; Acts of P.C. 1556-8, 19, 129-31, 142.
  • 30. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 112.
  • 31. Acts of P.C. 1554-6, 153; 1556-58, 130-1.
  • 32. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 90.
  • 33. Acts of P.C. 1554-6, 134, 137.
  • 34. E.R.O., D/ABW 16/128.
  • 35. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 91; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 119-27; Acts of P.C. 1556-8, 135, 144.
  • 36. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 118-19.
  • 37. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xv. 90-1.
  • 38. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 114; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 34; Morant, Colch. 50; Sixteenth Century Jnl. x. 15-22; D.N.B.
  • 39. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 129; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 34; Acts of P.C. 1556-8, 215; 1558-70, 26, 44, 71.
  • 40. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 130-7; Acts of P.C. 1558-70, 89; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 34-5; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr125, rot. 1d.
  • 41. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), pp. 151-2; Addenda, i (2), p. 498; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 81; Morant, Colch. 81.
  • 42. Below, Churches.
  • 43. B. Usher, 'Colch. and Diocesan Administration 1539- 1604': copy in E.R.O; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 138-40; Morant, Colch. 105-7; E.R. xlvi. 149, 154.
  • 44. W. Hunt, Puritan Movement: Coming of Revolution in an Eng. County, 94-6; P. Collinson, Religion of Protestants, 130; below, Churches.
  • 45. E.R.O., D/Y 2/7, p. 13; D/B 5 Gb1, 23 Jan. 1581; Morant, Colch. 105-7.
  • 46. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 143-6, 155; E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, ff. 12v., 86; below, this chapter, this section (Common Preacher).
  • 47. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 162-4; D.N.B.
  • 48. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 164, 174-6, 310-11; Collinson, Religion of Protestants, 170-3.
  • 49. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 150-3, 176; E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Misc. Papers (formerly Sess. R. 20), rot. 11; ibid. Q/SR 171, f. 61d.
  • 50. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 165-7.
  • 51. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, ff. 12v., 49; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 146-8.
  • 52. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr141, rott. 2d., 3d.; Cr143, rott. 2, 2d.
  • 53. P. Collinson, Godly People, 429-32, 438-9.
  • 54. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 385-7, 397; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr140, rott. 9, 10d.; Cr141, rot. 13; Cr142, rot. 5; Cr144, rot. 13d.; Cr145, rott. 23, 31d.; Cr152, rot. 14d.
  • 55. E.R. lii. 89-95; above, this chapter (Social Structure).
  • 56. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 142.
  • 57. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/4, f. 78; D/B 5 Cr150, rot. 32.
  • 58. Presbyterian movement in the reign of Eliz. (Camd. 3rd ser. viii), 28-74; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 39 n.; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 12.
  • 59. Collinson, Godly People, 9-10.
  • 60. J. R. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-1662: Politics, Religion and Officeholding in an Eng. Provincial Town' (Brandeis Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1980), 85-9; below, Churches.
  • 61. F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Wills of Essex Gentry and Merchants, 249, 273-4, 281, 292, 298-9, 312, 319; F. G. Emmison, Essex Wills, iii. 215-16, 232, 266, 268, 358-9; iv. 105, 122, 142, 146, 153-4, 160, 166.
  • 62. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 194-284; above, this chapter (Boro. Govt.).
  • 63. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 259-68, 277-8.
  • 64. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/5, f. 109v.
  • 65. Below, Roman Catholicism; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 158-62.
  • 66. E.R.O., D/Y 2/5, p. 19; Religious Dissent in East Anglia, ed. E. S. Leedham-Green, 14-15.
  • 67. Essex Recusant, v. 84.
  • 68. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 335.
  • 69. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr101, rot. 9; K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 776.
  • 70. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sr3; D/B 5 Sr6; D/B 5 Sb2/5, ff. 85v.-87, 97v., 165v.-166; C. L. Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch Trials, 284; A. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Eng.: a Regional and Comparative Study, 286-7, 299.
  • 71. Macfarlane, Witchcraft, 290, 292; E.R.O., ACA/18, f. 132v.; ACA/24, f. 120v.
  • 72. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 90-1.
  • 73. Ibid. 92.
  • 74. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sr23, rott. 4-6.
  • 75. Ibid. D/Y 2/7, p. 19; Hunt, Puritan Movement, 175-6.
  • 76. Ibid. D/Y 2/6, pp. 129, 132-3.
  • 77. Below, Churches.
  • 78. E.R.O., D/ALV 1, f. 72v.
  • 79. Ibid. D/ACA 51, ff. 27v., 51, 61, 78v., 81, 87 and v.; W. Cliftlands, 'The "Well-Affected" and the "Country"' (Essex Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1987), 225.
  • 80. Below, Churches; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 57.
  • 81. Religious Dissent, ed. Leedham-Green, 60.
  • 82. Cliftlands, 'The "Well-Affected"', 227-8; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 53-4.
  • 83. Below, Churches (St. Nicholas); Cal. S. P. Dom. 1631-3, 492.
  • 84. Cliftlands, 'The "Well-Affected"', 233, 236.
  • 85. Religious Dissent, ed. Leedham-Green, 64-7.
  • 86. False Prophets Discovered, . . . Lives and Deaths of Two Weavers late of Colch. (1642, repr. 1844): copy in E.R.O.
  • 87. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1636-7, 265; Bodl. MS. Tanner 70, ff. 107-11; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 413-16; Hunt, Puritan Movement, 276.
  • 88. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb1/4, 3 Mar. 1631/2.
  • 89. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1640-1, 319-20; F. M. Condick, 'Life and works of Dr. John Bastwick (1595-1654)' (London Univ. Ph. D. thesis, 1982); V. C. H. Essex, ii. 53; D.N.B.
  • 90. Cal. S. P. Dom. 1641-3, 520.
  • 91. Above, this chapter (Intro.).
  • 92. Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 125-7.
  • 93. Division of Essex into Classes (1648), 21: copy in E.C.L. Colch.; V.C.H. Essex, ii. 61.
  • 94. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/9, ff. 7v.-8; Cliftlands, 'The "WellAffected"', 175, 185-6.
  • 95. Religious Dissent, ed. Leedham-Green, 66.
  • 96. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 61.
  • 97. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb3, f. 276; above, this section (Boro. Govt.).
  • 98. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, f. 103v.; ibid. Q/RSr3, 25; Char. Com. File.
  • 99. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 39v., 64v., 90, 115v.; Gb6, f. 219; C.J. vi. 416, 458; Morant, Colch. 106.
  • 100. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 65; Morant, Colch. 106; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 174, 213, 218.
  • 101. Cliftlands, 'The "Well-Affected"', 169; below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 102. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/9, f. 88v.
  • 103. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 52v.-53.
  • 104. Ibid. D/B 5 Sb2/9, f. 65 and v.; Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials, 285.
  • 105. Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 50; Collinson, Godly People, 27.
  • 106. Above, this chapter (Boro. Govt.).
  • 107. B.L. Stowe MS. 835, ff. 37-43v.; Bodl. MS. Rawl. Essex 1, ff. 113-17, 120-1, 126-8.
  • 108. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/9, f. 132 and v.
  • 109. Cal. S.P. Venetian 1661-4, 286.
  • 110. Hist. MSS. Com. 38, 14th Rep. IX, Round, p. 275.
  • 111. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb6, f. 88.
  • 112. B.L. Stowe MS. 829, f. 84; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, pp. 115, 119; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 155; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 21.
  • 113. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/2, f. 269; D/B 5 Gb1, Dec. 1580.
  • 114. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, Mar., Aug. 1593.
  • 115. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 271v., 310.
  • 116. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb2, f. 97v.; Gb4, f. 288.
  • 117. Ibid. D/B 5 Ab1/21-4; D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 201v., 242v.; for combination lectures, Collinson, Godly People, 467-98.
  • 118. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb6, f. 214.
  • 119. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, Dec. 1579; Gb2, f. 76v.; Gb4, f. 23v.
  • 120. Ibid. D/Y 2/2, p. 118.
  • 121. Ibid. D/B 5 Ab1/21.
  • 122. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, Dec. 1597.
  • 123. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb2, f. 96v.; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1629-31, 258.
  • 124. E.R.O., D/B 5 Ab1/20; D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 173, 200v., 204v.; Gb5, f. 201v.; Gb6, f. 214.
  • 125. Ibid. D/Y 2/6, p. 83; D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 144, 146v.
  • 126. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 169, 173v.
  • 127. Ibid. D/Y 2/6, p. 83; D/B 5 Gb1, Aug. 1593.
  • 128. Ibid. D/Y 2/4, p. 139; D/Y 2/8, p. 19.
  • 129. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 61v., 62, 99, 109v., 115, 144.
  • 130. Ibid. D/Y 2/6, pp. 81-3, 85, 87, 89, 91-2, 95, 99, 105, 107, 121, 153; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 24; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 327-41.
  • 131. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 55v., 68; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 95-7, 101.
  • 132. E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 123; D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 76v., 96v.; D.N.B.
  • 133. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, f. 179; D/Y 2/4, p. 139; D/Y 2/2, p. 118; Smith, Eccl. Hist. Essex, 23-4; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 100-1.
  • 134. E.R.O., D/Y 2/4, p. 183; D/B 5 Gb3, f. 72.
  • 135. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 186-8; D.N.B.
  • 136. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1629-31, 258.
  • 137. Ibid. 1631-3, 352.
  • 138. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 188.
  • 139. D.N.B.
  • 140. Below, Churches.
  • 141. e.g. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Wills of Essex Gentry and Merchants, 273, 281, 292, 298, 312; E.R.O., D/ACR 96; D/ABW 21/168.
  • 142. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 174, 313, 316.
  • 143. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, f. 76v.; Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 273.
  • 144. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/3, ff. 123, 138v.; above, this ection (Eliz. Settlement).