Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): Religious and cultural life

Pages 89-92

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


Religious and Cultural Life

Religion remained the dominant motif in the cultural life of the community before 1640. Following the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the suppression of the chantries in 1548 dealt a serious blow at the guilds and fraternities which had played a lively part in the religious and ritual activities of the city. (fn. 1) One casualty was the Trinity guild in St. Mary de Lode whose officers had included leading citizens. (fn. 2) The trade companies became confined to a largely economic function. The radical protestant John Hooper was appointed bishop of Gloucester in 1551, but little is known about his activity in the city. It is likely, however, that the pace of religious change accelerated at the parish level from about that time. The churchwardens' accounts for St. Michael record the removal of the rood loft in 1550 or 1551, together with the sale of liturgical and other church items. (fn. 3) With Mary's accession St. Michael's parish conformed fairly rapidly to the restored Catholic order, probably like most city parishes, (fn. 4) and at least nine Gloucester clergy were deprived in 1554 for being married. (fn. 5) Hooper was burnt at Gloucester in February 1555, and there is a later report, impossible to confirm, that Mary was angered by Gloucester's protestant sympathies at the time. (fn. 6)

During the first half of Elizabeth I's reign there is little evidence that the citizens were zealous advocates of an evangelical protestant order. In 1576 a family of sectaries was prosecuted in the church courts, but that was an isolated instance. (fn. 7) The next decade saw action against a small number of Catholics from the city. (fn. 8) During the last years of Elizabeth's reign committed puritanism gained support. A city lectureship was instituted in St. Michael's church in 1598 and occupied by William Groves and, subsequently, Thomas Prior and John Workman. (fn. 9) By the 1630s several weekly lectureships had been established, including one on Sundays specifically for the poor. (fn. 10) The trade companies patronized puritan preachers. (fn. 11) From the end of the 16th century magistrates were promoting a godly reformation of manners with an emphasis on the sanctity of the sabbath and a determined campaign against drunkenness and alehouses. (fn. 12) A puritan conventicle was meeting at the New Inn at the turn of the century. (fn. 13)

The main impetus for the puritan movement in the city apparently derived from a number of city leaders, concerned to strengthen their own authority and to create a sense of godly, communal solidarity at a time when the city faced many stresses. There was also growing support among middle-rank inhabitants, who may well have been influenced by their contacts through trade with puritan centres like London, Bristol, and the towns of the south-west. (fn. 14) Another important factor was the lamentable state of the established church at Gloucester. In 1603 six of the city's eleven parishes were too poor to have incumbents. (fn. 15) In the late 16th century the cathedral failed to provide any spiritual leadership: non-residence was life and the diocesan establishment was racked by conflict and corruption. (fn. 16) During the early Stuart period, however, city puritans were encouraged by the sympathetic attitude of a number of cathedral divines: Miles Smith, bishop 1612–24, was especially favourable. (fn. 17)

The first reverse for the city's puritan leaders came in 1617. William Laud, newly appointed dean of Gloucester, moved the communion table from the middle of the cathedral choir to the east end. (fn. 18) A libel denouncing the innovation and calling on the prebendaries and city preachers to resist it was published in St. Michael's church and distributed throughout the city with cries that 'Popery was coming in'. Several of those involved in the opposition to Laud were summoned before High Commission. (fn. 19) In the 1620s, however, with Laud's departure relations between city and cathedral improved. In 1625 the city lecture was preached in the cathedral. (fn. 20) The cryptoCatholic Godfrey Goodman, who was consecrated bishop in 1625, was paradoxically on good terms with the puritan aldermen; the two sides united in their hostility to Laud (after 1633 archbishop of Canterbury). (fn. 21)

The 1630s, however, saw Gloucester puritans under severe pressure. In 1633 the city lecturer John Workman was tried by High Commission for preaching before the assize judges against images, denouncing dancing, and allegedly calling for the election of ministers. (fn. 22) When the corporation continued to pay Workman's stipend, city leaders were prosecuted and forced to submit. (fn. 23) At the metropolitan visitation in 1635 the seats of aldermen's wives were removed from the cathedral, (fn. 24) and two years later the management of the city hospitals was called into question, after it was claimed that an 'inconformable minister' had been presented to a hospital living. (fn. 25) In 1640 an attempt to remove the conservative John Bird as master of the Crypt school and to replace him with the distinguished puritan John Langley was rebuffed by Laud. (fn. 26) Puritan activists may have contemplated emigration to the New World. (fn. 27) In 1639 one of the city curates, Thomas Wynell, went to Scotland and may have been in touch with the Covenanters there. (fn. 28)

The changing religious climate led to a reorientation of the ritual world of the community. The important civic watches on Midsummer eve and St. Peter's eve, in which the trade companies had taken part, faded away after the middle of Elizabeth I's reign; the feast after the Midsummer watch ended about 1550. Company rituals may have survived longer, but were affected by the companies' economic decline. (fn. 29) By 1640 the main civic ceremonies were mostly associated with celebrating the power of the élite, for instance on the mayoral election day or in the magisterial processions to the courts. (fn. 30) As for popular rituals, country lords or abbots of misrule disappeared in the city after the 1560s. (fn. 31) Old fashioned morality plays probably vanished a couple of decades later. (fn. 32) In the 1610s the magistracy suppressed popular games. (fn. 33) Under Laud's sympathetic influence parish rituals may have revived a little in the 1630s, but the revival was short lived. (fn. 34)

Among respectable citizens there was a new preoccupation in the decades before 1640 with a more private and educated cultural world. John Aubrey tells the story of having visited as a boy the home of Alderman William Singleton, the city's M.P. in the Short Parliament. Singleton had in the parlour over the chimney 'the whole description of the funeral' of Sir Philip Sidney; it was 'engraved and printed on papers pasted together' which stretched the length of the room and was 'turned upon two pins that turning one of them made the figures march all in order'. Sidney, one of the heroes of Elizabeth I's war against Spain, had an obvious appeal to a puritan like Singleton. (fn. 35) Other puritan citizens had collections of books. John Deighton had about 160 different works, including medical books, chronicles, puritan tracts, and John Foxe's martyrology (fn. 36); in the 1620s he was out in the county following up Foxe's account of some local Marian martyrs. (fn. 37) During Charles I's reign Gloucester had its own specialist bookseller, the puritan Toby Jordan. (fn. 38) The literate did not need to purchase all their books, for several city parishes had small libraries. (fn. 39) Moreover in 1629 Bishop Goodman sought to found a library in the cathedral whereby 'every private man [who] cannot furnish himself … might be supplied out of our common storehouse'; one of the librarians was the puritan John Langley. (fn. 40)

The increased availability of books was closely linked with rising literacy. In the period 1595–1640 64 per cent of Gloucester men appearing as witnesses in the diocesan courts were able to write their own names. As might be expected, illiteracy was lowest among the professional and distributive groups. Among women, however, the vast majority (96 per cent) were unable to write their names. (fn. 41) Educational skills were disseminated by parents, by masters teaching their apprentices, and by schooling. Relatively little can be discovered about the petty or primary schools in the city, though there were probably several by 1600. Some were taught by clergy or women (fn. 42); on occasions the pupils came from the adjoining countryside. (fn. 43) John Taylor, the 'water poet', who was born in Gloucester about 1580, attended a petty school there in Elizabeth I's reign. (fn. 44)

The children of wealthier parents progressed to one of the two grammar schools in the city, the College school at the cathedral and the Crypt school. The College school had rather uncertain fortunes in the late 16th century, but prospered in succeeding decades. (fn. 45) John Langley, master 1617–c.1635, was particularly successful. He was later described as 'an excellent linguist and grammarian, historian, cosmographer, an artist, but [also] a most judicious divine and great antiquary in the most memorable things of this nation'. (fn. 46) In 1628 the puritan town of Dorchester tried to entice him away to teach there. The corporation in regard of 'his careful teaching and educating the youth of the city and … the sons of divers noblemen and gentlemen to the great grace of this city' agreed to supplement his stipend if he stayed. (fn. 47) Langley was driven out by the ecclesiastical climate of the 1630s, but in 1639 the city tried to appoint him as master of the Crypt school; the next year he became high master of St. Paul's, London. (fn. 48) The city's Crypt school had a mixed career. It prospered under Gregory Downhale in the 1570s and had the puritan William Groves as master 1589–1603. (fn. 49) In 1611, however, it was in disarray due to the master's meagre stipend. (fn. 50) John Bird, master in Charles I's reign, caused growing friction with the corporation because of his support for Laud and the alleged neglect of his duties; he was removed in 1641, after the onset of the English Revolution. (fn. 51)


  • 1. Trans. B.G.A.S. viii. 253–61.
  • 2. Hatfield House, Cecil Papers, 207/2.
  • 3. Glos. R.O., P 154/14/CW 1/5.
  • 4. Ibid. 7–8.
  • 5. Glos. N. & Q. iii. 42–3.
  • 6. J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. J. Pratt and J. Stoughton (Lond. n. d.), vi. 653–9; Glos. Colln. NF 12.56.
  • 7. Com. for Eccl. Causes, ed. Price, 103–5, 107–8.
  • 8. J. N. Langston, 'Rob. Alfield, Schoolmaster of Glouc., and his Sons', Trans. B.G.A.S. lvi. 148 sqq.; Eng. Martyrs, ed. J. H. Pollen (Catholic Rec. Soc. v), 108–9, 140, 289.
  • 9. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 176v.–177, 236, 466, 467.
  • 10. Ibid. ff. 560, 561; 2, pp. 33, 79.
  • 11. Glos. Colln. 29334.
  • 12. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 147; G 3/SO 1, f. 39.
  • 13. G.D.R. vol. 89 (office versus Simons).
  • 14. Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 183–4.
  • 15. Eccl. Misc. 68–9.
  • 16. F. D. Price, 'Bishop Bullingham and Chancellor Blackleech: a diocese divided', Trans. B.G.A.S. xci. 175–98.
  • 17. P. Heylyn, Cyprianus Anglicus (Dublin, 1719), part i. 44–5; T. Prior, Sermon at the Funerall of the late Lord Bishop of Glouc. (Lond. 1632), 302–4.
  • 18. Heylyn, Cyprianus, 44; B. Taylor, 'William Laud, Dean of Glouc. 1616–21', Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxvii. 87–8.
  • 19. Heylyn, Cyprianus, 44–5; Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxvii. 88–90.
  • 20. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 508.
  • 21. Ibid. B 9/2; Trans. B.G.A.S. xxiv. 299, 302; D.N.B. s.v. Goodman, Godfrey.
  • 22. H.L. Papers, N.S. xi, pp. 418–19; W. Laud, Works (1847–60), iv. 233–4, 236.
  • 23. G.B.R., B 3/2, pp. 18, 23, 25, 38; Laud, Works, iv. 236.
  • 24. Laud, Works, v. 480.
  • 25. P.R.O., SP 16/379, no. 88.
  • 26. G.B.R., B 3/2, p. 148.
  • 27. P.C. Reg. x. 509.
  • 28. Ibid. vii. 629; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1639, 519–21.
  • 29. Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 178; G.B.R., F 4/3, f. 20, et passim.
  • 30. Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 178.
  • 31. Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. pp. 465, 469.
  • 32. R. Willis, Mount Tabor (Lond. 1639), 111–13.
  • 33. B.L. Royal MS. 12A. lxx, ff. 9v. sqq.
  • 34. Glos. R.O., P 154/14/CW 1/41; Glos. N. & Q. ii. 449.
  • 35. Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. A. Clark (1898), ii. 249.
  • 36. Glos. R.O., D 381.
  • 37. B.L. Harl. MS. 425, f. 121.
  • 38. H. R. Plomer, Dict. of Booksellers and Printers 1641–1667 (1907), 108.
  • 39. Glos. R.O., P 154/14/CW 1/41; 6/CW 1/10A.
  • 40. B.L. Sloane MS. 1199, ff. 92v.–93.
  • 41. Figures tabulated in Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 182–3.
  • 42. Glos. R.O., D 326/Z 1; G.D.R. vol. 89 (Hallowes versus Trotman).
  • 43. Glos. R.O., D 326/Z 1.
  • 44. Austin, Crypt Sch. 78–9.
  • 45. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 323–5.
  • 46. Rudder, Glos. 170; E. Reynolds, Sermon Touching the Use of Humane Learning (Lond. 1658), 29.
  • 47. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 521v.
  • 48. Reynolds, Sermon, 30; G.B.R., B 3/2, p. 132.
  • 49. Austin, Crypt Sch. 47, 87–8.
  • 50. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 237v.–238.
  • 51. J. Bird, Grounds of Grammer Penned and Published (Oxford, 1639); G.B.R., B 3/2, pp. 143–4; below, Glouc. 1640–60, city and Eng. Revolution.