The sixteenth century: Religious Life

A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

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A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave, 'The sixteenth century: Religious Life', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) pp. 76-80. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave. "The sixteenth century: Religious Life", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 76-80. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Brown, L M. Forster, G C F. Hall, I. Horrox, R E. Kent, G H R. Neave, D. "The sixteenth century: Religious Life", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 76-80. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

Religious Life

The conventionally phrased wills of the earlier 16th century reveal little about the religious attitudes of the townspeople. (fn. 1) The friaries continued to be seen as worthy of bequests and as fit places for the obits of testators from the town and a wide area around it. (fn. 2) The wills also suggest the ample means of some parishioners of St. Mary's. Bequests and other gifts enabled the church to be completed c. 1500 and then partially rebuilt a mere 20 years later. (fn. 3) A guild of the young men of St. Mary's parish evidently existed before the 16th century, but its objects, the maintenance of a light in the church and the provision of two torches for the Corpus Christi procession, were neglected c. 1500; accordingly, in 1503 the administration of the guild was confirmed to four 'yeomen', to be elected annually. (fn. 4) A similar guild for the minster parish was founded or confirmed in 1508. (fn. 5)

The religious and ceremonial activities of the guilds evidently continued until the Reformation. (fn. 6) The chaplain paid by the mercers to celebrate before the Holy Trinity light in St. Mary's church was mentioned in 1502, when contributions to his salary were set at 25. a year from the alderman, 1s. 8d. from each steward, and 8d. from each brother. (fn. 7) On Rogation or Cross Monday 1502 the governors watched the procession of St. John from their castle, and on Corpus Christi Day the castle was again in use when they watched the town's play cycle. (fn. 8) In 1519-20 the plays were refashioned by a poet and priest, William Pyers, who travelled to Beverley from Wressle and was presumably one of the earl of Northumberland's chaplains. (fn. 9) The plays were again performed in 1520, when the alderman of the painters was fined for a badly produced play 'in contempt of the whole commonalty and in the presence of many visitors'. (fn. 10) The plays were not mentioned again, but the Rogationtide festivities apparently survived until the 1570s. (fn. 11)

The special right of sanctuary belonging to St. John's college survived until the extinction of all such privileges by the Act of 1540. (fn. 12) Between 1500 and October 1539, when the last sanctuary man was received, 365 sanctuary-seekers were registered. (fn. 13) They included 162 from Yorkshire, 42 from Lincolnshire, 32 from London, 24 from East Anglia, 18 from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and 14 from north-east England; a few were from as far afield as Devonshire and Wales. Debt was the reason for 192 applicants seeking sanctuary, homicide for 87, and other felonies for 59; the rest are unknown. From 1540 the minster was entitled only to the temporary right of sanctuary belonging to a parish church. (fn. 14)

The religious changes in Beverley were initiated in 1534 with the visitation of the two friaries; the inmates acknowledged the royal supremacy but a Franciscan found to have libelled the king was sent to Cromwell for examination. (fn. 15) In 1538, however, the archbishop's suffragan was found to have breached the king's injunctions in a sermon in the town, and most of those examined claimed to be ignorant of them. (fn. 16) The offending preacher was presumably the chancellor of the college who, as Dr. Sherwood 'of naughty judgement', was being sought at Beverley later the same year by Cromwell. (fn. 17) Robert Sherwood was, nevertheless, still chancellor at the suppression. (fn. 18) The removal of religious houses began in 1536 with the dissolution of St. Giles's hospital; the two friaries were surrendered in 1539, and Holy Trinity preceptory disappeared with the suppression of the Hospitallers in 1540. (fn. 19) The process of reformation culminated in 1548 with the suppression of St. John's college and the many chantries there and elsewhere in the town under the Chantries Act of the previous year. (fn. 20) Also evidently lost at that time were St. Thomas's chapel and the hermitage of St. Theobald (Tebbitt). (fn. 21)

Just before its suppression the college had a total staff of 75, including 14 chantry chaplains. (fn. 22) They mostly seem to have been resident and all of those described were regarded as satisfactory in character and learning. Most of them were discharged in 1548, but two of the vicars, Thomas Mitchell and Thomas Dring, were retained to serve the minster as curate and assistant, and two of the chantry priests were also appointed assistants. (fn. 23) The town also lost the services of four chantry priests in St. Mary's church, one at St. Nicholas's, and three others celebrating in town hospitals, while three chantry chapels in the outlying townships were removed as well. (fn. 24) Most of the 1,200 ounces of plate belonging to the college was confiscated and some buildings adjoining the minster were demolished. (fn. 25) The small amount of plate left to the minster and the other churches was probably further depleted by the Edwardian confiscation of the 1550s; the minster later had only one piece, of brass, made before the mid 16th century and St. Mary's none. (fn. 26)

The process by which the grantees of former Church property in the town, who were mostly courtiers or Crown officers, sold it to local men is obscure. (fn. 27) Early purchasers included Sir Ralph Ellerker, who briefly owned the former Franciscan friary. (fn. 28) The Constables of Burton Constable and Halsham overcame their religious conservatism (fn. 29) to buy the site of the former preceptory of the Holy Trinity in 1546 (fn. 30) and other Church property direct from the Crown in 1554. (fn. 31) The former preceptory was bought later in the century by the corporation, which by purchase and Crown grant eventually succeeded to many of the former Church possessions. Land remaining with the Crown was let, the Dominican friary site, for instance, to Richard Faircliff and many houses to the corporation for a 60-year term in 1587. (fn. 32) The availability of Church property may have helped the rise to prominence of the Wartons, who leased the Trinities from the town in the 1580s and owned the Dominican friary site and former college property by the end of the century, besides leasing the manor of Beverley. (fn. 33) Ralph Hansby similarly added Church property to his estate in and around the town, where he bought the former hospital of St. Giles in 1582 and later leased most of St. Giles's crofts from the corporation. (fn. 34)

Four of the medieval hospitals, including that of the Trinity, were obtained by the town after the suppression and were continued as maisons dieu. (fn. 35) Robert Hill, who served the chantry at the Trinity hospital until its suppression and was paid by the town until his death in 1558, may have been the former prior of the Dominican friary. (fn. 36) The town also secured grants of profits and former Church property in 1552, 1579, and 1585 for the support of the minster, St. Mary's, and the grammar school. (fn. 37) In 1575-6, when the net value of the minster rents was just over £60 a year, the town spent about £40 on the church and the school, (fn. 38) but later in the century no more than £20 a year was apparently spent on the church, (fn. 39) which was repeatedly described as decayed. (fn. 40) The only other neglect recorded was the mayor's failure to provide for services in 1595. (fn. 41)

By the mid century protestant ideas had won converts in the town. (fn. 42) In 1554, 1556, and 1557 a dozen townsmen were in trouble with the authorities for allegedly speaking against the sacrament. They included an innkeeper, Robert Bigott, a former member of the college, John Bonsaye, (fn. 43) and a man who did penance for keeping Bonsaye's protestant books, which were then burnt. (fn. 44) It was perhaps for his part in disciplining protestants that Thomas Mitchell was called a 'crafty priest' and otherwise slandered by one of his parishioners at the minster early in Mary's reign. (fn. 45) John Atkinson, a former chantry priest who later served the minster successively as assistant (fn. 46) and curate, had apparently adopted puritan ideas by 1566, when he was reported for not wearing a surplice. His religious views were, however, satisfactory in 1575. (fn. 47)

Low church views were later fostered by the corporation with encouragement from the puritan Henry Hastings, earl of Huntingdon, Lord President of the Council in the North from 1572 to 1595. (fn. 48) The corporation nominated the churchwardens at the minster (fn. 49) and from 1581 the curate, and both of its appointees as curate in the last decades of the century, Thomas Whincop (1583-99) and William Crashaw (1599-1605), were puritans. Another institution governed by the corporation, the grammar school, was also to become a centre of puritanism. (fn. 50) It may be significant that the appointment of Hastings coincided with the cessation of the Rogationtide festivities. As early as 1566 the presence of minstrels in parochial perambulations was forbidden by the Church authorities. (fn. 51) Rewards were, however, regularly given to the town waits for playing before the governors on Cross Monday, (fn. 52) and the celebrations in 1568 extended to other days in Rogationtide and also involved performances by the waits of York. (fn. 53) The last such payment was made for Rogation Monday 1572. (fn. 54)

Social behaviour was controlled by both the ecclesiastical and the town authorities. In 1586, for instance, nearly 70 presentments were made at the visitation of the three parish churches, many of them for irreverence at service time. (fn. 55) A whore was carted round the streets in 1565-6, (fn. 56) occasional breaches of guild ordinances forbidding work on Sunday were punished, (fn. 57) and in the 1570s town courts dealt with a handful of cases involving drunkeness, the playing of unlawful games, and disorderly conduct in church. (fn. 58)

Among those holding traditional beliefs were three of the clergy at the minster, who were charged with popish practices in 1567; John Levet was a former member of the college and Richard Levet was presumably his brother. Both Levets were suspended from the priesthood for keeping prohibited equipment and books and when restored were ordered not to minister in Beverley or its neighbourhood. (fn. 59) There were few other instances of religious conservatism in the town, but some townsmen used Roman Catholic expressions in their wills in the 1560s, a Catholic font survived in St. Mary's church until the 1570s, and Catholic books were sold in the town in the 1580s. The guildhall was used for extraordinary sessions of the York Court of High Commission in its prosecution of local Catholics in the early 1580s, and William Lacy, a missioner executed in York in 1582, was of a Beverley family frequently recorded for religious offences. (fn. 60) In 1585-6, after the outbreak of war with Spain, a night-time search was conducted in the belief that the beacons had been fired, and a Catholic townswoman was arrested and sent to York with other prisoners. The town celebrated with bonfires and bellringing the safety of the queen, presumably after Babington's plot of 1586. (fn. 61) In 1587 another Beverley woman was accused of receiving papal pardons from relatives imprisoned in York castle and of hearing mass at Hemingbrough. (fn. 62) There is, however, little to suggest that recusancy was strong in Beverley. During the 1580s no more than 10, besides dependents, were presented for evasion of their religious duties, (fn. 63) although the suspects included members of leading local families, notably Michael Warton, (fn. 64) and several other recusants were town office-holders. (fn. 65)


  • 1. Test. Ebor. iii-vi (Sur. Soc. xlv, liii, lxxix, cvi), passim; N. Country Wills, i (Sur. Soc. cxvi), passim.
  • 2. e.g. P.R.O., SC 6/Hen. VIII/4571, m. 8d.; Test. Ebor. iv, p. 115 n.; v, pp. 88-9, 93; vi, p. 23; Yorks. Deeds, ix (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. cxi), pp. 43-4; Poulson, Beverlac, 768-70.
  • 3. Test. Ebor. iv, pp. 137 and n., 199-200; v, pp. 224-5; N. Country Wills, i, p. 110; Yorks. Deeds, ix, pp. 43-4; below, Churches.
  • 4. Poulson, Beverlac, 270.
  • 5. H.R.O., BC/II/6/19; Poulson, Beverlac, 270-1.
  • 6. Above, Med. Beverley (Guilds).
  • 7. Town Doc. 76, 81.
  • 8. H.R.O., BC/II/6/16.
  • 9. Ibid. BC/II/6/17.
  • 10. Ibid. BC/II/6/18.
  • 11. Below (this section).
  • 12. 32 Hen. VIII, c. 12.
  • 13. The following acct. is based on Sanct. Beverlac. 112 sqq. with corrections from I. D. Thornley, 'Sanct. Reg. of Beverley', E.H.R. xxxiv. 393-7.
  • 14. In the MS. the sanctuary reg. is followed by a list of c. 200 names, a few with dates 1540—58, and it has been suggested that the town's special right of sanctuary was revived: B.L. Harl. MS. 4292, ff. 34v., 35 and v.; Arch. Jnl. lxviii. 275. There is, however, no evidence to support that interpretation of the list.
  • 15. L. & P. Hen. VIII, vii, p. 363.
  • 16. Ibid. xiii (1), pp. 460, 492.
  • 17. Ibid. xiii (2), p. 39; Dodds, Pilgrimage of Grace, i. 382-3.
  • 18. Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 528.
  • 19. V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 235, 238, 261, 264, 266; a grant of land in Beverley formerly belonging to the preceptory made in 1558 to the briefly refounded Hospitallers evidently had little effect: Cal. Pat. 1557-8, 313-19; below, Relig. Hos.
  • 20. 1 Edw. VI, c. 14.
  • 21. H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, f. 8v.; B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 11A, f. 135; above, Med. Beverley (Townspeople); below, Churches.
  • 22. Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 524-36; Oliver, Hist. Beverley, 188; V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 358-9; below, Churches.
  • 23. Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 529, 531-2; Chapter Act Bk. ii, pp. ci-cii; for Mitchell see also A. G. Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in Dioc. York, 1509-58, 228.
  • 24. Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 534-9; below, Churches; Outlying Townships (Molescroft; Storkhill; Thearne); Relig. Hos.
  • 25. Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 524, 552-3.
  • 26. Inventories of Ch. Goods, 58-9, 64-5; Yorks. Ch. Plate, i. 218-22.
  • 27. For the following para. see below, Churches; Relig. Hos.
  • 28. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvii, p. 166.
  • 29. Hist. Parl., Commons, 1558-1603, i. 641.
  • 30. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xix (1), pp. 503, 639; xxi (1), pp. 691-2.
  • 31. Cal. Pat. 1553-4, 145-6.
  • 32. P.R.O., E 310/29/174, no. 72; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xv, p. 562.
  • 33. H.R.O., BC/II/6/38; below, Manors.
  • 34. H.R.O., BC/II/6/38; Visit. Yorks. 1584-5 and 1612, ed. J. Foster, 138; V.C.H. Yorks. E.R. iv. 5-6, 13. The medieval close had by then been divided.
  • 35. Below, Relig. Hos.
  • 36. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 15 (3), ff. 103v.-104; H.R.O., BC/II/6/20-2, 24; V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 264.
  • 37. Below, Churches; Education.
  • 38. H.R.O., BC/II/6/33.
  • 39. Ibid. BC/II/6/33 sqq.
  • 40. B.I.H.R., V. 1590-1/CB. 1; V. 1595-6/CB. 3; V. 1600/CB. 1.
  • 41. J. S. Purvis, Tudor Par. Doc. Dioc. York, 194.
  • 42. Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in Dioc. York, 2234, 227-30.
  • 43. Oliver, Hist. Beverley, 188.
  • 44. H.R.O., BC/II/6/22.
  • 45. B.I.H.R., CP. G. 3560.
  • 46. Chapter Act Bk. ii, p. ci.
  • 47. Purvis, Tudor Par. Doc. Dioc. York, 119, 155.
  • 48. H.R.O., BC/II/6/37; D.N.B.
  • 49. Prob. by the 1560s: H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, f. 77v.
  • 50. Ibid. BC/7/4/1, f. 6; Poulson, Beverlac, 689; below, Beverley in 17th Cent. (Relig. Life to 1642).
  • 51. Purvis, Tudor Par. Doc. Dioc. York, 155.
  • 52. H.R.O., BC/II/6/25, 27; BC/II/7/2, f. 75.
  • 53. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, f. 6v.
  • 54. Ibid. BC/11/6/29. The York plays were also last performed in 1572: V.C.H. City of York, 152-3.
  • 55. Several people were named more than once: B.I.H.R., V. 1586/CB. 1, ff. 130v.-133, 134v.-135v.
  • 56. H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, f. 75v.
  • 57. Ibid. BC/II/3, f. 35; BC/II/6/26, 34; BC/II/7/3, f. 4.
  • 58. Ibid. BC/II/6/31-2; Boro. Rec. 16.
  • 59. B.I.H.R., CP. G. 883; HC. AB. 3, ff. 112, 114, 118, 143; H. Aveling, Post Reformation Catholicism in E. Yorks. 1558-1790 (E. Yorks. Loc. Hist. Ser. xi), 12, 31; Yorks. Chantry Surv. ii. 529; Chapter Act Bk. ii, p. ci.
  • 60. Aveling, op. cit. 7, 21, 23, 25, 31, 39.
  • 61. Ibid. 63; H.R.O., BC/II/6/38.
  • 62. B.I.H.R., CP. G. 2456.
  • 63. Aveling, op. cit. 63.
  • 64. Above (Parl. Representation); below, Lists of Officers; Manors.
  • 65. Aveling, op. cit. 63; Boro. Rec. 12-16 (Wm. Chapman, Rob. Raffles, Thos. Wilberforce).