History 367 Society and Ideas in Shakespeare’s England



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Partly independent before Reformation; but then subordinated to state.

  • Functions: nowadays churches are voluntary, spiritual/ religious institutions. The English church then was a public institution of which everyone was by law a member; it was wealthy; it had its own laws and system of courts.

  • People were required to attend their local parish church on Sundays and holy days.

    The Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, at Stratford; seen from the Avon

    The Church 02

    • Most people were illiterate; what they learned in church (from sermons/ Homilies) was of key importance in shaping opinion.

    • The monarch ruled the church through bishops (each had a bishopric/ diocese/ see).

    • The church acted as a state department of (dis-)information / propaganda.

    • The church licensed the press and schoolteachers.

    (King Edward VI) Grammar School, Stratford.

    The Church 03

    • The church controlled education at the universities (though not at the Inns of Court).

    • The church had courts, which punished people fro religious offenses (e.g. heresy), moral offences (drunkenness; fornication; adultery), and had jurisdiction over last wills and testaments, and marriage.

    • The most feared church court (from Elizabeth’s time on to 1641) was the High Commission, which had power to fine and imprison.

    The Church 04

    • High Commission was especially disliked in the 1630s, under William Laud; oath ex officio.

    • Other church courts could excommunicate (which had civil consequences).

    • England became increasingly tolerant in religion in the 1600s;

    • But c. 1600 most people thought toleration was foolish and immoral.

    William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1645).

    The Church 05

    • If you know the truth in religion, you should not tolerate false teaching.

    • God’s Providence would inflict calamity on a people that tolerated sin and error.

    • The alternative to religious uniformity was commonly supposed to be civil war.

    • The experience of England’s neighbors confirmed that point of view

    The Church 06

    • There was religious civil war in the Netherlands in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648); this was partly a war of independence from Spain for the seven northern provinces (including Holland).

    • There was religious civil war in France 1562-1598.

    • Political assassinations were not uncommon; the Dutch leader William of Orange (the Silent) was assassinated in 1584; Henry III of France in 1589; Henry IV in 1610.

    Assassination of Henry IV of France, May 1610.

    Varieties of Catholicism 01

    • English Catholic Colleges abroad: Douai, Rheims, Rome, Valladolid, etc.

    • Regnans in Excelsis 1570: Pope (and later St) Pius V excommunicated and deposed Elizabeth.

    • 1572 St Bartholomew’s day Massacres in France.

    • 1588: Spanish Armada.

    • The papal deposing power; direct, and indirect.

    A papal medal celebrates the massacres of 1572

    Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621)

    Varieties of Catholicism 02

    • Robert Bellarmine (Jesuit; Archbishop; Cardinal; Saint); Counter-Reformation/ Catholic Reformation; (Galileo); indirect papal deposing power; soul and body; gratia non tollit naturam sed perfecit;

    • Robert Parsons/ Persons; William Allen.

    • Plots against Elizabeth; John Somerville 1583 (son-in law of Edward Arden, related to Shakespeare’s mother); Somerville dies awaiting execution; Arden was executed.

    Varieties of Catholicism 03

    • Mary Queen of Scots (exec. 1587).

    • Gunpowder Plot 1605; Guy Fawkes.

    • Equivocation and Mental Reservation.

    • Macbeth 2:3:8-11: “here’s an equivocator … who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”.

    • Henry Garnet (d. 1606).

    • Robert Southwell (d. 1595); Macbeth 1:7:21-5 (the “naked babe” and the “burning babe”).

    Varieties of Catholicism 04

    • Gallican Catholicism: rejects the papal deposing power;

    • Wisbech; The Archpriest Controversy; the Appellants; George Blackwell and the Jesuits.

    • The controversy over the Oath of Allegiance (1606); Donne; Lancelot Andrewes.

    • 1623 William Bishop (c. 1554-1624) became the first post-Reformation Catholic Bishop in England; he was from Brailes, Warks., 13 miles from Stratford.

    Shakespeare and Catholicism

    • Sonnets 73, 4: “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”: nostalgia for monastic churches closed down at the Dissolution of the Monasteries?

    • William Shakespeare; William Shakeshafte in Lancashire 1581; the will of Alexander Hoghton.

    • John Shakespeare’s “spiritual testament” (hidden in Shakespeare’s house; discovered 1757; copied 1784; original lost).

    Protestantism: conformity and dissent 01

    • Key Protestant doctrines:

    • Justification by faith alone (solifidianism)

    • Two sacraments: baptism; eucharist (Lord’s Supper).

    • Communion in both kinds.

    • Scripture alone tells us God’s will (rejection of tradition, and of pope – often seen as Antichrist).

    Protestantism: conformity and dissent 02

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