Reaction to the Sale of Church Goods at the Reformation

Christopher Daniell
Past Forward

The impact of the Reformation profoundly changed the visual look of churches. By 1530 parish churches were filled to overflowing with objects given by the parishioners or bought from church funds. Sometimes lack of space was a severe probtalem. A case from Norfolk shows how full churches could be: John Almyngham left 10 for a pair of organs and 10 for a canopy for the high altar, but specified that if there was no space left for the canopy the money should be spent on a tabernacle for the image of St Andrew.[1] The inventories of church goods compiled in the 1540s are testimony to the hundreds of objects that could be within churches. The 'small and unimportant church' of St Martin Outwich has the longest of the Reformation inventories from the London churches, stretching to fourteen printed pages.[2] The inventories include gold, silver, coptaper and pewter objects; cloths and vestments, such as altar cloths, copes, surplices, hearse cloths, towels, banners, curtains, painted cloths; books — including the Bible, Book of Common Prayer, procession books; and furniture such as chests, desks and organs. These objects were just the movable items. Other features included the rood screens and statues, murals and stained glass.

Ten years later churches looked radically different. Candles were scarce, and the rood screens, plate and vestments had been sold off or destroyed. The walls had been white-washed and passages of Scripture painted on them, and even the altars had been demolished and replaced by wooden tables in the naves. The changes were not only visual. Objects had previously played an important part in the local religious practices: medieval wills show that altars, images, statues and lights were a focus for devotion and burial. To cite one example of thousands, Nicholas Talbot in 1501 requested to be buried in Berkhamstead in the chapel of Our Lady, ' betwyx the ymage of our Lady of Pyte and the ymage of oure Lady of G[ra]ce' and left money for the light over the high altar.[3] These items were broken up and destroyed.

Yet amazingly there was little outcry about the destruction and sale of church goods. It is true that there was some physical resistance, especially in the West Country. In 1548 William Body was murdered in Helston because of the heavy-handed way he was pulling down images and in Exeter a group of women prevented workmen from pulling down a rood screen in the priory of St Nicholas.[4] In London, too, there is an enigmatic phrase in an inventory of St Botolph, Aldersgate, 'for mending the glasse wyndowes being broken in the commocyon tyme with shoting of gonnes'.[5] Even so, these examples are isolated and do not constitute a national revolt on the scale of 'The Pilgrimage of Grace'. That this wholesale clearance of items during Henry VIII's and Edward's reigns was met by a lack of response is puzzling and some of the reasons will be explored.

A small part of the answer may lie in the persuasive powers of the government at local level. Between 1550 and 1551 the churchwardens of Stoke Charity, Hampshire had to report twice to royal commissioners and once to the archdeacon.[6] Although this was exceptional, regular checks were carried out to make sure that the government's policies were being followed. Some of the official 'visitors' even took matters into their own hands if compliance was not forthcoming: at Hull they personally destroyed statues.[7]

The first important point to note is that the emphasis of the sales was upon the object in churches, not the parish churches themselves. Parishioners could, and did, fight hard if they thought their church itself was in danger. In York the church of St Helen, Stonegate was sold and was partially demolished. While demolition was proceeding the parishioners secured an Act of Parliament that ordered the church to be rebuilt from the demolished remains.[8] Similarly, at St Margaret's, Westminster there was little resistance from the parishioners to the selling off of objects but when their church was going to be pulled down so that the stone could be used for Somerset's new house in the Strand,

The workmen had no sooner advanced their scaffolds when the parishioners gathered together in great multitudes, with bows and arrows, staves and clubs, and other such offensive weapons, which so terrified the workmen that they ran away in great amazement, and never could be brought again upon that employtament.[9]

In the minds of the parishioners there does seem to have been a crucial difference between their parish church and the objects within it. Similarly it was the parish church that seems to have held the affection of the people, rather than the monastery or friary churches. It may be significant that the monastic churches to survive intact were those already in use as parish churches.

The objects within were a different matter. Before the Reformation many churches were careful to record their possessions and who had donated them, the donors sometimes being remembered for centuries. The parishioners had been largely responsible for equipping their churches either through payments or bequests in wills, and whilst at prayer they would have seen the objects they had given or paid for around the church, whether curtains, towels, vestments or objects of precious metals. In contrast the Reformation inventories of the 1540s very rarely specify who gave the objects. The donated items become removed from the personal sphere and are treated as Church assets to be freely sold or destroyed.[10]

The acceptance of the selling of Church goods may have been because of the timescale of the sales over a fifteen-year period between 1538 and 1553. A decree of 1538 declared each parish must purchase a Bible (this was not taken up with enthusiasm in most churches); extinguish all lights apart from those on the altar, in the rood loft and before the Easter sepulchre; and remove any images that had been 'abused with pilgrimages or offerings'.[11] The final injunction of Edward's reign concerning Church goods occurred in January 1553, giving instructions to seize all surviving goods except linen, chalices and bells. All other goods had to be sold, and the money — with all the plate and jewels — sent to London. Fifteen years is a reasonable time-span, especially when it is remembered that average age expectancy was probably less than forty. Within those fifteen years parishioners could have become used to the idea that their church was changing and plan, or react, accordingly.

Many churches sold off material and objects long before they technically needed to. One of the reasons for the 1553 instructions was that the Privy Council was worried by the number of churches selling off their plate and goods to the benefit solely of their parish. This seems to be confirmed by the churchwardens' accounts: of a sample of ninety, sixty-nine record the sale of vestments and ornaments between 1547 and 1552.[12] Some of this may have been quick-witted parishioners seeing which way the wind was blowing and gaining revenue whilst they could; some may have been parishioners selling the objects into hands they knew were safe, as we shall see.

However, the sale of goods may also have been supported by important parishioners who, although their ancestors had given the objects, may have had conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest may have been rife within congregations with parishioners being churchwardens, guild members, businessmen and individuals and as one — or all four — could have had an eye for profit. The office of churchwarden originated in the twelfth century and its original function, which lasted until the Reformation, was as warden of the goods of the church. Usually there were two wardens, a senior and a junior, the senior retiring after a year, the junior taking the role of senior, and a new junior elected. (Women could also be appointed by parishioners as churchwardens and at Yatton in Somerset 'My Lady Dame Isabell Newton' held the office in 1496.[13] It is an important consideration that churchwardens were not put into office by the state, but were elected by the parishioners themselves, although politics probably played a part.

The elected position is crucial as the results presumably indicated the wishes of the parishioners. At St Botolph Aldersgate a dispute broke out between the conservative 'farmer' of the parish and the newly elected reforming churchwardens, which progressed through supplications to the Duke of Somerset to the eventual imprisonment of one of the church wardens.[14] Many of the churchwardens were reformers and in Mary's reign fourteen were called before the Vicar-General to account for their zealous selling of goods.[15] Evidence for the popularity of the views of churchwardens with their parishioners may be, perhaps, taken further in London, as three separate examples exist of one person being churchwarden of two different parishes in close succession. The mercer Richard Malory was a churchwarden of St Peter, West Cheap and then a churchwarden of St Pancras; William Merick was a churchwarden of St Martin, Outwich and then St Peter Le Poer; and John Royse was churchwarden in St Edmund, Lombard Street and then All Hallows, London Wall.[16] Assuming that they didn't move into the second parish and then become elected, the ability to hold two churchwardenships shows the mobility of people and ideas. Churchwardens were important people, not only within the Church but also within the community: Richard Malory was Sheriff of London in 1557 and Lord Mayor in 1564, and out of the seventy-five guild-members who were also churchwardens between 1555 and 1582, five became Lord Mayor of London.[17]

The conflict of interest lay in the churchwardens' responsibility for church goods whilst also being guild-members and businessmen. In London the grouping of churchwardens by guilds is noticeable.[18] Out of the twelve members of the haberdashers' guild mentioned in London inventories, ten were churchwardens. This was the highest percentage (83 per cent) but other important guilds with churchwardens include the mercers (seven churchwardens out of eleven members mentioned) and the merchant tailors (five churchwardens out of ten guild members mentioned). One of the crafts that bought up enormous quantities of church material was the goldsmiths, but in this case out of fifty- three guild members mentioned in the inventories, only six were churchwardens. These guilds — the haberdashers, mercers, merchant tailors and goldsmiths — all benefited from the sales. The probable support of powerful guilds-members may explain why there was so little resistance from the guilds themselves.

As well as the straight buying of goods for profit, some people seem to have bought goods, or stolen them, to keep them safe until Catholicism returned. (This may have lessened the need violently to react against the sales.) In 1553 a vicar from Berkshire, Sir John Fawkener, bought four complete sets of vestments and copes, four assorted chasubles, a spare cope, and an altar frontal, for 5 16 s. 8 d. which he sold back to thL church at cost when Mary came to the throne.[19] Evasive action also occurred in London. At St Michael, Bassishaw the parson, John Anderton, bought a vestment of white damask for 20 s. This was the most expensive item recorded as being bought by a parson, but two parsons at St Martin, Outwich — the old and the incoming parsons — bought between them 12 s. worth of goods; William Colwyn, the parson of St Antholin, bought a curtain of red sarcenett for 5 s., and the parson of St Mary Magdalene, Thomas Chipping, bought 20 d. worth of goods. The motives behind these sales were probably the safety of the goods. This was taken a stage further by Parson Graye, who was reported by the churchwardens of St John the Evangelist's to 'hath taken out of the same church a vestment of red damaske with the alb' — as well as two other people having 'in their hands' parcels of plate and various vestments.[20] Although no reason was given, it was almost certainly for 'safe-keeping' against the church sales. The practice was common elsewhere in England and sometimes it reached almost epidemic proportions. Out of forty-nine churches in Huntingdonshire, eighteen reported objects stolen in 1552.[21]

Although the sales and 'safe-keeping' are commonly discussed, the use of revenue from sales is rarely mentioned. As we have seen, after 1553 all the money, jewels and plate were confiscated by the Crown, but fifteen years had elapsed since the first goods had gone from churches. Sometimes the sales seem to have been rushed, and with a marketplace already full of similar objects, the goods could be very undervalued, a case in point being the sale of the tabernacles and fittings from St Lawrence, Reading for just 2 s. 8 d., whereas in 1519 two of the tabernacles had been gilded for 1.[22] Even so, large amounts of money could be generated by the sales. All Hallows Lombard Street raised 76, St Dionis Backchurch, 5l, but the highest was St Botolph, Billingsgate, which raised 231.[23] Even though these sorts of figures were uncommon, they do show that sales could produce much-needed cash, large amounts of which were spent on repairs. Some of these repairs were necessary from the injunctions laid down: at St Stephen, Coleman Street money was spent on new window glass, 'as Imagerye was contrarye to the Kinges proceedings', and at St Botolph, Aldersgate the glass was replaced because it was broken 'in the commocyon time'. Whitewashing and the painting of Scriptures on the walls was a common expense, as at St Botolph, St Mary, Aldermary and All Hallows the Less, but the amounts involved were not large.[24]

These minor changes are to be expected, but what is more striking is the obviously very poor condition of the fabric of many churches, which is made explicit in some inventories. The inventory for St Ethelburga describes the church as having 'fallen into such ruin and decay whereby it raineth in divers places to the great annoyance and disquietness of the whole parishioners'. Another ruinous church which was helped by the sale of goods was St Katherine Cree. The new income was used for 'the necessarye and nedefull reparacions of the said parysshe Churche whych ys very Roynouse [ruinous] and sore in decay' .[25] For centuries the parishioners had traditionally been responsible financially for the nave of the church, whilst the vicar or rector was responsible for the chancel. In some areas the parishioners were wealthy and this caused no problem; in Westminster the parishioners even financed an entirely new church, which was only finished in 1520. However, the state of the ruinous churches could be seen as a sign of parish poverty. This was certainly true in the case of St Leonard, Foster Lane, where the church was in 'Ruyne and decaye' and the 'great povertie' of the parish meant that it could not be repaired, except by the sale of the church plate.' In some cases an alternative explanation might be that although the parishioners paid lip service to their financial responsibilities and gave small donations, they were not willing to give larger amounts of money. Thus the new income, from the sale of goods, was a lifeline to many churches. The parishioners themselves may have encouraged it for that very reason and was presumably a powerful incentive not to complain too bitterly about the loss of their goods. In the case of St Katherine Cree forty-one people were listed as consenting to the 'Sale of these Ornaments'. Another example occurred at the recently burnt church of St Giles, Cripplegate. Here it was specifically stated that the new money from the sale of goods was used for the repairs, '...that the said money comynge of alle the salles of the said Churche goodes hathe byne converted Imployed & bestowed uppon the buyldynge of their Churche which yt is well knowen was burnt and for Tymber leade stone and other chardges.'[27] After this a further statement was made that 100 would not finish the building for which the parishioners are charged. Occasionally the money was used speculatively. At St Michael Le Quern 135 was used to buy three tenements and pay for the legal costs involved, and at St Mary Bothaw 42 was used, with the consent of the whole parish, to buy a house that would yield 8 in rent a year for the relief of the poor — even though the church was described as in 'grete Ruyn'.[28]

A 1552 list also survives from rural Huntingdonshire of what was sold or stolen, and how the money from the sales was spent.[29] Out of the forty-nine churches listed, thirty gave information on the use to which the money was put. The most popular use (twenty-three cases) was for church repairs. These ranged from the serious, such as at Allwarton for 'glassing and mending the church, belles and church wall' and at Uppwode for mending the steeple, to 'whittyng and scripturing' the interiors of churches in three cases. The second most common use, with fifteen cases, was to give the money to the poor. This may have been a reflection of the concern felt about the giving of charity; a feature of the Reformation in the early 1550s.[30] Normally the money was just 'bestowed upon the poor' but at Somersham the churchwardens went further and gave the poor 'vii towelles of playn clothe, vi of diaper, vi allter clothes of playn clothe, iiii allter clothes of diaper, ii payre of olde shettes, a vaile for Lente, one old surplesse and one rochett.' Sometimes the poor never received the money. At St Manes in Hunt the money was 'putt into the poore menes box, and the box broken and the money (29 s. 10 d.) was taken awaye in the night', which was a similar fate to the poor men's box at Standground cum Farsett which was robbed of 4 'on St Peteres Even before the first inventorye made'. The final use of the money, in seven cases, was for projects such as bridge-building, the clearance of dykes and the maintenance of highways. The forcible nature of the sales may therefore have been lessened by the realization that the money would remain in the community, whether as charity to help the poor or to improve aspects of the local area.

So far the sales in the 1540s have been discussed almost solely in terms of that decade, but they need to be put in a broader context. The debate about strength of late medieval religion rages between the two schools of thought: the conservative 'traditional' medieval religion versus a popular Reformation. However, what is evident is that people were prepared to accept changes, and indeed many of the changes to churches at the Reformation had been happening in piecemeal fashion for centuries before. In 1547, at St Dunstan-in-the-East, the 'Battylmentes of the higher parte of the North parse of the sayde Church ffell vpon the North Yle ... with such vyolence and greate wayte that with the fall therof yt brake asounder the greate Beames and tymbers of the Roffe.[31] Not surprisingly this caused a severe problem, but it was made much worse because 'there was no money in the church [and so] yt was thought necessary to make mony and sell suche plate as might be best spared.' In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries bishops sometimes removed gold and silver from shrines to pay for the Crusades. Another way churches were transformed during the Reformation was by the whitewashing of walls. (Ironically many of the finest medieval church paintings that have survived did so because they were whitewashed at the Reformation and have since been uncovered.) However, whitewashing was not a new idea suddenly sprung upon the churches: medieval churches had been whitewashed inside and out as is shown by the churchwardens' accounts. At St Mary at Hill, St Katherine's chapel was probably lime washed in 1504-5 and again in 1525-6; at St Andrews, Canterbury the church walls were 'washed' in 1504-7 and whitened in 1519-20; at Salisbury the church of St Edmund had its walls cleaned in 1534-5.[32] This whitewashing may have been for the exterior of the church, for medieval churches were usually white to look at, and also for the interior which may have been necessary in pre-Reformation churches because of the number of candles burning and the associated blackening.

The sale of goods represented a major change to the appearance of a church but the impact may have been lessened as the church fabric and contents were constantly changed. A person born in 1495 would have witnessed many changes to the layout of his parish church, which was not static, but a visually dynamic, evolving and ever-changing building. This can be illustrated by again looking at the churchwardens' accounts, for which two will suffice. The London church of St Mary at Hill had new pews in 1500-1501, 1504-5, 1512-3, 1523-4, 1534-5; it had numerous additions and changes to its fabric — new windows in 1503-4, a new south aisle in 1504-5, windows put in the steeple, and new bells in 1510-11 and major work to the aisle in 1526. In St Andrews, Canterbury new additions were not unknown: a new pulpit and bells in 1504-7, a new clock in 1507-8, a new rood loft in 1508-9, a new window in 1512-13, a new organ in 1513-14.[33] (Unfortunately from the late 1520s to the 1540s the accounts for this church are missing.) Such building works can be multiplied many times in the remaining extent churchwardens' accounts.

In greater or lesser measure churches had been changing for centuries, and the Reformation, albeit with a much greater impact, was just one more change. Indeed the introduction of the Bible into churches meant adding another item into already crowded churches. The 'last shall be first' was true in this case: the introduction of Scripture meant the removal of long established practices. The lack of response nationally was probably a reflection of the ability of parishioners to accept and welcome new ideas and turn them to their advantage. To the parishioners it was the religion and church at the heart of their parish that was important, not the contents within it.


[1]Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale U.P. 1992), p. 134.
[2]H.B. Walters ed., London Churches at the Reformation (SPCK, London, 1939), p. 385.
[3]Samuel Tymms ed., 'Wills and Inventories from the Registers of the Commissary of Bury St Edmunds', Camden Society (1850), p. 85.
[4]Duffy, op. cit., p. 458; Joyce Youings, 'The Dissolution of the Monasteries', Historical Problems, Studies and Documents, 14 (1971), pp. 164-5.
[5]Ronald Hutton, 'The local impact of the Tudor Reformation', in The English Reformation Revised (C. Haigh ed., Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1987), p. 155.
[6]Walters, op. cit., p. 203.
[7]Hutton, op. cit., p. 115.
[8]David Palliser, Tudor York (Oxford U.P., Oxford, 1979) p. 39.
[9]Gervase Rosser, Medieval Westminster, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989).
[10]Duffy, op. cit., pp. 495-6
[11]Hutton, op. cit., p. 116.
[13]Charles Cox, Churchwardens' Accounts from the Fourteenth Century to the Close of the Seventeenth Century (Methuen, London, 1913), pp. 1-14.
[14]Susan Brigden, London and the Reformation (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991) pp. 431-2.
[15]Ibid., p. 568.
[16]Walters, op. cit., pp. 57-66.
[19]Duffy, op. cit., p. 490.
[20]Walters, op. cit., pp. 396, 172, 483, 298.
[21]'The Edwardian Inventories for Huntingdonshire', S. C. Lomas ed., Alcuin Club Collections, VII (Longmans, London, 1906).
[22]Hutton, op. cit., pp. 126-7.
[23]Walters, op. cit., pp. 113, 244, 219.
[24]Ibid., pp. 603, 203, 428, 109.
[25]Ibid., pp. 272, 324.
[26]Ibid., p. 336.
[27]Ibid., p. 209.
[28]Ibid., p. 511.
[29]Lomas, op. cit. The following analysis is taken from the list of churches on pp. 30-43.
[30]Brigden, op. cit., pp. 470-83.
[31]Walters, op. cit., p. 246.
[32]Henry Littlehales ed., 'The Medieval Records of a London City Church (St Mary at Hill) AD 1420-1559', Early English Text Society, O.S., 128 (1905); Henry James Fowle Swayne ed., 'Churchwardens' Accounts of S. Edmund and S. Thomas, Sarum 1443-1702', Wiltshire Record Society, 1, (1896); Charles Cotton ed., 'Churchwardens' Accounts of the Parish of St Andrew, Canterbury from 1485 to 1625', Archaeologia Cantiana, 32, (1917).

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