Papists, Protestants and Puritans - a user's guide

From FFX Learning
Jump to: navigation, search


By Charles Kightly

There can be no doubt that disagreements about religion - or better, about the way religion was practiced - were amongst the main causes, if not the main cause of the English - or better, the British (since they affected Wales, and particularly Scotland and Ireland) Civil Wars. Tonight, however, I am not going to go into how and why they caused the wars, but rather offer you what we might call a user’s guide for 21st century people to the various kinds of religion espoused by participants in the wars; how they were practiced; and why the people who practiced them were often bitterly opposed to each other.

First a preliminary point.

We need to begin by understanding something that would have been obvious to any person living in the 17th century, but perhaps needs emphasising today. It is that effectively everyone in 17th century Britain had a religion, and that religion was Christianity in some form. Many, of course, in practice disregarded or flouted many of its teachings every day, but everyone recognised what they were, and everyone believed in some form of the Christian God (even if they only remembered Him on their deathbeds).

Declared atheism - that is a denial of the existence of God - was still a capital crime: the last execution for atheism was in the 1650s. And though a tiny minority of intellectuals may actually have privately held real atheistic beliefs, they kept very quiet about them. The term ‘atheist’ was indeed frequently used as an insult in the 17th century, but it was almost always used to mean someone who did not hold to the same particular brand of Christianity as the user.


So what were the main brands of Christianity during the Civil War period? I will not say ‘choices of Christian practice’, because at least in the minds of their adherents, there was no ‘choice’. The brand the user favoured was right, and all the others were wrong, and that was that.

The main categories were Roman Catholicism - known to its opponents as Popery, Papistry, or even ‘atheism’; Protestant Anglicanism; and the various kinds of Puritanism. To a Roman Catholic of course, there were only two brands: Catholicism and the rest. For him or her, all non-Catholics were tarred with the same Protestant brush.

In some senses the Catholics were right, because the great and most important divide in the 1640s was between those who adhered to the church of Rome and those who did not. And the chief, all important, distinction between Catholics and Protestants was the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Catholics believed that, during Mass, the bread and wine on the altar really and actually became the body and blood of Christ at the priest’s words of consecration.

The bread and wine did not become symbols of the body and blood, or become the body and blood in the receiver’s mind, but (I have to emphasise this) the real thing.

There were all sorts of vital corollaries to this.

  • Receiving the bread and wine, Catholics believed, was the only way to salvation
  • Only a priest could say the words which produced the miraculous transformation: the character of the priest, or whether he himself was a good or a sinful man, did not matter: if he was an ordained priest, he could say the words, and nobody else could.
  • Thus a priest — and his superiors up to the Pope — was the only person who held the keys of salvation: a doctrine which, of course, gave the Catholic priesthood almost limitless powers over their flock — and, as Protestant politicians were quick to point out, gave the Pope, rather than the King or other government of England, ultimate control over all Catholics.

To non-Catholic Christians - which is to say all Protestants and therefore most Englishmen, this central Catholic dogma that a man could transform bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood by saying ‘magic words’ over them was, at worst, blasphemous and wicked and at best nonsensical ‘hocus-pocus’. Indeed the catch phrase still used by conjurors ‘hocus-pocus’ — is a corruption of the Latin words of Catholic consecration ‘HOC EST CORPUS’ (‘This is my body’). Catholic priests were indeed often called by Protestants ‘conjurors’, a word which in the 17th century had sinister implications of black magic, rather than conveying a man with a hat and rabbit at a children’s party.

Others, more literally minded, pointed out the blasphemy of believing that the altar bread was really Christ’s body: for once eaten, it would pass through the stomach and then out into the privy pit ’…and what befalleth it then, ye know well…’.

So to Protestants, the Catholics’ reliance on the Mass was literally anathema: so too was their liking for religious images, either as statues or for example in stained glass windows, which seemed to directly contravene God’s own commandment ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image… thou shalt not bow down to them or worship them…’ And so too, and even more dangerous, was their over-riding allegiance to a foreign power, the Pope, the national enemy responsible for such outrages as the Spanish armada, the Gunpowder Plot (which everyone over the age of 40 at the outbreak of the civil war would have remembered), as well as further back for the burning of Protestants under Queen Mary and the massacre of St.Bartholomew in France.

It is, indeed, almost impossible now to convey the horror with which most 17th century Englishmen regarded Catholics and Catholicism. Perhaps the best parallel is the attitude - highly mistaken of course - of some elements of British society today towards Moslems. If all traitors were not Catholics, then all Catholics were probably traitors.

In terms of Civil War allegiance, then, there was really only one choice for the English Catholics who constituted a close-knit, beleaguered minority in a largely Protestant world. Of course they were more numerous in some parts of the country like Lancashire, parts of Yorkshire and along the Welsh borders, but even there they were in a minority. King Charles, whatever his opponents might say, was most certainly not himself a Catholic, but he had a Catholic wife, some Catholic courtiers and a good many Catholic officers in his army. When things grew desperate towards the end of the Civil War, he certainly contemplated bringing in an Irish Catholic army to aid him against Parliament. Though I say again, Charles was not a Catholic, a victory for the King might at least free Catholics from the burden of persecution under the law.

Parliament and its Puritan supporters, on other hand, were almost by their nature violently anti-Catholic, and in favour of not less but a great deal more persecution of Catholics, even, if possible of wiping them out altogether.

So it is certainly true to say that all Catholics were, at least in sympathy, Royalists: there were many Catholic officers and soldiers in the King’s army (even if not quite as many as Parliament said), and several of his greatest and most obstinate supporters, like the Marquis of Winchester at Basing House were Catholics, while the Marquis of Worcester at Raglan Castle was born a Cathlolic and had Catholic sons: and though leaders like the Duke of Newcastle here in the north were not actually Catholics, he had so many Catholics under his command that his forces were widely known as the Popish Army.

However, if all Catholics were Royalists, it is far from the case that all Royalists were Catholics. Indeed, there are several recorded cases of Royalist regiments (especially those who had been fighting for the Protestant cause in Ireland) mutinying rather than serve under Catholic officers.

The great majority of Royalists, rather, like the great majority of Englishmen when the Civil War broke out, were members of the Protestant Church of England.

Because the Church of England defined itself as a Protestant Church, we had better now consider a brief definition of what Protestants in general believed - we will come to the many variants within Protestantism later.

As its name implied, Protestantism was born of the 16th century PROTEST, originated mainly by Luther and Calvin, against the beliefs and the power of the Catholic church. ALL Protestants therefore utterly rejected Transubstantiation - the doctrine of the Mass - and most believed that at the service of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper as they preferred to call it, the bread and wine on the communion table symbolised Christ’s body and blood, rather than actually becoming them. Many Protestants, indeed, believed that the service was simply a re-enactment or memorial of the Last Supper.

The difference in beliefs is emphasised by the difference in the way people received the bread and wine. At one extreme, Catholics knelt before the altar and were served, generally with bread only, by the priest amid solemn ceremony. At the other, as laid down by the Puritan ‘Directory of Public Worship’ which was the only legal service book in England between 1645 and 1660, participants actually sat round a table on chairs or benches as if at an ordinary meal, passing round the bread on a plate and the wine in large flagons.

All Protestants also rejected

  • Images
  • Salvation by works - or, in short, the Catholic doctrine that you could achieve salvation by doing good deeds. For a Protestant, the only sure way to salvation was by faith.
  • A married, set apart priesthood

What they accepted, as central to their faith, was not the Mass or the tradition of the church, but rather the bible and the sermon - the Word of God rather than the Mass, the pulpit rather than the altar.

Nowadays, since the ‘Catholicising’ Oxford movement of the Victorian period - but that is another story - there is not a huge deal of difference between the interiors of most RC and CE churches. Both of them are focussed on the altar at the east end which is covered in an altar cloth and bedecked with its crucifix and candles. But if an Anglican of the 17th century could come back and walked into an average modern CE church, he would immediately run out again, thinking he was in an RC church.

He would feel much more comfortable in a church like Holy Trinity Goodramgate here in York (open most days), one of the very few CE churches which has retained approximately its 17th century appearance. Crowded with box pews, its focus is not the fairly insignificant ‘communion table’, but the great towering pulpit, for preaching the word of God: for Protestants the Word came first.

So what about the 17th century Church of England, the church to which most Royalists belonged?

The CE was of course, the official state church, with King Charles at its head. Though officially Protestant, after a turbulent period of to-ing and fro-ing under Henry VIII and Edward VI, it had settled down under Queen Elizabeth into a very English compromise; a kind of moderate middle way between full blown Catholicism and extreme Protestantism.

Things were very different in Scotland, where the Reformation came a generation later than in England, and in a much more extreme and savage form. In England Prot reformers removed ‘Popish trappings’ from their churches, in Scotland they often demolished the whole church. The Church of Scotland, then as now, was a REAL Protestant church - you will remember that when Charles I attempted to enforce church of England services in Scotland, beginning at St.Giles’s Edinburgh, the congregation rose up in revolt, crying to the parson ‘Dost thou murmur the Mass in my lug’ and pelting him with stools - I do wish I had been there.

But the CE was a compromise. It did away with the Latin Mass, of course, it did away with authority of the Pope (aka the Bishop of Rome), it did away with a set-apart married priesthood, it did away with images and other papist trappings but it retained a system of archbishops and bishops. It retained cathedrals with their ceremonious services, and - for the average person more important - it retained the very great control the church had over people’s everyday lives, and indeed their deaths.

Until Victorian times, for example, the church controlled not only ‘probate’ (how wills were administered) but also the whole process of divorce (‘Wives, Wills and Wrecks’). And until the advent of modern local government in the 19th century, the parish councils which now just look after churches also controlled such matters as poor relief, the pursuit of runaway fathers of illegitimate children, the mending of roads, and even the rates. Even now, ANY PERSON living in a parish (whether atheist, Moslem or nothing at all) is entitled to elect the churchwardens.

So how the Church of England was run and administered in the 17th century was of vital importance to everyone. In fact the disputes about how it should be run were among the biggest points of difference between the warring factions. What were the choices, and how did they affect which side people chose?

AS a compromise, a middle way, the Church of England was always pulled in two directions – the High Church towards a more ceremonious form of worship, and greater authority for the church, which is to say closer to Catholicism: or the Low Church towards a plainer form of worship, and more freedom for individual congregations, which is to say closer to Puritan ideas.

King Charles, of course, inclined towards the High Church view, and so, naturally, did the Bishops and Archbishops he appointed, most notoriously Archbishop Laud of Canterbury and Bishop Wren of Norwich. It is worth emphasizing again that neither Charles nor his bps were Catholics, though their opponents regarded them as the next best thing. Briefly, they wanted to maintain and even increase the powers of the church, and to increase the ceremonial nature of worship—promoting what they called the ‘beauty of holiness’ and their opponents called rank Popery. Thus they encouraged parsons to wear vestments, and this being seen as a symbol, they wanted the communion table to be set at the east end of the church, parallel with the end wall, and its sanctity to be emphasised by protecting it (for example against being urinated on by passing dogs) with altar rails.

To us, perhaps, this seems a matter of minimal importance. But to Low churchmen and Puritans, however, this was a red rag to a bull. Placing the communion table here, ceremoniously protected by rails, was to turn it into a Popish or pagan altar. For low churchmen, the communion table was just a table, kept in some odd corner of the church until needed and then (to emphasise that it was not an altar) set at right angles to the end wall.

To us, I say again, this dispute seems irrelevant and footling. Not so in the 17th century. Indeed, as the English soldiers marched north to fight the Scots in the unpopular ‘Bishops Wars’ of 1639-40 - so called because many Englishmen sympathised with the Scots, and believed that all the trouble was caused by Charles’s Popish bishops - as they marched north, they ‘turned reformers’, tearing down the ‘Laudian’ altar rails in the churches they passed and setting the tables to what was, for them, the ‘right way round’.

So what side did Anglicans choose in the Civil War? The great majority, and the High Church party to a man, of course sided with the King. So it is safe to say that all High Anglicans were Royalists, but it is not safe to say that all Royalists were High Anglicans. A fair number of leading Royalist soldiers, privately, inclined to the Low Church, almost Puritanical view: among them, to give only a few examples, the Yorkshire Colonel Sir William Pennyman; Colonel William Salesbury, alias ‘Old Blue Stockings’, who continued to hold Denbigh Castle in Wales for the king until the very end of the war; or Colonel Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy in Devon, the most loyal of the loyal. For these Puritan Royalists, however, loyalty to the King overrode their private religious beliefs.

Again and again, indeed, in heart-rending private letters of the time, we find people of conscience agonising over which course to take: did loyalty to the King (an emotion which came naturally to many Englishmen) override religious belief or did religious belief override everything, even loyalty to the King? For most Puritans, who believed that they had a very personal relationship with God, there was no choice: religion came first. And so they espoused the cause of Parliament.

So, coming to our final category, what exactly were Puritans, and what did they believe? The first thing to clarify is that, apart from a very few small separatist congregations, often living in exile in Holland or elsewhere, there was, until the Civil War no defined Puritan church. Puritans were rather, a movement within the CE, who, as their name implies, wanted a purer, simpler form of worship and church government, based on what they believed to be New Testament principles, rather than on the leftover traditions of the corrupt Church of Rome. While at least nominally - and initially - loyal to the King, they had no time for his popish bishops or indeed for bishops at all, with their vestments, their altar tables, and their church courts which told parsons what to preach and people what to believe.

Indeed one of the most important characteristics of Puritans was a belief that each person had a duty to establish a personal relationship with God. Parsons and churches, still less Masses and images, could not in the last analysis come between a person and their God which, of course, led some more thoroughgoing Puritans to the belief that parsons and churches were not needed at all.

If this Puritan belief perhaps strikes a chord in the modern mind, another of their characteristic beliefs certainly does not. This was the doctrine, promoted by the Swiss reformer John Calvin - hence Calvinist - of predestination. Briefly and perhaps over simply, this held that everyone, from the beginning of time, was predestined to salvation or damnation, to Heaven or Hell. Nothing anyone could do could change this: however many good deeds a person did, if he was predestined to damnation, that was that. Equally, at least in theory, a person predestined to salvation would be saved whatever he did. However, or so predestinarians believed, you could tell the saved by the pious way they acted and equally the damned were likely to behave like sinners (in fact they might as well). A further, even more damaging in modern eyes corollary, was that the saved, being blessed by God, were likely to do well in wordly terms and conversely if a person was poor and unfortunate, this might well be a sign they were damned.

And if a man knew he would be saved, there would be no stopping him.

This certainty of being right, which could be compared with the attitudes of modern Christian or Moslem or Hindu fundamentalists, or for that matter of fundamentalist New Atheists, is one of the least attractive elements of Puritanism to the modern mind. It did, however, make soldiers like Cromwell’s Ironsides a particularly effective fighting force.

Some of the other unsympathetic elements of Puritanism as it is currently understood, however, are myths.

We must begin by dismissing from our minds many of the cherished Puritan stereotypes which still so often appear in books, films, and TV series - though it must be said that the recent, much-derided TV series The Devil’s Whore was, for all its other faults, remarkably free of them. However, these stereotypes also live on in the minds and, worse, in the presentations to the public of at least some re-enactors. The most persistent of these stereotypes is, of course, the crop-haired, invariably black-clad, ranting, teetotal Puritan who destroys pictures and vandalises churches because he hates everything beautiful. The persistence of this stereotype is one of the greatest propaganda victories of the ultimately winning side.

One commonly held myth is that all Puritans were jumped up working class cobblers or suchlike, a notion religiously promoted after the ECW by Royalists who had been beaten by them. In fact, Puritanism crossed all class boundaries, and some of the leading Puritans like Lords Saye and Sele and Brooke, and of course Lord Fairfax and his son Sir Thomas, were decidely aristocratic.

The next is that all Puritans had cropped hair hence, it is supposed, the term ‘Roundhead’ and wore black clothes. The original Roundheads (a name transmuted into ‘Soundheads’ by Parliamentarians) were London apprentices, who did have cropped hair. For the most part though, while avoiding ‘lovelocks’ and other Cavalier extremes, Puritans had the same style of hair as everyone else, and were not particularly given to wearing black. Among many other examples, perhaps the best known is the extreme Puritan Major-General Harrison, whose bright red cloak was so covered in gold lace that you could scarcely see the cloth. One of the few surviving genuine hats worn by Cromwell is both apricot coloured and very large. And as I’m sure I need not remind you, during the battle of Marston Moor, Sir Thomas Fairfax passed for a Royalist commander simply by removing his field sign - there was no other way of telling the difference between a Puritan and a Royalist officer.

The next common myths are that all Puritans were teetotallers, and hated music. The first of these is merely a confusion between 17th century Puritans and the much later Methodist and other Temperance campaigners. If most Puritans did not drink quite so much as some Cavaliers, they were certainly not teetotallers. Indeed, this was a concept almost unknown in the 17th century. As for hating music, Cromwell himself had his own ‘band of music’, and employed some 60 fiddlers at his daughter’s wedding and the famous book of English Country dances by Playford, still used today, was published to vast public acclaim, not during the jolly days of the Restoration but during the Puritan Commonwealth.

The notion that Puritans hated music may perhaps derive from their undoubted habit of destroying church organs. But this was not because they hated music as such, but because they disapproved of the ceremonious way it was used in church services. One of the greatest charges laid against Puritans, indeed, is the fact that they smashed stained glass windows and generally knocked church interiors about. And of course, there is scarcely an old church in England where Cromwell himself is supposed to have stabled his horses even if he never got within a hundred miles of the place. But nobody has ever yet explained to me why he or anyone else would want to go to the trouble of leading horses through a narrow church door into a highly unsuitable interior when there were much more convenient purpose-built stables in the local manor house or inn.

Puritans and Parliamentarians, however, certainly did smash or as they would have put it purify, church interiors but it is important to understand why they did so. It was not, as some modern art historians say, because they hated beauty, or in a spirit of vandalism.

It was, rather that some leftover Popish elements of churches - stained glass windows, images of saints, some monuments, as we have seen altar rails shutting the people off from the communion table - were actively offensive to them. They did not destroy them because they were beautiful, or old, or highly coloured, but because they believed them to be wicked and misleading and anti-Christian (‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image…’) For a modern parallel, consider the fuss recently made by many Moslems about cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. If you prefer, consider a Jewish bar-mitzvah taking place in a room bedecked with swastikas. The effect of Popish images on Puritans was the same.

So there are many myths but we have seen that not all Puritans were Parliamentarians. Indeed it is much more accurate to say that all Parliamentarians were, in one sense or another, Puritans but not all of the same kind. In fact there was certainly much more difference between a Presbyterian puritan and, say, a Ranter or a member of the Family of Love, than there was between this same Presbyterian and a moderate Anglican Royalist.

Presbyterians then, were if you like the standard and most numerous type of Civil War Puritan. Presbyterians were the respectable right wing of Puritanism, and though they were extreme Protestants, they did not reject the authority of the church provided it was their own church. This, as the name implies, was a church modelled on the Scottish system of presbyteries of minister and elders, all-powerful in church and state. It was a theocracy ruled by the godly albeit self-appointed. They were keen on church discipline, against free thinking and horrified by mechanic preachers. The Scots and their English allies wanted an established Presbyterian church to replace the Church of England.

Many if not most Parliamentarians, at least at the beginning of the war, were some sort of Presbyterians. But not all. For some Parliamentarians - including, crucially, Cromwell and his circle in Parliament, as well as many NMA officers - would have agreed with King James VI and I if in nothing else, when he was heard to mutter, ‘One New Presbyter equals one old Priest’. In other words, the authority of a Presbyterian theocracy of the godly might prove just as oppressive as the authority of King and Bishop, or of Pope and Catholic Priests.

These anti-Presbyterian, anti-church authority Puritans were called Independents. As their name suggests, they wanted more freedom of thought and religious practice (though not to be a papist), more independence of individual congregations and less rule by ministers. These were, if you like, the left wing (though not the extreme left) of Puritanism and much the most effective element of the Parliament army. This was not just because Cromwell was among their leaders or because Fairfax was, as far as we can tell, more of a Presbyterian in private belief.

The effect was all the more marked because, from late 1644 onwards, many Presbyterian leaders (like the Earl of Manchester and Colonel Massey at Gloucester, and of course the Presbyterian Scots) had come to dislike and distrust Independents almost more than they disliked and distrusted Royalists. It was, therefore, the largely Independent New Model Army which won the war in 1645-6, and again defeated alliances of Royalists and Presbyterians in 1648 and once more in 1651.

So how should we define Independents, the minority but much the most effective element within 1640s Puritanism? The very fact that they were Independent means that they almost defy group definition. We can however say that Cromwell, for example, was a moderate independent and as such surprisingly prepared to listen to the beliefs of others (provided of course they were not Papists or High Anglicans), including those of what we might rather rudely call:


The more far-out offshoots of Puritanism have received a perhaps disproportionate amount of attention from historians, possibly because their views appealed to Marxist historians like Christopher Hill and possibly because they are such fun. Thus we hear a lot about sects like Familists who supposedly practiced free love; Adamites who went naked; Ranters; Quakers (at first very radical and not always pacifist), and their political wings, the Levellers and very rare Diggers. However, these were in reality very rare, very small sects. Anyone living outside the south-east or not in the New Model Army - that breeding ground of individualistic sects - and who did not read journals might not have been aware of their existence at all. What nearly all of them had in common was a tendency to disregard convention and conventional religious practice. The Quakers for example outrageously allowed and even encouraged preaching by women, the keeping of hats on in church and rejected even conventional month and day names as superstitious - thus January, named after a pagan god, became ‘first month’.

To describe the beliefs of the various Independent sects would require a lecture in itself—which I am not going to give now. But I hope I have given you the beginning of a users guide to the various religious beliefs of those who fought on one side or the other during the Civil War, and who indeed fought on one side or the other because of those religious beliefs. To excise religion from representations of the Civil War, as happens all too often in an age which is embarrassed by religion, is to miss the point altogether.

Charles Kightly: August 2009