The marriage of Protestant clergymen was one of the most controversial aspects of the reformation, in England as elsewhere. Opprobrium was heaped upon clergy who married, and also upon their wives. Even death was no escape from censure. During the reign of Mary I, Strype tells us, Richard Marshall, the dean of Christ Church, exhumed the body of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s wife from its resting place in the cathedral, and had it thrown onto a dunghill, presumably because in the eyes of the Catholic authorities she was no better than a heretical priest’s whore.
Historical interest in clerical marriage and clergy wives has increased substantially in recent years, with our understanding of the field primarily shaped by the work of Eric Carlson and Helen Parish. This also seems to be a topic that really captures the imagination of students: when I ask my seminar groups to look at the Marian Injunctions of 1554, for example, they often marvel at the amount of attention given to clerical marriage, together with the uncompromising and uncharitable tone of the articles (the ones that say that married priests must no longer be allowed to be working priests, or to remain ‘married’). I’ve recently finished supervising an undergraduate dissertation on clerical marriage, and whilst the student, Helena Theo, worked extremely hard, and turned up some interesting material, it is clear that there is not exactly a wealth of sources giving an intimate picture of the relationships of the first generation of married clergy and their wives, especially from the female point of view (thank you Helena, for a very enjoyable supervisory experience, and for your permission to mention you here!).
In this post, I want to try to explore this relationship in a little more detail, and especially the extent to which marriage was an important aspect of the identity these early reformers constructed for themselves. I’m going to do so using a very well-known source, but one which (to my knowledge) has not been extensively mined for this sort of material, either by any historian of clerical marriage, or indeed by Helena, whose project went off in a slightly different direction. That source is the two-volumes of The Zurich Letters, published by the Parker Society in the 1840s, and, as it says on the title page, ‘comprising the correspondence of several English bishops and others with some of the Helvetian reformers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth’. Continue reading