The Reformation of the People? The View from the Alebench

Mark Hailwood

It’s not every day the Protestant Reformation gets to celebrate its 500th birthday – well, only on one day, really. And it’s no surprise that yesterday’s anniversary of that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg – the first ever blog post, perhaps? – was accompanied by a slew of comment pieces and blog offerings. It would be remiss of us here at the monster, as a gaggle of early modern bloggers, not to post up a few thoughts of our own of course. But what angle to take that hasn’t already been covered in the #Reformation500 media frenzy?

Well, as readers will be well aware, we like to look at history from the bottom-up. For us, the most interesting question about the Reformation is the extent to which it changed the religious beliefs and practices of ordinary women and men – especially in England’s 9000 or so parishes. Sure, Luther shook up the religious and political establishment of early modern Europe, but how much impact did this have on the common people?

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Did the Protestant message get through to the people?

It’s a question that lies at the heart of much scholarship on the Reformation, especially in the English context, and there has been a vibrant debate about the answer. For the great ‘Whiggish’ historian A.G. Dickens, Catholicism in England on the eve of the Reformation was a busted flush – corrupt, unpopular. When Protestantism arrived on these shores it was swiftly and heartily adopted by the English people, who knew a Good Thing when it came along and invited them to sign up to be on the right side of History.

But as in all good historiographical debates, the Revisionists showed up. Scholars like Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy had other ideas: they argued that late medieval Catholicism was vibrant and popular in England, in a way that the Protestantism that replaced it never was. The new religion, in their eyes, only ever had minority appeal to a select – or should that be ‘elect’? – group of Puritan extremists; the mass of the population neither embraced, nor understand the finer points of, Protestant doctrine.

More recently the Post-revisionists have moved in, seeking to establish consensus around a ‘third way’ interpretation. Scholars such as Tessa Watt and Alexandra Walsham have argued that the majority of the population may not have heartily digested all of the minutiae of doctrinal Calvinism, but that key elements of Protestantism nonetheless did become embedded in popular culture – and that certainly by 1600 most people in England would have self-identified as firmly Protestant.

Now, I’m no historian of the Reformation, but I am a historian of popular culture in early modern England – and, more specifically of course, of the alehouse. And this does give me an insight into the relationship between religion and popular culture in this period. Indeed, many Protestant reformers saw the alehouse as one of the major obstacles to the successful Reformation of the people at large. They envisaged the church and the pub as locked in a fierce rivalry for the affection of the people – a battle they saw the alehouse as ultimately winning by attracting people to spend their Sundays drinking and carousing in alehouses, rather than attending church services and absorbing Protestant teaching.

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The Church or the Pub?

What I would like to do briefly here, then, is draw on my research into alehouses to suggest that the relationship between the church and the pub, and between religion and popular culture, was rather more complementary than this reformers’ perspective assumes. In fact, in the early years of the Reformation it was not clear that a fissure between the two was inevitably coming. The first generation of Protestants have been described as ‘at home’ in alehouses, making use of them in the 1530s as sites to discuss scripture – A.G. Dickens even went so far as to remark that ‘if the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Reformation was won in the pubs of Colchester’.[1]

A second generation of Elizabethan Protestants, however, took a different view, and began to distance themselves from these ‘little hells’. The Royal Injunctions of 1559 and the Canons of 1604 both forbade ecclesiastics from resorting to alehouses and taverns, and from the 1580s churchmen ‘put out a rising storm of protest which indignantly juxtaposed Church and alehouse as deadly rivals for the affections of the people’, in the words of Keith Wrightson.[2]

Indeed, in 1617, the writer Thomas Young complained of the average parishioner that ‘they goe ten times to an Ale-house, before they goe once to a Church,’ a perceived rivalry that was reflected in the growing prominence in the conditions of alehouse licences of the prohibition against serving during the time of divine service.

Hostile rhetoric reached its apogee in the 1650s, when religious writer Richard Younge denounced alehouses in print in 1655 as ‘drinking schools’ where drunkards learn the arts of sin; where they ‘hear the Devil’s lectures read’; ‘the shops and markets where Satan drives his trade’, where men ‘stand on their heads and shake their heals against heaven’ and ‘God’s Name is blasphemed’.

It is possible to point to some examples of extreme irreligion in alehouses. In Chester, in 1640, one John Edwards allegedly ‘upon his knees [did] drink a health to the Divill or to Beelzebub the prince of the Divills’ in Hugh Anderson’s alehouse in Foregate street. In 1656 Nottingham feltmaker William Bradshaw was alleged to have said that the story that ‘our Savior fed 5000 men with 05 loaves and 2 fishes’ was ‘as arrand a lye as ever was spoken’. In 1665 the Wiltshire miller William Dawkins fell out with an alehouse companion after referring to the Book of Common Prayer as ‘The Book of Common Turd’.

But a great deal of alehouse conversation about religion reflected deeply held religious convictions and divisions, rather than simply irreligious ‘scoffing’. For instance, the Lancashire mercer’s apprentice, Roger Lowe, who kept a diary in the 1660s, recorded the details of several such conversations in alehouses. He records that whilst out drinking in February of 1664 ‘John Pottr and I began to discourse concerning the manner of God’s worship he was for Episcopacie and I was for Presbittery. The contention had like to have beene hott but the lord prevented [it].’ In June of that year Lowe was invited by Thomas Jameson to an alehouse ‘to come to drinke with hime and we stayed late in night and we began controversie he a papist began to speak revileingly of Luther and Calvin which I laboured to defend… We ware in love and peace in our discourse.’

Far more numerous than such cases of either ‘scoffing’ at religion or fiercely debating it are examples of people drinking in alehouses during the time of divine service, but even these should not be taken as evidence that alehouses were the ‘nests of Satan’ of some preachers’ imaginations. Even the most ‘godly’ of parishioners could see church and alehouse as compatible institutions of village life. In part this could be logistical. One petition in favour of an alehouse being licensed, sent by the parishioners of Martock to the Somerset bench in 1627, claimed that the alehouse was conveniently located and necessary for parishioners ‘sometymes to refreshe them selves in’, as they lived ‘so farr from the p[ar]ish Church that oftentymes on the Saboth day and other hollydaies they cannot go home & come agane to Church the same day’.

Our godly apprentice Roger Lowe also relied on alehouses to provide the infrastructure for committed religiosity: he regularly travelled long distances on Sundays to hear preachers, and alehouses provided crucial stopping off points to take on refreshment. But instances of those—undoubtedly common—parishioners who combined church going and alehouse going in their social round are, of course, relatively rare in the archival record, and are overshadowed by those whose behaviour was deemed more deviant. There is some evidence to confirm their existence, however, with one such source being presentments to the church courts of those who turned up to church drunk.

At Winwick, Lancashire, in 1626, John Flitcroft spent the morning in the alehouse before attending church in the afternoon, only to have to rush out to be sick. The following year, in Leeds, Edmund Saurer was not so quick, and after turning up ‘drunk, at morning prayer upon a Sabboath day’ he ‘did vomite upon the Communion Table’. On one Sunday in Leighes Magna, Essex, in 1630, two men and two women had attended morning service before heading to an alehouse, where they stayed ‘eatinge drinkinge and tiplinge’ until evening prayer. Their subsequent ‘attendance’ at evening prayer was not exactly exemplary: one of the company ‘came not at all to eveninge prayer but lay asleepe in the fields’; another, Joane Goodman, made it back to the church but ‘went out of the church about the beginning of the sermon and was observed by some of the parishe to goe out reelinge’. Goodman then ‘lay downe at the ende of the chancel and there lay asleepe till the later ende of the sermon’.

Whilst the individuals in these examples may not have handled the balance between being a good Christian and being a ‘good fellow’ particularly well, they nonetheless stand as evidence that it was a balance many parishioners sought to achieve. As Beat Kumin has recently argued, ‘for most parishioners, a visit to the public house did not amount to a profanation of the Sabbath; for them, church and tavern belonged together as two sides of the same coin’.[3]

Such parishioners may not have been so profoundly Protestant as to have been well versed in the finer points of predestination, true, but the evidence I have worked with and briefly surveyed here reveals a popular culture in post-Reformation England to which church going and religion undoubtedly still mattered – even to those who did like to sink a few pints on a Sunday. If the church and the pub were not such great rivals after all, then we can, I think, be more optimistic about the extent to which the majority of the population engaged with and adopted the Protestant message being preached from the pulpit.


[1] Quoted in Patrick Collinson, ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’, in Peter Marshall (ed.), The Impact of the English Reformation, 1500-1640 (London, 1997), p.283.

[2] Wrightson, , ‘Alehouses, Order and Reformation in Rural England, 1590-1660’, in Eileen Yeo and Stephen Yeo (eds), Popular Culture and Class Conflict 1590-1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure (Brighton, 1981) p.18.

[3] Beat Kümin, ‘Sacred Church and Worldly tavern: Reassessing an Early Modern divide’, in W. Coster and A. Spicer (eds), Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2005), pp.17-38; for a similar argument see Paul Griffiths, Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England, 1560-1640 (Oxford, 1996), ch.4.

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