285 Reformation of Manners

How far did parish life change in the 16th century, and how far was the Reformation responsible? What did 16th century folk enjoy themselves, and how did that change over the century?

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The Social Historian website

You can read more about the incident at the Prentice in 1544 in the Social Historian article, and you’ll find lots of other interesting articles there too!.



If you can think that far back, I left you with a conundrum – how was it that the later 16th century saw the demise of all those medieval mystery plays, while at the same time seeing the flourishing theatre scene of London? How does that fit with the general story of the murder of all fun and games by the Protestant reformation? Well, there is a theory so don’t worry but it seems useful give that it’s been a few weeks to just restate a couple of the themes about all of this. Essentially, the contention is that the 16th century saw the death of Merry England, taken behind the bike sheds and given a thorough going over by the Protestant reformation; and that behind that lay a reformation of Manners driven by the hotter type of Protestant. That many puritans were of the better sort, and together with the economic changes of the 16th century there also emerges a separation between elite and popular culture. I summarise and paraphrase for brevity, but I think that’s about it. Mainly though, it’s just a chance to talk about Tudor festivals, so if you want to, you can, you know, ignore all that stuff. I did also promise to take you to see Agnes Haycroft and Frideswide Hodgson, which I still promise to do, I haven’t forgotten.

Anyway, back to theatre then, and how do we start with the decline of the mystery play cycles and end with vibrancy of Tudor Theatre? The answer of course was that the one form of theatre that of the mystery plays, did indeed die, but there were plenty of other traditions that allowed theatre not only to survive the reformation but to thrive; but very much not to remain unchanged. I do not intend to do an episode on Elizabethan theatre, though who knows maybe at some time in the future. For now let it be enough to say that theatre in many ways flourished; a London Market in particular was developed, and not just for the court; in 1574 the London Common Council considered licensing and taxation due to ‘the inordinate hauntyinge of great multitudes of people…to playes, enterludes and shewes’, and companies such as Leicester’s Men and Warwick’s men and others were regularly performing at 3 new public theatres and 4 or more inns in the City. Companies travelled to perform at towns round the country. In some ways theatre fulfilled a perfect role for the authorities in Tudor England, the same driving force behind the ceremonies of inversion that allowed misrule an outing every so often – it allowed the great mass  of people to do a Rapunzel and to let down their hair; to mildly rebel and have a good time before the full weight of the yoke of hierarchy descended once more in their shoulders. Let off a bit of steam. Far be it from me to try and analyse any of the Bard’s plays, but there is a theory I understand that runs that here is the secret to Shakespeare’s comedies – that they are mildly subversive in a safe atmosphere, topics too dangerous to contemplate in public view outside a licensed framework[1]. I must admit I wasn’t aware that Shakespeare had done any comedies, but I don’t claim to be an expert. Actually the authorities did also worry that theatre would prove subversive and expanded the powers of censorship of the Master of Revels and in 1583 tried a bold attempt to bring all best professionals into the patronage of the Queen through the formation of the Queen’s Men. The company was supposed to replace all other companies to the benefit of central control, but instead it produced a proliferation of Queen’s Men, which is a bit of a hoot. The City complained that

Last yere when such toleration was of the Quenes players only, all the places of playing were filled with men calling themselves the Queenes players

Well, the tinkers! The main result had been the creation of new commercial opportunities to rehearse their plays before the London Public. By the mid 1580s companies like the Lord Chamberlain’s men and the Admiral’s men were also performing.

No, the thing that really worried Protestant reformers was not the existence of plays; it was the way in which religion was or might be covered in plays – they worried about the misrepresentation that might occur, or misrepresentation in their view; the more serious minded were inclined to suck their teeth and mutter that the theatre was hardly the right place to discuss such themes. In 1589, Sir Francis Bacon complained of

‘this immodest and deformed manner …whereby matters of religion are handled in the style of the stage’.

The impact then was that religious matters become a subject not considered appropriate for the stage, and this contributed towards the decline and final disappearance of the old mystery plays. The impact on drama was not necessarily negative; new subjects were found, on English history and identity, on powers, and a new generation of playwrights produced what historian Laurence Manley describes as ‘as unprecedented complexity of response’. Despite a gut feeling that censorship is always bad, in this particular case it appeared to liberate Theatre from the shackles of religion.

Ok, grinding on relentlessly and thin lipped through the ritual year, none would be complete without Harvest home. Here’s a rembrance from 1598

As we were returning to our inn, we happened to meet some country people celebrating their Harvest-home, their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed, by which perhaps they would signify Ceres, this they keep moving about, while men and women, men and maid servants riding through the streets in the cart shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn.

The highlight was harvest home supper, and a ceremony so related to the turn of the seasons remained a part of parish celebrations. We’ve covered Rogation day a while ago, so probably that just leaves the other major event of the Autumn, the feast of the dead, called Hallowtide or Allantide. Halloween, when I am sure one of my daughters told me that the distance between the corporal world and the spirit world is at it’s thinnest. I can neither confirm or deny that having not a spiritual bone in my body, and in the finest tradition of humbug can I just say that I despise Halloween almost beyond reason, and I’d rather go and watch an entire cycle of Shakespeare comedies than be forced to answer the door to one trick or treater, and every year I sink to my knees and thank the lord that Halloween wasn’t a thing when I was a lad. Sorry I am ranting. Back in the earlier 16th century it was a very important ceremony, a time for the dead to be remembered, and helped by the prayers of the living; after evensong the church bells would be rung to comfort the dead in purgatory and the churches would be illuminated with candles. You will not be surprised to learn though that the protestant attitude to purgatory meant that All Souls went the way of all flesh and what had been a very central ceremony in peoples’ lives disappeared. There can be little doubt this is a loss that would have been particularly keenly felt.

So if you can cast your mind back to the last episode, it is essentially a mixed picture. There were many ceremonies lost, changes to the long standing rhythm of the year which would have been embedded into villagers’ memories as part of their immortal traditions – although it is worth remembering what Hutton found, that many of these traditions were nowhere near as long established as he had assumed. None the less, after 2 or 3 generations, they probably felt that way. And yup, clearly many ceremonies did go, such as All Souls because they no longer had a role within reformed religious observance. Many festivals like Christmas and May Day though did survive; although Edward’s reign cut deep, the revival under Mary did not stop under the first few years of Elizabeth; May Day, Harvest home, Church Ales even the Mystery plays survive and thrive early in Elizabeth’s reign – and it’s clear that Elizabeth herself was quite keen on ceremony and the fun of festivals. Although there is some appearance of national festivals like the Queen’s coronation day, generally, as time went on in Elizabeth’s reign, more of the old ceremonies did just begin to wither away. The Mystery plays began to gutter in the late 1560s and finally went out in the early 70s; there was more pressure on observances like Church ales and May day. So why was this? Is this the work of the Godly, disapproving of anybody anywhere having any fun rather than focussing on whether or not they are saved? Is this part of a cultural hegemony, the have’s enforcing their world view on the have nots?

Well, it’s quite clear that many parishes and their ministers did want to bring more control about popular and church festivals. And it’s quite clear that many did reduce the frequency and variety of public celebrations; as Richard Carew wrote

Many Ministers have by their earnest invective both condemned these saints feasts as superstitious, and suppressed the church-ales as licentious

It is also clear that there was resistance, and that the fact that there was by no means a complete or general sweeping away of festivals. In 1581 in Medbourne, Leicestershire, the minister Anthony Anderson had been determined to rub them out, but lamented that

Idolatrous feastes are daily kept, the Church Saint muste have his wake daye, which is all spent…in barebaiting, bacchus cheere, and Venus filthy sports[2]

The good minister Anderson appears to have been fighting a losing battle against his parishioners; the church court records the grimly determined view of Mistress Marston who was prepared to tackle her minister head on in the church, telling her fellow parishioners that

…preaching against bonefyres…is not God’s word that Mr Anderson preacheth

The concerns of the church authorities were multiple; but it is equally clear that they did not take a simple stance of banning all events and ceremonies – they appear to have been content to let them proceed, as long as they worked within certain parameters. The obvious one was to remove the festivals that no longer met with doctrine – or change and reform the festivals in a way that made them fit. They were particularly rigorous in areas where Catholicism remained strongest for longest – the north and north west for example, against activities such as well dressing – which does survive in Derbyshire I believe. But there were others; Elizabethan ministers were much more concerned about attendance, and what they saw as the appropriate use of church grounds, they often refused to allow parishioners to use the churchyard for ales, being much more concerned that it was not appropriate to use the space in that way. Here is ABY, Edmund Grindal:

The minister and Churchwardens shall not suffer any lords of misrule or summer lords or ladies or any disguised persons or others in Christmas or at May games, or any minstrels, morrice dancers, or others, at rush bearings or at any other times, to come irreverently into any church or chapel, or church yard, and there dance or play any unseemly parties with scoffs, jests, wanton gestures or ribald talk.

There you go, nobody wants Ribald talk. That’s as clear as it gets really, and the visitation instructions of other bishops included the same kind of comments. There are a few things to notice about the words of Grindal. One is that it gives you a nice summary of the kind of village and parish festivities we are talking about; another is that it makes it clear why the church objected – it is a question of separating the sacred and the profane. But also the church’s attitude is disapproving but this is not a reformation of manners in the sense it’s often presented, of banning these activities from people’s lives – it’s simply a matter of where this happens. There is one thing he does not mention which does become a constant refrain of the Elizabethan church; they become very keen to make sure everyone attends church each week and takes communion regularly, which of course is a central tenet of the theme of participation in the protestant approach. So they objected strongly to secular events on Sundays when it might clash and damage attendance.

So clearly the church is a factor. But there are other factors too. It is noticeable that secular courts join in this very same campaign. Their focus, however is rather different. Here are the justices of Devon, explaining their campaign in terms of the

‘…many disorders, contempes of lawe and other enormytyes….commityed to the great prophenasion of the Lordes Sabbath, the dinhour of Almighty God, increase of bastardy and dissolute liff and of many other mischeiffes and inconveynyences to the great hurt of the common wealth.’

The secular authorities were worried about violence and a perceived threat to the common peace. It’s impossible to see this outside of the rise in population and the distress of a new and growing population of poor who simply could not cope any more, with the growth of vagrancy, and with the social panic in the face of old, eternal verities of employment and parish life stretched and broken. I will do an episode on crime and punishment sometime where we are deeper into Elizabethan England, but I can reveal as an exclusive preview that there is not great evidence that these pressures did lead to a great increase in violence, in terms of violence against people specifically. But the fear of it – ha, now, the fear of it was very real and ever present. The move was therefore again more to control as it was to ban.

There were other simpler reasons for the also for the end of some festivities; often people simply lost interest, or they were difficult to organise. But despite a general decrease, there are therefore plenty of examples which illustrate that parish festivities carry on, and are still common by the end of Elizabeth’s reign; in Oxford City, 7 parishes continued with celebrations on Ascension day 1598 for example

A greate number of the inhabitants of Oxford…assembled together early in the morning of these days with drome and shott and otjer weapons, and men attired in womens apparel and brought into the towne a woeman bedeckte with garlandes and flowers anmes by them the Queene of May. They also had Morrish daunces and other disorderd and unseemly sportes

In 1601, there’s a similar example in South Kyme Lincolnshire, together with the men of Coningsby, who together are reputed to have

Drunk the towne of cunsbye…drye

The event included a satirical play having a hack at the unpopular Earl of Lincoln, and in the interlude was a mock sermon. In events like these there’s not only the survival of village celebration but support for the view that in popular celebration lay a large slice of popular resistance to authority. And that the separation of church and secular celebration tended was significant; that this separation encouraged the seeds and sprouting of a social separation too –events and festivities away from church ground began to be more supported and initiated by the poorer members of the parish, and churchwardens and other local officers might not ban them or do anything to stop them, but equally unlike former days were not necessarily part of them.

In that, something too would be lost, and leads us on to the idea that this attempt to stop the rowdiness was part of a general attempt by the well heeled of the parish, the yeomanry and gentry, to suppress popular culture in the name of a more general reformation of manners. Part of that argument has been rejected by plenty on the basis that seeing labourers and cottagers as hapless and helpless in the wider politics of the parish misunderstands the tools they also had at their disposal to both resist and re-invent; without doubt, Tudor society was deeply hierarchical and deferential, but the poorer members of the parish had their own agency and role, despite their disadvantages. We see some of this see in festivities like those at South Kyme, and in the kind of resistance as we discussed in the episode about the parish. But it could also be that in many aspects of this reformation of manners, members of the parish were very much were willing and active participants in the process. Order, peace, stability were hardly the concern only of the better off; belief in and the active support of standards of morality were as much a matter of concern for the cottager as they were for the Yeoman farmer.


Obviously, we need to talk about sex, baby, which is worth an episode all of its own, which you’ll get next time, since regulating sexual behaviour was an obsession for not just 16th century society, but as we’ll see, an obsession for English and European society all the way from the middle ages. But it is worth noting also that the concern to manage and reform manners covered many forms of behaviour. I have rather taken the word ‘manners’ itself as read, so it maybe needs a bit of explanation, since these days manners is largely about civility and politeness, using cutlery according to various daft and impenetrable social norms rather than anything deeper. In medieval and early modern England the word mores might be closer; habits, a moral climate; the idea of manners was a deep one, and society used words like ‘ill’, ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ when they considered the kind of manners that required reformation. Manners were not just politeness, they were the very fundamental attitude towards life and morality on which the commonwealth depended. So here’s an example at a secular court where two women were indicted, who having been

Heartofore presented for the like faulte and admonished to reforme the same…have not amended their manners

The idea of reforming society was also not new to early modern England. We’ve heard the word associated a lot with religion of course, but that was most certainly not the only area of application – the word was used generally and was a favourite of Humanist thought too; humanists in court circles in particular also emphasised the importance of the monarch and government in revitalising and extending reformation of the way people lived their lives. So although we will focus on behaviour and sexual regulation, it’s worth looking at a few other areas where control and reformation was considered necessary. One of these was tillage; we have talked a lot about enclosure, and there is always a whiff, more than a whiff about the oppression of the poor at the hands of the rich. What I don’t think I have mentioned enough is that many in government were as concerned about the trend as anyone; it was not just Thomas More in Utopia who worried that enclosure was undermining the strength and structure of society. The tillage act of 1597 was one of the many efforts to do the Cnut thing, and turn back the waves of change on which the ship of England was helplessly tossed. It was intended to preserve defence of the land by making sure the military remained served by

The husbandman…a strong and hardy man, the good footman

The same concern for defence was one of the reasons for legislation against unlawful games. Just in case you wanted confirmation that a reformation of manners was not the preserve of the post Religious Reformation world, there were acts about games and their regulation in 1388, 1409, 1477, 1495, 1503, 1511, 1515 and 1541. The last was then constantly cited in proclamations.  There was more than one reason for legislating about games, but one of them was to protect the ancient and noble art of archery. It takes a while to give up your traditions sometimes and realise that they are no longer what they were, and so it was with archery. Increasingly irrelevant as a weapon of war archery nonetheless remained a central part of the leisure time of ordinary people, reflected in the street names of villages and towns with a variety of places called The Butts, or Butts Close and so on, reflecting where the archery butts would be erected on Sundays. It was the law that families must provide their sons with a bow and arrows; and men aged between seventeen and sixty had to provide themselves with a longbow and four arrows. But by the 1570s John Stow would write, tears streaming down his face

‘What should I speake of the auncient dayly exercises in the long bow by Citizens of this Citie, now almost cleane left off and forsaken?’

Part of the worry was that England’s youth would be corrupted by other, unclean pasttimes – bowls, tennis, football, quoits, cards and dice. Plus ca change, and all that, as the world worries now about whatver. Football of the time was essentially the Atherstone Ball game, where two sides fought over possession of the ball. Villages might play against each other, and by and large they were not gentle. It was, a contemporary sighed

 ‘a beastly fury and extreme violence; whereof proceedeth hurt, and consequently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded …’.

At least there were no outrageously priced season tickets, is all I will say.

Tennis was also banned; I had thought it to be an elite game, but if it was worth banning then probably not; but John Stow’s comment on it might suggest that Handball was the popular game, since its essentially the equivalent of kicking a ball against a wall with your mates just using your hand:

that ‘the ball is used by noblemen and gentlemen in tennis courts, and by people of meaner sorts in the open fields and streets’.

Bowling; now bowling was banned, as in bowling greens, and that seems absolutely incredible to me. I mean what could be more civilised than bowls? John Stow, once more disapproved accusing the idle working classes that they would

‘creepe into bowling Allies and ordinarie dicing houses, nearer home, where they have roome enough to hazard their money at unlawful games …’.

There were hundreds of bowling alleys in London apparently; this is the game where you try to get closest to the jack, though there was the skittles version too. Part of the disapproval was about the distraction from the manly pursuit of archery but the answer to John’s fury is probably revealed mainly in the quote about the gambling that accompanied these games. Here was where the reformation was really needed. Gambling accompanied everything, including the ubiquitous dice and card games; backgammon was a popular pastime too, with a backgammon set I believe being found on the Mary Rose; and you didn’t need a board of course, you could scratch it on the wall or in the earth. There were also chess and draughts. Just to be clear about how cross and grumpy society was about these things, there was a link in the 1563 statute of Artificers between the craftsmen, and gambling and games, which would lead said innocent and vulnerable craftsmen to

Haunting of ale howses…cosingages, deluding of mens wives, daugters and maindens, procuring them to whordom and to pilfer for their maintenance

The statute was therefore designed to

Reforme the unadvised rashness and licentious behaviour of youthe

Ah, the unadvised rashness and licentious behaviour of youth, such a missed opportunity.

Legislation was also brought out to restrict what people wore, as we have seen with the sumptuary laws, which raged about the ‘outrageous excess’, and the ‘pride, moder of all the vices’. Legislation was extended to cover usuary, which was made a secular matter from 1487 with statutes in parliament, but really it became impossible to regulate especially in an increasingly sophisticated market.

The main aims of these campaigns, then were about the control of behaviour. And most important amongst these were swearing and public disturbance. To have a look at the sort of thing that went on, let me take you to Winchester. I might warn you that the language is a little fruity.

The year is 1544. Henry VIII is getting fat and ill, and I’m going to take you to the fair city of Winchester for an incident which the Oxford historian Jonathan Healey wrote a blog about which made me laugh. Not sure why, probably the level of fruit in the language, I am sure I’d have been outraged of Tunbridge Wells if I’d been there. [3]

We are at the Prentice, a covered walkway near the centre, which is still there, replete with Tudor buildings. And there, witnesses saw Mistress Foster strike and draw blood on the face of one Agnes Haycroft. Agnes retreated, but Foster was joined by her daughter Frideswide Hodson, asked what was up. Her Mum spat back that

‘That howsewyf Haycroftes wiff bryngith hir maydes up to beate me at my owne dore’.

Now, I have been told that the first task in such matters is to suck as much heat out of the situation as possible, to allow a calm and reflective assessment of the situation bring peace and inner harmony. So Frideswide said

‘That brazenfaced hore. That meseld faced and skaled hore Haycroft wiff, [I] will never be contended till she be dreven owt of towne with basons as hir mother was’. If I had bene there I wold have knoked hir furryd cap & her hed together’.

Ok. There are alternative viewpoints about managing conflict, obviously. Turns out that Agnes Haycroft however had not legged it, but simply gone for the support of her maidservant. So Agnes was back. And she’d heard Frideswide

‘Wold you have don it yow pockye nosed howswife’.

Rude. Frideswide was up for it

Nay thou pokey nosed hore, feiste thow, thow meseld faced hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye the[e] utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face’.

Ruder. I think we’ll leave it there, but there is a point to this, or I am going to try and convince you there is. As Jonathan Healey’s blogpost The Social Historian relates, we can tell a lot about a society in the insults it uses – I commend the blog to you, link is on the website. He notes that insults of this time were very gendered – men were called all sorts of names, women were usually called whore or some version of it – usually about sexual misdemeanour. But a sense of worth was up there too; we used to giggle at Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘naughty’ which seemed so mild, but back then the implications that they were worth as nought – literally naught-y. So hierarchy is part of it. Another group of effective insults would suggest disorder, the dragon of medieval and early modern society which must be slain

Goo home and lo[o]ke thy owne howse be clene for there is no good rule kepte’

One huswife was accused – no good rule, no order. Most notably in our example of course is the language of physical failings – skald head, lepers face. References to the knicker area. Physical ugliness and disorder strongly suggested disorderliness, lack of control, a physical ugliness that suggested social deviance.

The reason we have these records owes nothing to the normal records we have used in the past these pages, there is no monkish chronicler wandering through the streets of Winchester to record the arguments of the traders – they refer to the record of the Bawdy courts, the church courts regulating morality, of which there are increasing survivals.

There will be a day when we have a really good look at crime in early modern England because it is a topic more fascinating than words can wield the matter, and which also has a material impact on the formation of the nation state that is England. But, this is not that day. Our job in the next episode is to look the regulation of sex in the reformation of manners. Now, I want you to notice that much of what we have spoken about today has been about attempts to control behaviour that stretched back long before the English Reformation – certainly to the 15th century, usually to the 14th. But if we turn to sex, well, it is here is where enters a figure wearing the clothes, and probably nose, of the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the Puritan. It is well known that when it comes to sex, it is the Puritan who is responsible for a nasty, censorious clamp down on the perfectly sensible pursuit of a bit of harmless slap and tickle. Or is it, ladies and Gentlemen, or is it?

[1] Manley, L: Theatre in Doran, S: The Elizabethan World, P352-3

[2] Ingram, M: ‘Transformations in Popular Culture’ in Doran Ed: ‘The Elizabethan World’ p473

[3] https://thesocialhistorian.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/the-foulest-place-of-mine-arse-is-fairer-than-thy-face/


14 thoughts on “285 Reformation of Manners

  1. What a lovely Christmas present to here you are out and about – on temporary day release? I have my fingers crossed for you, and in the meantime am enjoying pairing your Anglosaxon podcasts with those of Kevin Stroud on the History of English. Don’t worry too much about us – we are loyal and happy to stick by you until you are fully recovered. Jacquie

  2. There is a Santa Claus; mean Father Christmas. So good to hear your friendly voice again. Here’s wishing you a healthier and prosperous New Year…in advance.

  3. Wonderful news. I will still have the company of David Crowther on my trips back from work. However, David you must stop turning up at my work. People are starting to ask questions.

  4. It’s so very, very nice to have your voice again on my morning commute! Please, though, take your time and get fully well again; we will all be here. And, for the record, I couldn’t agree with you on the subject of Hallowe’en more!

    With all my best wishes,


  5. I totally wasn’t worrying about you and your family, not at all…

    (I actually made an unearthly demonic squeal when you popped up back on my podcast feel, causing the hubby to check in on me.)

    While I enjoy listening your calming voice, your health should be your first concern, and I’m willing to wait until the heat death of the universe for you to get fully well.

    From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, full of Health and Love.

  6. David!!! What a treat to hear the opening notes of your podcast once again today, and of course your soothing and enlightening voice! You are such a pleasure to listen to and learn from. Trust that while we have missed you terribly, your health should be your first concern. We will still be here when you recover…take care of yourself and I hope to have many years of listening to you in the future.

  7. Yes! Back in the feed. And back on your feet too, I hope.

    I still have some spare good thoughts and good wishes that I rustled up for you after your last message. Might as well send them along — use them for yourself or distribute them to others as your see fit and as needed.

  8. Great to have you back! I am going to try calling my wife a ‘meseld face hore with a lepers face’ next time we are arguing!

  9. Just now thought of logging in here to join the chorus of rejoicing at your return.
    Yay! Wooo! Squeee! Squeal!
    Now that that’s over…
    Hoping for continued mending, recovering, healing…and podcasting 🙂

  10. How lovely to listen to you this week. I wait with bated breath to hear about Frideswide Hodgson!
    With best wishes,
    Catherine Hodgson:)

  11. I’m a bit late to the game as I’ve been unable myself to listen to any podcasts, but was so glad to see you have been able to do some recording. I know the coming months look to be an ordeal, but I hope the thought that we humble fans are here and thinking of you will be a source of strength.

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