Reformation and Division, 1530-1630

Reformation and Division, 1530-1630


Long before the 16th century, demands for religious reform had come from Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe who died in 1384. William White and Hugh Pie, who had operated Lollard schools in the Waveney valley, were executed in 1428, and a spate of trials took place in Norwich in the three following years. Many of the accused, the majority of whom came from the area around Beccles and Bungay, were vehemently opposed to such religious practices as praying to saints, the use of images and pilgrimages, oral confes­sion and the belief in transubstantiation. Those found guilty were sentenced to flogging and had to do penance in their parish churches and graveyards.

After this period of persecution, little is heard of Lollard teaching but, almost exactly a century later, similar views were being voiced by the followers of Luther. One of the most important was Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk-born priest who spent some 18 months preach­ing in East Anglia before his arrest in 1527. His visit to Hadleigh, where he inveighed against pilgrimages and the worship of saints and relics, seems to have been particularly effective. Among his many converts were Guy Glazen, shoemaker of Eye, later punished for uttering obscenities against the cross at Eye Priory, and Thomas Rose, the Hadleigh curate, whose preaching led a gang of men to burn the Holy Rood of Dovercourt. Another Suffolk reformer was John Bale, a native of Covebitbe but better known as a playwright and Bishop of Ossory in Ireland, who in 1536 was accused of inflammatory preaching at Thorndon where be was curate.

The majority of Suffolk’s inhabitants, on the other hand, were far more conservative. Judging by their wills, almost all the laity and most of the clergy continued, until the death of Henry VIII, to provide for their souls and invoke the prayers of saints. Nevertheless, Suffolk folk cannot have been unaware of the national deci­sions which were beginning to affect their localities, and their gifts to the fabric of parish churches decreased significantly.

A new religious order

The first of these changes came in 1534. The Pope was replaced by Henry as Head of the English church and ‘Peter’s Pence’, the traditional payment to Rome, was no longer demanded of each parish. In 1536, holy days (that is, holidays when no work was expected) were reduced from about 90 a year to under thirty. Under the ‘Act for the dissolution of the lesser monasteries’ of 1536, the first of the religious houses, the Cistercian abbey of Sibton and the nunneries of Bungay and Campsey, were closed and their property confiscated by the Crown. (Five small priories had, in fact, been closed in the previous decade by that most successful native of Ipswich, Cardinal Wolsey, in order to endow his college and school in the town.) The remaining 28 houses of Suffolk succumbed by 1540. Of these only Bury St Edmunds was powerful and rich enough to be dealt with under the subsequent Act of 1539, relating to the dissolution of the ‘greater monasteries’.

Suffolk parishes known to have gilds: based on chantry certificates , tax returns and unfinished work on wills. Many parishes in the south-east supported gilds in Framlingham, Woodbridge and Kelsale.
Suffolk parishes known to have gilds: based on chantry certificates , tax returns and unfinished work on wills. Many parishes in the south-east supported gilds in Framlingham, Woodbridge and Kelsale.

It was at this time also that changes were first seen in the fabric and furnishing of parish churches. The royal injunctions of 1538, reflecting the preaching of reformers against saints and images, forbade the placing of candles before images and other ‘superstitious practices’, and no doubt encouraged the destruction that year of the famous images of Our Lady at Walsingham and Ipswich. All mention of Thomas a Becket, an archbishop who had dared to defy a king, was ordered to be removed from churches. This caused Mildenball churchwardens to scratch his name out of their service books and their col­leagues at Bungay to knock out windows and remove banners dedicated to that saint. At this time the clergy were encouraged to install English Bibles in their churches, partly at their own cost, but Hadleigh went further and illegally used English in the Mass—one of the first places in England to do so. In 1541, more ceremonies were forbidden, including the choosing of a Boy Bishop each December. This resulted, at a later date, in the sale of red coats (both moth­eaten) worn by the Boy Bishop at Boxford and Long Melford.

Related institutions such as chantries and gilds also lost their possessions to the king, at least temporarily, in 1545. Chantries were endowments for the daily celebrating of Mass for certain souls, often in a specially built chapel. The chantry priest was sometimes the village schoolmaster, as at Lavenham, Long Melford, Clare and Orford, so that his removal deprived the parish of an impor­tant service. Gilds, which were widespread in Suffolk, were social and religious societies. They were in many ways forerunners of 18th- and 19th-century friendly societies, but were never—apart, perhaps, from Bury and Ipswich—associated with crafts and trades. They existed in nearly every parish in the western half of the county, but were less common in what is now Suffolk Coastal District. There, in larger parishes like Framlingham and Woodbridge, each had a gild serving the surrounding area (illus. 70). Some of these rural gilds had petered out before the 1540s, but the closure of the survivors must have been a major loss in social life.

Henry VIII died in January 1547, an event which made way for the complete reformation of church. practices. By means of orders issued later that year, all images and shrines were banished from parish churches, all processions (except the beating of the bounds) were banned, services were henceforth to be in English, and the elaborate equipment formerly used in worship was now redundant.

So began the despoiling of the fine interiors of our churches, the achievement of centuries of medieval piety. Although church building in Suffolk seems mainly to have ceased by 1530 or so, apart from isolated exceptions such as Hawstead and Heveningham, the decoration of interiors, especially the painting and gilding of tabernacles and roodlofts, continued into the 1540s. This resplendent decoration was accompanied by colourful murals and finely carved and coloured roofs, and lit by numerous candles and candelabra. Yet practically everything had gone within two years of Henry’s death.

The few churchwardens’ accounts which survive for this period record the ripping out of images, tabernacles, roodlofts and altars, the scraping of paintings and the putting-up of biblical texts. Silver plate and valuables were sold – worth £100 in places like Beccles, Mildenhall and Southwold, compared with £30 at Lavenham and Woolpit, and under £10 in more than half the parishes in the county. The money was used for church repairs and other parish expenses including, at coastal places, sea defences, while any surplus was invested to assist the poor.

Chantries and gilds were finally abolished and their possessions taken by the Crown unless, as in the case of the Holy Ghost gild of Beccles, it could be shown that their activities were predominantly secular and not religious. In the final months of the reign, surviving pieces of plate and vestments were confiscated, leaving each parish with a single chalice and surplice.

In 1552, with the introduction of the second prayer book, the term ‘mass’ and the wearing of vestments were abandoned, and altars were replaced by tables set lengthwise (that is, east to west). By July 1553, when Edward died, the reformation of church worship was complete. The beliefs of Suffolk people seem also to have been changing, as only a small proportion of those making wills were still using the traditional language of ‘Our Lady and all the saints’.

The accession of Queen Mary meant that the pattern was totally reversed. After an act repealing all the religious provisions of Edward’s reign church¬wardens had to set about re-equipping their churches for the return to Catholic worship, purchasing service books, cloths and banners, images and image-cloths, roods and roodlofts and many other items. In some places, such as Long Melford, several pieces of pre-Reformation equipment had been preserved in private hands and were merely moved back into the church; in others, as at Boxford, the churchwardens ran into debt with the cost of replacing them.

Because of this expense, and perhaps lack of conviction, refurbishing took time. Thus, at Bungay, Molle the sexton was paid for fixing the figures on the rood in 1558, only months before being paid to take them down again. Although Suffolk people seem, in the main, to have supported Mary as legitimate heir to the throne, they were not so sympathetic towards her religious beliefs. Their wills show only about one in four testators committed to Mary’s Catholicism.

In retrospect, Queen Mary’s reign is often seen as merely a hiccup in the progress of the Reformation. Yet, had Mary lived as long as her sister, the movement for reform might have been snuffed out. Some Protestants were certainly made to pay heavily for their beliefs in this period; nearly 30 indi­viduals from Suffolk were martyred. It was no consolation to them that the lord chancellor responsible for re-introducing the law for burning them was Stephen Gardiner, a native of Bury St Edmunds. In addition, approximately a fifth of the clergy were deprived of their benefices, chiefly because they had married.

The Elizabethan settlement and its opponents

Towards the end of 1558, the accession of Queen Elizabeth signalled another round of destruction within churches. Almost immediately altars were broken up, roodlofts cut down and images and paintings removed. Successive acts, injunctions and proclamations, implemented by ‘visitors’ and commissioners, ensured that the protestant church of England was formally established by the early 1560s.

All, however, was not plain sailing. Although East Anglia did not have a strong Roman Catholic movement like that in the north, a number of important Suffolk families (more than 50 by the end of the reign) led by the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk, clung to their Catholicism and represented a threat to church and queen. They were kept in control by mainly protestant justices who im­posed punitive fines for not attending church. Many substantial families, like the Bedingfields of Bedingfield, the Sulyards of Haughley Park and the Rokewoods of Euston and Stanningfield had large parts of their estates confis­cated and leased Out for the benefit of the Crown. Only in the Lothingland area, where the Jernegan family held sway, were recusants able to maintain their power and freedom for any length of time.

Two Suffolk recusants deserve special mention. Sir Thomas Cornwallis (1519-1604) was a distinguished royal servant who had been Comptroller of the Household to Queen Mary. When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, he retired to his estates around Brome in Suffolk. Though he remained a Catholic, he was prepared to attend the parish church, and always proclaimed his loyalty to the queen. At intervals, his long retirement was punctuated by suspicions, inter­rogations, heavy fines and confinements in London. Ambrose Rokewood, the young squire of Stanningfield, was less of a survivor. He became involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—chiefly, it was said, because of a fine stable of horses which his fellow conspirators wished to use.

At the other end of the religious spectrum were the Puritans, who felt that the Reformation had not gone far enough. They placed great emphasis on the quality and learning of the clergy and wanted the power of bishops curtailed. Clergy of this persuasion refused to use certain parts of the prayer book, to wear the surplice (originally enforced to prevent the wearing of other vestments) and to make the sign of the cross at baptism. In episcopal visitations of the 1590s, about a third (over 160) of the beneficed clergy in Suffolk were reported for not wearing the surplice, an indication of the strength of local Puritan feeling. Many clerical livings were in the gift of Puritan patrons, perhaps as many as 50 over the county as a whole, and they ensured that their nominees were like-minded. Sir Robert Jermyn of Rushbrooke and Sir John Higham of Barrow controlled about 15 benefices in this way.

One of Suffolk’s leading Puritans was John Knewstubb, rector of Cocklield. There, in 1582, he held a secret conference of over 60 clergy from Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. The aim was to examine the prayer book, ‘what might be tolerated and what necessarily to be refused’. Out of this grew other, more permanent conferences of Puritan clergy. One at Dedham, involving both Essex and Suffolk men, is well known because its minutes survive and are published. The east of the county, on the other hand, produced the unusual phenomenon of a gentleman-preacher, John Lawrence of South Elmham, acting as the leading Puritan light in that district. The reign of Elizabeth also saw the establishment of lectureships filled by puritan preachers who were appointed by magistrates, towns or individuals. They also held their own regular conferences. Preachers served not only the larger towns like Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, but also small villages like Denham and Chedburgh. East Bergholt even managed to support three lecturers in addition to its incumbent.

The Puritanism of Elizabethan times led eventually to the development of separate nonconformist congregations. This was largely due to the uncompro­mising attitudes of Archbishop Whitgift and his successors who forced Puritan ministers out of the church instead of trying to absorb them. More than 50 Suffolk ministers were suspended in 1584 for refusing to subscribe to Whitgift’s ‘articles’, and in the previous year two in the Bury area, John Copping and Elias Thacker, had been hanged, allegedly for denying the queen’s supremacy.

Civil unrest

In spite of its reputation for good, stable government, Suffolk was not com­pletely devoid of civil unrest in the 16th century. Steadily rising prices, combined with the decline of the broadcloth industry and increased taxation, led to con­siderable discontent among urban and rural workers. In 1525, a rising of some 4,000 in the area around Lavenham and Brent Eleigh, with reverberations in Bury and Cambridge, was put down by the diplomacy of the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, working with the local gentry. Twenty-four years later, in 1549, unrest swept over the whole country resulting, in Norfolk, in what is known as Kett’s rebellion. ‘They have risen in every part of England’, wrote the Spanish ambassador, ‘asking for things both just and unjust.’ The rebels set up camps near centres of local government, since their main grievance was the mismanage¬ment of the ruling classes. In Suffolk camps were established at Bury St Edmunds and Melton (by Woodbridge), but the intervention of local noblemen, influential in government circles, seems to have prevented any real conflict. In Norfolk, on the other hand the use of military force led by ‘foreigners’ from other counties resulted in the famous pitched battle on Mousehold Heath.

In 1553, further risings were sparked off by the accession of Queen Mary, although practically all the gentry of East Suffolk swore their allegiance to her at Framlingham. The only other major disturbance in the area was in July 1569, when an abortive popular rebellion was attempted, chiefly around Lavenham. There a weaver, John Porter, who had also been involved in 1525, seems to have been the ringleader, stirring up ill feeling against nouveaux riches.

Industrial change

The troubles of 1525 had been chiefly due to a slackening of the cloth trade, which forced clothiers to give less work to spinners, weavers and finishers. This setback in the previously rich cloth trade was the first of many increasingly serious recessions in the 16th century. The industry had, by this time, spread over a wider area outside the original centres in southern Suffolk. By the 1550s clothiers were working in such places as Debenham, Badwell Ash and Felsham. Some of them were individually wealthy but the state of the cloth trade as a whole was steadily worsening. This reversal seems to have been due to several factors: a falling demand for Suffolk dyed cloth on the European market, export restrictions in this country, and the activities of specialist companies such as the Merchant Adventurers and the Eastland Company. The final blow to any hope of recovery in the late 16th century was the outbreak of war with Spain. By 1622, clothiers had thousands of unsaleable cloths on their hands and were described as ‘much decayed in their estates by reason of the great losses they have received’.

Suffolk industries of the 17th & 18th centuries
Suffolk industries of the 17th & 18th centuries

The cloths that did become increasingly saleable at this time were the worsted-like ‘new draperies’ which, being lighter and generally more colourful, commanded a wider market. Most districts which had produced broadcloth and other traditional fabrics failed to adapt to the new fashion, and this sealed their fate. As a result, towns and villages which had been famed for woollen cloth, such as Bury St Edmunds, Lavenham and East Bergholt, ended up merely supplying yarn to the weavers of Norwich and Essex. Only the occasional place, such as Sudbury, Haverhill and Glemsford, took up the new fabrics and secured a new lease of manufacturing life.

Coastal areas, too, suffered an eclipse. In the 15th century, Iceland and the North Sea had been highly profitable areas for both fishing and trading. The wealth of those involved is reflected in fine churches, or their remains, all along the coast. Decreasing demand for fish after the Reformation, combined with increasing foreign competition and piracy, progressively limited the activity out of ports which were, anyway, fighting a losing battle with the advancing sea. By the end of the 16th century Dunwich haven was completely blocked, Orford was ‘now lying in the greatest ruin and decay’ and, after 25 years of the new century, Walberswick was said to be ‘one of the poorest townes in England’ (illus. 58). On the other hand, Aldeburgh seems to have maintained its trade, though steadily losing ground to the sea, and Southwold was thriving, despite its silting haven. Ship-building was also a prosperous trade in Ipswich and Woodbridge.

Agriculture and landowning

Throughout this period, agriculture was booming. The enormous increase in population—nearly doubling in the two centuries up to 1650—ensured a grow­ing demand for food and caused its price to rise sevenfold. Wages, on the other hand, only trebled, so providing increasing margins of profit for food producers. This situation was largely responsible for the well-being of the rural gentry and yeoman farmers. Their success is strongly reflected in the writing of the period. The Chorography of Suffolk (c.1603) stresses the flourishing state of dairy farming in High Suffolk; Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points (1570s) firmly associates prosperity with the growing amount of enclosed land in the county; while Robert Reyce in his Breviary (c.1602) judges that frugal living and thriftiness in a period of inflation caused the Suffolk yeomanry ‘to grow with the wealth of this world’. Another factor in their favour was a buoyant market in land, triggered off in the 1530s by the release and break-up of monastic estates.

The sale by the Crown (only in rare instances, gift) of about 200 confiscated manors, together with a great deal of other land, enabled many Suffolk families to increase their land holdings. The majority were already well established in the county. Some, like the Duke of Norfolk, who acquired a larger number of manors than any other individual, were of the nobility; some, like the Jermyns and Bedingfields, were long-standing county gentry; while others, such as the Gosnolds and Chekes were well-to-do yeomen whose entrance into manorial lordship sealed their rise to gentility. Others who strengthened their position in this way were successful merchants like Kitson, Cullum and Alverd, and law­yers or crown servants such as Cordell and Winthrop. Perhaps the outstanding example was Nicholas Bacon, of yeoman stock, who at first was solicitor of the Court of Augmentations (which disposed of monastic property) and attorney of the Court of Wards and Liveries. Later he became Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, amassed extensive property and left a substantial country estate to each of his five sons.

Education and charity

Law became, in Elizabethan times, the ultimate in higher education. Gentle­men’s sons were sent to Inns of Court at London after, or instead of, university. Grammar schools where boys were prepared for university, or at least teachers of grammar, existed by this time in most Suffolk towns and in some villages. The majority of these establishments were short-lived, run by individual masters as a commercial proposition, but an increasing number, like those at Botesdale, Bungay and Eye, came to be endowed with charitable gifts on a permanent basis. By the end of the 17th century, the great majority of the gentry were literate, about 70 per cent of the yeomen and tradesmen, but only very few of the county’s remaining inhabitants. This was a great period for charitable giving when numerous bequests and donations were made towards the relief of the poor. With a steadily growing population, especially in towns, poverty was a major and escalating problem. In the 1520s, about 20 per cent of East Anglians lived in towns, but 150 years later the figure had increased to over 30 per cent, and Ipswich had overtaken Bury St Edmunds as the largest town in Suffolk. By 1600, about 90 places in Suffolk had charitable funds for the poor, and by the middle of the century another 50 places had the same. Sometimes these new charities were combined with those of pre-Reformation times which certain parishes had been able to snatch back from the royal commissioners. About 30 schools were included among these endowments. Ipswich, as might be ex­pected, had by far the largest number of charities.

Suffolk at sea

During Elizabethan and Jacobean times, Suffolk, as a maritime county, was naturally involved with international issues—foreign trade, piracy, war with Spain, colonisation and voyages of discovery. The sea-dogs of Suffolk, though less well-known than those of Devon, included John Eldred who made a fortune trading spices from Syria, and built Nutmeg Hall at Saxham; Thomas Cavendish of Trimley who, in 1586-8, became the second Englishman to circumnavigate the world; and Bartholomew Gosnold who discovered and named Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1602, and helped to found the first permanent settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607. The feats of such men were chronicled by Richard Hakluyt, rector of Wetheringsett, in his Principal Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, first published in 1589.