It was impossible to separate religion and politics in the seventeenth century. In general, the king and his supporters favoured the reforms of Laud, while parliament generally favoured the Puritan position, although it was not always quite that cut and dried. Some Puritans as the century wore on began to question the whole establishment of the Church of England, and particularly the authority of bishops who, they claimed were ‘unbiblical’. This was a step too far for more moderate Puritans in parliament, who wanted to maintain the status quo, and would therefore be more likely to support the king.
Hythe’s M.P.s during the years leading up to the civil wars were a mixed bunch. In the early years of the seventeenth century the town played safe, electing local gentry and their hangers-on. In 1604 Sir John Smythe of Westenhanger was elected, together with his father’s old servant and friend Christopher Toldervey. When Smythe died in 1608, he was replaced by Norton Knatchbull of Mersham Hatch near Ashford, the founder of the grammar school in the town. He declined the honour of re-election in 1614, by which time Toldervey was also dead.
The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports had, by custom but not by right, been used to nominating at least one of the two members for Hythe. In 1614, he nominated Sir Lionel Cranfield, surveyor-general of the customs, ‘whose quality both for worth and sufficiency I know to be void of all exception’. John Smythe’s brother, Richard, was elected for the other seat in what was to be known as the Addled Parliament.
Sir Richard Smythe had become very rich through a combination of financial acumen and a predilection for wealthy widows and had bought and rebuilt Leeds Castle. He wanted to carry on with the business of making money, despised politics and did not want to be an M.P., but seems to have been pressured into it by his family. Sir Lionel was not yet very rich, but had ambitions to be so. The son of a London mercer, his rise in the service of the king had been meteoric and he hoped that the Hythe seat would lead to greater glory. He eventually became Lord High Treasurer before falling out badly with the Duke of Buckingham and suffering an equally meteoric fall.
In the event, neither man had much opportunity to prove themselves or otherwise, as the king, James I, dissolved the Addled Parliament only nine weeks after it first assembled because it was side-tracked by rumours of election fixing and did not get down to the king’s business of raising money to get him out of his financial difficulties. He did not call parliament again until 1621.
This time the Lord Warden nominated both M.Ps, one of his relatives Richard Zouche, and Peter Heyman of Sellinge. Zouche, an academic, was in inactive member, but Heyman from the start was a favourite of the corporation. Unlike Zouche, who thought it ‘needless’, he came to Hythe to personally present to the corporation the Lord Warden’s letter of recommendation, and was entertained to dinner. In parliament he spoke up for the Cinque Ports, and was strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Laud and often spoke out against pluralism in the Church (ie holding more than one benefice in the Church, perhaps a sensitive subject in Hythe). Together with the inoffensive Zouche he was re-elected in 1624. In May of that year, the corporation sent him a dozen fish, and in June it resolved to let him have ‘a billet in the town for the freeing of his goods and chattels’. He was obviously a frequent visitor.
By the time of the 1625 election to Charles I’s first parliament, the Duke of Buckingham held the post of Lord Warden, having openly bought it from the previous incumbent. Heyman was abroad, and not eligible to stand and Zouche has taken up a post at Oxford university. Buckingham tried to nominate two candidates for election, but Hythe corporation, already had one of their own, and duly elected him. The next year, with Heyman back in the country they did not bother to wait for Buckingham’s nomination but proceeded to an election as soon as was legally possible, choosing Heyman, and Basil Dixwell of Folkestone. The Duke’s nomination arrived four days later; the corporation apologised profusely but said the election was legal and could not be overturned and then took their two new M.P.s out to dinner to celebrate. Heyman and Dixwell were both suitably grateful. Heyman sent rabbits and venison, and Dixwell, a wealthy landowner (he later built Broome Park near Barham) gave ‘liberty to all the inhabitants of this town at all times hereafter to carry and recarry, go and return over his land called the Slip at the east end of the town … without paying anything for the same’. This carrying way was probably on the same site as the present Twiss Road in Hythe.
This was another short parliament, which refused to grant money to the king unless he impeached his friend Buckingham for, among other things, buying the wardenship of the Cinque Ports. The king refused and dissolved parliament. This meant he had no money to meet the expense of running two wars, with France and with Spain. Instead, he raised a forced loan which yielded £267,000 over two years, but which was mostly squandered by Buckingham’s farcical attempt to take the French port of the Ile de Rhe, which ate up £200,000.
It is impossible to describe any of the momentous events of the English civil wars without discussing the religious struggles that underpinned them. Religion was central to the social order then in a way perhaps inconceivable to us today. It played a crucial part in the way people were governed and the way in which they behaved. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Sunday attendance at an Anglican church was obligatory; all marriages took place in an Anglican church; all funerals and baptisms took place in an Anglican church. If you slandered your neighbour, you were tried in a Anglican church court and made your public penance in your local Anglican church. Later in the century you could not hold any public office unless you had a certificate from your minister to confirm that you had received communion in an Anglican church within the last year. At most times during these years being openly Roman Catholic was dangerous, and non-conformity was regarded as subversive.
The Church of England at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the church of the Elizabethan settlement of over forty years before. A triumph of compromise on Elizabeth’s part, the Act of Uniformity of 1559 had been designed to make the church acceptable to as many people, Catholic and Protestant, as possible, and to end the persecution and bonfires of the reign of Bloody Mary. Processions associated with Catholic Church were banned, as were monuments to ‘fake’ miracles, including the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Presumably the miraculous crucifix associated with St Leonard’s Church in Hythe in the middle ages disappeared at this time. Only clergymen with an MA could preach, with a licence from the diocese. These were not numerous, so ordinary clergy were restricted to reading from books of pastoral advice, which must have been deadly dull for the parishioners.
The theology of the Church was largely Calvinist, including the doctrines of election and predestination, that is, that the Almighty had predestined for salvation only a tiny handful, the elect, leaving the degenerate majority to everlasting damnation. No amount of good works or praying to saints could get a soul to heaven if it was not on the list of the elect. This approach appeased the Puritans, but they disliked the remnants of Catholicism which remained in the church. As with any compromise, the settlement did not please everyone.
John Calvin who taught that all souls are predestined for either salvation or damnation
Who were the Puritans? They are often regarded as killjoys and pedants, and it is true that they believed that life was not for frivolity or pleasure but for the fulfilment of God’s commands. They were strongly Calvinist and equally strongly anti-Catholic and abhorred everything in the church that had the taint of popery, such as the surplices worn by the clergy, or bowing at the name of Jesus. Preaching the word of God and the study of scripture always mattered more to them than sacramental rituals. They set themselves high standards, with an emphasis on self-examination to reassure themselves they were among the elect and that they were doing the Lord’s work. Their beliefs required a constant striving after salvation and a refusal to compromise with sin.
This suggests a joyless existence, but the knowledge of salvation, that he or she was among the elect, brought an inner satisfaction and a consciousness of communion with God. It gave an individual the self-confidence to carry out God’s work, and Puritans were likely to gravitate naturally towards positions of authority in the local community. They sought to manage the behaviour of their weak and sinful brethren for the greater glory of God. It was their duty to stamp out the ungodly depravity that surrounded them: they were particularly exercised by violations of the sanctity of the Sabbath, and by pastimes such as drinking, dancing round the maypole or attending the theatre. Even bell-ringing could be regarded as sinful.
Hythe Puritans were fortunate in getting several curates in the first twenty years of the seventeenth century who had MAs, and could preach. Most of these only stayed a year or two, before moving on to parishes of their own, but in 1621 Thomas Kinsgsmill was appointed and stayed until his death in 1640. How often he managed to preach in Hythe, or even to lead services is open to question, as he was also, at various times during his curacy Vicar of Lympne and Rector of Stodmarsh.
There was very little Hythe Puritans could do about the quality of the men appointed to church offices, but there was plenty they could do in local government. In Hythe we can see their influence starting during the Elizabethan period. In 1582, Simon White was dismissed as a jurat because of adultery with ‘the maiden Alice Dell’. Undeterred, he moved to New Romney, became a freeman there, seduced another young woman and was once more ejected from the corporation. It was tough being a reprobate when Puritans ran the town.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Hythe jurats were condemning the ‘horrible sin of drinking and swearing which is greatly used within this town to the great offence of almighty God’. Ten years later they had a veritable purge of ungodly pursuits. To coincide with the beginning of Lent, the maypole was dug up and the jurats insisted that the hole where it had stood be filled in, to erase all memory of the abomination. The same year, they put in place strict limitations on performances by travelling players. Anyone caught allowing the players to use a private house for such entertainment would be fined.
Puritans can be identified in death as well as in life. Their Calvinism taught them Jesus had died to save them, and that this alone and no amount of prayer or penance or good works would change the will of the Almighty and gain a place in heaven for a soul not predestined for salvation. They expressed this faith in their wills. It was normal in the seventeenth century to start a will with the bequest of one’s soul to God. A non-Puritan might leave his soul to ‘Almighty God my creator’. The Puritan would leave it to ‘Almighty God and to His Son my Redeemer by whose death and passion I hope and expect to be saved and by none other means’. Most Hythe wills of the seventeenth century use this format, or a variation of it.