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.