Hidden gems of Tudor Church reform: the equal opportunities that never were, and dressing up smart for God…

Jonathan Willis

Chasing up some last-minute references for the book I’ve been writing up over the past year or so on the Ten Commandments, over Easter I found myself making use of a local academic library to consult Gerald Bray’s editions, prepared for the Church of England Record Society, of the Anglican Canons and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum.  As I sat in this unfamiliar space, surrounded by undergraduates feverishly working on essays and revising for their exams, I couldn’t help but be struck by what seemed like some of the more unlikely concerns of sixteenth-century reformers.  The topic of Tudor Church reform doesn’t exactly promise thrills, spills and adrenaline from the outset, but it does occasionally provide a fascinating insight into a range of social and cultural prejudices, alongside the rather more predictable fare of the duties of churchwardens, the alienation and renting out of ecclesiastical goods, and the nuts and bolts of the process of episcopal visitation.


Thomas Cranmer: an equal-opportunities archbishop?

The first nugget I would like to discuss comes from the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, Thomas Cranmer’s projected reform of Canon Law which was kicked into the long grass amidst the fractious politics of 1553, never (except for a brief glimpse in 1571) to return.  In a section on ‘those to be admitted to ecclesiastical benefices’, the Reformatio struck a surprising and unacknowledged early blow for disability equality in the workplace in its twentieth article, ‘Ministers with particular bodily defects are not to be excluded from livings’. [1] The article explained that ‘bodily defects’ which had previously barred men from taking on ecclesiastical duties ‘shall henceforth not have such great importance that a learned and honest man may be debarred from holding a living because of them’.  This was some way from the modern legal approach of ‘reasonable adjustments’, for conditions which were so serious as to prevent ministers performing their core functions were still deemed barriers to employment: so, for example, blindness (which prevented the duty of reading scripture), or muteness (which prevented the duty of preaching).  It is also clear that to some extent the canons still assumed some sort of link between physical and moral or spiritual deformity, explaining that:

If the minister’s appearance is so distorted, or if he has such a nasty and repulsive spirit that people refuse to speak or relate to him, and for that reason he cannot give either public or private counsel and consolation to others in need, we see that he is lacking in almost everything which belongs to his office.


The ISA (Internation Symbol of Access)

The ISA (Internation Symbol of Access)

However, the article maintained, ‘smaller defects, even if they are widespread’, should not bar otherwise learned men from ecclesiastical livings, ‘nor shall they have to make any financial recompense for their deformity’.  Interestingly, this (comparatively) liberal attitude to physical disability was not matched by a prescient liberality in terms of age discrimination.  The twenty-first article on the ministry explained that ‘maturity of years carries authority with it’, and noted that ‘the rashness of youth’ was ‘hardly … appropriate for performing the most sacred tasks and for seriousness’.  Bishops, deans and archdeacons ‘who ought to be of the most perfect character’ were therefore required to be at least 30 years of age, and parish priests and prebendaries 25, clearly a nod to the occasional instances whereby very young men, and even children, had been ordained to sometimes quite senior positions in the late-medieval church for reasons of nepotism or political convenience.



Leo X – a snappy dresser.

The second nugget which caught my eye comes not from Cranmer’s Reformatio, but from the Canons of the 1529 meeting of Convocation.  The article ‘on clerical dress and clothing’ aimed to repair what it considered to be significant abuses in clerical attire, for the reason that such abuses ‘incite an uncommon jealously among the general public and provide a great opportunity for criticism, by wasting the goods of the church’.[2]  Ulinka Rublack has recently described ‘the look of religion’ in early modern Europe, noting the ways in which clothing in the late-medieval Church acted ‘as a vital tool in a symbolic system to claim particular esteem and majesty for its clerical elite and popes in solemn rituals’, and that this clothing was therefore ‘a natural target for those campaigning for religious reforms’.[3]  The clerical estate of early sixteenth-century England, from its embattled position amidst the early skirmishes of the Henrician reformation, clearly recognised the important symbolism of clothing, and sought to take (as it proved to be, in vain) pre-emptive steps to address some of the perceived enormities and abuses of contemporary practice.  The article is a masterpiece of bet-hedging and fence-sitting.  Nobody in holy orders or possession of an ecclesiastical benefice was to wear any kind of silk robe, or furs, unless, of course,

he is a bishop, a member of the house of lords, or at least the son or brother of a baron, or unless he is the vicar general or official principal in the chancery of our lord the king, or of some archbishop or bishop, or an archdeacon or some other ecclesiastical dignitary, or a graduate of one of the universities.


All the rage in the pre-reformation Church...

All the rage in the pre-reformation Church…

The heart was willing, but the flesh was weak.  Nobody was permitted to wear chamois in their gown, unless they were a master of arts or a bachelor of law; and nobody was allowed to wear velvet or sarcenet, unless a graduate or possessor of an ecclesiastical benefice.  There were some universal rules.  Nobody, no matter of what dignity or degree, was allowed to wear velvet in their hat.  Overcoats ought not to be too short nor too long.  Cuffs should be appropriate to the robe in question, and gold rings only worn by those of high standing.  ‘Phrygian’ shirts, woven with gold or silk, were forbidden, as were tasselled hats, multi-coloured boots, and ‘shoes or slippers that have talons sticking out at either end, in the manner of the laity’.  All clerics, the article pronounced, ‘ought to exhibit honesty and modesty in their clothing, and not pomp and splendour’.

The obvious tension here between silk and furred robes and gold rings on the one hand, and ‘honesty and modesty’ in matters of clerical attire on the other, may seem rather inconsequential in the light of the earthquake that would shatter the English clerical establishment in the 1530s; but it is also highly telling of the broader state of the clergy, caught between a genuine desire on the part of some to reform, and the wealth, dignity and sheer inertia of such an ancient and powerful institution.  Come the reformation, tasselled hats and multi-coloured boots would be the least of the Church’s problems, although of course concern over clerical vestments would continue to rear its puritanical head several times more during the sixteenth century…

[1] Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, ed. Gerald Bray (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000), p. 293.

[2] The Anglican canons 1529-1947, ed. Gerald Bray (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998), p. 41.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, Dressing up: cultural identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 82.

3 thoughts on “Hidden gems of Tudor Church reform: the equal opportunities that never were, and dressing up smart for God…

    • Thank you for these suggestions Dave, they are useful broader context. Of course sumptuary legislation tried to control the ways in which the laity dressed as well, restricting certain types or colours of fabric (for example) to the highest status individuals. I didn’t know the Barbara Harvey pamphlet, which looks interesting. And I’m happy to leave Greenblatt alone for the time being if you are!

  1. Pingback: Blogging and the Day Job: Tales from the Blarchive | the many-headed monster

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