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Parish Life and Alternatives To It

The number of London’s parishes remained remarkably stable before the Great Fire of 1666, though many of the dynamics of parish life changed. People’s social worlds were never limited to their parishes, but church services marked important moments in their lives: infants were baptized, and the dead were buried from the parish church. A parish cared for its poor. Religious doctrines and practices could divide parishes. Recusants, unwilling to leave their Catholic faith behind, left the parish instead. Foreign dignitaries in London enjoyed diplomatic immunity from compulsory attendance, and immigrant communities, like the French Huguenots, were allowed to build their own churches.

Plan of pews and the names of their holders. Manuscript, ca. 1600

Lists of parishes, like that copied out in Thomas Trevelyon's miscellany give navigational hints in their names: Breadstreet, by the wall, at Paul's wharf, and so on. Historically, the basic demographical information we have comes from parish records. Churchwardens recorded the births and deaths in their parishes. A tiny printed form, collected by the traveler George von Schwartzstät, vividly illustrates the course of a plague scourge in 1609, showing that nearly half the deaths in London during the week of August 24 were from the plague. There were only one-third as many births as deaths — a clue that London’s population growth was a product of immigration.


Another traveller, Alessandro Magno, was a Venetian merchant who travelled to London in the fall of 1562. He added a sketch to his travel diary of St. Paul’s cathedral under renovation. He decried the English Protestant “heresy” and described going to Catholic mass at the homes of the Spanish and French ambassadors. He reported that Londoners “look at us suspiciously, but they say nothing, and since the ambassadors are allowed to have [mass] said, we are permitted to attend.” Religion was grounds for diplomatic immunity.


But religious doctrines were divisive within parishes, and the political climate continued to change. Henry VIII made Edmund Bonner Bishop of London when the English church was Catholic. His son, Edward VI, imprisoned him for not imposing the use of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer in the diocese of London. Then, Edward’s Catholic sister Mary reinstated Bonner, and under Mary, he issued the “Visitation Articles,” or requirements for the doctrinal compliance of every parish priest under his rule. With them, he turned the clock back to Catholicism, though it would turn once more when Elizabeth succeeded her sister four years later and imprisoned Bonner once again.


Although a parish worshipped together as one “body,” social and gender distinctions still prevailed. In fact, a seating chart, such as the one above, ensured that social distinctions were maintained. The choir area was preserved for men, for instance, and their “goodwives” were assigned pews further back. This chart shows the seating at St. Margaret’s Westminster, a religiously conservative parish. In 1593, new regulations dictated who got to be a pew-holder. Anyone falling into poverty (and onto the relief list of the parish) had to surrender his or her pew. These regulations were especially hard on widows, who made up a large percentage of any parish’s poor. If you look closely at the document, you'll notice extensive smudging — this represents repeated scrapings of the vellum and insertions of new names to keep the pew assignments current.

Trevelyon. Miscellany. Manuscript, 1608

Bill of Mortality for August 24–August 31, 1609. London, 1609

Alessandro Magno. Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys. Manuscript, 1557–65

Church of England. Visitation articles. London, 1554

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