The Woodforde Family
The Church of All Saint's Northampton and the Communion Table Controversy
The Communion Table controversy at All Saints, Northampton is
recorded in considerable detail in the diary of Robert Woodforde
when the churchwardens Peter Farren and Francis Rushworth were
ordered to rail in the table and to fix a kneeling bench to it. The
dispute escalated and on 12 January 1637/8 both churchwardens were
Each successive move against the puritans by Laud appeared to have provoked an equally fervent response. The puritan body continued to express their opposition through the printing and publication of critical tracts and pamphlets from various underground presses. From the ranks of fundamentalist protestants emerged a number of leaders, seemingly unconcerned about the obvious danger in which their outspoken criticism of Laud placed them. Inevitably Laud sought to make examples of the most vocal of those who opposed his rule. Prynne, Bastwick and Burton were brought before the Star Chamber on libel charges on 14 June 1637. The resulting punishment of mutilation was carried out on 30 June 1637.
This ruthless persecution failed to check the rise of puritan dissent but certainly prompted an increase in the number of dissenters escaping from persecution and seeking freedom of worship and thought in New England, despite government attempts to curb such emigration.
Those puritans who remained began to align themselves with the Presbyterians. Much of the earlier moderate puritan opinion evaporated and numerous more radical non‑conformist sects began to surface. Despite the constant risk of harsh punishment the underground puritan press continued, giving a voice to the opposition of the dissenters to the Laudian reforms.
The Church of All Saints, Northampton can be viewed as a microcosm of the unilateral reaction of the puritans to the Laudian persecution. During the period covered by the Woodforde diary the church, its minister, curate, churchwardens and congregation came into direct conflict with the Armenian reformers. The results of this confrontation on a personal and local level are recorded most effectively by the diarist.
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© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev
The National Context for Robert Woodford's Diary
The activities of the puritans in England during the first half of the 17th century amounted in part to a protest against the principle, method and implications of the 1559 religious settlement.
The church reformers believed that the Church of Rome, despite the corruption of later centuries, was still the true church. They asserted that by returning to the church of the 4th or 5th centuries and by discarding the `errors' and `superstitions' of later periods, a viable blueprint for a true English church could be found. However, any association with Rome was totally unacceptable to the growing puritan community. To the puritan the logical conclusion of the English Reformation was the early apostolic church of the New Testament. The puritans believed that a church was a community of individuals united only by belief and faith. For them, church membership was not dependent upon a qualification established by state legislation, but was a voluntary association of believers whose aims and ideas were totally spiritual; no hierarchical structure of leadership was deemed necessary as Christ was the head of the one true church. This concept of one church recognising no physical or political boundaries is endorsed throughout the this diary.
Catholics and puritans alike were opposed to any control of religion by a lay authority. They believed that all church matters should be debated and judged from within the church. The encroachment by the state on religious matters was totally unacceptable to the puritan who regarded the state as godless and corrupt.
To the true puritan there was no logical stopping‑place between Rome and Geneva. Any compromise with Rome was seen as a danger to the future of Protestantism. Furthermore, the puritans also disassociated themselves with the Anglican contention that all members of the state were also members of the church.
The death of Mary Tudor in November 1558 had signalled the return to England of the `wolves from Germany', protestants who had found temporary exile as an escape from the persecution prevalent during her reign. The protestants returned with profound Calvinist ideas which helped to initiate an outburst of theological debate and discussion across the country. Even before Elizabeth's coronation, English Catholics anticipated that her succession would lead to major changes in religious practice. The return of the Marian exiles served to fuel these fears and to threaten further religious instability.
As one measure intended to subdue the increasingly vociferous debate, a proclamation was issued late in December 1558 which prohibited all preaching. This proclamation effectively silenced the returning protestants who, though lacking any identity, cohesion or organisation, were united in their desire to extend the English Reformation to further extremes, and to bring the English church in line with the reformed churches on the continent. Without a voice they were unable to make use of the education and learning they had gained in exile.
The subsequent religious settlement of 1559 was in the form of a compromise, unique in Europe. It directed that the doctrine of the English church should be based on Calvinist theology but that the day‑to‑day functions of the church would remain totally structured on the existing hierarchy.
Despite Elizabeth's intention of holding a moderate centre
position, the compromise nature of the Settlement prompted
opposition from extremists and radicals within Catholic and puritan
circles alike for the duration of Elizabeth's reign and beyond.
After various attempts to impede the growing strength of the puritan voice, such as the 1622 decree dictating the scope of afternoon sermons, it was in 1629 that William Laud initiated his `campaign' to end the Elizabethan concept of a church capable of accommodating many diverse theological elements, and to replace it with a uniform church founded on the concepts of royal prerogative and divine episcopacy. The dissolution of Parliament in that year effectively muted any political opposition to Laud's stance, and gave him practically a free hand, using his own bishopric of London as a testing ground before extending his reforming activities nationwide. Almost all surviving political restraint evaporated by 1633 when Laud succeeded Abbot as Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Laudian church was to be a church of unity controlled by an administration of three kingdoms headed by Canterbury. It would be achieved by the careful ordering of every detail of worship and ceremony, the minute and scrupulous scrutiny of the attitudes, beliefs and philosophical persuasions of every minister, and by the appointment of Armenian sympathisers to key positions in the church's structure.
Hand in hand with this reorganisation came the ruthless
extermination of nonconformity by destroying its means of
expression. Laud's interest was in the form and structure of the
church rather than in its spirituality and he believed that unity of
doctrine would follow eventually as an inevitable consequence of
unity in ceremony and worship. The Laudian reformers had no
sympathy with the quest for religious truths, or the liberty of
thought and expression. The priority was the attainment of unity,
and Laud sought to use force to make the Church conform to the rigid
mould of Armenian doctrinal and disciplinary belief.
On 1 April 1634 the Court of High Commission acted against religious meetings in private houses "and other obscure places", ordering that such meetings be broken up and the leaders of such gatherings brought before the court. Thus the Laudian policing of religion extended its reach across the country. In the same year, Laud's Vicar‑General, Sir Nathaniel Brent, commenced his metro political visitation, providing a detailed and searching report into church fabric, discipline, conformity and vestments in the parishes. Brent's report was valuable in uncovering examples of real ignorance and malpractice but its underlying aim was the banishment of Puritanism from the church.