The Woodforde Family

A History of the Woodforde Family from 1300




The Woodforde family and Puritan belief

Robert Woodforde (1606-1654) worshipped at All Saints Parish Church in Northampton, a church with a strong and active puritan tradition.

A definition of Puritanism?

It can be difficult to find one `all-purpose' definition of Puritanism.  Some puritans could well be described (and would have accepted the definition) as being radical Protestants; but some would not have seen themselves as specifically radical, but rather, traditional in their faith.  Other definitions have described those of a puritan disposition as a group, but many saw their faith as extremely personal and unique.

The term `puritan’ has become a convenient term for historians but there were many different attitudes and concepts that could be defined as puritan in spirit.

Essentially, most puritans were fundamentalist in their beliefs, and practised a more strictly disciplined Christian lifestyle.

Puritan Concepts

Puritans believed that the only true church was that of the New Testament. They would accept no compromise with Rome on doctrinal structure.
 They would accept no intrusion by the (perceived to be secular) state in the administration and management of the church.

They believed that membership of the church was not dependent on a qualification established by state legislation. Puritans saw the church as a voluntary association of believers whose aims and ideals were entirely spiritual, whose bond was the acceptance of a common creed, and whose only head was Christ.

They stood against the perceived spirit of greed and materialism that saturated society and corrupted the church.  They were against all ceremonial trappings, vestments, `the livery of antichrist’, organs, bowing and kneeling. They believed that the church should be stripped bare of complicated and idolatrous rites, ornaments and superstitions that had accumulated down the ages. 

In reality, all the practices of the average puritan were specifically condemned by the 1604 canons which required:

  • Acceptance of the Royal Supremacy.

  • That the 1604 Prayer Book contained nothing contrary to the Word of God.

  • That the 39 articles of 1562 were agreeable to the Word of God.

This inevitably turned conformists into non-conformists. 

Henry Parker, in A Discourse Concerning Puritans, defined four `types’ of puritanism:

  • In church policy

  • In religion

  • In state

  • In morality

Puritanism in practice

In practical terms, a Puritan whilst in church would:

  • Keep his hat on.

  • Stand or sit to receive Holy Communion but not kneel.

  • Refuse to stand for the Creed.

  • Refuse to bow at the name of Jesus.

  • At a baptism try to prevent the parson from signing the child with the cross.

  • At a wedding ceremony try to prevent the parson from placing a ring on his daughter’s (the bride’s) fingers.

  • Leave his own church, if necessary, in search of a church where the `true word’ was being preached.

  • Ignore the surplus, cassock, university hood, etc.

  • Refuse to acknowledge the status of god-parents.

  • Object to weekday and holy day services (because the puritan was a strict Sabbatarian).


The Court of High Commission

The Court of High Commission began functioning as a regular court in the 1580's when the Government began to take seriously the challenge to the church of the more radical puritan element within the community.  It fulfilled the role of a kind of ecclesiastical supreme court, but assumed powers which were more usually associated with civil legal administration.

In the context of Tudor state administration, the Court of High Commission was an organ of centralisation and government control, with the aim of imposing a national unity of religious thought and behaviour.  Its function for the church was similar to that of the Star Chamber for the civil administration.  It developed from being a court which was concerned with the reforming of manners and behaviour to being a court which raised national revenue.  Like the Star Chamber it began to perform a role which was largely political, not ecclesiastical, and gradually the High Commission and Star Chamber became almost interchangeable in their areas of jurisdiction.

Although most church courts dealt with the alleged offences of the common people the High Commission also sat in judgement of the landowning classes.  In this respect the court gained a certain popularity amongst the common people.  In theory it was the only ecclesiastical court which had the authority to impose fines, imprison and impose forms of corporal punishment. Its real power lay in the potent combination of the approach and attitude of an ecclesiastical court, unlimited and without the machinery of appeal, with the functions and procedures of a civil court.

In general the Court of High Commission was a despised and feared organ of state. In the last decade of its existence it included the most powerful and influential figures at Court and in the Government, and it was able to impose the most severe penalties upon any person whom it regarded as a threat to the religious or civil unity of the country.  It has been compared frequently with the Spanish Inquisition Opposition to the High Commission came from a wide cross-section of social group; from the common lawyers who were concerned by the power and latitude of the jurisdiction of the court; from puritans and printers, both denied the natural and historic right of free expression;  from rich litigants who were particularly vulnerable to the excessive and punitive fines frequently imposed by the Court; and from an ever-growing body or lay opinion which resented and questioned the very existence of such a court.

The High Commission was described by Penry as "this blood and tyrannous inquisition. (1637) that the chief use whereof is now only to advance, protect and defend their own usurped ecclesiastical Episcopal jurisdiction.

The majority of cases dealt with by the High Commission were not initiated by them. Bishops often referred to the Court those cases which they feared they would lose, a practice which led ultimately to the charge that the High Commission was rendering ineffective the lower church courts. 

In a last attempt to buttress the authority of the Commission, Charles I in 1638 reminded them that they were authorised by letters patent under the great seal, a civil privilege not shared by the other church courts. The High Commission was abolished in 1641 when, as one contemporary noted "the iron teeth of the Beast were knocked out and the sting of abused excommunication was plucked out of his tail."

Arber, An Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, p.73.
Culmer.R, Cathedrall Newes from Cantebury, (1644), p.

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© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev 07/08/05


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