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.
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.
most puritans were fundamentalist in their beliefs, and practised a more
strictly disciplined Christian lifestyle.
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
Puritanism in practice
practical terms, a Puritan whilst in church would:
Keep his hat on.
Stand or sit to receive Holy Communion but
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
Refuse to acknowledge the status of
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
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
(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
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."
Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, p.73.
Cathedrall Newes from Cantebury, (1644), p.16.
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© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev
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