halesworth

A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.

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Volume 3



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Religion in Halesworth in the 16th & 17th Centuries

The background to the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries is one of conflict in politics and religion, for when Henry VIII embarked on the reformation of the English Church, he set off a chain of events which was to affect every person in the country from the richest to the poorest. On the social side, the Dissolution of the Monasteries made itself felt, with the priests, monks and nuns becoming homeless. They were added to the large numbers of the poor who had relied on the monasteries as one reliable source of food and shelter, so the numbers of vagrants and beggars increased. The 'Vagrants Act' of 1547 allowed any able-bodied vagrant to be judged as such by two magistrates, branded with the letter 'V' and placed in charge of anyone wanting him as a slave. He was kept in slavery for two years.

The former lands of the monasteries were passed to owners of estates who extended the enclosure of these lands for parkland and grazing, thus reducing the numbers of agricultural workers required in the countryside. This led to a reduction in the amount of grain available and, as the contemporary writer, William Harrison wrote in his Description of England (1577) 'if the worlde last a little while after this rate, wheate and rye will be no grain for poor men to feed on'.

The churches were subject to the brutal removal of most of the things which had brightened and decorated them with colour in the past. The stained glass windows contained images which were considered 'superstitious' and so were smashed. The memorial brasses on tombs or set into the floor had the requests for prayers removed, or even the whole brass plate ripped out. The church plate and the richly jewelled vessels containing the relics of saints became the property of the Crown, and so were confiscated and melted down for the use of the Treasury. Some nationally famous statues, such as the Virgin and Child from the Shrine at Walsingham, were taken to London to be burned in public, to show that this aspect of worship was over in the new reformed church.

Another loss was the removal of the Chancel Screen and Rood loft which filled the chancel arch and was the focus of much of the ritual of the Roman Catholic tradition. Many of these were of extremely high craftsmanship, and the screens at Bramfield, Blythburgh and especially the restored screen at Southwold, give us some idea of their splendour. The order came that the Rood, which consisted of the raised cross with the figure of Christ and the two figures of St John and of Mary standing each side were to be removed, and the Rood loft, a kind of gallery above the screen was to be destroyed. There was much concern at these instructions, and at Halesworth in 1576 a complaint was made against WaIter Norton of Gothic House 'charging him to have heard a masse in his hawse and also to have withstoode the pulling down of the Rodelofte in the parish church of Haselworth'.

Returns of Churchwardens for 1547 tell us what happened to the money when the parishes sold their own church plate, for it could be put to various purposes. At Bungay St Mary it was used for a church extension, at Dunwich it was put to good use in strengthening the sea defences, while at Chediston and at Laxton, it was used to whitewash the walls of the church to cover up the many wall paintings which were now no longer permitted.

During the short reign of Edward VI (1547-53) the Book of Common Prayer was introduced and the 42 Articles were published. This was followed by the Catholic reign of Mary (1553- 58) which reversed all the actions and Acts of Parliament of the preceding years bearing on changing the religious ritual. Times were very difficult, and the return of Catholicism created problems for all those priests who had married, or held strong views against the Catholic Church were removed. 


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