Sir Robert Shirley, Laudianism and an unusual protest against Cromwell’s Commonwealth

Staunton Harold ChurchStaunton Harold in Leicestershire, just a stone’s throw from Ashby de la Zouche.  It’s seventeenth century church reflects the principles of Laudianism.

Laudianism was the approach to religion and belief favoured by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud.  On a superficial level Laud can simply be seen as wishing for a return to ritual, vestments and rich furnishings.  He also advocated the return of altars to the east wall of the chancel rather than a more central table.   It also placed an emphasis upon hierarchy. None of these things were particularly appealing to members of the church with a Calvinist mindset.

Even worse, Laud’s theology differed from those with more Puritanical leanings.  Calvinists believed in predestination.  Essentially you either were one of the elect or you weren’t – you could not save yourself from damnation by good works.  Laud was more optimistic in that he preferred to focus on God’s grace towards mankind and free will.

Unsurprisingly both groups believed they were right.  The Puritans saw church furniture such as the return of altar rails keeping God’s people at arm’s length so as to speak was rather too close to Rome for comfort. Meanwhile Laud was stressing that the altar was the “Greatest place of God’s residence upon earth.”  Salvation for puritans was through faith alone – there was not the need of the altar for communion and we are not even going to go down the route of transubstantiation.

Charles I favoured Laud.  When Laud was promoted from the bishopric of London to that of Canterbury he effectively became the spokesman for the Church of England which Puritans at the other end of the spectrum found somewhat alarming. Though as with all things painting in black and white does not do justice to the nuances of religious belief of the seventeenth century or the degree to which those in power tolerated the beliefs or not of their countrymen – and it certainly isn’t a topic for a brief post.

Into this increasingly complex world came Sir Robert Shirley.  He was just seventeen when he inherited Staunton Harold and the title Baron Ferrers (he was the 13th baron)  from his brother Charles in 1646 – the English Civil War seems not to have affected Staunton Harold or the Shirleys up until this point.

Unfortunately Robert Shirley was not like his brother who had done remarkably well to keep such a low profile in an area criss-crossed by assorted armies during the period.  Robert had been raised as a Protestant by his mother but the Shirley family were known for their Catholicism.  Perhaps for Shirley, Laudianism presented a middle ground where he felt comfortable. Robert was also a staunch royalist.

Robert now spent the next ten years irritating Cromwell and Parliament.  In 1648 he was caught up in the fighting for Ashby Castle. To be fair it was more of a drunken brawl that an attempt to take on the Parliamentarian garrison.  Shirley was packed off to Leicester where he was imprisoned and then accused of plotting with fellow Royalist goal-birds to ferment rebellion. He was also accused of stockpiling weapons at Staunton Harold. Shirley claimed he was the victim of some unfortunate confusion. He was also just nineteen years old.

In 1650 he found himself in the Tower having been set up by an agent provocateur and his estates were sequestrated. This particular episode began with a letter sent from some of the gentlemen of Staffordshire to the Rump Parliament denouncing the execution of Charles I.  Shirley added his signature along with some Leicestershire gentry.  Parliament responded by demanding that their various county committees investigate the men that they now styled “delinquents.” In Leicestershire this was backed up by confiscating all of Shirley’s rents and income. Shirley tried to untangle his finances from the Tower explaining that if Parliament sequestrated his estate rental then he would not be able to pay outstanding debts or care for his family.  Interestingly he didn’t attempt to naysay the notion that he was a delinquent although in his next missive he did take the authorities to task for their labelling of him. After six months of imprisonment he was freed. He did not receive a “get out of jail free card.”  He was required to offer a security of £10,000.

In December 1652 Shirley reappears in the official record on account of the fact that he was having to defend himself against the charge of being a “malignant Royalist landlord.”  Basically a couple of his Parliamentary supporting tenants had been on the receiving end of Shirley’s spite. Shirley needed to prove that the families who petitioned against him were not respectable Parliamentarians at all and that they were simply using his well known royalist credentials as a way of backsliding.  History does not know what the court decided.

In 1653 Shirley began to build an unusual architectural protest against the political and religious situation.  He also seems to have been part of the Sealed Knot – the underground Royalist organisation that plotted for the return to England of Charles II. It seems unwise to draw attention to yourself by building a new chapel kitted out with Laudian features at the same time as indulging in some serious plotting against authority but that is exactly what Robert Shirley did. By 1654 Shirley was purchasing arms, writing to royalists abroad and co-ordinating resistance to Parliament in the East Midlands.  In the prequel to the Royalist rising known as Penruddock’s Rising (March 1655) after John Penruddock who managed to get himself executed in Exeter, Shirley came to the notice of Cromwell’s intelligence network.

John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster, now discovered that Shirley was planning to blow Cromwell up. But it didn’t really matter because Shirley had done something much more noticeable than concocting fantastical plots.  He had built Staunton Harold Church of the Holy Trinity – which was the private chapel of the Shirley family.  Staunton Harold boasts being one of the few churches built during the Commonwealth Period and it certainly didn’t meet with Cromwell’s approval.  The altar is aligned to the east wall of the chancel which is screened by rough iron gates.  The lavish silk velvet altar frontal yells Laudianism. And that’s before visitors to the Church even get so far as studying the painted ceiling in the nave.  It’s hues of grey depict the creation of the World by God.  Humankind are on the right hand side of the ceiling looking towards God whilst opposite them the head of a dog looks back in the direction of chaos – on one hand it might be the creation of animals on the other Shirley did liken Cromwell to a dog so it might be more of an oblique comment on Shirley’s views about the Protector’s religious beliefs.

Stunton Harold ceiling

Cromwell suggested that if Shirley could afford to build such a lavish chapel complete with box pews and a pulpit he could outfit one of Parliament’s ships.  Shirley declined and found himself back in the Tower where he spent his time considering how the Sealed Knot could best be reformed to be more effective.  Unfortunately he died whilst imprisoned aged twenty-seven.  Inevitably there were suggestions that he had been poisoned.  Robert never saw his completed church. His son’s guardians would complete the building and the message above the door which is Shirley’s legacy:

“In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation, Either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, Founded this church; Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”

 

And for those of you who like a moment of complication – the Earl of Essex who was Parliamentarian, perhaps  in part thanks to his humiliation over his divorce from Frances Howard so that she could marry James I’s favourite Robert Carr and become the Countess of Somerset, was Robert Shirley’s uncle.  Robert’s mother was Dorothy Devereaux – whose father managed to get himself executed for treason against Elizabeth I and whose mother was the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham.  If one climbs a little further up the family tree Robert Shirley was descended from Catherine Knollys the unacknowledged daughter of Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII.

 

If you are in the West Riding and feel the urge to visit a seventeenth century church – St James in Leeds was built during the reign of Charles I and is resplendent in terms of its woodwork.  I shall be ferreting through my photographs and a post will follow!

https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/1982-83/1982-3%20(58)%2025-35%20Lacy.pdf

One thought on “Sir Robert Shirley, Laudianism and an unusual protest against Cromwell’s Commonwealth

  1. Bibles in their boots. I blame saint Paul for his lies as religion is but poison and caused nothing but evil. If man forgot all Paul the Roman jew and the new testament this world would be able to see God. Deluded they all were and sad waste of human life balanced on Christianity.

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