St John the Evangelist, Leeds.

DSCF0371St John the Evangelist in Leeds is a seventeenth century church built  between 1632-34.  To put that in context this is during the later part of the twelve years when Charles I ruled without Parliament.  In 1638  John Hampden was sent to trial for refusing to pay ship tax  (traditionally paid in coastal communities but not by the whole country) and John Lilburne was flogged for selling un-licensed Puritan books.  Between the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559 and the onset of the English Civil War there were an increasing number of strands of protestant belief. Many of these branches of Puritanism did not want to be part of the Church of England because they saw it as too ritualistic and too hierarchical. In 1639 Charles I went to war with his Scottish subjects in the so-called Bishops War about the prescriptive content of the prayer book.  During this period of increasing religious turbulence, just prior to the English Civil War, very few new churches were built in England. During the Commonwealth period new churches harked back to the past – the Crown and to superstitious times.  To build a new church would have been an act of defiance against Parliament. Prior to the Commonwealth Period there were new chapels built during the reign of Charles I, notably by Inigo Jones in 1627 – the Queen’s Chapel at St James.  However, the queen in question was Henrietta Maria who was, of course, a Catholic. Consequentially if you had enough money for a new-fangled architect designed place of worship you ran the risk of being associated with European ideas, the Court, Laudianism and at worst Catholicism. In 1636 a new chapel was built in Somerset House – it was a Catholic Chapel.

Of course, that’s not to say that existing medieval churches didn’t have the occasional interior overhaul or extension in an era before the advent of the need for church faculties or conformity to planning regulations.

Yesterday’s post about Staunton Harold Church built during the Commonwealth period was a statement of Robert Shirley’s political and religious affiliations. John Harrison, who paid for St John’s building, was not a baron.  He was a wealthy wool merchant and local politician.  He was also one of Leeds’ benefactors. The building of St John’s was more about doing good for the people of Leeds as were Harrison’s other building ventures.  He helped pay for the Moot Hall and the market cross, a row of almshouses and the grammar school. Unfortunately the Jacobean architecture for which the church is famous (and yes I know the church was built ten years after the death  of James I) is beautifully decorated with angels and all sorts of other embellishments which are very decorative and thus not at all what Puritans approved. Nor would they have been very happy about the fact that the altar is against the East wall of the church and that there were screens to separate the congregation from the most Holy place within the church.

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The heavily carved pulpit makes the link to the importance of sermons for Puritans.  To hear and understand what the preacher had to say was an essential part of Puritan belief. Most pulpits dating from this time are plain, often of unpainted oak and usually octagonal.  This was the period of the triple-decker  pulpit.  If you’re curious about the tester or “roof” over some pulpits from this period it was so that the sound of the preacher’s voice didn’t disappear into the rafters of the church but so that it improved the acoustics for the congregation.

DSCF0380Parliament believed that Harrison was a Royalist and there is a tale that when the king was in Leeds as a prisoner that Harrison took him a lidded tankard of ale, except rather than ale the contents of the pot were gold coins – whether this was to support the king during his captivity or facilitate his escape is a matter for speculation. The moment is commemorated in the Harrison Memorial Window but this was not created until the nineteenth century.  And it would have to be said that Harrison didn’t get on with all of Leeds’ inhabitants.  There were a number of scurrilous songs about him – we know about this because there was a court case with Harrison taking twenty-two people to court for libel.

 

DSCF0384The problem for Harrison was that he lived in difficult times and despite his generosity he was insufficiently Puritan for some tastes.  In time he found himself being fined by Parliament – which must have been somewhat irritating given that he had loaned them money in 1642. As a result of his ultimate loyalty to Charles I and also as a result of his religious faith which although not described as Laudian was not as austere as Puritan taste demanded much of his wealth was confiscated and his is, described by an article from the Yorkshire Evening Post (29 Oct 2005), as spending his final years in comparative poverty.

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St John’s looks from the outside like a typically Gothic medieval church but the woodwork inside – the panelling, the pulpit and the screens inside are decidedly Jacobean. The coat of arms are those of James I (he died in 1625) before the church was built so it may have been that Harrison was trying not to make too public a statement in regard to his loyalty to the Crown.  The royal coat-of-arms are a feature of churches dating from the Act of Supremacy in 1534 which made the monarch the head of the Church of England.  These days the coats of arms can turn up any where within a church but during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they tended to be placed where the rood screen would have once stood. There is nothing subtle about Harrison’s screen.

It is a remarkable survival not least because there were some Victorian “improvements” which included the removal of the screen.  It was only by chance that it was rediscovered and returned to its correct location. The south porch actually was demolished and the tower rebuilt.

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At this point, you may like me, be wondering what other churches were built during this period. The seventeenth century is not exactly knee deep in new churches excluding all those Sir Christopher Wren creations in London built to replace medieval buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.  So here goes – the church at Berwick-Upon-Tweed was rebuilt in 1641 with money given by Charles I.  I think it was finished after the First English Civil War – though of course it wasn’t brand new – it was replacing a medieval church that had been rather badly knocked about. There is a church in Hargrave in Cheshire built by a former Lord Mayor of London – essentially a “local boy done good story” who then returned to his native Cheshire to create a church and school. There may be others but I have not yet stumbled across them.  St Charles the Martyr in Tonbridge Wells is Baroque and built during the 1670s but that is clearly post-Restoration as are the Wren builds and, like the Wren churches, the architecture has moved on from Jacobean to Baroque which is definitely a heavily ornamented period.

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Price’s Church Primer

Victoria County History

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.

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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