As Parliament engages in momentous decision-making about the future of the country, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section marks the season of Lent with consideration of the solemn and austere approach of early modern Parliaments to periods of political and social crisis…
After the feasting of ‘Pancake Day’ (Shrove Tuesday, this year on 5 March), the six weeks of Lent – for centuries marked in the Christian church by soul-searching and abstinence – are associated with fasting, or at least with giving up luxuries or self-indulgent activities. Following the Reformation British monarchs, churchmen and legislators rejected what they regarded as the superstitious practices and ideas of previous generations, and denied that going without food could automatically earn favour with God. But they were convinced of the value of ‘public humiliation’ or collective repentance in the face of national crises and of expressions of public gratitude when these were averted. From the later-sixteenth century, but with increasing frequency from the 1620s, ‘fasts’ and ‘thanksgivings’ were observed by Parliament and across the nation at the accession of monarchs and in times of war, famine, and epidemic.
When the Long Parliament assembled on 3 November 1640, manifold problems had become so pressing that MPs prioritised petitioning Charles I for another fast. According to a draft message reported by Sir Thomas Roe on 7 November
having taken into serious Consideration the weighty Occasions of this Assembly of Parliament, concerning the true [Worship] of Almighty God, the Safety and Welfare of the King [and this whole Realm]; and well knowing the right Way to obtain a blessed [Issue thereof is, to implore] the Divine Assistance, the Fountain of all Wisdom and Unity, to direct them in all their Consultations, by One Days Solemn Humiliation in Fasting and Prayer
the Commons sought peers’ collaboration in requesting the king ‘for his gracious Allowance of so holy a Preparation to the important Affairs of both Houses of Parliament’ [Commons Journal, ii. 22]. The draft was received favourably and, considering the many tensions surrounding royal policy, the petition bore fruit with remarkable rapidity. Charles issued a proclamation fixing 17 November for observation in London and the suburbs, and 8 December for the rest of the kingdom. He had observed ‘the correcting hand of God upon the Kingdom in many yeers Pestilence, the present interruptions of that long continued blessing of Peace, and other signes of [God’s] anger for the sins of the Land’, and it was appropriate to ‘implore [God’s] mercy and favour’ and seek his blessing on ‘the weighty affairs of State now in agitation in … Parliament’ [National Prayers, i. 376].
In the months which followed, unsettled times made public contrition seem even more urgent. By late December 1641 rebellion in Ireland, with accompanying tales of massacres, led the Commons to ask ‘that a monthly Fast may be kept and observed by both Houses of Parliament, and the whole Kingdom, while the Troubles continue’ [Commons Journal, ii. 355]. An act of Parliament of January 1642 duly established fasts on the fourth Wednesday of every month. At Westminster, previous practices were refined and the occasion acquired added political significance. Although Commons and Lords collaborated in fixing dates, they usually convened separately to mark the fasts, MPs at St Margaret’s church and peers in the King Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. MP Sir Simonds D’Ewes reckoned that 3,000 people might be accommodated at St Margaret’s, and usually the public was admitted. With other business customarily suspended for the day, there would be one sermon in the morning, another in the afternoon, lengthy prayers on topical themes, psalm singing, and a service of Holy Communion. MP Framlingham Gawdy recorded that on 23 February 1642 proceedings began ‘before nine a clock’ and ‘made an end at four a clock’ [Private Journals, i. 447].
Certain MPs had responsibility for organisation. Prominent among these was pious exchequer official William Wheler, whose house in Cannon Row abutted the Palace of Westminster and who was a stalwart of St Margaret’s. From December 1641 he took a leading role in relief efforts for the victims of the Irish rebellion, collections for which were for a while another feature of fast days. On 2 November 1642, for instance, the Commons ordered that £26
collected at the last Fast but one, in the Parish of Westminster, be paid into the Hands of the Committees for Contributions at Westminster; to be disposed of to such distressed English as are come out of Ireland, and now lying about this Town.[Commons Journal, ii. 831]
While participation – or not – in Holy Communion offered an opportunity to check attenders’ religious orthodoxy, the sermons provided a potentially powerful medium of political persuasion; if approved, they were then published [see also Fast Sermons]. Influential Members nominated preachers who would not only supply spiritual edification but also promote their favoured policies. In the earlier 1640s ministers who might be termed Presbyterian predominated, and in 1644 several leading Scottish ministers preached, reflecting the importance then of the Anglo-Scottish alliance; from the later 1640s Independents, who had closer relations with the New Model army, were more noticeable. The controversial verdict that Archbishop William Laud was to be executed for treason was announced in such a sermon, while another preceded the vote for the Self-Denying Ordinance, whereby most MPs renounced military office; negotiations surrounding the 1648 peace treaty with the king at Newport, were also attended by comment from the pulpit. However, hearers were not always easily manipulated. D’Ewes – no royalist – remarked sourly of the fast following the king’s unrolling of his standard at Nottingham in August 1642, and doubtless designed to strengthen parliamentarians’ resolve, that ‘Dr [Calybute] Downing preached in the morning and made a dangerous, seditious prayer and sermon tending only to civil war and bloodshed’ [Private Journals, iii. 328].
Unsurprisingly, the extension of fasts beyond Westminster received a mixed reception. In 1642 the parishioners of Appleton, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), complained to Parliament that their parson would not permit them, while in December 1643 the House was reassured that their commander in the midlands Basil Feilding, 2nd earl of Denbigh, required his officers to attend monthly fasts. But for some, restrictions imposed on other activities on those days made them unpalatable. In August 1642 a parliamentary ordinance demanded abstinence from
all manner of Sportes and Pastimes whatsoever, and … ordinary Trades and Callings … and that all Vintners, Taverners, Alehouse-keepers, and keepers of Victualling-houses doe forebeare to keep open their Doors … or Shops, or to sell … (except in cases of extreame necessity) any Wine, Beere, Ale, or Victuall, till the publike exercises, and religious duties of that day … be past and over.[Acts and Ordinances, 22-4
Regular fasts continued through the civil wars. Parliament in Westminster and the king in Oxford both called on the whole country to observe them, although with different justification and on different days. From 1649 regular sermons were abandoned as liable to stir up disorder, but occasional fasts and thanksgivings persisted, as did the impetus for appropriate solemnity. In April 1650, for example, MPs again considered legislation ‘for the better observation’ of Sundays and of days of ‘Thanksgiving and Humiliation’, including measures for the seizure of goods on sale, fining travellers (except those bound for church), and those caught in taverns, dancing or grinding corn.
Journal of the House of Commons [https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/commons-jrnl ]
Private Journals of the Long Parliament ed. W. H. Coates et al. (3 vols. 1982-1992)
National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation, i. ed. Natalie Mears et al. (2013)
Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, ed. C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait (1911) [https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum ]
The English Revolution: Fast Sermons to Parliament, ed. Robin Jeffs, 32 vols (1970-1)
Achsah Guibbory, ‘Israel and English Protestant Nationalism: “fast sermons” during the English revolution’, in Early Modern Nationalism and Milton’s England, ed. D. Loewenstein and P. Stevens (Toronto, 2008)
Biographies of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Framlingham Gawdy, Sir Thomas Roe and William Wheler are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section. Biographies of Archbishop Laud and Basil Feilding will appear in the forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.
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