The Religious background
The exact part played by religion in the Civil War has never yet been fully
understood. Historians, from Clarendon onwards, have engaged themselves
in the task of unravelling this problem but they have all been defeated
by the fact that religion affects men in different ways. It would not be
far from the truth to say that religion played as many different parts
in the war as there were participants. Once this limitation has been accepted,
however, it becomes possible to examine the religious background and to
draw some conclusions.
There are several contemporary descriptions of religious life within the
town none of which, unfortunately, are very detailed. Richard Baxter spent
his early years in the village of Eaton Constantine, about eight miles
from Shrewsbury, from which vantage point he made some rather uncomplimentary
comments about the local clergy.
We lived in a country that had but little preaching at all. In the village
where I was born there was four readers successively in six years time,
ignorant men, and two of them immoral in their lives, who were all my school
masters. In the village where my father lived there was a reader of about
eighty years of age that never preached, and had two churches about twenty
miles distant. His eyesight failing him, he said common prayer without
a book; but for the reading of the psalms and the chapters he got a common
thresher **** one year, **** and a tailor another year.1
Only three or four constant competent preachers lived near us, and those
(though conformable all save one) were the common marks of the peoples
obloquoy and reproach, and any that had gone to hear them, when he had
no preaching at home, was made the derision of the vulgar rabble under
the odious name of a puritan.
As well as the obvious assertions about the condition of the church in the area
these statements show that the title 'puritan' was used as a term of abuse,
rather than as a detailed description of religious practice. Only one of the
clergy in Shrewsbury, itself, was a writer of any note.
Peter Studley, the curate of St Chad's, gained notoriety by writing a tract
attacking the local sectaries. A picture of both Studley and his church,
allbeit written by a renowned opponent of the Laudian church, provides
a good idea of the man's convictions.
We took only a view of that church, of the parish where Mr Stubbs is parson,
who published (as I have heard) a false and unjust relation of the murder
committed by a young man, Enoch ap Evans, upon his mother. This church
is of late gaudily painted, wherein you may find many idle, ridiculous,
vain, and absurd pictures, representations, and stories, the like whereunto
I never saw in England. 3
The tract written by Studley describes a town filled with active dissidents.
Know good reader that this towne of Shrewsbury, the place of my birth
and residence is greatly troubled, with a sect of men and women with whom
I have had much intercourse of conversement, not by way of intimate familiarity,
approving their ways; but of vexation and trouble of minde that I coulde
not in thirteene yeares painefull ministry among them, reclame them from
their wanderings fancies, and reduce them to obedience of his supreme majestie.
There are no other specific references to this sect so that it is difficult
to assess the influence that they had in the town. The nature of their
non-conformity is equally difficult to discover but it would seem likely
that they were Independents, perhaps the fore-runners of the Quakers, who
were to be established in the town by 1657.
In the years referred to by Studley, three residents were called before High Commission but they
all proved themselves conformable before any detailed description of their
activities was made in the court's records. 6
One of the three, Owen George, was to become mayor in 1648. James Betton, curate of St Mary's, was called
before the court in 1640. 7
There is no record of any charge being made against him at this time; indeed, at the visitation of 1635 he was described
as being as conformable as any. 8
At the start of the war, however, he fled the town, returning in time to be made a member of the first presbyterian
classis in the county. 9 Archbishop Laud's visitation found many faults in the
town's churches but there was little opposition to his demands for reform.
Only Mr Bedford, from St Mary's, was found to be not conformable and he was acquitted through lack of evidence. 10 Hill mentions one Julius Herring,
a lecturer at Shrewsbury who moved to Amsterdam, as being an example of the type of extreme puritan appointed by the Feoffees for Impropriations. 11 Further details of Herring's career are scarce but it would seem that
he was a preacher with considerable popular appeal. 12
Feoffees, themselves, were of great importance in the religious history of the town.
There is little evidence of any widespread popular opposition to the established
church, although a short verse attacking the Scottish wars was found, and
sent to Lord Keeper Coventry. 13
Lord bless this our potatoe pie,
And pull out all the Bishops eyes
now we are of great might
We mean to make you bloody fight.
These scattered pieces of information do not give a detailed picture of
the ecclesiastical situation within the town, the only reasonable conclusion
being that Shrewsbury, in common with most of the country, was divided
in its religious views, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and more extreme
elements being active. There is, however, no record of any Roman Catholicism.
Either there were no priests, or those that there were managed to escape