Meyricke Serjeantson













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.” 2

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.” 4

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.   5 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 The 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
And 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 detection.