Wednesday 22 June 2022


King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c1520,
National Portrait Gallery London

IN 1509 Henry VIII. began his reign. The following year was marked by an outbreak of the plague in Eton, and in consequence most of the Eton School boys were removed to Langley Marish, but there is no record of the extent of the disease, or of any unusual mortality in the parish. 

During this reign, three great processions passed through the town. The first was in 1519. The King had kept St. George's day with great pomp and then rode from Richmond through Hounslow, Slough, and Eton, attended by the Knights of the Garter and their suites. A writer of the day describes it as being "as great solemnity, as it had been the feast of a Coronation."

Another remarkable procession was the funeral of one of Henry's wives, Jane Seymour. This took place in 1537. On the three previous days, labourers were employed to repair the road between Long Bridge (Fifteen Arch Bridge) and Baldwin's Pool. It would appear that the road had suffered from the heavy traffic connected with the building of the College, so the cost¹ was undertaken by the College. 

A still more gorgeous spectacle was the funeral of King Henry VIII., whose body was brought from Westminster to Windsor. The procession is said to have been four miles in length. On the coffin drawn by eight horses was a wax effigy² of the deceased King. As it passed through each parish, it was received by the clergy and choirs, holding tapers and chanting the Penitential Psalms. Special mention is made by the chroniclers of the respect shown as the funeral procession passed Eton Churchyard. 

It was during the reign thus closed that the Reformation of the Church of England began. The first step taken was the repudiation of the Pope's jurisdiction over the English Church, thereby endorsing the principle, always held in Eastern Christendom, of the independence of each national Church. A public declaration to this effect was made by the Provost and other clergy of Eton in July, 1534. 

The encroachments of the Bishops of Rome into the Anglo-Saxon Church dated from the coming of William the Conqueror but had never been accepted without protest. Their increasing exactions of various money-payments were cordially disliked by the independent people of this country. Eton probably shared the feeling strongly, having so lately experienced the effects of papal interference, and hence was doubly glad to throw over the usurped authority; especially as for the present it meant no changes in the accustomed services and the arrangements of the Church. 

The King soon followed up his first step by an attack on the monasteries which were the warmest supporters of the Pope, and the wealth of many of the religious houses was swept into his coffers; but the Royal College, although threatened and required to give an account of its annual revenues and expenditure, escaped spoliation, and the Rectoria remained in the hands of the Provost, being valued at £10. 

In the next reign the Reformation movement was further advanced. The rejection of foreign interference was followed up by the removal of various customs and teachings, which had come in from Rome, and lacked the authority of the ancient undivided Church. 

The invention of printing (1440) had revived learning in this country, and Wickliffe's translation of the Bible had opened the eyes of many to the unscriptural character of much of the religion of the day, and to the abuses and corruptions which were then prevalent. This increased knowledge was further fostered by the reading in English of a lesson every Sunday and holyday, a practice introduced by Henry VIII. together with the saying of the Litany in English.

Now, under Edward VI., the Prayer Book was revised throughout, rearranged, and translated from Latin into the mother tongue of the country. 

Indications of the movement are soon noticeable in Eton. 

In 1547 the number of Chaplains employed was reduced, as, with fewer services, so many priests were no longer needed. A copy of the Great Bible was also pro-cured, and placed in the Church, as also a copy of Homilies or Sermons, which had been put forth by authority for public use and instruction. The Gospel and Epistle were now read in English. 

The following year, under a Provost who was an ardent Reformer, certain images which had stood behind the High Altar were removed, on the ground probably that they had been regarded with superstitious reverence. The Church walls also were adorned with Bible-texts, "for the better edification of the Scholars and Parishioners." The same year the new Order of Communion came into use, and in 1549 the revised English Prayer Book was authorised and ordered for all the services of the Church. 

The custom also of keeping the Feasts of the Death and Translation of Thomas Becket, Corpus Christi, and the Nativity and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin was discontinued.

A few years later the various side-altars in the Church were removed, and what must have been a shock to the feelings of many devout people, the embroidered frontals were sold, the Provost and several of the Fellows buying them for their own purposes. 

But, generally speaking, these changes caused little serious stir, either among the clergy or the people. There were, however, exceptions. The people of Devonshire and Cornwall resented strongly the alteration of their accustomed services, and rose in rebellion, and there seems to have been some special cause for anxiety in the neighbourhood of Eton and Windsor. 

In consequence of the Exeter riots, orders were issued for the repressing of commotions and uproars, if any such should happen in the counties of Oxfordshire, Berks and Bucks.

Provost Smith writes to the Secretary of State as to the evil state of the realm, and suggests the appointment of responsible gentlemen in each shire to enforce the King's proclamation; " the Watchmen," he wrote, " were no good, only great promoters of rebellion."4

On the other hand, there were some extremists, who regarded the Church of Rome as wholly evil, and were opposed to the retention of any of the ancient ceremonial, as if it all were alike tainted. Happily they were in the minority; and the Church of England, although reformed and purified, remained in all essential points the same old historic Church, with the same clergy ministering the same Sacraments in the same buildings, and using, with slight exceptions, the same ornaments as in times past. 


1 Various inhabitants of Eton seem to have left money in their wills towards the repair of this road, there being no public resources in those days to meet such expenses. 

2 Similar effigies are still preserved and shown in Westminster Abbey.

3 Cal. State Papers, July 1549

4 Cal. State Papers.

OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text is has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.

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