Monday 18 July 2022



THE death of Edward VI. (1553), and the accession of Queen Mary, who was a firm adherent of the Pope, gave a temporary check to the Reformation.

She ordered the restoration in Churches of all that had been abolished, and her order was in Eton, as else-where, complied with. The High Altar was again set up in its old condition, and a canopy erected over it; some of the other altars were restored, and the texts which had been painted upon the walls were removed.

In most places, the clergy had become so little accustomed to the reformed ritual that they thought best to conform to the Queen's requirements. But the Provost and some of the Fellows had broken the College Statutes by marrying; and on this account they were deprived of office and others were appointed in their place.

The new Provost and Rector was in full sympathy with the Queen, and shortly after was chosen to preach at Oxford, on the approaching execution of Cranmer. He also took a prominent part in persecuting the reforming clergy, and accordingly a year or two after (1558), on the accession of Queen Elizabeth, he too got into trouble, and was deprived of his position.

These violent changes, and the bitter spirit excited by them, left a sad legacy to this country.

From the year 705 or earlier until Queen Mary's death, the unity and the continuous life of the Church of England had been preserved, and the Church had practically included all professed Christians in England,1 but now there appear two rival parties, the Papists and the Puritans, both largely reinforced by foreigners, and supported by foreign influence; both bent on leavening the national Church with their notions, and both eventually seceding and forming themselves into separate bodies of Non-conformists.

Queen Elizabeth on her accession had a difficult task before her, but she did her best to check the evil effects of these two opposing forces, and to restore peace and order.

She quietly undid the work of Mary and took her stand on the policy of her father Henry VIII. and her step-brother Edward VI.

In this she was supported by at least two-thirds of her subjects, and out of 9,400 clergy then in England, less than 300 refused to accept the reforms introduced, and to take the oath of allegiance.

Her moderation however did not succeed in its object. The persecutions in Mary's reign had stirred a bitter hatred of the Papacy, and of all usages, however ancient and venerable, which were associated with the papal dominion.

In their unreasoning zeal against all that appeared to them to be of Roman origin, the Puritans had little regard for the links which bound the historic Church of England with the Church of Christ in all lands and in all ages. Had they been allowed their way, they would have broken the chain of continuous life, and have started a brand-new society, fashioned after their own interpretation of Biblical teaching. As it was, great havoc was done; many beautiful monuments and ornaments in Churches were destroyed, and the services were often reduced to the barest and coldest simplicity.

We find some signs of this in the history of Eton. In 1559 the High Altar was again removed, and in the next year the College barber was paid "for wypinge oute the imagery work upon the Church walls," in other words for smearing over valuable frescoes with a coating of whitewash. A little later the chancel screen, made out of the rood-loft in the old Church, was defaced; the figures on it were demolished, and the niches were filled up with stone and plaster. But even this did not satisfy Puritan zeal. In 1569 the whole of it was ruthlessly pulled down, and the division between the choir and the nave obliterated.

Some notion may be formed of the size and solidity of this structure from the fact that its destruction occupied twenty-one days of carpenters' work besides the time spent in " joyninge ye weinscott and repairinge and washinge ye walls where the rood-loft stoode, and pavinge ye same place with grete stone and bricke."

A little later we hear of ‘pues’ being introduced into the Church, and a sounding-board erected over the pulpit. This latter mention shows that here, as elsewhere in England, more attention was being directed to preaching, which had of late been grievously neglected. It may also show that there was some kindly consideration paid to the townsfolk, who occupied the nave, and who by the removal of the rood-loft would have a better chance of hearing sermons. Whether, now that their altars in the nave were removed, the townspeople were admitted into the choir for Communion, we are not informed.

A sermon preached in the Church by one of the Fellows about this date contains some plain reproofs and warnings to all classes, and among them tailors and drapers, butchers and bakers are personally rebuked for dishonesty.

Another irregularity crept in during these unsettled times. From the foundation of the College, for upwards of a hundred years, the Provosts of Eton had also been Rectors of the parish, but now we meet with occasional exceptions, owing to the appointments of laymen to the Provostship. This abuse, although protested against, was not of such serious importance to the parish as it might have been elsewhere, as there were always many resident clergy among the Fellows able to discharge the clerical duties. Some of these, however, appear to have given the Bishop of the Diocese no little trouble and anxiety by their neglect to conform to the rules of the Church. They seem also to have disturbed the minds of the Queen's chief advisers. A letter from Bishop Grindal to Cecil, her Secretary of State, bids him in somewhat uncomplimentary language “remember Eton and the hedge priests there.2

In 1560, Queen Elizabeth took measures to restrain the destruction of Church monuments, and to correct the negligence in religious worship; and in 1566 she issued her ‘Advertisements’ to enforce a minimum of decent ceremonial; but these measures were met by the Puritans with a counter attempt to abolish episcopacy, and to reject the Prayer Book. On the other hand the Pope issued a bull, pronouncing the Queen excommunicate for rejecting his supremacy, and declaring her deposed from the throne of England. But the Queen was popular, and held her ground, and the Church of England was pre-served from being committed to the influence of either opposing party.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the banishment of those who refused to conform to the national religion, led at least for a brief space to quieter times, and to a better understanding of the real principles at stake.

A slight indication of the turn of the tide in Eton is to be seen in some attempted improvements in the Church. A new timber screen between the choir and the nave was erected by one of the Fellows, Thomas Hever, in 1625, carved with the arms of the Founder, Queen Elizabeth, the two Universities, and Eton College. The gilding of the Cross on it was paid for by the College. Hever also presented a Communion chalice, and "sett up a Communion table and gave foure strong formes to stand in the iles of ye Church for the towne men to sitt on. "These are probably the seats which are still existing in the Ante-Chapel.

About this period, there begins a fresh source of information as to parish matters. The Parish Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials date from 1598, and occasionally contain interesting notes, which throw light on the events and customs of the day.3


I Nominally at least in those days every citizen was a Christian, and every Christian a Churchman.

2 Domestic State Papers, August II, 1561.

3 Four volumes of the Parish Registers are preserved in the College muniment room : Vol. I. contains baptisms, marriages and burials, 1598 to 1653 (also some marriages, 1693 to 1705) ; Vol. II., 1653 to 1716 ; Vol. III., 1716 to 1747 ; Vol. IV., 1748 to 1779.

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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