Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2010

13 - Popular Religion and the Reformation in England: A View from Cornwall


Popular religion – the religion of the generality of people, especially those of the lower orders – is a large subject. It ranges from belief, worship, private prayer, and reading to morality, charity, and the payment of church dues. These elements may vary according to people's gender, age, status, and context, presenting the historian with many aspects to study and evaluate. This chapter is concerned with three of them: worship in church, the economic support of churches, and ceremonies outside church. It begins by reviewing the systems in force in early Tudor England, continues by studying the impact of “state religion” during the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century, and concludes by tracing the survival of some pre-Reformation beliefs and practices between about 1600 and 1750. To achieve focus, the survey centers on one English county, Cornwall, an appropriate area for this purpose because it is rich both in pre-Reformation records of popular religion and in literary descriptions of its society and customs after the Reformation. Some features of Cornish popular religion were characteristic of other parts of England and illustrate general conditions. Equally, Cornwall had attributes distinct to itself, like all English counties, and some of these were untypical of England elsewhere. Its study reveals both national verities and regional variations.

Cornwall is England's most maritime county: a long peninsula attached to the mainland by a short land border with Devon.