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Ecclesiastical Discipline and the Crisis of the 1680s: Prosecuting Protestant Dissent in the English Church Courts

  • KIT MERCER (a1)


This article argues that as a part of the Tory reaction (1680–5) England's church courts were revived and utilised in the prosecution of religious dissent. The records of the church courts in three deaneries in and around London demonstrate that the numbers of prosecutions in the courts increased significantly in the early 1680s after the defeat of the Exclusion Bill and that the vast majority of these prosecutions were for religious offences. This brief flowering of persecution sought to ‘exclude the excluders’ and to remove political and religious dissidents from positions of secular power and from parish vestries.


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This article is based on an MPhil dissertation for which I was fortunate to be supervised by Gabriel Glickman. I am extremely grateful to him, as well as to Grant Tapsell, for their advice and support.



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1 Fletcher, Anthony, ‘The enforcement of the Conventicle Acts, 1664–1679’, in Sheils, W. J. (ed.), Persecution and toleration (Studies in Church History xxi, 1984), 235–46 at p. 243.

2 Spurr, J., The Restoration Church of England, 1646–1689, London 1991, 209.

3 Thomson, A., ‘Church discipline: the operation of the Winchester consistory court in the seventeenth century’, History xci (2006), 338–9.

4 C. E. Davies, ‘Enforcement of religious conformity in England, 1668–1700’, unpubl. D.Phil diss. Oxford 1982; W. M. Marshall, ‘Administration of the dioceses of Hereford and Oxford, 1660–1760’, unpubl. PhD diss. Bristol 1979; Whiteman, Anne, ‘The re-establishment of the Church of England, 1660–1663’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society v (1955), 111–31.

5 Thomson, ‘Church discipline’, 340.

6 Dabhoiwala, F., The origins of sex: a history of the first sexual revolution, London 2012, 51, and ‘Prostitution and police in London c.1660–c.1760', unpubl. D.Phil diss. Oxford 1995, 94.

7 Jens Åklundh, ‘The church courts of Restoration England, 1660–c.1689’, unpubl. PhD diss. Cambridge 2018, 129–35.

8 For example, Houlbrooke, Ralph, Church courts and the people during the English Reformation, 1520–1570, Oxford 1979; Ingram, Martin, Church courts, sex and marriage in England, 1570–1640, Cambridge 1987; and Waddams, S. M., Sexual slander in nineteenth-century England: defamation in the ecclesiastical courts, 1815–1855, Toronto 2000.

9 Outhwaite, R. B., The rise and fall of the English ecclesiastical courts, 1500–1860, Cambridge 2006, 81; Sharpe, J., Crime in early modern England, London 1988, 38.

10 M. Jones, ‘The ecclesiastical courts before and after the Civil War: the office jurisdiction in the dioceses of Oxford and Peterborough, 1630–1675’, unpubl. B.Litt. diss. Oxford 1977, 127; P. Jackson, ‘Nonconformists and society in Devon, 1660–1689’, unpubl. PhD diss. Exeter 1986.

11 Gibson, W., ‘The limits of the confessional state: electoral religion in the reign of Charles ii’, HJ li/1 (2008) 27–47 at p. 41.

12 Spurr, The Restoration Church, 235.

13 Gregory, J., Restoration, Reformation, and reform, 1660–1820: archbishops of Canterbury and their diocese, Oxford 2000, 44.

14 Tapsell, G., ‘Pastors, preachers and politicians: the clergy of the later Stuart Church’, in Tapsell, G. (ed.), The later Stuart Church, 1660–1714, Manchester 2012, 71100 at p. 88.

15 Idem, The personal rule of Charles II, 1681–1685, Woodbridge 2007, 71.

16 Outhwaite, Rise and fall, 81.

17 Spurr, The Restoration Church, 190.

18 Sheils, W. J., ‘Bishops and their dioceses: reform of visitation in the Anglican Church, c.1680–c.1760’, CCEd Online Journal i (2007), 31.

19 Goldie, M., ‘The unacknowledged republic: office-holding in early modern England’, in Harris, Tim (ed.), The politics of the excluded, c.1500–1850, Basingstoke 2001, 153–94 at p. 166.

20 Fletcher, ‘The Conventicle Acts’, 235; Harris, Tim, London crowds in the reign of Charles II: propaganda and politics from the Restoration until the Exclusion Crisis, Cambridge 1990, 71.

21 Outhwaite, Rise and fall, 58.

22 Horle, C. V., The Quakers and the English legal system, 1660–1688, Philadelphia, Pa 1988, 220–1.

23 The Anglican canons, 1529–1947, ed. G. Bray, Woodbridge 1998, p. cx.

24 Outhwaite, Rise and fall, 81–2.

25 Ibid. 83.

26 Thomson, ‘Church discipline’, 342.

27 Spurr, The Restoration Church, 217.

28 Walsham, A., Charitable hatred: tolerance and intolerance in England, 1500–1700, Manchester 2006, 27.

29 Horle, The Quakers, 236.

30 Ibid. 240.

31 Phillipson, L., ‘Quakerism in Cambridge before the Act of Toleration (1653–1689)’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society lxvii (1987), 15.

32 Clapinson, M., Bishop Fell and non-conformity: visitation documents from the Oxford diocese, 1682–83, Oxford 1980, pp. xiv, xxxiv, 34.

33 Tapsell, G., ‘Parliament and political division: the last years of Charles ii, 1681–85’, Parliamentary History xxiii (2003), 251.

34 Åklundh, ‘Church courts’, 14.

35 Squibb, G., Doctors’ Commons, London 1977, 78.

36 N. G. Jones, ‘Wiseman, Robert’, ODNB, <>.

37 Ferris, J., ‘Wiseman, Sir Richard’, in Henning, B. D. (ed.), The history of parliament: the House of Commons, 1660–1690, London 1983, <>; Lacey, D. R., Dissent and parliamentary politics in England, 1661–1689, New Brunswick, NJ 1969, 372.

38 J. M. Rigg, ‘Lloyd, Nathaniel’, ODNB, <>; G. Hampson, ‘Lloyd, Sir Richard’, in Henning, The history of parliament: the House of Commons, 1660–1690, <>. Crewe was, according to the author of the ODNB entry, notorious as ‘the churchman who was James ii's principal collaborator’: M. Johnson, ‘Crew, Nathaniel, 3rd Baron Crew’, ODNB, <>.

39 Levack, B., The civil lawyers in England, 1603–1641: a political study, Oxford 1973, 326.

40 Ibid. 32–3.

41 Quoted in Åklundh, ‘Church courts’, 70.

42 Åklundh states that there were 631 appeals from the dioceses within the southern province between 1661 and 1700 ‘most of which concerned testamentary cases’: ibid.

43 Squibb, Doctors’ Commons, 78.

44 Goldie, Mark, ‘The Hilton gang and the purge of London in the 1680s’, in Nenner, Howard (ed.), Politics and the political imagination in later Stuart Britain: essays presented to Lois Green Schwoerer, Rochester, NY 1997, 4374.

45 These are all held at Lambeth Palace Library under the following call numbers: citations: Arches, 1672–1826, VH 52; Croydon, 1672–1826, VH 53; Shoreham, 1672–1826, VH 54; churchwardens’ presentments: Arches, 1672 – 1845, VH 60; Croydon, 1664–1885, VH 61; Shoreham, 1666–1885, VH 62; act books, 1664–93, VH 75; assignation books, 1664–1850, VH 76.

46 Åklundh, ‘Church courts’, 2.

47 For example, some of the cases from St Dunstans in the East, LPL, VH 52, fo. 18.

48 LPL, VH 53.

49 LPL, VH 60/1, fo. 32.

50 LPL, VH 60/1, fo. 19.

51 Meldrum, Tim, ‘A women's court in London: defamation at the bishop of London's consistory court, 1700–1745’, London Journal xix/1 (1994), 1.

52 Whiteman, Anne, ‘General introduction’, in The Compton census of 1676: a critical edition, ed. Whiteman, A. and Clapinson, M., London 1986, pp. xxxviixxxix.

53 de Krey, G., London and the Restoration: 1659–1683, Cambridge 2005, 275–92.

54 Ibid. 241–3.

55 For a good summary see Braddick, M. J., State formation in early modern England, c 1550–1700, Cambridge 2009, 291333, and Fletcher, A., Reform in the provinces: the government of Stuart England, New Haven 1986.

56 Seaward, Paul, ‘Gilbert Sheldon, the London vestries, and the defence of the Church’, in Harris, Tim, Seaward, Paul and Goldie, Mark (eds), The politics of religion in Restoration England, Oxford 1990, 53–7.

57 Horle, The Quakers, 32.

58 Adee, N., A plot for a crown, in a visitation sermon at Crickdale, London 1685, 20.

59 Spurr, The Restoration Church, 204.

60 Clapinson, Bishop Fell, p. xxxiv.

61 Ibid. 34.

62 Both Horle and Walsham note how the failure of churchwardens to prosecute Dissenters was commented upon and disapproved by the Anglican hierarchy: Horle, The Quakers, 89; Walsham, Charitable hatred, 92.

63 Tapsell, Personal rule, 27.

64 Tim Harris, ‘Cooper, Anthony Ashley’, ODNB, <>.

65 Goldie, Mark, ‘The theory of religious intolerance in Restoration England’, in Grell, Ole, Israel, Jonathan and Tyacke, Nicholas (eds), From persecution to toleration: the Glorious Revolution and religion in England, Oxford 1991, 337–42.

66 See the case of Edward Fowler: Goldie, Mark and Spurr, John, ‘Politics and the Restoration parish: Edward Fowler and the struggle for St Giles Cripplegate’, EHR cix (1994), 574.

67 Bertha Porter, ‘Richard Owen’, ODNB, <>.

68 Whiteman, ‘General introduction’, p. xl.

69 LPL, VH 52, fo. 11.

70 Wright, Catherine, ‘The kindness of strangers: charitable giving in the community of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’, in Davies, M. and Galloway, J. (eds), London and beyond: essays in honor of Derek Keene, London 2012, 201–22.

71 LPL, VH 52, fo. 5.

72 Ibid. fo. 6.

73 Ibid. fos 6, 8.

74 Mead, W., A particular account of the late and present great sufferings and oppressions of the people called Quakers upon prosecutions against them in the bishops courts, London 1680, p. v.

75 N. Zahedieh, ‘Claypoole, James’, ODNB, <>; Jordan Landes, London Quakers in the trans-atlantic world: the creation of an early modern community, Basingstoke 2015, 59.

76 G. S. De Krey, ‘Pilkington, Sir Thomas’, ODNB, <>; London and Middlesex 1666 Hearth Tax, ed. M. Davies, C. Ferguson, V. Harding, E. Parkinson and A. Wareham, London 2014, ii. 690.

77 LPL, VH 53 b 2, fos 4, 6, 7.

78 R. Sewill and E. Lane, The free men of Charlwood, Crawley 1980; E. Vallance, ‘Henry Hesketh’, ODNB, <>. See also Hesketh, Henry, The charge of scandal and giving offence by conformity refelled and reflected back upon separation, London 1683.

79 Hesketh, H., The dangerous and almost desperate state of religion, London 1679, 20.

80 Idem, An exhortation to frequent receiving the holy sacrament of the Lord's Supper, London 1684.

81 LPL, VH 62.

82 LPL, VH 60/3.

83 Sowerby, Scott, Making toleration: the repealers and the Glorious Revolution, Cambridge 2013, 26.

84 LPL, VH 53, 52, 54.

85 LPL, VH 54, second bundle fos 25, 27. Note also that in the diocese of London in the same period only 9 out of 197 presentments were for moral offences: London Metropolitan Archives, DL/B/B/001/MS09583/005; DL/B/F/001/MS11164/021.

86 For example, LPL, VH 53/2, fo. 4.

87 Phillipson, ‘Quakerism in Cambridge’, 21.

This article is based on an MPhil dissertation for which I was fortunate to be supervised by Gabriel Glickman. I am extremely grateful to him, as well as to Grant Tapsell, for their advice and support.

Ecclesiastical Discipline and the Crisis of the 1680s: Prosecuting Protestant Dissent in the English Church Courts

  • KIT MERCER (a1)


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