This is a book I have wanted to write for a very long time. I had been collecting archive material on parish religion and parish relationships off and on for twenty years, without a very clear idea of what it could lead to. And then the invitation to give the 2005 Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University, Belfast, forced me to think about what it all might mean and how I could present it. There were to be four lectures—and I thought of the four characters in Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601). They gave me an organizing principle that, for good or ill, I have followed—with the addition of the Papist from George Gifford’s A Dialogue between a Papist and a Protestant (1582). Evidence drawn from three national and twelve local archives is arranged around five stereotypical characters, so that the examples can illuminate the stereotypes and, I trust, the stereotypes illuminate the examples. The aim is to see how ordinary post-Reformation Christians thought about and practised their own religion, what they thought of the religion of others, and how they all got along with each other. At bottom, I suppose, the question is how much religion, and religious differences, mattered.
This is also the kind of book I have wanted to write for a very long time. For the first twenty-five years of my academic career I was embroiled in various controversies over the causes, nature, and consequences of Reformation (or Reformations) in England. It was my own fault, and I enjoyed it at the time. I didn’t see myself as another Geoffrey Elton, but as I had been taught and much influenced by him it seemed obvious to tackle the job of writing as he did. And then Conrad Russell persuaded me that the horse I was still flogging was well and truly dead, and Patrick Collinson called me ‘a middle-aged Turk’: I realized I’d have to grow up. This is meant to be a grown-up book, a book focused firmly on the evidence, not on interpretations I wish to contest. Much of what I have to say here is controversial, and it relates to a number of current disputes, but I have approached them obliquely and without confrontation. I have not engaged directly with other interpretations, but left readers to situate my views and draw their conclusions—or not, as they wish.
I have also wanted to write a book that was archive-based and archive-driven. This book is packed with quotations from court books and visitation returns: I hope we hear the authentic, often earthy, voices of ordinary people talking about their religion and that of others. Of course, I know that churchwardens, witnesses, and scribes may not have recorded what was actually said. Of course, I know that I have chosen useful examples from the 700 and more court books consulted. I have not always explicitly stated an argument, but yes there is one, and my many quotations are cited to support it. But I have honestly tried to follow the (p.vi) Eltonian precept: work through the archive, and then see what it means. I had done much of the research, collected many of the cases, before I ever thought of using the ‘plain men’, and the material was emphatically not selected to illustrate them—though I later found that it often did. The archives I have used are spread across southern and central England, not only because I could drive to them from Oxford, but mainly because I wanted to eschew the northern evidence I had often used before. It was said by some that my view of the Reformation was a product of the archives at Chester and York: well, not this time. I have not cited northern material even when it was apposite, except for one document concerning papists in York. I am grateful to the staffs of the local record offices I have worked at: Buckinghamshire, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Lichfield, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, West Sussex, and Wiltshire. It will be obvious from the list of sources to whom I owe most.
I have chosen to show that evidence from across much of southern England shows some of the same things, and I have piled up examples from various jurisdictions. I have not done much to seek out the background to particular cases, even if (as I doubt) it could be done for more than a tiny number of them. This is a broad-brush approach, using what was to hand, and there are other ways of tackling religion and relationships. I might have done a series of local studies, and tried to establish the particular circumstances that produced parish conflict or cooperation. But then I would not have worked through so many archives, or found so many examples of the same sorts of things. Each case I cite, each quotation I use, was certainly the product of specific local situations and in itself was unique—but over so many cases, so many quotations, the biases are surely cancelled out, the oddities submerged in the general. This was the way I wanted to do it, and readers will see if it works.
I am grateful to the Wiles Trustees, and especially Ian Kershaw, for the invitation to give the lectures and sound advice on how to proceed. ‘Write the book first,’ Ian said, and I did (well, most of it). That invitation forced me to work out what to do with the material I had got, and prompted a final six-month blitz on additional archives. The Wiles Lectures are an excellent institution. Not only does one lecture to an attentive and responsive audience, but the Trustees ship in a band of friends and critics to discuss each lecture after dinner. Four successive evenings in May 2005 were among the most stimulating times of my academic life. It was like reading the reviews before finishing the book, and in some places the text has been changed to meet suggestions made then. I do not think I would have written Chapter 10 at all, nor the Conclusion as I have done, had I not been pressed at Queen’s University to say what I thought about long-term change and the background to the Civil War. I tried to stay out of trouble, but my colleagues wouldn’t let me. I am grateful to all those who joined me in Belfast and discussed the lectures, especially John Bossy, Eamon Duffy, Ian Green, Felicity Heal, Ian Kershaw, Chris Marsh, Peter Marshall, Anthony Milton, Bill Sheils, and Alex Walsham.
(p.vii) I thank the Governing Body of Christ Church, the Oxford History Faculty, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (as it then was) for periods of leave. This book was possible only because these bodies gave me time for research and writing—and also because some record offices, notably Essex and Hampshire, open on Saturdays. The long early morning drives along the M40, M25, and A12 to Essex were tedious, but they were worth it. With me on Saturdays was my wife, Alison Wall, usually working on her JPs. But in those panic six months of final research before writing, she generously gave up her own research to help me out almost every day at Chelmsford, Northampton, and Taunton. Maddeningly, it was sometimes Alison who found the most interesting cases. I thank her for this support, and for her constant interest in what I was trying to achieve.