Dulwich’s little corner of National History

There is one part of Dulwich, which had played out within its walls, some of most desperate moments of national history. Indeed, the religious fundamentalism in England at the end of the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth centuries was as extreme as other religions today. Many historians now argue that the English Civil War was caused just as much by religious issues as by the king ignoring Parliament or the imposition of oppressive taxation. That place is Christ’s Chapel, built in1613-1616 and which forms the central aspect of the foundation of a college for 12 poor scholars and an almshouse for six poor men and six poor women. It was built as an act of benevolence by the celebrated actor and theatre owner Edward Alleyn. While this of course is common knowledge, what is not so readily appreciated is the defining role this small chapel has in understanding the complex currents and undertones of religious fervour which once gripped England.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott (1562-1633) consecrated the chapel on Edward Alleyn’s birthday on 1st September 1616 he had been translated only five years earlier. He performed the act of consecration because of a vacancy in the see of Winchester, the diocese in which the chapel was then situated. Abbott was a moderate Puritan but upheld the Apostolic Succession, the doctrine that properly ordained bishops inherited the spiritual authority conferred upon them by the Apostles, who in turn received this authority from Jesus Christ. George Abbott also tolerated other aspects of Roman Catholicism when occasion required it. On the other hand he was averse to popery and suppressed opinions with which he disagreed with excessive harshness. Abbott, a Calvinist, had feuded with the rising fellow cleric William Laud. They clashed over doctrinal issues; Laud being influenced by the teachings of Jacob Arminius who emphasised the concept of free will and good works over predestination as a means of salvation. Laud’s interpretation of Arminianism also included ordered and uniform practices of worship.

It can be safely assumed that Christ’s Chapel, in its first twenty years or so, was a plain place of worship, equipped with an altar, pulpit, font and convenient seats as early records tell us, but without stained glass in its windows, railings around its altar table, pictures or painted walls. According to its statutes it had a choir. Its clergy wore plain surplices but not highly decorated copes.

It was typical of Abbott’s resistance to the Crown’s interference with Church matters that he spoke out against the Declaration of Sports. The Declaration of Sports, said to have been drafted by William Laud, was a device by James 1 to humour those who affectionately looked back on pre-Puritan times when maypole dancing, jumping and vaulting and the laying of rushes on church floors were customary on Sundays after church service. While such practices were totally alien to puritans, some of whom still refused to accept that the Reformation had actually been completed, the King was aware that to maintain peace among the many religious factions which then existed he had to ease some of the puritan restrictions. George Abbott, however, resisted the King on this issue by refusing to have the Declaration read in churches of which he was the Peculiar (which included Christ’s Chapel).

Abbott was clearly on good terms with Edward Alleyn and Alleyn dined with His Grace at Croydon and visited on other occasions. After Alleyn’s death in 1626 and following an incident at the Chapel involving one of its preachers, a Rev Robert Wells, who was expelled for ‘divers misdemeanours’ Archbishop Abbott was obliged to take a closer look at what was going on here. He admonished the College, now administered by two of Alleyn’s cousins as Master and Warden, to “support the poor & scholars and to behave themselves soberly and modestly and observe the statutes according to their oaths”.

Abbott had meantime fallen from influence and favour, possibly by absenting himself from the Council because of the effect of an accident in which he killed a servant with a crossbow bolt while hunting. His critics accused him of abusing his office by hunting and sought to discredit him and for the last few years of his life he was sidelined by the ambitious Laud. Nevertheless, Abbott enjoyed the support of James 1 and this support was continued by his heir and Abbott placed the crown on the head of Charles 1 when he ascended to the throne in 1625.

Laud succeeded to the Primacy in 1633 on the death of Abbott and almost immediately began bringing the Church into the uniformity he so highly prized, by requiring all parishes and priests to adhere to the Prayer Book. The Prayer Book of 1559 already had printed in its Preface the draconian code of punishments of those in England who did not strictly adhere to its use, including massive fines and the threat of life imprisonment. These were however rarely enforced. All was to change when Laud sent his agents throughout the country to ensure the uniformity of worship as prescribed in the Prayer Book. Laud also insisted on the reading the Declaration of Sports in all churches, so we must assume it was read out here in Dulwich and was quickly acted upon.

Laud was described as a man of small stature but of great ambition who had sprung from humble roots. Some writers have explained his single-mindedness of purpose and his ruthless manipulation of power was a way of compensating for these aspects of his personality. Certainly Laud brooked no interference and took savage action against his critics, among them the publishers of the numerous pamphlets then circulating which were critical of his power. William Prynne, a radical Puritan who, like his fellows, wanted to close all the theatres, had already incurred royal wrath by writing a book which denounced the staging of plays. This was seen as an attack upon the Queen who had performed in a play at Court. It was also interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on the King himself for allowing such conduct. Prynne was sentenced to mutilation by having his ears cut off. When Prynne later wrote a tirade against Laud in a pamphlet he was seized again, tried and sentenced to mutilation in the pillory a second time when the remainder of his ears were cut off and he was branded on his cheek with the letters - S.L. signifying Seditious Libeller ( Prynne, on returning from the hands of his torturer, brazenly composed a poem in which the initials S.L. stood for Stigmata Laud).

In Dulwich, Laud had facilitated the appointment of one Simon Mace as Preacher. Mace was quarrelsome and argued with the Master “abusing him with uncivil words and calling him a hypocrite and a Cussenor”. The dispute was brought before the local magistrate and Mace promptly abused him as well. He told the boys that learning Latin and singing would do them no good at all. He also took some boys to the alehouse with him and they were ‘overtaken with drink’. At dinner, Mace was reported to have said that the Archbishop of York was “ a devilish plotter of villainy and would make a brave Pope. He went on to call the Master “a base rascal”, and challenged him to a fight. Probably to get rid of this tiresome cleric, William Laud gave Mace leave to appoint a substitute at Dulwich so he could join the pinnace ‘Greyhound’ as chaplain. His subsequent career has sadly not come to light.

Laud held his first visitation to Dulwich in 1634 and at once queried whether the Fellows wore surplices during divine services and sang in the choir. On finding out that they did not Laud admonished them and then went on to ask where the altar candles and basin were, to which the Master confessed to removing them. Laud commanded him to put them back. He also gave orders for a bell for the Chapel to be cast at the College’s expense but bearing the inscription “William Laud made mee 1634”. It still hangs in the bell-tower. Undoubtedly he insisted on moving the altar from the nave to be set lengthways against the east wall and railed off.

In 1639 Laud’s Vicar General, Sir Nathaniel Brent made a further Visitation to Dulwich, one many he conducted throughout England to enforce conformity, correct irregularities in the conduct of services and inspect the fabric. As far as the fabric was concerned he did not like what he saw. The tower had fallen down shortly before and there were insufficient funds to rebuild it. Brent reported back to the Archbishop. Laud immediately closed the whole College down for 6 months to save money on salaries and expenses. The poor brothers, sisters and boys were returned to their respective parishes for the period. In 1641, with finances presumably restored, Laud commanded the College to reglaze the plain East Window “in divers coloured glass of the same worke and fashion as the east windows of the Parish churches of St Martins in the Fields and St Clement Danes”.

Some of the changes Laud was obliging parishes to adopt, such as the moving of altars to a position sideways to the east wall and protected by rails, replacing ordinary bread for the sacraments with wafers, the use of candles and ornaments, stained glass and decorated vestments have been explained by some as an effort of brighten churches up from their Puritan plainness, and by others as placing emphasis on the sacramental and ceremonial aspects of church services above those of the preaching The Word.

 Laud’s insistence on total conformity of the Liturgy of churches in England, as well as attempting to force churches in Scotland to use the 1559 Common Prayer Book, on the one hand alienated English Puritans who sensed Laud was adopting Roman Catholic practices (some 16,000 emigrated to America) and on the other led the Scots to reject both the prayer book and the episcopacy. This refusal to conform obliged Charles to invade Scotland to try force uniformity upon it and so fermented what became known as The Bishops’ War.

Laud’s high handed actions, his adherence for what were interpreted as Roman Catholic practices, his influence over the King and his central role in the Administration alienated Parliament and he was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower in 1643. In 1645 Parliament passed a Bill of Attainder (which only required a presumption of guilt) and Laud was beheaded. The Civil War, meanwhile, had commenced in 1642 and the four Fellows of Dulwich fled to the Royalist stronghold of Oxford. The Master and Warden remained in post (wisely putting the College plate into pawn for duration as a means of safeguarding it). In 1644 Parliament took over as watch-dog of the College, declared the missing fellows delinquents and through Parliament’s Committee for Plundered Ministers appointed a preacher and a schoolmaster of their own choosing. As these two new men were doing the work of four they not unreasonably demanded double wages which the Master and Warden refused. The new men complained and Parliament ordered the Sergeant at Arms to arrest both Master and Warden - they were released without charge.

Desecration of the Chapel then took place - the new stained glass window fell a victim, together with the altar rails and organ. The choir was disbanded, singing during service stopped, the font probably smashed and baptisms banned. The altar was placed lengthways in the nave; surplices, candles, icons and pictures were also banned. Troops were billeted on the College in 1647 during July and August when the New Model Army occupied London before withdrawing to Putney for the famous Putney Debates.

Actually, in many ways, the Commonwealth was a good time for the College. A particularly gifted Schoolmaster Fellow - Edmund Colby, who had sympathy for the Parliamentary cause and because of his politics had been driven out of his home in Cornwall and had his books burnt by Royalist sympathisers, was engaged by the Committee for Plundered Ministers. During his tenure in Dulwich, four boys went to university, the largest number in the College’s history.

By 1658, puritan sympathy was on the wane and when the Master and Warden told Parliament they could not sign new leases for tenants as they had no elected Fellows as required by the Statutes, Parliament discharged both the preacher and Colby and let the College elect its own men. There was uproar by parents in the village over Colby’s dismissal and a letter was sent to the Committee appealing for his retention. It was refused. The Preacher was replaced with someone apparently more ambivalent about puritan sympathies, because he held his post until 1670 - well into the Restoration. The new priest was not stupid however and whatever he might have thought in private he was not going to prematurely make changes until he could see which way the wind would blow in the attempt to restore the Monarchy.

Although the Restoration would eventually deliver the Church back into uniformity, it would take some time as the example of Dulwich demonstrates. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Sheldon who was translated in 1662 did not risk promoting the, immediate restoration of altars for fear of upsetting anti-Laudians and Londoners hostile to the High Church. It was not until after the Great Fire that he was able to insist on returning to pre-war conditions such as bringing back railed altars and demanding the Prayer Book be used. Some 2000 ministers who refused to accept these demands were deprived of their livings.

In Dulwich, Archbishop Sheldon’s Visitation was spread over several years, interrupted by plague and the Great Fire. Undoubtedly, what with the introduction of the new Prayer Book in 1662, he had his hands full. Even so, in 1665 in the chapel in Dulwich where he was the Peculiar, Sheldon must have been horrified to find that surplices were still not being worn, that the “force of the late tymes of disorder and rebellion” had caused singing to be put down, the organ broken into pieces and carried away, the communion table turned endways east to west “and several other disorders now crept in”. He ordered the altar be put back behind rails lengthways, the Reading Desk for lessons be brought back to the middle of the Choir and the College were “to provide a Litany Desk there to sing or say the Litany”. Pew rents would be charged and a small organ obtained. Services were to be as near that of the Cathedral service at Westminster Abbey. The College set about repairing what was left of the old organ and ordering cloth for new surplices for the Fellows and the scholars.

For Christ’s Chapel of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich, its moment in the history of the Anglican Church had passed. 

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