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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2011

University of Nottingham
School of History, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7


Studies of the rise of London's vestries in the period to 1640 have tended to discuss them in terms of the inexorable rise of oligarchy and state formation. This article re-examines the emergence of the vestries in several ways, moving beyond this traditional focus on oligarchy, and noting how London's vestries raised much broader issues concerning law, custom, and lay religious authority. The article reveals a notable contrast between the widespread influence and activities of London vestries and the questionable legal framework in which they operated. The political and ecclesiastical authorities – and in particular Archbishop Laud – are also shown to have had very mixed attitudes towards the legitimacy and desirability of powerful vestries. The apparently smooth and relentless spread of select vestries in the pre-war period is also shown to be illusory. The granting of vestry ‘faculties’ by the authorities ceased abruptly at the end of the 1620s, amid a series of serious legal challenges, on both local and ideological grounds, to the existence of vestries. Their rise had thus been seriously contested and stymied well before the upheavals of the 1640s, although opposition to them came from multiple sources – Laudians, Henry Spelman and the royal Commission on Fees, and local parishioners – whose objectives could vary.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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I am grateful to all those who commented on earlier versions of this article, which were presented to seminars in London, Kent, Oxford, Stanford, Madrid, and to the USC-Huntington Library early modern seminar in San Marino.


1 S. Hindle, The state and social change in early modern England, c. 1550–1640 (Basingstoke, 2000), ch. 8, esp. p. 229; B. Kumin, The shaping of a community: the rise and reformation of the English parish, 1400–1560 (Aldershot, 1996), pp. 250–5.

2 For vestries pre-1640, see I. W. Archer, The pursuit of stability: social relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 85–6, 68–74; F. F. Foster, The politics of stability: the rulers of Elizabethan London (London, 1977), pp. 39–43; J. F. Merritt, The social world of early modern Westminster: abbey, court and community, 1525–1640 (Manchester, 2005), pp. 106–13; McCampbell, A. E., ‘The London parish and the London precinct, 1640–1660’, Guildhall Studies, 11, (1976), pp. 108–11Google Scholar; A. Argent, ‘Aspects of the ecclesiastical history of the parishes of the City of London, 1640–1649’ (Ph.D. thesis, London, 1984), pp. 17–23; S. and B. Webb, English local government (The parish and the county) (London, 1906; repr. 1924), pp. 183–96.

3 S. Hindle, ‘The political culture of the middling sort in English rural communities, c. 1550–1700’, in T. Harris, ed., The politics of the excluded, c. 1500–1850 (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 127, notes that vestries remained relatively rare in the countryside until the Civil War period and the harvest crisis of 1647–50.

4 Lambeth Palace Library (LPL), CM vii/69; Webb and Webb, Parish and county, pp. 38–9n, 178, 183.

5 Foster, Politics, pp. 39–42; Merritt, Social world, pp. 106–8; M. Carlin, Medieval Southwark (London, 1996), pp. 38–9; Guildhall Library (GL), 4887, fo. 92r (a body called the vestry was already operating in St Dunstan's as early as 1537).

6 The epistle explains that the parishioners have therefore seen fit to make ordinances for themselves ‘to the intent to have neighbourly frendship and brotherly love maintained’. They beseech God's mercy ‘to graunt our good meeninge to come to good effect to the increase of brotherlie love and charetie amonge us as good Crestians ought to do’.

7 GL, 4957/1 (unfoliated).

8 See also the valuable discussion in Archer, Pursuit, pp. 71–3.

9 For contemporary concerns see below; see also Webb and Webb, Parish and county, pp. 39–40, 188–9.

10 E.g. GL, 5019/1, p. 25.

11 Countless examples could be cited from vestry minutes in the Guildhall Library. For examples see: fining out (1431/2, fos. 10, 15v, 877/1, pp. 38, 40); establishing church fees (4957/1, fo. 8v, 959/1, fo. 110); controlling churchwardens' expenditure (1453/1, fo. 10v); orders concerning parish pensioners (819/1, fo. 117); reconciling parishioners (594/1, pp. 6, 38).

12 P. Seaver, The puritan lectureships: the politics of religious dissent, 1560–1662 (Stanford, CA, 1970), pp. 84, 138–46, 148–53.

13 E.g. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), DL/C/338, fo. 14v.

14 The term ‘vestry’ does not appear in the statute book until 1663 (15 Chas. II, c. 5): Webb and Webb, Parish and county, p. 39. Tate erroneously claims that a 1555 act levying highways rates is an example of ‘vestry’ power, but see the statute 2 & 3 Phil. and Mary, c. 8, which he does not seem to have consulted and which does not mention vestries: W. E. Tate, The parish chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (Cambridge, 1946), p. 14. More generally, historians of the parish need to treat Tate's claims about the legal powers of vestries with caution.

15 St Martin Ludgate in 1592 would appear to have been the first parish to acquire an episcopal order permitting them to establish a select vestry (confirmed in their vestry book in the bishop's own hand in 1600, GL, 1311/1, pt 1, fo. 96v). A more formal faculty was granted to St Dunstan in the West in 1601 (LMA, DL/C/338, fos. 14r–15r), but more ad hoc arrangements continued elsewhere in the capital. St Magnus Martyr later reported having in 1603 established a select vestry at a parish meeting presided over by their minister, who doubled as archdeacon of London (LPL, CM vii/104), while St Leonard Eastcheap acquired a grant from Sir William Bird, dean of Arches, and ‘our ordinary’ (LPL, CM vii/102).

16 LMA, DL/C/340, fos. 153v, 185v, 208r, DL/C/341, pp. 111, 124–5, 277, 284, 417, 589.

17 One formula used in several cases simply refers to the churchwardens and parishioners being ‘divers tymes hindered in theire determinations and good purposes by the want of a Vestrie confirmed by [the Bishop's] authoritie’: DL/C/340, fo. 197 (St Mary Matfelon in 1615/16). This form was then used by St Nicholas Olave (July 1620: DL/C/341, p. 361) and St Mildred Bread St (Jan. 1621: DL/C/341, p. 394).

18 This formula was first used by St James Clerkenwell in 1623 (Nov. 1623: DL/C/342, fo. 33r), but was then used in all subsequent faculties. This represents a revision of the form that the parish had used in 1621. It is notable that the inflammatory form used in their 1621 faculty is crossed out in the draft of the 1621 faculty in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Rawlinson MS D.818, fo. 139r.

19 E.g. St Mary Whitechapel, LPL, CM VII/114.

20 E.g. St Mary Moses, St Martin in the Vintry, St Mary Magdalen Fish Street, St Dunstan in the East, St George Botolph Lane (LPL, CM vii/12, 14, 21, 26, 25) and many others.

21 Holborn Central Library, P/GF/M/1, fos. 1–2, 19, P/GF/C/4; The National Archives (TNA), E215/58D, pp. 267–8. For agitation over the composition of a vestry initially triggered by a pewing dispute at St Saviour, Southwark, see Archer, Pursuit, p. 73.

22 GL, 3908/1, fos. 3v, 5r–v, 8r–v.

23 GL, 9236/1, fos. 73r–75r, 76r–79v, 80v–81r, 84r. The faculty (DL/C/341, p. 589) names the petitioners for the vestry as the minister (Briggs) and four others. These were the five plaintiffs in the Chancery suit against the vestrymen Vinton and Carpenter. In the cases of both St Lawrence Pountney and St Botolph Aldgate the named petitioners listed at the beginning of the faculty can help us to identify local divisions over the request for a vestry. Other faculties where the minister is not mentioned, or only two or three named individuals are listed, may also represent divisions in the parish, even if surviving records do not enable us to dig any deeper.

24 LMA, DL/C/338, fo. 14r, DL/C/341, pp. 277, 284, DL/C/342, fo. 34r.

25 LMA, DL/C/341, pp. 537–9.

26 In some cases, these attempts to preserve clerical authority might actually have boosted the cleric's position (and this may explain some cases where the vicar was demonstrably a prime mover in the bid for a faculty). Some faculties, for example, specified that the vicar must have a double voice in vestry meetings: LMA, DL/C/340, fos. 37v, 52r, 56v.

27 These limitations are standard after the faculty granted in February 1612 to St Margaret New Fish Street (LMA, DL/C/340, fos. 24r–26v).

28 K. Lindley, Popular politics and religion in civil war London (Aldershot, 1997), p. 55; McCampbell, ‘London parish’, p. 109; and more cautiously, Archer, Pursuit, p. 70.

29 See LMA, DL/C/338–43. These are only approximate calculations. The number for 1605–7 may be an underestimate (the vicar-general's books do not survive for this period, but parochial and other materials record that both St Botolph Aldgate and St Botolph Aldersgate acquired faculties in these years). Added confusion surrounds three parishes which claimed in 1636 to have received faculties which do not appear in the vicar-general's books and therefore have not been included in the figures above: St Michael Wood Street (grant 1614), St Ethelburga (13 Jan. 1614/15), and St Olave Silver Street (1624).

30 McCampbell, ‘London parish’, pp. 121–4; Argent, ‘Aspects’, pp. 34–8; Lindley, Popular politics, pp. 55–6, 59.

31 GL, 2590/1, pp. 265–80.

32 TNA, SP16/148, fos. 28r–29r (the vicar Boswell's petition to Laud, endorsed 6 Aug. 1629).

33 GL, 2590/1, pp. 265–85, 2593/1, fo. 325r; LMA, DL/C/343, fos. 88r–v; The works of … William Laud, ed. J. Bliss and W. Scott (7 vols., Oxford, 1847–60), vi, p. 14.

34 LMA, DL/C/343, fos. 88r–9r. The instrument is ‘to be voide and of noe effect as if the same had never bynne made or graunted’. Laud's decision makes no reference to the three petitions received from the minister and his supporters in August 1629 (TNA, SP16/148/22–4). It is not entirely clear what then happened. Laud says in 1633 that ‘a prohibition at the common law’ was sent to him after his attempts to resolve the issue (Laud, Works, vi, p. 14), yet the parish's 1636 submission states that the vestry stood revoked by Laud's order: LPL, CM vii/83.

35 No clear evidence survives to support Stephen Denison's claim that the faculty of St Katherine Cree's select vestry was dissolved in 1624: P. Lake, The boxmaker's revenge (Manchester, 2000), p. 64.

36 GL, DL/C/343, fo. 106r.

37 LPL, CM vii/17. Speaking before the Commission on Fees in April 1632, Laud's chancellor, Arthur Duck, reported that ‘touchinge his grauntinge of Instruments for ereccion or confirmacion of Vestries and Tables of Church Fees and Duties in Parishes of and about London’, he had denied ‘farr more then he hath graunted’. He specifically named St Ethelburga, St Margaret New Fish Street, St Botolph Billingsgate, St John Zachary, and Edmonton as parishes whose petitions had been rejected. This would seem to refer to petitions for tables of church fees rather than vestry instruments (Duck makes no reference to turning down St Mary Abchurch's petition for a vestry, for example), but Duck's concluding remarks ‘that of late hee hath not graunted any at all, and will forbeare to graunt any more except hee shall be lawfullie authorized thereunto’ may refer to both types of faculty (TNA, E215/58D, pp. 325–6). It is possible, then, that perceived pressure from the Commission on Fees, as well as directions from Laud, may lie behind the absence of further vestry faculties granted in London in the 1630s.

38 TNA, SP16/302/49.

39 Cambridge University Library, MS Dd/2/21, fos. 80, 81.

40 Lake, Boxmaker's revenge, pp. 317–21. In the case of the Court of Arches, the dean was acting within the peculiar jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury in London. I am grateful to Professor Kenneth Fincham for this point.

41 Westminster Abbey Muniments (WAM) 13591. The vicar-general's book does not survive for 1607, but the text of the faculty is reproduced in The report of the committee appointed by a general vestry of the inhabitants of the parish of St Botolph without Aldersgate (1733), pp. 9–13.

42 TNA, E215/58C, fos. 96v, 97v, 99v, 100r–v, SP 16/255/51.

43 They also assumed ‘Royall power to them selves’ in drawing up the new table of fees: TNA, E215/1304 (order dated 21 Nov. 1629 by commissioners to examine books of St Botolph Aldersgate, and for all jurors to return inquisitions). See also E215/1202: St Botolph without Aldersgate Commissioners' certificate on exactions taken by an order of the vestry, 1620 (8 fos).

44 Hindle, ‘Political culture’, p. 130; Hindle, State, p. 211.

45 Certainly, Spelman's text refers to a vestry faculty of 1627 as ‘lately granted’ (p. 24) and makes no reference to the events of the 1630s.

46 Aylmer, G. E., ‘Charles I's Commission on Fees, 1627–1640’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 31, (1958), pp. 5867CrossRefGoogle Scholar, does not discuss the examination of vestries.

47 Henry Spelman, De sepultura (1641), pp. 21–4.

48 I am planning a more detailed study of the activities of the Commission on Fees in London parochial affairs in the 1620s and 1630s.

49 TNA, E215/58G, p. 231.

50 E.g. TNA, E215/58G, pp. 54–5, 62–7, E215/165D, fos. 13r, 36v–37r.

51 One juror for St Martin in the Fields was specifically removed from the jury during the time that he was serving as churchwarden: TNA, E215/58C, fo. 101r.

52 I will be exploring elsewhere the Commission's involvement in London parish affairs. On conflict related to the accessibility of documents, see Griffiths, P., ‘Secrecy and authority in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London’, Historical Journal, 40, (1997), pp. 925–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 TNA, E215/58G, p. 231, E215/58C, fos. 52r, 96v, 99v, 100r–v.

54 TNA, E215/58D, pp. 111, 317–21, E215/58G, p. 36.

55 J. Cosin, Works, ed. J. Sansom and J. Barrow (5 vols., Oxford, 1843–55), ii, pp. 85, 99, 100. Also, articles propounded to lecturers and ministers in London in 1635 include ‘That the voice of the people is not required in the election of the minister’ (TNA, SP16/308/43).

56 TNA, SP16/298/31, 299/85, 301/19, 53 and 54, 302/34, 49; Calendar of state papers domestic, 1635–1636, pp. 469, 484, 495, 502, 519.

57 K. Fincham, ed., Visitation articles and injunctions of the early Stuart church (2 vols., Church of England Record Society, 1994–8), ii, p. 149; Winthrop papers, iii: (1631–1637), ed. A. B. Forbes (Boston, MA, 1943), p. 305. Questions about vestries had hitherto been rare in visitation articles, although the archdeacon of London, Theophilus Aylmer, had consistently inquired whether London vestries exercised spiritual discipline (see his 1615, 1617, 1620, and 1626 visitation articles). See also Fincham, ed., Visitation articles, ii, pp. 18, 92, 213.

58 Seaver, Puritan lectureships, pp. 240–66; J. Spraggon, Puritan iconoclasm during the English civil war (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 135–7, 145–6; K. Fincham and N. Tyacke, Altars restored: the changing face of English religious worship, 1547 – c. 1700 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 188–96.

59 Reports of cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, ed. S. R. Gardiner (Camden Second Series, 39, 1886), pp. 306–7. This was John Bowle, bishop of Rochester.

60 WAM 13590, p. 1.

61 A. Milton, Laudian and royalist polemic in Stuart England: the career and writings of Peter Heylyn (Manchester, 2007), p. 96.

62 LPL, CM vii.

63 The initial letter requiring returns describes itself as being ‘by direction and Comand of my Lord Bishopp of London and other the Lords and Judges of the High Court of Star Chamber’ (e.g. LPL, CM vii/55), but although some responses are addressed directly to the bishop of London this was clearly not an episcopal inquiry (still less one directed by Laud, as some historians have suggested). The Commission on Fees prepared various Star Chamber cases against London vestries: three cases were initially delayed in 1633 (TNA, E215/58G, p. 163), but the St Botolph case was described on 18 Aug. 1635 as being scheduled to be heard that coming Michaelmas (ibid., p. 165). An order of the commissioners dated 15 Jan. 1635 (ibid., pp. 32–3, WAM 13589) remarks that the case against St Botolph's in Star Chamber is ‘readie for hearinge’ and that ‘it wilbee much to his Maiesties disservice if the Bookes, Orders and Tables of Vestries concerning Church Fees and Duties in and about London as well auncient as moderne bee not brought before them and ascertained for evidences against such as shalbee delinquent upon future Inquiries’, noting that while commissioners had the power to have all such books and papers brought before them on oath, they did not have the power to keep the originals.

64 LPL, CM vii/55.

65 Ibid.

66 Churchwardens acting on their own may not have been sure how to reply, but it is worth remembering that Londoners were often very primed about issues of custom and precedent, partly through their involvement in livery company affairs and city government.

67 LPL, CM vii/93. The same return specified that ‘The Vestrie have noe duties Ecclesiasticall.’ The minister was John Squire.

68 LPL, CM vii/57. Some of the details given, such as the emphasis on church beautification, were presumably included to emphasize that the parish was sympathetic to current central initiatives. It was also pointed out that the arrangements for a select vestry had been accepted by the two past rectors who went on to become bishops of London (i.e. Bancroft and King).

69 LPL, CM vii/11; Lake, Boxmaker's revenge, pp. 316–17, 322.

70 LPL, CM VII/51. Cf. Holy Trinity the Less, a parish without a select vestry, nevertheless stressed that it did not ‘pretend … any power’ and that it submitted itself ‘to authority that wee may does that which is commanded and a provident desire that all things may be caryed among us according to the lawes ecclesiasticall and civill’: LPL, CM vii/39.

71 The next year they started to describe vestry meetings differently, as ‘a generall meeting of our parish’, even though attendance lists still recorded fourteen vestrymen plus the rector: GL, 4813/1, fos. 16, 53. At St Bride's, the churchwardens (and perhaps the minister, James Palmer) attempted to second-guess what was desired and therefore beseeched the bishop to be ‘pleased to establish and setle a Selected vestrie amongst us’.

72 LPL, CM vii/85 and 67. See also vii/76.

73 See, for example, the surviving vestry minutes of St Matthew Friday Street and St Pancras Soper Lane (GL, 3579, 5019/1), whose formal vestry meetings tend to be signed by a consistent body of between thirteen and twenty-six names although they declared themselves to be general vestries in their 1636 returns (LPL, CM vii/68a, 108), as did the small parishes of St Mary Colechurch, St Olave Jewry, St Alban Wood Street, St Helen Bishopgate, and St Peter Cornhill, whose surviving vestry minutes reflect formal organization. St Peter Westcheap's vestry had proposed gaining an ‘instrument’ for a settled vestry in 1620 (GL, 642/1 (unfoliated)).

74 LPL, CM vii/21.

75 St James Clerkenwell, St Botolph Aldgate, St Lawrence Pountney, St John Zachary, and St Benet Fink (LPL, CM vii/7, 13, 16, 23, 24; LMA, DL/C/343, fo. 7r–v; DL/C/341, pp. 589–91; DL/C/340, fos. 185v–186v; DL/C/342, fos. 34–5, 246v–248v).

76 St Swithin London Stone noted its authority came from ‘president in our Vestrie bookes of above 70 yeares’, while St Christopher le Stocks similarly tracked general meetings in their church books for the past 100 years: LPL, CM vii/75, 40.

77 LPL, CM vii/74. In addition, St Alban Wood Street (/80) cited custom in parish affairs from the last sixty years while St Mary Colechurch (/70) cites a general meeting of parishioners from time out of mind.

78 LPL, CM vii/5, 47, 109, 17.

79 LPL, CM vii/72.

80 LPL, CM vii/55, 62, 69. This distinction was also routinely made in vestry faculties, which may have given the issue greater prominence. Ironically, a few years earlier, groups within St Botolph Aldersgate actually accused the vestry of effectively operating a presbytery: WAM 13591.

81 LPL, CM vii/49.

82 Quite a number say that they only superintend ‘small’ matters, but then list important affairs such as choosing all officers and rating parishioners for taxes: see St Giles in the Fields (/50).

83 LPL, CM vii/75.

84 LPL, CM vii/74.

85 T. C. Dale, ed., The inhabitants of London in 1638 (2 vols. in 1, London, 1931), i, pp. x–xii; TNA, SP16/409/175; British Library (BL), Add. MS 34601, fo. 143v.

86 Laud, Works, vi, p. 14. Laud's description here of his dealings with St Lawrence Jewry is, however, garbled, and does not make clear the fact that he supported appeals for the customary legitimacy of a general vestry, and that his ruling was accepted.

87 Seaver, Puritan lectureships, p. 275.

88 TNA, E215/58C, fo. 100r–v. See also E215/58D, pp. 272–80.

89 TNA, E215/58D, p. 141, E215/58E, 2 Apr. 1631.

90 TNA, E215/58G, p. 4. For the initial impact of this letter, contrast the wording of the Commission's charges against parishes in 1633 and 1635 (ibid., pp. 158–9, 165), although as late as 1638 the issue was still causing problems (see SP16/537/71, 125).

91 Lindley, Popular politics, p. 57.

92 See P. Seaward, ‘Gilbert Sheldon, the London vestries and the defence of the church’, in T. Harris, P. Seaward, and M. Goldie, eds., The politics of religion in Restoration England (Oxford, 1990), pp. 49–73.

93 BL, Add. MS 34601, fo. 143v.

94 It is true that the six parishes identified by Lindley as making the decisive switch from a select vestry in the early 1640s (Lindley, Popular politics, p. 56) were not those which had experienced challenges in the 1630s, but four out of the six had acquired an episcopal faculty.