‘Unreformed’ Lancashire

Report to the Privy Council on the condition of Lancashire and Cheshire, 2 June 1591 (SP 12/240/138, f.222r-223v)

This lengthy extract from a report to the council on Lancashire and (nominally) Cheshire, addresses issues of non-attendance at church and the influence of seminary and Jesuit priests. It also highlights protestant concerns with moral behaviour, the so-called ‘Reformation of manners’.  The writer of the report is also critical of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who have failed to do their job and often connive with justices of the peace and recusants.


Lancashire & Cheshire

  1. By the Ecclesiastical Commission small reformation hath been had in those counties as may appear by the emptiness of Churches on Sundays and holy days in the time of divine Service, multitude of bastards, and abundance of drunkards
  2. Great sums of money by pretence of the same Commission have been levied as will appear if particular exacation [execution or examination] thereof may be had by Commission
  3. The Counties are now in as evil case or rather worse than they were before the awarding of the same Commission, and the number of such as resort not to divine Service, at as this instant far greater than they were before the awarding of the same Commissioners
  4. The people in those Counties for the most part to lack instructions for the learning and doing of their duties to god her Majesty & their neighbours. By reason that the preachers there are few, and the greater part of the parsons vicars and curates are utterly unlearned, and many of those parsons and vicars that be learned are not resident upon their benefices [church livings]
  5. 5. Divers [several] unlearned have been, & daily are admitted unto very good benefices by the Bishop
  6. The youth of those counties for the most part are trained up in learning by such as profess Papism [Catholicism], and by them greatly infected.
  7. No examination of had of schools and school Masters in either of the counties
  8. The proclamation lately set for the for the apprehension of seminaries, Jesuits, Mass priests and for the calling home of the children from the parts beyond the seas is not executed
  9. Letters sent from your Lords [the Privy Council] whereby the Justices of the Peace in Lancashire in every of their divisions were commanded quarterly to call before them all parsons, vicars, curates, church wardens & sworn-men, and to examine them upon their oaths how the State of 1 & 23 of her Majesty’s[1] concerning resorting to Church were executed to the end of that thereof at the next Quarter Sessions then next

[f. 222v]
following that information against offenders against the same Statute might be given in charge to the great inquest lie buried without execution

  1. Some of the wives of some of the Justices of Peace within the same counties their Sons & daughters in law, servants and tenants do not frequent the Church
  2. Some of the Justices of Peace very seldom or not at all their wives children & servants have not communicated the Lord’s Supper since the beginning of her Majesty’s reign
  3. Some of the Coroners of Lancashire do not come at the Church in the time of divine Service
  4. The seminaries in many places of the same shire have of late offered disputations against the religion settled, divers [several] gentlemen give them countenance & are persons very well known to some of the ecclesiastical commissioners yet nothing said or done unto them
  5. The people in most populous parishes that resort unto Church (saving in some few parishes) are very few
  6. Preachers having been detained to preach in divers of the parish churches on Sundays and holidays have been withdrawn from the same for lack of auditories [listeners]
  7. The people in great heaps in service and sermon time do swarm in the streets and alehouses of many of the church towns, the churches therein having then not sent many besides the curate & his parish clerk.
  8. Open and great markets are commonly kept in many of the same church towns upon Sundays and holiday in the time of divine service
  9. The number of bastards since the Statute of 18 of her Majesty[2] more plentiful then before & yet no punishment ministered unto the reputed fathers & mothers by the Justices of Peace according to the same Statute
  10. The statute for the punishment of Roges[3] and permission for the poor and impotent persons is not put in use and there are lusty vagrant persons in those parts are very many and the poor provided for according to the Statute in that behalf
  11. Many gentlemen and others of good countenance that sometimes come to the Church have not communicated the Lord’s Supper by the space of many years
  12. Marriages and christenings are celebrated very commonly by seminaries & other Massing priests in corners and none or very little examination is used for the learning by whom the same were said done made celebrated
  13. In some parts of Lancashire some children that have been baptised according to the laws established have been afterwards re-baptised by Massing priests or such like
  14. Divers Mass priests having been of late apprehended refuse to be examined upon [f.223r] their oaths, where they have frequented & by whom they have been cherished [looked after, fed, sheltered]. And thereby the state of the Country is not thoroughly known, and until such time as their haunts [places they stay] may be discovered. It is a thing impossible to reform…


  1. Alehouses in those counties are innumerable and the law for the suppressing them and keeping them in order is left unexecuted, and thereby great drunkenness unlawful games & other abuses to the utter undoing of very many people is tolerated…
  1. … Church towns and in divers other places of those counties, cockfights and other exceeding unlawful games are tolerated upon Sundays & holidays at the time of divine Service, and often times there at are present divers of the justices of the peace of the same counties, and also some of the ecclesiastical Commissioners.
  2. The recusants have spies about the Commissioners, to give them intelligence when anything is intended against them, and some of the bailies [bailiffs/officials] attending upon the same Commissioners are entertained for that purpose (as appeared by a letter lately delivered to your Lords) to the end that the same recusants may shift out of the way for the avoiding of their apprehension, being intended of which bailies some examples would be made to the terror of others[4]
  3. Some of the ecclesiastical Commissioners & Justices of Peace in Lancashire do take upon them to have gifts or grants of the goods & lands of the recusants, whereby the same recusants may not forfeit the same, if in case they shall be touched for any criminal cause, and yet

notwithstanding the same recusants have the use of the same where of likewise some example would be made.

Many of the best sort of gentlemen not being in any authority within the County of Lancashire under her Majesty, their wives children, servants and tenants do withdraw themselves from divine service so have done by the space of many years last past.

It will be very hard for the Lord President of the North parts to keep in order the counties of York & other Counties adjoining upon Lancashire within that Commission so long as Lancashire shall remain unreformed.…

[1] Elizabeth I, i.e. the first statute passed in the parliament held in the twenty-third year of Elizabeth’s reign (17 Nov 1580-16 Nov 1581).  This was An Act to retain the Queen’s Majesty’s Subjects in their due Obedience.

[2] Bastardy act, 1575-6

[3] Unclear, but possibly 18 Elizabeth 3 (1575-6), An act for the setting of the poor in work and for the avoiding of Idleness

[4] i.e. that an example should be made of some of the bailiffs to warn and deter others

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