The church illustrated here is situated within the grounds of Penshurst House, the home of Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, later the Countess of Pembroke.

The Sunday service was a central activity. The Act of Uniformity (1559) made attendance at church compulsory, even though many churchgoers had to travel long distances. Absentees--"recusants*"-- were punished with fines.

Both Shakespeare's father and daughter were reported as recusants, though in John Shakespeare's case it was probably because he was in debt.

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Seating in the church reflected the order of Elizabethan society. The parson sat in the pulpit, at the head of the congregation, with the parish clerk below him. The squire and his family sat in a large private pew at the front, while gentry and well-to-do farmers sat in pews behind him. Labourers arranged themselves at the back on "forms," and paupers and children perched in the gallery with the musicians.

Competition in church

Seating in church was thus a sign of social status, and there was some jostling for position. Parishioners could build their own pews, and sometimes made them large and ornate, blocking the view of those behind them.

A complaint lodged in 1638 against Alexander Sampson of Nottinghamshire charged that "he hath made a seate in our church that is not uniforme. It is higher than any other that is neare unto it, and it continues still soe high that it hideth the sight of the deske and the Alter from all them that sitt behinde itt."

Sitting in a different seat would threaten the class structure of the parish. One woman caused a disturbance at Shimpling, Norfolk, in 1597 "by placing herself in the best pews of the parish, being placed beneath the churchwardens*."

In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of all charitee.
(The Wife of Bath, described in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 449-52.)

Among the parish wives there was no other
Who to offertory would go before her
And if one did, so wrathful was she,
That she was out of all charity.

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Footnotes

  1. Notable recusants

    Both Shakespeare's father and daughter were reported as recusants, though in John Shakespeare's case it was probably because he was in debt.

  2. One formidable parishoner

    In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
    That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
    And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
    That she was out of all charitee.
    (The Wife of Bath, described in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 449-52.)

    The translated version

    Among the parish wives there was no other
    Who to offertory would go before her
    And if one did, so wrathful was she,
    That she was out of all charity.