Internet Shakespeare Editions


The early church in England

The Church at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Photograph Michael Best.

Christianity was originally introduced to Britain through the Romans, although Anglo-Saxon invasions drove the Christians westward, where the fire of faith smouldered in the Irish-Celtic church.

The evangelizing mission of St. Augustine* in AD 597 reintroduced Christianity to Britain. The Norman conquest (1066) further strengthened the church in England, reforming it along strictly Roman Catholic lines: canon law* was introduced, ensuring a separation between civil and ecclesiastical courts.

There were two centres of ecclesiastical power*: Canterbury and York.

Mismanagement and exploitation

Advowsons--the buying and selling of church appointments--inevitably led to simony, the treatment of parishes as commercial enterprises with an owner. The owner (a monastery, or, after the dissolution of the monasteries, an individual priest or layman) would appoint vicars to do the actual work of the parish. Church offices were thus bought and sold, much as doctors' practices are today.

The vicar was often paid such a small stipend* that he was forced to supplement his income by acquiring more "benefices"-- churches and their rectories. Unable properly to fulfill the duties of his multiple benefices, the vicar in turn appointed a chaplain* or curate* for each, paying them even smaller stipends. The absentee rector and pluralist vicar became a scandal exemplifying the mismanagement of the church.


  1. The other Augustine

    No relation to his illustrious namesake, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the Latin fathers of the church and author, among other works, of his Confessions.

  2. The growth of the English church

    St. Augustine's mission of AD 597 was followed by the arrival of itinerant priests and monks on British shores. Originally preaching from stone or wooden crosses in public locations, their visits became a regular part of village life. In time, lords sponsored the building of churches within their land holdings, appointing priests as rectors* and providing them with benefices of glebe* land. By the late Saxon period, the village church had been established as the centre of the community.

    Parishes eventually fell under control of local landowners who even had the power--called "advowson"--to appoint the parish clergy. The advowson became a piece of secular property which could be sold, exchanged, or bequeathed. This system of parochial benefices was left relatively unchanged by the Reformation.

  3. Canterbury and York

    The struggle for predominance between the archbishops of Canterbury (founded in 597) and York (735) was finally won by Canterbury, as reflected in their respective titles: the Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England, while the Archbishop of York is simply the Primate of England.

    The Convocations of Canterbury and York

    These two ancient provincial assemblies of the Church of England were the means by which the clergy taxed themselves and applied canon law (see the definition below) at the local level. Convocation was composed of upper and lower houses; a full synod was achieved when both houses sat together, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry VIII's Submission of the Clergy, later embodied in an Act of Parliament (1534), severely limited the powers of Convocation.

  4. An ecclesiastical dictionary

    The right to give a benefice or church office to someone else, a right which enabled benefices and offices to be treated as property which could be bought and sold.
    Title applied to primates having jurisdiction over an ecclesiastical province.
    Immediately below a bishop in rank, appointed by the bishop to set up courts to investigate the behaviour of the laity and to conduct "visitations" around the diocese, with particular responsibility to check on the state of repair of the churches.
    A church living or estate, including buildings, land and income, given by the holder of the advowson of the benefice.
    The ecclesiastical head of a diocese or ecclesiastical district.
    Canon Law
    The body of ecclesiastical laws with authority in matters of faith, morals and discipline.
    A priest who conducts services in a chapel, often in a private house or estate.
    Usually two churchwardens were chosen each year to act as lay representatives of the parish in church matters. They also reported to the bishop or archdeacon on the behaviour of the parson and the parishioners.
    Ordained ministers of the church, including rectors, vicars and curates.
    A layman who performed some of the minor offices of the church, leading the responses and assisting the parson in the service.
    An ordained clergyman without a benefice of his own, who acted as an assistant to a rector or vicar, usually as a step towards gaining his own living.
    A district under the ecclesiastical rule of a bishop.
    Originally a clod or piece of earth; an area of land to support the parson within his benefice.
    A benefice, including the buildings and income belonging to a parson.
    Originally a rector, the holder of a benefice, but includes vicars as well as curates. A term often loosely applied to all clergymen.
    A person who holds more than one living or office at the same time.
    A high ecclesiastical dignitary, especially a bishop or archbishop.
    The title of the bishop of the "first see" (prima sedes), applied to the chief bishop of a state of people. The Archbishop of Canterbury is "Primate of All England;" the Archbishop of York is "Primate of England."
    The holder of a benefice, with the right to all revenues of that benefice.
    The practice of buying and selling church offices and benefices.
    The official "seat" (sedes) or "throne" (cathedra) of a bishop. It normally stands in the cathedral of the diocese, and the town or location of the cathedral is also known as the bishop's see.
    A salary or fixed payment, usually with reference to a vicar's income or to a stipendiary curate.
    One tenth of the annual profit of every living, payable to the Pope, and after the Reformation, to the Crown.
    Originally a tenth part of the annual produce of the land within the parish, payable to the parson; it became commuted to a rent charge.
    A priest appointed by the rector as his substitute in a parish.