Today in London’s religious history, 1553: a riot at St Paul’s

The religious divisions of mid-16th century England may not have given birth to outright civil war, as happened in France, though there were a number of abortive rebellions pertly stimulated by religious aims. London was a centre of religious debate and dissent – always a hotchpotch and melting pot of religious ideas, simply because of its size and the different communities attracted here, and the opportunity to meet people, discuss ideas, evolve new theologies…

The rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors – from Catholic orthodoxy, through the dissolution of the monasteries and mild reform, radical Protestantism, catholicism, to a milder Anglicanism – saw dissenters of various stripes burnt, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

Mid-16th century London had evolved many dissenting protestant congregations, nominally part off the one established church, which were variously tolerated, persecuted, encouraged, then repressed again… While many people held strong beliefs one way or the other, most were very likely content to adhere to whatever wouldn’t get them into trouble with the authorities. Though the bewildering theological roller-coaster caught out many who just couldn’t keep up with what was orthodoxy and what was heresy this month…

Opposing views sometimes led to violent clashes.

On August 13th 1553, a riot broke out outside St Pauls Cathedral, at ‘Pauls Cross,’ when worshippers objected to a preacher praying for the souls of the departed and defended the widely hated Bishop Bonner.

Catholic Queen Mary had recently succeeded to the throne and was in the first stages of rolling back the strict protestant regime of her predecessor Edward VI. The reformers who had dominated Edward’s reign were in a desperate rearguard action against reversal of their changes.

This incident is noticed in the public chronicles. Gilbert Bourne, the preacher, Queen Mary’s chaplain, offended the audience by speaking vehemently in the defence of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was already known as a prosecutor of protestants and other ‘heretics’ and would garner an odious reputation over the next five years for burning numerous dissenters under Queen Mary’s catholic regime. Bourne also spoke out against against the protestant reformer bishop Ridley. A great crowd booed and abused Bourne, with cries of “Papist, Papist! Tear him down!” One of the crowd threw a dagger at Bourne, which struck one of the sideposts of the pulpit. “Maister Bradford, the celebrated Reformer, came forward to persuade the people to quietness, and by the help of that worthy man and of maister Rogers, (both of whom were afterwards sacrificed in cold blood by their religious adversaries,) Bourne was conveyed safely away into Paul’s School. Grafton’s Abridgement, 1566, and Stowe’s Summarie of the same date.”

The privy council, which was sitting at the Tower of London, took immediate alarm at this disturbance. On the 16th of August, Homfrey Palden was “committed to the counter for seditious wordes uttered by him againste the preacher Mr. Burne for his sermon at Paule’s crosse on Sunday last;” and the same day the celebrated Bradford and Veron, “two seditious preachers,” were committed to the Tower, as was “Theodore Basill, alias Thomas Beacon, another seditious preacher.”

Subsequent sermons in the following weeks saw preachers thought to be speaking on matters that would inflame their hearers protected by up to 200 armed guards. The next sermon was specifically on the subject of loyalty to the monarch’s religious decrees and to ‘the old faith’.

What is not clear is the composition of the crowd that kicked off against Bourne’s sermon. Were they radical protestants? Regular churchgoers to whom Bonner’s name in particular meant fear and loathing? John Rogers, and John Bradford, both leading radical protestants, had been a notable presence in the crowd – in fact he had intervened to try to calm the congregation down, enabling Bourne to escape unharmed. But the Queen and church conservatives interpreted this as them having a great deal of influence with the riotous crowd, whether or not they had stirred them up or not. Both were to be imprisoned and executed for heresy in 1555.

It’s not clear if the St Paul’s riot is the same incident described in a letter from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor from August 1553, where he mentions that

“great scandal occurred, and outrages against religion were committed lately on the person of a priest who dared to say mass in a chapel here m London; some took the chalice, others the vestments; the ornaments on the altar were broken in pieces, and two or three hundred people assembled and made such riot that the mayor had been obliged to go in person to quell the tumult. He succeeded, and saved the person of the priest by taking him into custody. “

It is possible that the St Paul’s uproar was part of a series of disturbances…

Paul’s Cross, outside St Paul’s, was used for the dissemination of ideas by preachers backed by the authorities from the fourteenth century; but the spot was also known as a kind of speakers corner through medieval and early modern times. This had evolved partly from the ‘folkmoots’ – assemblies of citizens that had at one time represented a form of community self-government, but also had a history of use for agitation and articulating anger or discontent. Crowds were not only used to hearing ideas – religious, political, social – set out by speakers here, but also to reacting to them and taking part in the proceedings.

The uproar against Bourne was only part of series of sermons at Paul’s Cross, showing it was a venue for a debate in the to and fro of theology. (Some of which can be read here)

While repression of Protestantism was well underway, resistance continued, if clandestine… a dead cat which had been made to look like a priest saying mass was found on a cross in Cheapside, and at a sermon in April 1554, Bonner’s chaplain gave a sermon displaying the cat and ordering the culprit to come forward. In June, when the chaplain spoke again, he was shot at and a search was made of every house in the precinct of St Paul’s to find the culprit, but to no avail.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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