What Changes May have occurred at St James the Great, Thorley

as a direct result of the Reformation


by Katharine Roper


In England, incredible changes occurred during the years of 1509-1603. Four monarchs came and went, each with their own ideas about governing country and church. Henry (Catholic/Break from Rome), Edward (Protestant/Reformer), Mary (Catholic) and Elizabeth (Protestant/Reformer). One thing was certain, never again would the church have power in matters of economy and political affairs.

The parish of St James has a lengthy history spanning nearly 1000 years. The plan of the original church indicates that it was Saxon, it later became the site of a Norman church. Evidence of the building today suggests that it was rebuilt in the thirteenth century. To some extent it is difficult to isolate changes that actually occurred at St James' as a direct result of the reformation. This is due to a lack of evidence. However, it is possible to make fairly substantial links with the events and changes of the time when one considers all that was happening to parish churches in general.

Henry VIII was the initial instigator of many of these changes but these did not filter through to affect parish life until later. Henry had no desire to question the doctrine of faith or alter the character of public worship. In 1536 Henry had dissolved the monasteries to ensure that he was unchallenged in his supremacy and that the wealth of the church was in his hands. Landowners and gentry snapped up anything that Henry left and furnishings and fittings were auctioned off. It is possible that the building material, ie wood that was used to build the St Barnabas Centre in 1550 (then a Barn) was acquired in this way. The clergy of the time at St James, eg Thomas Chamber and later Edmund Brygate, would have shown concern at Henry's actions and wondered what would happen next. Written records date back to 1539 when Henry decreed that parishes should keep registers and record weekly details of baptisms, weddings and burials. These are not extensive, therefore some of the following can only be surmise.

Edward VI saw to many dramatic changes in the furnishings of parish churches and the actual services themselves. Losses to parish churches during the Reformation would have included lead taken from the roof and stained glass windows, and high stone altars removed or destroyed. These were replaced by simple wooden tables. "All things corrupt, vain and superstitious", meaning rood screens, paintings and sculptures were taken and destroyed. Gold and silver was confiscated, shrines were smashed and wall paintings were whitewashed. In fact, many churches were left with just a chalice and a bell. (The oldest chalice and paten at St James is dated 1562. It was given to the church in 1748 in memory of Moses Raper, Lord of Thorley Hall Manor.) The rood screen at St James was certainly removed, but as far as we know there were no wall paintings. The rood was certainly in place before the Reformation, its function was to separate the priest from the people, and the nave from the chancel. Doors to this screen would have been locked most of the time. It would have been wooden and strong enough to support a balcony with a heavy cross above it. Indentations, where the balcony was once fitted can still be seen in the plaster around the chancel arch. With the rood screen removed the church was finally opened up to all and the priest and the people were no longer separated.

By the time Elizabeth I was Queen, the royal coat of arms would have been played in a prominent position (in the place that had been reserved for the image of Christ upon the cross) to remind the people that she was the head of the church in England. At St James it is believed that the coat of arms was positioned by the side door (Norman door). The date of this is unclear, but it is also known that there was an inscription over the chancel arch, written in black and red (colours associated with the Middle Ages). The current windows are much newer, but it is possible that there were stained glass windows removed from the church.

Gains to the churches included services now being conducted in English. This gave the congregation long overdue accessibility to the Christian ritual. Possibly the single most important result of the reformation in England was that churches would now have two Bibles, one in Latin and one in English. These were available for anyone to read. The Bibles had come via the route of William Tyndale and, later, Miles Coverdale (printed 1535).

Edward VI introduced the use of the Book of Common Prayer which Cramner had worked on during Henry's reign. This had a more Protestant tone than traditional liturgy and was made law by the 'Act of Uniformity'.

Mary following pre-reformation traits restored the links with Rome and did much to try to restore the wealth of the churches. However, they would never regain their previous splendour. Both Edward and Elizabeth had made the weekly attendance of church law. Where Edward had removed or destroyed altars, there now stood wooden communion tables. These were placed in the chancel and people could sit or stand around three sides of them at morning and evening prayer. Often these were repositioned against the east wall of the chancel after the communion services.

The font was probably removed during the purges of the Puritans under Cromwell. We know that it was used as a drinking trough at the farm until 1855 when it was restored to its rightful position in the church. In a way, it was lucky to survive at all! Many were destroyed.

A Service at St James in the time of Elizabeth I would not have been hard to imagine. The Prayer Book would have formed the basis of the liturgy, as is still the case in many churches today. A Rector of Thorley, Francis Burley (1594 - 1619) appointed by Elizabeth I, was one of the group who revised the 'Authorised Version' of the Bible, issued in 1611. The new order of service in English accompanied by the Bible written in English, united the church and the community. Morning and evening prayer would be read in the naves among the people who would sit or stand around three sides of the table in the choirs or naves. At St James people would have sat on benches around the communion table in the nave. There are marks around the walls 3 feet above the radiators which indicate where the benches were once attached. 

Tables would face either east-west or north-south. Prayers were said and psalms were sung (four-part) in a rhymed, metrical version to the tunes in the Psalter. The pews we sit on now are Victorian (1856 after restoration project). Prior to these there would have been 18th Century pews/boxes as the emphasis on longer sermons flourished. There was no organ so viols or wind instruments provided accompaniment (by local people).

Bells that were silenced during the early reformation were restored under direction of Elizabeth. Parishioners undertook maintenance of the belfries and the addition of extra bells. The oldest bell at St James is post reformation and is dedicated to King Charles I, 1628, and the newest is dated 1946.

The upheaval of over 200 priests took place during the reformation. Some were deprived of their livings and others found that they had to obey secular law. The switching between Catholicism and Protestantism and vice versa must have been difficult. Priests either complied or faced imprisonment or death! It is believed the previous Rectors of Thorley stayed out of trouble avoiding peril. Relief came with Elizabeth I. By now clergy were much more assured of where they stood and what their message was to be. Respect for them began to return.

Edward had allowed clergy to marry, Mary had retracted that privilege causing great problems for some clergy, forced to give up their wives or their professions. Then, finally under Elizabeth they were allowed to marry again. This time for good! There are three clergy seats in the sanctuary where possibly a rector, assistant priest and a deacon would have sat. We currently have two clergy and a Reader.


(Special thanks to Bill Hardy, Church and Barn Archivist)


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