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Explore England's Past

Religious Life and Buildings

The striking parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Purton, Wiltshire

The history of religion in England from the late Anglo-Saxon period to the early 20th century is largely that of Christianity, encompassing the period of the medieval Catholic Church, the upheavals of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, and the more pluralist experience of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as religious nonconformity was gradually legalised.

Even so, that is not the whole story. Paganism remained dominant in many Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until at least the 7th century, and at popular level semi-pagan folk beliefs persisted beyond the Middle Ages, often grafted onto orthodox Christianity. A large Jewish community existed in England until their expulsion in 1290, and even before their formal readmission in the mid 17th century there remained an important clandestine presence, particularly at important trading ports such as Bristol. More recently, ethnic migration into England since the 1950s has brought with it a wide variety of non-indigenous religions, particularly in some urban areas.

For those brought up in a secular society, it can be hard to appreciate the extent to which religious belief moulded mental outlooks and permeated daily life until the relatively recent past. For much of the past millennium, the Established Church (whether Catholic or Protestant) formed a compulsory society and belief-system into which everyone was born, reinforced by the apparatus of the state. Church courts regulated all aspects of moral as well as religious behaviour until the 17th century and sometimes later, with those accused of even minor misdemeanours suffering public penance and sometimes corporal punishment before the whole parish community.

From the 1660s tolerance of differing religious outlooks was gradually enshrined in national legislation, but even Dissenters still had legal and financial obligations. Payment of church rates and tithe became a particular cause of friction, and although from 1836 tithe was commuted into a form of land tax, tithe-related payments were not finally abolished in England until the late 20th century.

Atheism, though espoused by some intellectuals in the wake of the Enlightenment, remained virtually unheard of, and still had the power to shock even in the 19th century. A famous example is the poet Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford University on the basis of an atheistic pamphlet. More recent debates over secularism and religion, whether Christian or otherwise, show the continuing power of religious belief to provoke strong passions, and religion's ongoing interaction with the major social and political issues of the day. That said, religious indifference is not a new phenomenon. The religious census of 1851 showed that less than half the population attended any form of religious service, and that in some new industrial cities the proportion was only 1 in 10.

The pervasive influence of religion historically is most clearly reflected in the buildings and monuments which it has produced. Leaving aside the great cathedrals and abbey churches, which often took centuries to build, virtually every village in the most densely settled parts of the country has it own parish church. Most are of medieval origin and, whatever their architectural merit, reflect changing religious beliefs and priorities over the centuries. Most, for instance, contain physical evidence of pre-Reformation practices in the form of altar niches, shrines, and remains of rood lofts, as well of the buildings' adaptation at the Reformation and beyond. All are the result of individual and communal patronage over many centuries, exercised for a complex mix of religious, social and private motives.

The growth of organised nonconformity is similarly traceable in the geography of surviving chapels, from the small 17th-century meeting houses sometimes adapted from houses or barns, through to the imposing 19th-century edifices found in some major towns or market centres. More recent changes are reflected in the variety of religious buildings seen in some of our most ethnically diverse towns and cities, for example Bristol with its mosques and Sikh temple.