Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 21. Position of the Clergy and causes of their disrepute

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 21. Position of the Clergy and causes of their disrepute

More surprising, perhaps, than the smallness of the share belonging to army and navy in the life of the Elizabethan age is the relative depression of the position held about this time—certainly so far as the evidence of the contemporary drama goes—by the clergy. As is well known, the recovery of that body, including part of the episcopate, from the disrepute into which they had sunk in the earlier part of the reign, was gradual and, for a long time, uncertain. A considerable proportion of the episcopate remained for many years in a position of degrading dependence or absolute insignificance alike unworthy of their order, while of the parsonages a large number were not filled up at all, or, in more ways than one, most unsuitably. As the reign wore on, and the prudent exertions of the sorely tried archbishop Parker and others gradually bore fruit, an increasing activity and devotion to their duties manifested themselves on the part of the bishops and an advance was also visible in the case of the inferior or parish clergy, alike in parochial zeal and in scholarly attainments. Knowledge of Latin was again becoming universal, and that of Hebrew and Greek was growing common, among clergymen. The recovery in question, which was quite distinct from the puritan movement, though each, in its way, helped to leaven the lump of academical, as well as of national, life, led, indeed, only very slowly and very partially to the awakening, in high ecclesiastical places or in quiet country parsonages, of higher and deeper conceptions of religion. Yet this tardiness of progress was by no means wholly due to the decline of the political and social position of the church, and to the many alterations in its formularies. It was also due to the changes which had for some time been at work in

  • Englands two eyes, Englands two Nurceries,
  • Englands two nests, Englands two holy mounts,
  • I meane, Englands two Universities.