In the month that marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seemed a good opportunity to look at religion at Lincoln’s Inn during this time.
The current Chapel was completed in 1623, replacing a smaller, pre-existing one. The exact location of the earlier chapel is not known, although we do know that it was not on the same site as the current chapel. Building accounts for the new chapel describe the previous chapel as being located in a ruinous state nearby, even once the new building was open and being used for services. In 1822 a small fragment of carved alabaster from the original chapel was discovered, and it is now on display beside the pulpit.
We can glean some information from the Black Books and accounts of the period as to what religion was like at the Inn during this time. In 1465 the Chapel is referred to as the ‘chapel of s. Richard’ and this connection with the saint is indicated in later purchases for the Chapel, which include an image of Saint Richard. During this time the main site of the Inn was rented from the Bishops of Chichester, who had been granted the land in 1228. Saint Richard had been Richard of Chichester, elected Bishop of Chichester in 1244.
Divine service in the Chapel had always been under the care of a member of the Bench elected to the post that was originally known as Clerk of the Chapel and from 1571 became known as Dean of Chapel. However, the early records are not clear as to who the Chaplains were. In 1441 the officiating person is merely known as ‘John the Chaplain’, while a successor is referred to as ‘Priest of Lincoln’s Inn.’
In the same year that saw Martin Luther posting his 95 theses, the Inn appointed a second chaplain. This post was funded by Bencher Sir Robert Drury, in return for the special admission of his son. On 12 February 1517 it is recorded in the Black Book for the period that ‘William Drury was admitted at the instance of Robert Drury, Knight his father; he was pardoned all vacations and offices within the Inn, except his vacations at the Bar or the Bench; he may be at repasts; he may have a servant at yeoman’s commons; he shall have bread and drink from the Buttery as Utter Barristers have; for this Robert Drury gave the salary of a Chaplain to celebrate within the Inn for ever.’
At a Council of 1518 it was ordered that the parson ‘shall provide a wax taper of 1 lb weight before the image of the Holy and Blessed Mary the Virgin’ as a fine for playing at cards and dice in chambers. It is unclear which chaplain this was, but this form of punishment was typical of the type of penance usually ordered by the Church. A wax taper was often used to publically symbolise the acknowledgement of guilt, and it would be offered to the priest or before the image of a saint to symbolise submission. After the Reformation candles and tapers were no longer used in the same way, and in 1547 Edward VI proclaimed that ‘henceforth no torches nor candles, tapers or images of wax, to be set afore any image or picture, but only two lights upon the high altar, before the sacrament; which for the signification that Christ is the very true Light of the world they shall suffer to remain still.’
After the death of Sir Robert Drury in 1535, his son William continued to fund the Chaplain. It is clear that the Inn were involved in the ongoing employment of this Chaplain, and it is recorded at a Council held 30 May 1538 that, ‘when Syr Wyllyam Drury do admytt and nominate a Chapelyn to synge in Lyncolyn’s Inne for the sowle of Sir Robert Drury, hys father, that he shall be presented to the Awncyentes of the Benche.’
It is evident from this entry that the Drury Chaplain was a Chantry Priest, who would sing masses for the soul of the deceased. It appears that despite the Abolition of the Chantries Acts, 1545 and 1547, the Inn continued to employ the Drury’s priest, as he received board allowances until 1553 when he seems to have left the Inn. In 1554, after the restoration of Catholicism in 1553 under Mary I, the Council draft a letter to Sir William to see if he will resume the funding of a new priest, which he appears to have consented to do.
However, from 1558, only the ordinary Chaplain is recorded as receiving board wages, suggesting that the Elizabethan Act of 1559, which reannexed chantry foundations to the crown, led to the post being removed permanently.
The employment of a Chantry priest was not the Inn’s only Catholic tendency. During Elizabeth I’s reign, the Inn became notorious for having an active Catholic circle. This had its roots in the Inn’s connections with Thomas More and his circle, which included prominent Catholic Benchers, William Rastell and William Roper. William Roper had been a close associate of Thomas More and had been married to Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret who had died in 1544. Roper had been admitted to the Inn in 1518 and after being Called to the Bar in 1525, he was Called to the Bench in 1535.
William Rastell was also a prominent member of More’s circle and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1532, being Called to the Bar in 1539. He was Called to the Bench in 1546 and in 1549 he was made Treasurer. Not long after his election he left the country and a note in the Black Books at a Council held 2 February 1550 records that ‘Rastall, the Treasurer, fined £10 because he went to foreign parts without leave of the Governors.’ It seems that he quit the country on 21 December for religious reasons and remained in Louvain until the accession of Mary I.
William Rastell returned to England in 1553, when Mary I came to the throne. He renewed his connection with the Inn, and at the end of 1554 he was again elected Treasurer. At a Council meeting held on 3 May 1554 is recorded that ‘Mr William Rastell, one of the Benchers of this Howse of Lyncolne’s Inne gave towards the furnysshyng of the alter in the Chappell in the Howse, a greate image or picture in a Table of the taking downe of Cryste fro the Crosse.’ Along with rich furnishings he requested, and received permission for, prayers to be said in perpetuity for the soul of his wife Winifred, and all their family and friends. The entry has later been edited with a marginal note that the order was cancelled after a Council meeting held 16 November 1580. This may have been decided as a result of the passing of the Religion Act of 1580, which fined and imprisoned those who celebrated, or attended, a mass.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Black Books record changes made to adhere to the new religious policy. At a Council held on 4 June 1559 it is recorded that the Treasurer is to provide the relevant books that are needed for the Chaplain to say the service in the Chapel which is ‘appointed by the Statute.’ This refers to the Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer and Service in the Church, and the administration of the Sacraments. This Act came into effect on 24 June 1559, repealing all of Mary I’s anti-Protestant legislation. The Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer was a conservative revision of the 1552 edition, and the Treasurer’s accounts for this period record a payment of 15s for a Bible and for the Book of the Communion.
The Inn’s religious situation rapidly worsened from 1568 when William Roper, was summoned before the Privy Council and accused of providing funds to unnamed exiles, who had published books against the royal supremacy. He was fined and then recalled to make a submission. However in 1569 the Privy Council uncovered an active Catholic circle centred on Lincoln’s Inn. Nine people were committed to Fleet prison in February 1569, for circulating seditious books. Two of the culprits have not been traced but the other seven were all members of Lincoln’s Inn, most with Catholic connections. By April the Privy Council had also summoned at least 22 junior members of the Inns of Court, with at least five of them from Lincoln’s Inn. They were examined on attendance at church, frequency of communion and practice of Catholic rites, and were all found to be offenders.
In 1563, Parliament had extended the Oath of Supremacy to graduates, school masters and the legal professions including ‘utter Barresters as Benchers, Readers, Auncientes in any Howse or Howses of Courte.’ The oath did not apply to students and there is no indication that the oath was widely enforced or imposed at the Inn. It is not until May 1569 that mention is made in the Council minutes of ‘the oath to be taken by Readers, Benchers, and Utter Barristers’ with a comment noting that they would confer with the others Inns about the issue.
It wasn’t until 1570, when it is declared at a Council meeting of 4 May that no one, henceforth, would be called to the Bench or the Bar without first taking the Oath of Supremacy, that this is formally acted on.
This entry is followed by a transcribed copy of the letter received from the Queen’s Council advising that the oath must be taken and naming certain gentlemen of the Lincoln’s Inn who were to be sequestered as a result of their actions. It was signed by William Cecil, Francis Knollys and Robert Dudley, amongst others.
This Star Chamber order is dated May 1569, and it remains unclear why the Inn did not act on this sooner. This seemingly initial reluctance is, however, later replaced by a diligent approach to such matters. Regulation of religious observance begins with the Inn instructing its butlers in June 1574 to ‘make inquisition and certifie if there be anie person in commons in this House that commeth not usuallie to ye Chappel here in the time of common praier’, and in 1575, following Government orders and the Inn’s enquiry into church attendance, 13 members who had not received communion were called before the Bench.
The Inn also began to expel members suspected of religious offences, including William Roper who was apparently expelled sometime before his death in 1578. It appears that the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn began to keep a watch on religious observance, and only eight suspected delinquents are listed in 1577. In 1578 members were instructed to receive communion once a year and it seems that there was a move away from the Catholic tone of the preceding years, with the Inn becoming increasingly Protestant in outlook.
During these turbulent Reformation years, with frequently changing and uncertain religious policy, it was inevitable that some Catholic feeling would remain. We cannot be sure of the extent of this feeling among the Inn’s members, but the religious convictions of the governing Benchers were bound to have had some sway over the Inn’s position during this time.