Ale and Alleluia: An Unholy Alliance?

The Worlds End - not just a film, but a meeting-place for traitors and ne'er-do-wells in interregnum Britain.

The Worlds End – not just a film, but a meeting-place for traitors and ne’er-do-wells in interregnum Britain.

Here’s a bit of shocking news for you: puritans didn’t like alehouses. We don’t need to look far for evidence. A simple EEBO search for ‘alehouse’ with the date parameters of 1650-3 brings up 84 hits, the first four of which are all tirades against both the literal and metaphorical unhealthiness of the alehouse. One, an anonymous single-sheet flyer printed in 1652, talks about the vice of drunkenness.

A Drunkard is the annoyance of Modesty…He is the Brewers Agent; The Alehouse Benefactor…Drunkennesse is a flattering Devil, a sweet Poyson, a delightsome sin.

For puritan divines the alehouse was the natural meeting-place of wretched sinners – a habitat for (fallen) humanity.

Our Savior follows poor sinners from Alehouse to Alehouse, and says, I beseech you, Drunkards, take mercy, and have your sins pardoned.

Isaac Ambrose, 1650

Must I tire out the patience of Christ? Must I make the God of Heaven to follow me in vain, from home to the Assembly? from thence to my Chamber? from Alehouse to Alehouse? Till I had wearied him with crying to me, Repent, Return? Must the Lord of all the world thus wait upon me? and all in vain?

Richard Baxter, 1650

The tavern was the perfect location for secretive meetings and plottings of enemies of the state which, by 1650, were mostly comprised of royalists and papists, of course.

…the right Cavaleers they knew, to meet at a Green a quarter of a mile beyond the Kings Hally-Rood-House, neer a little Alehouse there, called the Worlds end…

A.B., Mutatus polemo. The horrible stategems of the Jesuits, lately practised in England… (1650) [Notwithstanding Holyroodhouse being in Edinburgh, of course].

A key plank of the ‘reformation of manners’ involved cracking down on such wanton immorality and vice. The republican and presbyterian Commonwealth of England (1649-1653) was not the first English government to attempt to exert control over alehouses by getting tough on the unlicensed selling of ale. Edward VI’s government passed an act in 1551 requiring alehouses to be licensed by the local Justices of the Peace. It empowered the JPs to stop the selling of ale, if they felt it necessary, for the prevention of ‘abuses and disorders’. An act of 1627 stipulated that unlicensed sellers of ale, beer, cider or perry could be fined the sum of 20s, money which would be distributed among the poor. In 1646, the year in which bishops were abolished and the liturgy of the Church of England was replaced by the presbyterian ‘Directory of Worship’, the House of Lords heard that a ‘disorderly Alehouse’ near the Spring Gardens in London was responsible for disturbances of the peace on fast days and the sabbath: Lord Pembroke was tasked with shutting down this disruptive operation.

Robinson, stable scene with rustics drinking (1680s, bpi3748).

Robinson, stable scene with rustics drinking (1680s, bpi3748).

In this context, it comes as no small surprise to find in the Somerset churchwardens’ accounts an example of an unholy alliance between beer and bible in interregnum England. We need just a little bit of context here, specifically, the rapidly plummeting incomes for parish churches after the desolation of civil war. The parish rates were, in most parts, no longer collected at anywhere near the level they had been before the conflict. Any money that did come in had to be spent on core functions such as the purchase of bread and wine, remittances to the county hospital, and only the most essential of repairs. There was no money in church coffers for expensive investments in parochial infrastructure or widespread distribution of alms. In Shepton Mallet, churchwardens’ incomes for 1649 remained reasonably good at over £28, but confusion in the year following Charles I’s execution saw that income decline to a paltry £5 12s.

However, the canny churchwardens spied a largely untapped resource lurking in their midst: the unlicensed alehouses. Starting in 1650, a new series of fines were levied on the owners of these premises, which brought in £7 in that year alone – a sum higher than the total collected through the rating system! The money was put to a good protestant cause – it was distributed to the poor of the town. The wardens did not record the amount they fined each alehouse, or the total number of premises charged, but if we assume a 1627-level sum of 20s each, then this may equate to about 7 alehouses. The most interesting thing, though, is that the money raised in this fashion increased year-on-year until 1653, when it was abandoned. In 1651, the wardens collected £7 5s, followed by £9 6s 8d in 1652, and a whopping £12 in 1653.

Attacking unlicensed alehouses in this fashion was clearly acceptable practice during a period of godly rule. The wardens were also active in issuing fines for profaning the sabbath: in 1650, an unlucky person caught riding his horse on Whitsunday was fined 5s, while in 1652 a certain Hugh Reyly was also fined 5s, this time for being ‘at play’ on the sabbath day. The money was also given to the poor of Shepton; in the second instance to a man who had ‘suffered loss by fire’.

But it should be pointed out that the increasing level of money collected could indicate different things. First, it could be that the amount each establishment was fined increased year-on-year. Alternatively it might be the case that, despite the efforts of the wardens, Shepton Mallet was experiencing an increase in the number of plucky beer-sellers during the otherwise dreary years of puritan rule. Either way, the wardens’ crusade appears to have met with little success – they don’t appear to have stopped, or even reduced, the unlicensed sale of ale in their town. Are we therefore looking at something of an ‘unholy alliance’ between puritan reformer and the arch-offender of virtue, the illegal ale-seller? Without a reliable stream of alternative income, it is not conceivable that these godly crusaders were not altogether coherent in their assault on the alehouses of Shepton. Perhaps it suited them just fine to collect regular fines from the Devil’s own wallet – an enterprise that, in the midst of England’s ‘reformation of manners’ was, apparently, thriving. In the parish’s dearth years of 1649-53, it would not be at all surprising if the wardens of Shepton did not want to shut off such a reliable – and profitable – source of income as the unlicensed alehouse!

N.B. Edited 10/11/15 to remove a typographical error.


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