The Constitution of This Realm: Political Decision-Making, Officeholding, and Religious Change in England's Parishes, 1559-1700

Dudley, Brian, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Halliday, Paul, Department of History, University of Virginia

A key concept in the study of seventeenth-century English political thought has been the notion of England’s “ancient constitution,” an ideology of custom and law articulated by an elite group of legal specialists. This dissertation examines a different constitution, one that governed the everyday operation of seventeenth-century England’s most basic political unit: the parish. Whereas most previous studies have treated parish government as part of a larger story of socio-economic polarization, I have investigated the formal institutions and processes through which ratepaying parishioners made decisions and chose the officers responsible for enacting them as a means of elucidating the political ideals that lay behind these actions. In so doing, I have found that several of our assumptions regarding early modern parish governance are in need of modification. Historians’ tendency to evaluate early modern parishes as either participatory democracies or as elitist oligarchies, for example, is inadequate, as is the well-worn notion of a trend towards oligarchic forms of parish government around 1600. Instead I find that both majoritarian and oligarchic principles retained their legitimacy and that they frequently worked in tandem, rather than in opposition. Parish offices, meanwhile, rather than being actively pursued by ambitious middling parishioners, were in fact usually considered an honorable burden rather than a prize. This meant that a vengeful Parliament determined to evict dissenters from public office after the Restoration still had to allow them to serve in parochial office in order to ensure that they shared in the drudgery. As dissenting churchwardens mounted legal challenges to episcopal supervision, the bishops’ ability to hold parish officers to account was whittled away, marking a significant decline in the power of the English confessional state.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
early modern England, parish politics, parish government, political thought, state formation, confessionalization, churchwardens, seventheenth century
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