In fact, by the early sixteenth century the main public criticism was that existing practice was far too lenient. This was a major complaint of the Protestant movement, which began around 1500 as a campaign to purify the church from within, but pretty soon developed into a cataclysmic struggle for truth that tore apart the unity of western Christendom. By the later sixteenth century, the western world (including its growing overseas colonies) was to be bitterly and permanently divided along religious lines – between Catholics and Protestants, and between different varieties of Protestantism. What Protestants had in common was a belief that the Catholic church’s doctrines and practice had become corrupt and worldly. Their ambition was to rediscover what God really demanded of Christians, and to order their own societies accordingly: not just in terms of religious worship, but in every sphere of life. Rather than the accumulated dogma of the church and its popes and priests, their chief basis for this was to be the direct inspiration of the word of God: the text of the Bible.
Sex was central to the Reformation’s reshaping of the world. To Protestant eyes, the Catholic church’s whole attitude to sexual morality seemed pathetically lax and dishonest. Its priests were lecherous parasites: the ideal of clerical celibacy was no more than a joke. Ecclesiastical courts were not nearly fierce enough in pursuing sexual offenders and punishing their mortal sins. Particularly scandalous was the toleration of prostitution. As far as the reformers were concerned, overt vice was, if anything, more dangerous than secret liaisons: the open sight of whores and brothels set a terrible example to young people, tempted men and women into sin, and was especially provoking to God. What is more, by allowing and regulating sexual trade, the Catholic church – the Whore of Babylon – was literally maintaining itself on the proceeds of fornication and adultery. ‘Oh Rome!’, ran the conventional Protestant denunciation, ‘the courtesan keeps open shop, pays yearly rent to his Holiness’s treasury, and takes a license for her trade’.1 Meanwhile, as the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and the other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers. This proved to be an extremely powerful polemical connection, which Protestants were to exploit ever afterwards.2
Instead of such wickedness, Protestants advanced a purer, more rigorous morality. The Catholic aspiration to celibacy was jettisoned as unrealistic and counter-productive. For all men, including priests, marriage was henceforth to be the only appropriate outlet for sexual desire. On the other hand, God’s many pronouncements against whoredom were to be taken even more seriously: all sex outside marriage should be severely punished. That adulterers ought to be put to death was the ideal of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and other leading reformers.3 The consequence was that wherever the Reformation succeeded it was followed by self-conscious efforts to tighten moral discipline: the closure of brothels, the expulsion of prostitutes, and the introduction of harsher punishments for adultery and fornication. In response to the Protestant challenge, more rigorous sexual policing equally became a feature of the Catholic CounterReformation. Throughout the western world, the period saw an intensification of Christian propaganda, and action, against fornication, adultery, prostitution, and sodomy.4
England was no exception. It is unclear why, but already in the later middle ages its mores seem to have been less permissive than those of continental Christendom. Very few towns appear to have allowed licensed brothels; and there is no evidence at all of religious foundations to assist penitent prostitutes, which were popular elsewhere in western Europe.5 Throughout the sixteenth century there were many attempts to enact harsher national laws against sexual offenders. A statute of 1534 made ‘buggery’, whether with another person or an animal, punishable by death. Another, in 1576, empowered justices of the peace to punish the parents of any infant born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, many churchmen and parliamentarians worked towards still greater discipline. In 1552, a wholesale revision of canon law led by Archbishop Cranmer recommended that adulterers should suffer life imprisonment or exile (though stoning to death, the commissioners noted wistfully, had been ‘by our godly forefathers [the] punishment specially designed for it’).6 At the very least, whores, fornicators, and adulterers ought to be seared with hot irons on their cheeks or foreheads, suggested the writer Phillp Stubbes, so that ‘honest and chaste Christians might be discerned from the adulterous children of Satan’. Many others urged that adultery should be a capital crime. The official Tudor homily against whoredom, which from 1547 was regularly recited in every parish church across the land, noted approvingly that many foreign and heathen nations of the past and present executed sexual sinners, just as God had commanded in the Bible. As a result, every English man and woman of the period would have known that, for example, ‘among the Turks. . . they that be taken in adultery, both man and woman, are stoned straightaway to death, without mercy’.7 The effects of this growing disapproval can be seen even amongst the highest ranks. Many medieval and early sixteenth-century noblemen had owned their bastards, or openly kept mistresses. After the Reformation, however, such behaviour was to become more controversial – by the early seventeenth century, aristocratic immorality provoked growing unease about the degeneration of the ruling classes.8
From the later sixteenth century onwards, in line with this hardening of attitudes, local church courts stepped up their efforts against sex before marriage, illicit pregnancies, bastardy, and related matters.9 So did the governors of towns and cities. In Southampton and Norwich in the 1550s, notorious whores were expelled from the city, on pain of being whipped and branded in the face if they dared return. In Rye, fornicators were forced to wear special yellow and green collars around their necks. Elsewhere, they were flogged, carted, or put in the stocks. Especially elaborate rituals were devised at Bury St Edmunds in the later 1570s. On Sundays, sexual offenders were paraded to the public whipping-post. The women had their hair cut off. Then they were all tied up and left for a whole day and night, at the mercy of the elements and the contempt of their community. Finally, on the following market day, they were publicly whipped, ‘receiving thirty stripes well laid on till the blood come’.10
The impetus for this growing severity came partly from religious zeal: the most enthusiastic punishers of whoredom were often the most evangelical Protestants, who sought the ever-further purification of society (‘Puritans’, as they came to be called in England). It also reflected mounting social pressures. The sixteenth century was a period of unprecedented population growth and economic upheaval. By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) this was resulting in considerable hardship, overpopulation, and pressure on local resources. The increasingly virulent spread of syphilis from the end of the fifteenth century onwards provoked growing anxiety, especially in towns.
Against this background, the social problems caused by sexual immorality – crime, disease, bastardy, impoverishment – came to be ever more acutely felt. The sharpening of measures against adultery and fornication can, therefore, be seen as part of a broader late-Tudor attempt to combat impoverishment and social disorder, through the foundation of new kinds of prisons and workhouses, a wholly new system of poor relief, and a crack-down on other kinds of anti-social behaviour, such as drunkenness, vagrancy, and begging. Taken together, this amounted to a significant expansion of governmental intervention in economic and social problems.
London was the epicentre of Protestant enthusiasm, of civic and central power, and of novel initiatives. From the early sixteenth century onwards, in line with the advance of Protestantism and of syphilis, immorality was treated with renewed hostility. Already in 1506 the licensed brothels of Southwark were temporarily shut down; in 1546 they were abolished for good. A succession of evangelical lord mayors and aldermen launched their own crusades against sexual offenders – not just ordering prostitutes to be carted, pilloried, flogged, banished, and dragged through the Thames, but using the secular law to pursue fornicators and adulterers systematically as well. When Rowland Hill, Lord Mayor in 1550, instigated the carting of notable citizens for unchastity, several of them ‘told him that it was not right to be so severe, and said that it would cost him dear when he finished his office, but he did not cease on that account, although many men would have paid large sums of money to be saved from disgrace’.11
Particularly important was the foundation in the 1550s of an entirely new kind of penal institution, Bridewell, to deal with the City’s sexual miscreants, beggars, vagrants, and other petty criminals. This building on the western border of the City, originally one of Henry VIII’s palaces, was the first English ‘house of correction’: a place to which offenders were summarily committed, not just for a sharp whipping, but for weeks of incarceration and hard labour, in order to instil in them the fear of God and the habit of industry. It was a model that was eventually to be adopted by every other city and county in England (the name ‘bridewell’ likewise became a generic term for any house of correction). Its foundation had an immediate
effect on the punishment of sexual offences in London. This single institution alone punished hundreds of unchaste men and women per year – in addition to the large numbers that must have been dealt with by the capital’s parish officers and church courts, its neighbourhood ward meetings, its livery companies and other corporate bodies, and its justices of the peace. By the end of the sixteenth century, sexual immorality was probably being policed with greater vigour in London than it had ever been before.