The drive towards perfection
The most important difference between Catholic and Reformed attitudes to sex was the Protestant aspiration to perfection. The traditional Catholic view had been that fleshly lusts were reprehensible but inevitable: to restrain them completely might be impossible, or counter-productive. The enforcement of sexual discipline was accordingly balanced by a certain amount of toleration of organized prostitution and of clerical concubines. In contrast, the Protestant tendency was to believe that unchastity truly could be banished from the world, or at least that Christians had a duty to eradicate it as thoroughly as possible. As Archbishop Cranmer’s model eccelesiastical law of 1552 put it, ‘fornication and unbridled lusts of every kind are to be checked with great severity of punishment, so that they may eventually be uprooted from the kingdom’.1 Out of this difference came a greater demand for both personal and external discipline.
We have already noted the immediate impact that the Reformation had on the punishment of immorality. The steady tightening of attitudes continued in the decades after 1600, in England as elsewhere across Europe. Particularly striking was the church courts’ attack on what had hitherto been the most widely condoned type of illicit sex, that between couples who were betrothed but not yet formally married. Previously, such cases had been punished only incidentally. But in the early seventeenth century prenuptial fornication came to be targeted with unprecedented rigour. In many jurisdictions across the country (York, Oxford, Leicester, Canterbury, Essex, and others) the number of prosecutions increased sharply. In Wiltshire, for example, only a handful of such cases were brought each year before the later 1590s, but by the 1610s and 1620s, the annual average had shot up to at least fifty (plus many more cases now hard to enumerate from the surviving records). Perhaps a fifth of all brides were pregnant when they married, suggesting that many couples started having sex during courtship. Over time, however, there was a noticeable drop in the proportion who came to the altar pregnant – and thus, we can infer, in the actual practice of pre-marital sex. There was a similar pattern in cases of ordinary fornication and of bastardy: more prosecutions, fewer illegitimate births, a real change in popular behaviour and attitudes. Indeed, the aspirations of ecclesiastical discipline were ever more ambitious. When in 1604 the Church of England’s canon law was revised for the first time since the Reformation, it stipulated that its courts were to proceed against not only adultery and fornication, but also ‘any other uncleanness and wickedness of life’. In literature, politics, and daily life, too, there is considerable evidence for the internalization of the church’s moral teachings, and for popular hostility towards unchastity. It is clear that the principle that sex was only permissible within marriage was being upheld, and internalized, with increasing force.2
It is equally telling that in the early seventeenth century the church’s most powerful court, High Commission, was repeatedly used to punish members of the gentry and aristocracy for adultery and other sexual crimes. Some of these suits may have been motivated at least in part by power-struggles within the political elite, but they nevertheless illustrate the extent to which, by this time, even the sexual failings of the most elevated men and women could be treated as public crimes.
In 1634, Sir Alexander Cave was ordered to do penance in his parish church, pay the huge sum of £500, and be jailed until he could find bail, all for having persisted in adultery with Amy Roe despite previous admonishments. In the same year, Thomas Cotton and Dorothy Thornton of Lichfield were sentenced to do penance in both their parish church and the local cathedral, fined £500 and sent to prison for their adultery: in the winter of 1639 they were still there. For multiple adulteries Thomas Hesketh Esq. of Rufford in Lancashire was fined £1,000 plus costs, and ordered to do penance in the cathedrals of York and Chester, as well as in his local parish church: he too was committed to prison until he could post an extremely large bail. Sir Robert Howard, son of the Earl of Suffolk, and Frances, Lady Purbeck, the sister-in-law of the Duke of Buckingham, had long lived together adulterously in the depths of Shropshire. When they travelled to London in the spring of 1635, the king himself ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to take action against them for their shameless behaviour. They were both immediately arrested and incarcerated. He was fined £3,000 and kept in prison for weeks; she was ordered to do public penance in church, like any other adulteress, barefoot and clad in a white sheet.3 The same attitude is abundantly illustrated by the mass of informal, popular attacks on unchastity in high places that survives from the period. In political libels, lampoons, satires, and other forms of writing and action, upper-class immorality is almost inevitably the object of sharp disapproval, reflecting the growing grip of Protestant attitudes to sin, social order, and divine vengeance.4
The other main effect of the Reformation was, however, a growing divergence of opinion amongst Protestants about the limits of sexual regulation. Pretty much everyone who expressed a public opinion agreed that unchastity ought to be treated more severely. This was a particular complaint of the Puritans. The existing punishments were ‘so small and slight’, Queen Elizabeth was admonished in 1585, that ‘God must therefore be angry with Your Majesty’. It was scandalous, grumbled the Norfolk minister William Yonger in 1617, that ‘so renowned and famous a church as this of England, should have no sharper censure for adultery than a white sheet’.5 But there was no consensus on exactly how to tackle it.
The problem had been debated since the earliest days of the break with Rome. Evangelical Protestants were not the only voices in favour of greater severity. In the early sixteenth century many Catholic humanists had felt the same way, and in 1586 adultery was briefly made a capital offence in Rome itself, by the vigorous but short-lived Pope Sixtus V (1585-90). But Puritans were certainly the most zealous campaigners against immorality across the English-speaking world. In general they took the most rigidly limited view of appropriate sexual behaviour. Even intercourse between a husband and wife was commonly viewed as breaking God’s law if the woman was pregnant or menstruating – John Cotton’s 1636 model law code for Massachusetts and New Haven made the latter a capital offence. In general, because of their fundamentalist belief in the Bible’s commandments, many Puritans wanted to reintroduce the death penalty for adultery and other serious sexual crimes. This was not a backwardlooking but a radical, progressive aim: it would bring England in line with the most advanced Protestant communities of the modern world. Scots, Genevans, Germans, Bohemians: there were many contemporary precedents for such severity. (So zealously did the burgesses of Dundee pursue sexual offenders that in 1589 they decided to build an entirely new prison just for adulterers and fornicators.)6 This ongoing debate was one of the inspirations for Shakespeare’s topical play Measure for Measure (c. 1604), whose plot turns on illicit sex, betrothal, and the possibility of capital punishment for unchastity.
By contrast the practice of the English church courts seemed to most Puritans wholly inadequate. Their ‘toyish censures’ (as a Puritan manifesto of 1572 put it) did nothing to reduce immorality; the main point of their proceedings seemed to be to milk people for legal fees. This evangelical distaste deepened as, from the end of the sixteenth century onwards, ecclesiastical law was increasingly used by the establishment of the Church of England to prosecute Puritan ministers and laypeople for religious nonconformity (such as refusal to use the sign of the cross, to follow the prescribed Prayer Book, or to kneel at communion). Not only were the church courts corrupt and
ineffective, it now seemed, they also unjustly persecuted godly men and women for following their consciences. As the religious divisions between English Protestants sharpened over the course of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this perception, unfair though it was in many respects, hardened into a polemical commonplace. By the 1630s, when Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud, launched an especially unyielding campaign to enforce religious uniformity, it had undermined the church courts’ moral authority in the eyes of many Puritan observers.7
As a result, there was a sustained effort by radical Protestants to shift the responsibility for moral policing into the civil sphere. Bills for the stricter punishment of sexual offences were introduced in almost every parliament of the early seventeenth century: in 1601, 1604, 1606-7, 1614, 1621, 1626, 1628, and 1629.8 An Act of 1610 made unmarried mothers liable to at least a year’s imprisonment if their bastards were likely to need parish support. In 1624, growing paranoia about the supposed tide of bastard-bearing and infanticide led to another extraordinarily punitive statute, which presumed the guilt (and execution) of any unwed woman who concealed the birth of an infant later found dead, even if she swore on oath that it had been still-born, or had died naturally.9 Meanwhile, wherever zealous evangelicals gained control of village and town governments they tightened up local discipline, to noticeable effect. In Dorchester, which became the most Puritan town in England, there was a dramatic decline in pre – and extra-marital sex in the decades leading up to the Civil War.10 The same spirit animated the tens of thousands of Puritans who, over the same period, emigrated to North America to found a New Jerusalem there. In the early seventeenth century, all the colonies of New England enacted harsh laws against unchastity: banishment, imprisonment, severe public flogging, the wearing of scarlet letters and other shaming garments for the rest of one’s life. Many of them, affirming with the founders of New Haven that ‘the Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule’ of government, followed the Old Testament and made adultery punishable by death.11
In practice, executions were rare. Given the difficulty of obtaining proof, New England couples were often convicted of a lesser offence (such as ‘lascivious, gross, and foul actions tending to adultery’), and punished by fine, flogging, and public shaming.12 Yet the severity of the capital law was symbolically important. To abominate and expunge sexual pollution as thoroughly as possible was, in the eyes of radical Protestants, essential to the building of a better world, the honouring of God, and the creation of a perfect society.* So pervasive was this ideology in godly communities that even those who paid with their life for defying it could not escape its hold over their minds and actions. When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a ‘fearful horror of conscience’ that this was God’s punishment on him for his past unchastities. So he publicly confessed his sins. Amongst other things, he claimed once, after a night of heavy drinking with some companions, to have tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride from a good family, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested, and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, ‘proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin. . . and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice’. On 21 March, a fortnight after her trial, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, ‘died very penitently’. In the shadow of the gallows Mary Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged by the neck until dead. She was eighteen years old.13