The biologist and anthropologist, David Sloan Wilson suggests that religion is evolution at work (1). Religious belief can then be seen as another form of ideology that binds us together and allows us to organise society in ways that maximise our well-being. It motivates our behaviour and offers group identity and moral systems to best respond to the realities of acquiring food and security and maintaining a successful community. However, as society changes, it may require new ways of thinking and behaving to organise itself in different ways.
As Darwin recognised:
“For man is enabled through his mental faculties ‘to keep with an unchanged body in harmony with the changing universe.’ He has great power of adapting his habits to new conditions of life.” The Descent of Man (1871)
If this is correct, then early modern Devon can be seen as a case study in change. Between 1530 and 1600, Devon ‘evolved’ from being profoundly Catholic to explicitly Protestant, while between 1600 and 1640 the county moved from being the most loyal in England to open rebellion.
There were two strands to the English Reformation: the religious, and the political, associated with the growth of the state. In the latter, Henry VIII swept away the late medieval church with 27 abbeys, priories and colleges disappearing in Devon’s Dissolution. Debate continues to whether these changes were welcomed or opposed, and by whom.
Buckland Abbey transformed into a country house, the consequence of what Hoskins called an ‘Age of Plunder’
It has long been recognised that the Protestant parts of Europe had greater economic growth, causing the sociologists Weber and Tawney to link religion with emerging capitalism. Protestantism, with its high-risk taking, profit-making ethos created a new moral and legal order initially in urban centres. Accordingly, we find the majority of Protestants in Exeter, Axminster, Chagford, Crediton, Dartmouth, Plymouth, South Molton and Totnes.
If we look at Totnes, we see a good example of this transition where the twin centres of medieval authority, the Priory and Castle, were either demolished or abandoned. These were then supplanted by the Guildhall, the seat of an ascendant gentry based on trade.
Yet, social change and the rise of a new set of ideas may not be consistent across a geographical area, and may well be resisted by individuals and communities. Therefore, we can see examples of widespread, though uncoordinated, rejection of reform in the county. In Exeter, Bishop Vesey remarked in 1539 of the persistence of ‘superstitious observances’, such as the refusal of carters and smiths to work on the feast of St Loy. There was also a riot by Exeter women against the removal of images while Ashburton was unwilling to purchase a Bible. Traditional practices may then have continued, particularly in rural parishes – which were less exposed to new ideas and economic practices – which retained a reservoir of support for the rituals and mutual support systems of the old faith (2). This opposition culminated in 1549 with the Prayer Book Rebellion, leading to a 35-day siege of Exeter and the deaths of 4,000 Devonians.
St George’s in Morebath, where the Western Rebellion broke out in Devon in 1549 & Cranmer’s Prayer Book (3)
It has been suggested that by 1600 there existed a divided Devon that formed the basis for the opposing loyalties later seen in the English Civil War.
Though Protestantism was by then the established religion of all English people, it always had within it a tendency towards radicalism and independent thought. These ‘hotter sort’ of Protestants, or Puritans, had a deep and personal belief, were dissatisfied with the progress of the Reformation and were deeply hostile to anything that appeared to resemble Catholicism. Importantly, preaching, Bible reading and sermon-focussed church services played a far more central role than in mainstream Anglicanism, meaning that an educated and often militant clergy formed an integral part of the faith.
The tradition flourished amongst the laity in areas of independent local government and in the manufacturing sector, with clothiers often taking a leading role. Conspicuously, Puritans would emerge as some of the fiercest critics of Charles I’s regime – with Ignatius Jourdain, the scourge of Exeter’s alehouses in the 1620s, being a notable example.
The historian Mark Stoyle has analysed the areas of Devon that supported the opposing sides, and we note that the conflict appears not to be rooted purely in social and economic contradictions (4). Indeed, peers and gentry were prominent in both parties, with even some Devon families – such as the Fortescues and Carews – being divided. Nevertheless, ideological, social and geographical influences do seem to have influenced definite political preferences. For example, during the war agricultural Chagford maintained its allegiance to the King while manufacturing Moretonhampstead, a mere 3 miles away, opposed the monarch.
Notably, the cloth-making towns of Tiverton, Collumpton, South Molton, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Barnstaple – and their contiguous areas of North Devon and the South Hams – rallied for Parliament. The suggestion is that urban areas and the more ‘modern’ types of industry were most likely to rally to support the Puritan Revolution. Meanwhile, rural parishes and those towns with a reliance on older forms of authority – such as Dartmoor’s stannaries – would remain loyal to the King.
It remains contentious to what extent we can take a ‘socio-biological’ approach to history, or of the ways in which people think about their surroundings and their willingness to fight for their worldview. Nevertheless, it is a growing field of study with implications for our understanding of our behaviour and beliefs.
1. Wilson, D.S. 2002: Darwin’s Cathedral. Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago Univ. Press, Chicago
2. Duffy, E. 1992: The Stripping of the Alters. Traditional Religion in England c 1400-c1580, New York & London: Yale University Press.
3. Duffy, E. 2003: The Voices of Morebath. Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, Newhaven & London: Yale University Press.
4. Stoyle, M. 1994: Loyalty and Locality. Popular Allegiance in Devon During the English Civil War, Exeter: University of Exeter Press.