Giggleswick and religious change during the Reformation

Nicholas J. Verrill
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The sixteenth century was a period of major change in religious beliefs and practices. In England the Reformation started with a challenge to the authority of Pope Clement VII and subsequently to the theology of the catholic church. At the outset the break from Rome was a political issue due to the refusal of the pope to annul the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. It was only later that protestant theology developed to challenge the long held catholic beliefs. So there were several phases to the Reformation in England, largely driven by changes in government policy.

While historians have recognised that the Reformation was imposed by the Tudor authorities it is only recently that attention has shifted to the popular reaction to these changes. Did the people of Giggleswick retain their catholic beliefs or did they welcome the new protestant theology?

Though there is little direct documentary evidence of people’s beliefs, probate wills can provide some useful clues. The wording of these documents, as well as the nature of any bequests, supply interesting insights. We are fortunate that many copies of probate wills have survived for the parish of Giggleswick. In total there are 224 wills, dating from 1509 (the accession of Henry VIII) to 1603 (the death of Elizabeth I). These wills have been transcribed by Sheila Gordon, Mary and Mike Slater and form the basis of this study.


For the first two decades of Henry VIII’s reign the official faith remained much as it had been for hundreds of years. In Giggleswick there are seven wills dating this period and they all fall into the ‘traditional’ catholic category of wills, as defined by Litzenberger. They contain evidence of the testator trusting their soul to the Virgin Mary and the other saints. Additionally, the main body of the document contains religious bequests, which reveal a belief in the traditional doctrines of purgatory, intercession and salvation via charity and good works. These were hallmarks of traditional Catholicism, as all of these bequests aimed to expedite the progress of the testator’s soul through purgatory.

A typical example of such pre-Reformation bequests from the Giggleswick collection comes from Alan Catterall in 1513: ‘Item I give and leave to each priest four pence to celebrate mass on behalf of my soul in the said church on the day of my burial.’ This apparently devout individual also made a bequest for a chantry: ‘Item I leave Sir John Moone chaplain £4 6s 8d as well as to another priest to celebrate nones for the salvation of my soul’. Two further wills, Hugh Lawkeland’s and Richard Frankland’s, contained bequests for chantries, and reference the Giggleswick parish Sunday Chantry.

The testators’ spiritual horizons were not limited to their parish as a number of religious orders across a wide geographical range feature in some wills before the Dissolutions began in 1536. In total, four of the seven wills contain bequests to these organisations. One lavish wide-reaching bequest came from James Carr: ‘I bequeath to the Freres of the Augustines of York xij d. And to our Lady House of Appilby xij d. And to the Gray Freres of Preston xij d. And to the Freres of Lancaster xij d.’ Certain institutions received more attention than others: the brothers of Preston were the most popular being mentioned in all four wills; the monastery and convent of Sallay received bequests in three wills, as did Appleby; finally, the friars of Lancaster were mentioned twice. Such bequests support the contention that these religious institutions still received wide support from the laity.

The Reformation of Henry VIII

After the dissolution of the monasteries began in 1536 such bequests naturally disappear, as there were no religious orders left to receive them. From 1536 to the death of Henry VIII in 1547 there are ten wills and all of them conform to the ‘traditional’ category. Significantly, these wills contain a variety of strategies for the afterlife. Uniformity cannot easily be found in these documents. This suggests that these testators were actively involved in their faith, and took personal ownership of this final declaration of their beliefs, as idiosyncratic bequests, relative to this collection, appear. William Newhouse in 1541 was the only testator who asked for, ‘one trentall of masses for my soul and all other soulless.’ This was the celebration of thirty masses, usually on thirty consecutive days. It aimed to give the soul as much chance of getting through purgatory quickly. This pious testator also left the following bequest, similarly unique in this collection: ‘Item I bequeathe to the amendinge of the hieway within the parishe of Gigleswicke if my neighbours will take upon hande to amende it vis viiid.’ This bequest was a good work in itself, but in return for such benevolence William Newhouse probably hoped that intercessionary prayers would be offered for his soul. In York, for example, one variant of a bidding prayer roused the congregations to pray for, ‘thaim that brigges and stretes makes and amendes that God grant us part of thare gode dedes and thaim of oures’.

Maintaining local infrastructure also included Giggleswick parish church, with similar posthumous benefits. John Mone in 1538 left money, ‘to the to the byeinge of one crucifix of coper and gilted to Gyglesweke churche.’ Here he aimed to improve the liturgy and beautify the parish church, and reciprocal intercession from parishioners could be reasonably expected. Another noteworthy bequest came from John Catterall who in 1539 stated the following: ‘I will that my executors shall give to the poor people of my parishing for the health of my soul as they and other of my friends shall think good according to my power.’ Almsgiving to the needy was the most traditional form of Christian charity, and the act of giving was a good work with intrinsic merit, and the recipients of the alms offered their intercessionary prayers for their benefactor.

By the time Henry VIII died in 1547 there had been some significant and irrevocable changes to the traditional religion. However, many religious practices had remained largely untouched. Indeed, there had been a swing back to conservative influences in the Tudor court of the early 1540s. Ironically, for the man who initiated the English Reformation, Henry VIII himself left an impeccably catholic will upon his death. This royal will, though significantly more lavish than wills from Giggleswick, effectively had the same religious thrust. It was written by a believer in traditional medieval Christianity.

The Reformation of Edward VI

Although some of the initial reforms were reversed during Henry’s reign the accession of his son saw a resurgence in protestantism. Edward VI seized the property of the chantries which were trust funds endowed to pay the clergy to say masses for the dead. Commissioners confiscated the endowments of some 4000 chantries, colleges, guilds and hospitals [reference] often accompanied with the destruction or defacing of stained glass, shrines and statues. In 1549 the authorities abolished the Latin mass and the Book of Common Prayer, in English, was introduced. This was followed in 1550 by a purge of conservative bishops. So how did the people of Giggleswick react?

During Edward’s reign, wills showing loyalty to traditional religion disappear; remarkably, all of the extant 24 wills fall into the ‘ambiguous’ category, defined by Litzenberger. Furthermore, bequests to the poor — a practice promoted by the protestant authorities, but also in keeping with traditional catholic faith — increased from one out of 19 during Henry VIII’s reign to seven out of the 24 wills during Edward’s reign. The conformity with Edward’s Reformation is notable, as the authorities had encouraged ‘better provisions for the poor and needy’ in the Chantries Act of 1547. In a study of West Country wills between January 1550 and July 1553 it was found that there were no intercessions in any form. Gifts to the poor were included in no less than 15 of the 32 wills [Whiting].

Was this a change in religious beliefs, or simply a conformity to government policy? A study of the wider Craven district demonstrated that the people were staunchly conservative in religious matters [Spence], so this makes the latter more convincing. There was a reluctance to adopt the reforms of 1547-1553 and in many Craven parishes church goods, endowments and chantry chapels were concealed from the authorities. Also, given the traditional nature of the extant late Henrician wills from Giggleswick, such a change in beliefs would be psychologically improbable.

The Marian Restoration

With the accession of Mary, all of Edward’s legislation was repealed and catholicism restored. Litzenberger, studying wills in Gloucestershire, noted that, ‘under Mary, individuals who had clung to the old religion were free once again to proclaim their beliefs publicly, and over half of the Gloucestershire testators took advantage of that opportunity.’ She further contended that: ‘this lends credence to the assertion that the choice of ambiguous statements when protestantism held sway was, in fact, a means of safely concealing one’s true Catholic faith.’

A similar pattern can be noted in Giggleswick during the Mary’s reign, although it is less pronounced. There are 13 extant wills from this period and four of them fall into the ‘traditional’ category. Typical of this type of will was Robert Somerscales who in 1553 stated: ‘Firste I give and bequieth my sowle to almightie God, and to the Holye Virgin o[ur] Ladie Sancte Marie, and to all the Celestiall companie of heaven.’ The other nine remain ‘ambiguous’.

In trying to account for these nine ‘ambiguous’ wills, only tentative conclusions can be made. Unpredictable change and no little pressure from the crown over the past couple of decades may have dissuaded inhabitants of Giggleswick from making an unambiguous public declaration of their faith. If the religious pendulum swung back to protestantism after Mary’s reign, might catholics be held accountable for their beliefs? It would certainly have been a rational fear given that Mary had no heir, and the protestant Elizabeth was next in line for the throne. Public expressions of piety were risky in such an uncertain religious climate.

The Elizabethan Religious Settlement

The brief re-emergence of the traditional catholic faith under Mary was abruptly ended by Elizabeth I. She became the supreme governor of the church and there was a decisive swing in favour of protestantism. All but one of the bishops were replaced and a hundred fellows of Oxford colleges lost their posts.

In Giggleswick, we have already noted the conservatism of our testators and therefore it followed that ambiguity returns to the wills that were made early in Elizabeth’s reign, as the government moved against traditional faith. From 1559-1579, the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, there are 66 wills and 61 fall into the ambiguous category. 5 testators chose to deploy a protestant preamble, such as Richard Sailbanke in 1577 who stated: ‘First I give my soul to god my heavenly father and to Jesus Christ my only redeemer by faith in whose blood I believe only to be saved.’ The unqualified assurance of salvation via the death and passion of Jesus Christ, and by no other means, marks this will as a protestant one. Yet, such a clear declaration of protestant faith was an anomaly.

Whilst the Giggleswick testators generally do not appear to have been sympathetic to the religious changes of the Reformation, in the long-term they could not remain unaffected by them. Given enough time to settle, which Elizabeth’s long reign afforded, the memory of the old religion would fade, allowing protestant ideas to become established.

There is evidence amongst our testators of reformed thinking, that would have been un-thinkable at the turn of the sixteenth century, which really begins to emerge from 1580 onwards. There are 102 extant wills from 1580-1603 and 85 of testators explicitly state their unqualified reliance for salvation upon the death and passion of Jesus Christ alone, and make no traditional bequests.

Another area of the Reformation making progress amongst testators was the increasing number of statements that denied papal primacy over the Church of England. Of the 168 wills from Elizabeth’s reign, 28 (17%) contained such beliefs. For example, Thomas Somerscale’s will in 1572 stated: ‘a thowsand fyve hundrethe Seve[n]tie two, in the fyftenthe yeare of the Reigne of our Sov[er]inge Ladie Elizabethe, by the grace of God, Quene of England, Fraunce and Ireland, defendor of the faithe.’ Certainly, as Elizabeth’s reign ended in 1603, the trend identified by historians is that most subjects had accepted the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. These wills from Giggleswick seem to support this argument.

In many ways, these particular denials of papal primacy and the concomitant declaration of the last Tudor monarch’s primacy, are a fitting end to our discussion on England, and Giggleswick’s, ‘Reformation from above’. This study has provided more evidence that the protestant Reformation was a top-down process that needed time — afforded by Elizabeth’s long reign - to settle in. By-and-large, people in Giggleswick were not looking for this change, but as it became clear that it was here to stay, they adopted changes slowly. The Tudor authorities pushed this change, and the citizens gradually accepted it. Some testators directly alluded to this dialogue between the government and the governed. Allan Wharfe’s will in 1574 makes bequests, ‘according to the ecclesiastical laws of this realm.’ Similarly, Jennet Stachowse testament in 1566 stated: ‘I will that suche obsequies and funall services be doone and celebrated at my burial as pray and dothe stande wth the lawes of god and of the churche’. It is an interesting separation here between ‘god’ and ‘the churche’. It reminds us of the intertwined spiritual and temporal worlds existing in Tudor citizen’s perceptions.

Policy was made by the Tudor government and testators in Giggleswick responded. Perhaps many did convert due to the spiritual allure of the new teaching in Elizabeth’s reign. However, many were not entirely motivated by their religiosity and had secular motives for allowing the Reformation to succeed. Others still were surely ambivalent, or even apathetic. Whilst some loyal catholics resisted the changes, choosing to hide their faith in their wills. This variety of responses reminds us of the complexity of history where there are so many narratives to tell.


  • Litzenberger, C., The English Reformation and the Laity: Gloucestershire, 1540—1580 (Cambridge, 1997)
  • Spence, V., ‘Reluctant Reformation in the North: Craven 1547-1553’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 89 (2017), pp. 114-133
  • Whiting, R., ‘“For the Health of my Soul”: Prayers for the Dead in the Tudor South-West’, in The Impact of the English Reformation 1500—1640, ed. Peter Marshall (London, 1997), pp. 75—139

    Background reading

  • Clark, J., The Religious Oders in Pre-Reformation England. (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • Collinson, P., The Reformation: a History. (London, 2003)
  • Duffy, E., The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c1400 — c1580. (New Haven, 1992)
  • Haigh, C., English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors. (Oxford, 1993)
  • Shagan, E., Popular Politics and the English Reformation. (Cambridge, 2003)