The British Church in the 14th Century
In the summer of 1381 a large group of peasants led by Wat Tyler stormed London. These peasants, unwilling to pay another poll tax to pay for an unpopular war against France and discontent with unfair labor wages, freed prisoners from London prisons, killed merchants, and razed the home of John of Gaunt, considered the creator of the poll tax. Perhaps more important, however, was the rebels attack on the Temple, a symbol of the British Church’s wealth and power. The rebels burned the charters, legal records of the Church’s vast land-holdings, stored within the Temple. This act - a religious building being targeted of in rebellion against a mismanaged, abusive government - shows an acknowledgement by the peasantry of the British Church’s political power. The Church’s involvement in politics, though making it more central in a person’s life, also left it more vulnerable to corruption and subsequent criticism.
The Church in Britain was a medieval “cradle to grave” institution. People were born Christian, received Baptism shortly after, married under a Christian auspices, and were given their Christian last rites shortly before they died. This type of existence is talked of in literature of the time, such as in Langland’s Piers the Ploughman. During a chapter entitled “The Teaching of the Holy Church,” Langland asks for the name of a woman who has quoted “such wise words of Holy Scripture“ (Langland, p. 34):
“‘I am the Holy Church,’ She replied, ‘You should recognize me, for I received you when you were a child and first taught you the Faith. You came to me with godparents, who pledged you to love and obey me for all your life.’” (Langland, p. 34)
This kind of comment demonstrates the deep central role that the Church played in a British person’s life.
The Church’s importance on a smaller, community level reinforced the Church‘s centrality to a person‘s life. Churches served a multitude of functions to communities, such as time keeper, boundary marker, and record keeper. People knew where they were in the calendar year from the announcement of holidays. The border of their parish was established by the annual tradition of beating the bounds. A record of a parish’s members, both alive and dead, was kept in the Bede Roll. Local churches also served as poor relief and even served as a marker of social standing, with more prominent individuals having pews closer to the front of the church. These are a just a few examples of how the Church played a central role and had a political importance on a more local level.
Because of this importance, the role of a local pastor was especially important. Many Church officials were also wealthy landowners, especially bishops, who sat in Parliament and were among the King’s counselors (The Oxford History of Britain, p. 241). In practice, it made no difference if a local priest was good or bad, they still worked on authority of the Church. ...