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Religious Reform, Decline of Parish Performance, Tudor, England


The volumes of the Records of Early English Drama show that there was a lively tradition of local, religious performances throughout England in the late medieval and early Tudor period. Parishes, large and small, rich and poor, supported plays, processions, ales and other activities like Robin Hood celebrations. Great care, money and time went into creating costumes and staging for these events. Most of these local performances disappeared by the middle of the sixteenth century. A few, notably at York, Chester, Coventry and Norwich, continued into the early 1570s, but focus on these performance “giants” of English theatrical history fails to show how they stood virtually alone by that time. Theatre historians like Glynne Wickham point to these survivals as evidence that the Protestant reforms of Edward VI minimally affected the demise of local theatre. The REED volumes and parish records show that revivals of local theatre under Catholic Mary were tepid, most coming near the end of her reign, and even the theatrical “giants” were waning by the first 10 years of Elizabeth’s reign. The lackluster restoration under Mary of what had been performance traditions imbedded in English communities for generations led me to turn to non-dramatic records at the local level, especially churchwardens’ accounts. I created a sampling of published churchwardens’ accounts for 34 parishes in 19 separate counties. I established a time frame of 1530 to 1565-70—spanning the time period just before the Henrician reforms began and the time by which the so-called Elizabethan settlement was in place. What this sampling suggests is that the costs of reform (Henry and Edward), restoration (Mary), then reform (Elizabeth) consumed much of what we call “disposable income” of virtually all of the parishes—“disposable income” that had financed traditional, religious, performances.