Food & Drink Pouring pints in church may be controversial, but it’s...

Pouring pints in church may be controversial, but it’s nothing new


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Church ales had been suppressed under Edward VI, but returned under his sister Mary in the 1550s, and then became a battleground between Puritans and traditionalists.

Shakespeare joined in when the Puritan-minded Malvolio in Twelfth Night tells Sir Toby Belch and his noisy reveller to shut up or get out. “Dost thou think,” retorts Sir Toby, “because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

A wildly hostile view came from the pamphleteer Philip Stubbs in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583).

Under the “Lord of Misrule”, he said, dozens of young men would “strike up the devil’s dance” on a Sunday and march towards the church “their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng.”

It sounds to us now like a Morris dance. But Stubbs complained that, as the dancers approached the church, “the foolish people they look, they stare, they laugh, they giggle, and mount upon forms and pews to see these goodly pageants”.

Then, he admits, the dancers went outside, where they had their “arbours and banqueting houses set up”.

Attempts to use the church building for non-religious activities have, in the opinion of Nicholas Orme, a leading historian today of parish life, “given rise to romantic beliefs that medieval churches played host to all kinds of communal events”.

Already by 1214, Dr Orme points out, the Archbishop of Canterbury had condemned the holding even of lay tribunals (such a manorial courts) in church, and he outlawed dancing games and “scotales”, which were social functions to raise church funds.

Especially in the West Country, from the 1450s onwards, parishes built church houses next to the churchyard for social events. “The ground floor contained a fireplace and oven for cooking food or brewing ale,” Orme explains, “while an exterior staircase led to a raftered hall above, where events could be held”.

Money raised by church ales was often the chief income of the parish. In his classic study of life in a Devon parish, The Voices of Morebath, Eamon Duffy traces the fortunes of the church house there through the 16th century, along with changes in worship imposed by the central government.

“It was the parish’s place of public entertainment, a two-storey building furnished with a fireplace and spit, with cups and plates and trenchers and tin and pewter: its trestle tables and tablecloths were sometimes loaned to parishioners for events like weddings”.

Morebath’s church house was built by voluntary labour, hauling gifts of timber and stone for the construction. Christopher Trychay, Vicar of Morebath 1520-74, recorded “the devotion of diverse persons of the parysse to the church house”. To him, devotion meant both prayers in church and mutual help in the wider parish.

In 1548, Morebath was ordered “to surcease from keeping any church ales, because it hath byn declared unto us that many inconveniences  hath come by them”. The parish had already sold its church bees, kept to finance candles for devotional statues.

Morebath’s church house no longer stands, but others of great beauty survive. An impossibly delightful example, stone and fully thatched, stands next to the towered church of St Andrew at South Tawton on the edge of Dartmoor. Another stone church house at Crowcombe, Somerset, is still used for drinkies, held beneath the beams that have supported its roof since 1515.


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