Protestant Church Reform

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXVI

When we remember Sidney's own description of the desolation of the country, and read of the fashion in which he remedied that desolation, we cannot wonder at the piteous account given a few years later by the English poet; for who could escape the threefold danger of "ordinary law, martial law, and flat fighting." Nor was the state of religious affairs at all more promising. The Deputy describes the kingdom as "overwhelmed by the most deplorable immorality and irreligion;"[4] the Privy Council, in their deliberations, gives a similar account, " As for religion, there was but small appearance of it; the churches uncovered, and the clergy scattered."[5] An Act of Parliament was then passed to remedy the evils which Acts of Parliament had created. In the preamble (11th Elizabeth, sess. iii. cap. 6) it mentions the disorders which Sidney had found, and complains of "the great abuse of the clergy in getting into the said dignities by force, simony, friendship, and other corrupt means, to the great overthrow of God's holy Church;" and for remedy, the Act authorizes the Lord, Deputy to appoint, for ten years, to all the ecclesiastical benefices of these provinces, with the exception of the cathedral churches of Waterford, Limerick, Cork, and Cashel.

But it was soon evident that Acts of Parliament could not effect ecclesiastical reform, though they might enforce exterior conformity to a new creed. In 1576, Sidney again complains of the state of the Irish Church, and addresses himself, with almost blasphemous flattery to the head of that body, "as to the only sovereign salve-giver to this your sore and sick realm, the lamentable state of the most noble and principal limb thereof—the Church I mean—as foul, deformed, and as cruelly crushed as any other part thereof, only by your gracious order to be cured, or at least amended. I would not have believed, had I not, for a greater part, viewed the same throughout the whole realm."

He then gives a detailed account of the state of the diocese of Meath, which he declares to be the best governed and best peopled diocese in the realm; and from his official report of the state of religion there, he thinks her Majesty may easily judge of the spiritual condition of less favoured districts. He says there are no resident parsons or vicars, and only a very simple or sorry curate appointed to serve them; of them, only eighteen could speak English, the rest being "Irish ministers, or rather Irish rogues, having very little Latin, and less learning or civility."[6]

In many places he found the walls of the churches thrown down, the chancels uncovered, and the windows and doors ruined or spoiled—fruits of the iconoclastic zeal of the original reformers and of the rapacity of the nobles, who made religion an excuse for plunder. He complains that the sacrament of baptism was not used amongst them, and he accuses the "prelates themselves" of despoiling their sees, declaring that if he told all he should make "too long a libel of his letter. But your Majesty may believe it, that, upon the face of the earth where Christ is professed, there is not a Church in so miserable a case."

A Protestant nobleman, after citing some extracts from this document, concludes thus: "Such was the condition of a Church which was, half a century ago, rich and flourishing, an object of reverence, and a source of consolation to the people. It was now despoiled of its revenues; the sacred edifices were in ruins; the clergy were either ignorant of the language of their flocks, or illiterate and uncivilized intruders; and the only ritual permitted by the laws was one of which the people neither comprehended the language nor believed the doctrines. And this was called establishing the Reformation!"[7]


[4] Irreligion.—Mant, vol. i. p. 287.

[5] Scattered.—Cox, vol. i. p. 319.

[6] Civility.—Sidney's Letters and Memorials, vol. i. p. 112. Sidney's memoir has been published in extenso in the Ulster Arch. Journal, with most interesting notes by Mr. Hore of Wexford.

[7] Reformation.—Past and Present Policy of England towards Ireland, p. 27. London, 1845.