‘Ranter’ Women in Revolutionary Norwich (by Joel Halcomb)
[Elizabeth Townsend’s disciplinary case, 16 and 30 May, 1650. Norfolk Record Office, MS FC 19/1.]
In May 1650 two women were hauled up before their congregational church in Norwich for disciplinary procedures. Both had ‘divers tymes forsaken the Church-assemblyes upon the Lords dayes’ and spent time with ‘very scandalous persons in vaine foolish & profane discorse’. One of the women, Elizabeth Thurston, had ‘absented her selfe from her family two daies together, refusing to let her husband [know] where she hath beene’ while she travelled to Great Yarmouth by boat to a ‘house of evill report’. There she drank and behaved ‘loosely & filthily in a yard or garden’ with ‘bombailifes [from ‘an aggressive bailiff of the worst kind’] & other debaised company’. The other woman, Elizabeth Townsend, had been caught with a group reading A fiery flying roll (1649), the famous ‘ranter’ text by Abiezer Coppe, as well as enquiring with a local wizard on whether a local young man was going to take a maid to be his wife.
[Abiezer Coppe’s A fiery flying roll, bought by the London book collector George Thomason on 4 January 1649 (i.e., 1650)]
Evidence for this case can be found in the records of the Norwich Old Meeting Congregational Church, which still meets today in its beautiful 1693 meetinghouse (http://www.oldmeetinghousechurch.org.uk/). The Old Meeting church book is one of the oldest in the country (its content dates from 1642), but while cases of religious radicalism can be found throughout the records of the congregational churches of the English Revolution, most involve members who turn to believer’s baptism or Quakerism. The cases of these ‘ranter’ women are rare. So what exactly should we make of them?
[The title on the opening page of the Old Meeting church book. Norfolk Record Office, MS FC 19/1.]
Interestingly, neither woman was accused of unacceptable theological beliefs. It was their ‘scandalous & stubborne walking’ [i.e., their behavior] that resulted in them being ‘cast out of Church-communion’. The church proceeded carefully according to the classic biblical guidance for church discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15-17:
‘(15) Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. (16) But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. (17) And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.’
Both were repeatedly admonished in private by church members before finally being brought before the full church that May. Both remained unrepentant, so the church was forced to withdraw access to communion on 30 May. On 8 August, ‘Upon further waiting & meanes using…to reclaime them, & no good effect appearing’, they were both cast out of the church.
One storyline we might take from this case, then, is that of careful, biblically based church government. Congregationalism was built around a particular emphasis on primitive New Testament ecclesiology. According to their own records, congregational churches around Britain and Ireland practiced and defended the pattern for discipline laid out in Matthew 18. In Norwich, for example, three of the five articles in the church’s covenant, which all members had to sign up to, focused on discipline and mutual watch: members were to walk in the ways and ordinances of God according to his written word, they were to ‘humbly & willingly submit ourselves to the government of Christ’, and they were ‘in all love [to] improve our communion as brethren by watching over one another & (as need shalbe) counsel admonish reprove comfort relieve assist & beare with one another serving one another in love’. These principles were put into practice in the Townsend and Thurston cases, and throughout the country. Sins were often outlined with reference to biblical verses in these accounts. Some churches labored for months, even years, to reclaim wayward members. And the limited number of excommunications recorded in congregational church books from the period might suggest that these practices were largely successful in limiting the powerful theological crisis of the Revolution.
There is, however, another storyline to be found. This alternative view, that of Townsend’s and Thurston’s, struggles to break through the tidied account recorded by the church’s record keeper. In this view, the challenges and social realities of the Revolution are more powerfully evident.
Townsend and Thurston became involved in their scandalous behavior through their friendship group, who appear to be all young adults. The church book records Townsend cavorting with ‘Dan[iel] Beck Samuel Puckle & other very scandalous person’, while Thurston’s crew were named as ‘Puckle Lockier & others’. The ‘& others’ suggests that all the men actually named were known to the church. Daniel Beck certainly was. He joined the church on 21 October 1647, the same day as Townsend. Thurston joined a few months later, in January 1648. While Puckle does not seem to be a member of the church, he was presumably a relative of the five Puckles in the church at the time (another joined in 1654). Lockier remains a mystery, but the church book suggests that he kept the house in Great Yarmouth that Thurston and Puckle travelled to.
The church’s account clearly records attempts to prevent Townsend and Thurston from hanging around with these men. They ‘solemnely admonished [Townsend] not to keepe company with such prophane & scandalous persons’, and though she had told members of the church ‘that she did dislike their waies & saw evill in them, yet shee still frequented their wicked company’. Thurston met these men ‘in a house of very bad report’. She too, at one stage of discipline, acknowledged their company to be evil and promised to forbear going to the house, yet she was ‘soone after’ found frequenting the same house to drink with the scandalous company.
These initial disciplinary attempts failed miserably for all involved. Both women became combative, obstinate, and bitterly critical of the disciplinary process. When warned that the church might cast her out, Townsend retorted that ‘the Church was no Church for Gods love was alike to all’. In another private meeting she claimed she could satisfy the church, ‘but it must be onely in words & she must then play the hypocrite, for her judgment was for that company forbidden’. More cutting still, she claimed that ‘she would as willingly live in any prison as in the Church or words to that effect’. Later she turned to ‘falsly charging’ others in the church for encouraging her to visit Balles, the wizard. Finally, both her and Thurston thereafter refused to hear the church or attend disciplinary procedures. This obstinacy led to their excommunication.
In this storyline, disciplinary procedures were a bitter failure and the congregational practice of ‘mutual watch’ became a ‘prison’. Reading against the grain of the church books account we can perhaps see how mutual watch could be suffocating: how exactly did the church know that Beck, Puckle, and Townsend specifically fell into ‘much foolish laughter’ when reading Coppe’s Fiery flying roll? Who saw them ‘frequently’ going to drink at the ‘house of very bad report’ in Norwich? How was the church scribe able to record Thurston’s ‘vaine discourse’ verbatim (words so offensive that a later scribe blacked them out) at a house as far away as Great Yarmouth? Due diligence in church discipline could be seen as either an impressive effort to save souls or as an oppressive (perhaps even obsessive?) prison of surveillance.
[The blotted out words of Elizabeth Thurston, recorded under entry for 30 May 1650. The first blotted out line probably reads ‘What, shall we have no king’. Norfolk Record Office, MS FC 19/1.]
Whichever reading we take – and both are equally important – the cases of Townsend and Thurston cut to the heart of lived religion and social experience among puritans during the English Revolution. Carefully constructed and earnestly enacted biblical practices clashed head-on with the deeply unsettling experiences of religious change, civil war, and regicide – intriguingly, considering the date, one of the only clearly legible word from Thurston’s blotted out offensive speech in Yarmouth reads ‘king’! For these women and their church, this battle for souls and liberty played out in the streets and alehouses of Norwich and filtered through the godly (and ungodly) networks that connected the nation’s second city with its port city. Radical print travelled quickly from London and caught or produced (at least in Norwich) a real moment of intentionally provocative and deviant behavior within the midst of England’s most godly visible saints.
By Joel Halcomb
I would like to thank the Norfolk Record Office and Pastor John Clements of Old Meeting Congregational Church for letting me use quotations from, and post images of, the Old Meeting church book. The church book is held in the Norfolk Record Office, Norwich, MS FC 19/1.