History: Ecclesiastical Intoxication: England: 1580-1740

February 26, 2017 in General

James Brown, Tim Wales and Phil Withington have been researching the history of drunkenness in England from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. During their investigations, they discovered several incidents that involved inebriated vicars in the Church of England Dioceses of Chester (Cheshire, Lancashire, the Lakes District and North Yorkshire) and Norwich (Norfolk and Suffolk). Complaints of this nature usually originated from annoyed parishioners, given that 1603 ecclesiastical canon law supposedly prohibited ministers from frequenting alehouses, drinking alcohol, gambling or other consequences of intoxication from alcohol.

On occasion, muddled ministers would stagger up to lecterns and deliver disjointed sermons, much to the displeasure of their families, parishioners and (sadly) rape victims. Indeed, Withington, Wales and Brown suggest that some curdled clerics might fit the clinical designation of alcoholism if they were alive today. Why did these hapless priests get plastered then? Their analysts suggest that sociable drinking and parish festivities provided opportunities for the unwary, inexperienced and habitually inebriated, especially if one made a poor choice of drinking partners. Of course, given that the latter eighteenth century contributed to the rise of Protestant nonconformism, sectarianism could sometimes result in spurious accusations. In addition, variable levels of education and income constraints required some Northern clergy to moonlight as publicans.

There are many amusing (although sometimes sobering) accounts of ministers gone madcap in this collection, with a recent article giving a tantalising look at the problem.


James Brown, Tim Wales and Tim Withington: “Vicars on the Liquor” BBC History: March 2017: 50-53

Intoxication and Early Modernity: England: 1580-1740: http://www.intoxicantsproject.org

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