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About the Homilies

(Copyright 1994 Ian Lancashire. ISBN 1-896016-00-6.)


The Renaissance Electronic Texts series consists of old-spelling electronic editions of single manuscript or printed copies of early English works, encoded in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) syntax. The series also issues supplementary texts for the study of the Renaissance that belong to a later period. While both paper and electronic editions may be read, only the second can be transformed into other forms easily, such as concordances, collations, and specialized kinds of edition. If accompanied by digitized images of its source, electronic editions take on an archival role, preserving something of the original. Collections of images, in themselves, however, are not scholarship. The decisions that must be made in generating an image base need but little understanding of books, language, or literature, or of how knowledge may be increased by an computer analysis of them. The electronic edition is the basis of future work on primary texts. Drawing on palæography and bibliography, it supplies historical scholarship with the basis for an understanding of the texts with which it deals.

The first volume in the Renaissance Electronic Texts series is Certaine Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in Churches, In the time of the late Queene Elizabeth of famous memory, published in 1623 in two volumes dating originally from 1547 and 1563, respectively and reprinted many times during the Renaissance. James I authorized this reprinting, as his son Charles would later. Embodying much of the theological and moral doctrine of the state religion of the age of Shakespeare, the 33 homilies do much to explain the intellectual assumptions of writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. This will become very clear if one of their texts — or the work of almost anyone else in the English Renaissance — is concorded with this electronic text.

Claire Smith at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities did the initial data entry. I then proofed, corrected and encoded the text for publication and am responsible for any errors in it. Encoding guidelines reflect many of the recommendations of the Text Encoding Initiative, but the only TEI-conformant part of this edition is the header itself.


The Elizabethan homilies are the third pillar of the Church of England in the Renaissance. A brief statement of the points of belief required by the Church was the highest priority for Henry VIII, who engineered the break with Rome: Henry’s Ten Articles (1536), subsequently revised as the 42 Articles under his son Edward VI (1552) and the 39 Articles under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth (1563). A Bible Englished so that every person could read the scriptures and thus see the basis for supporting the dogma of the Church was completed next.  The Great Bible of Henry VIII, translated by Miles Coverdale, appeared in 1539.  Published in 1547 and extended under Elizabeth in 1563, the homilies (the third pillar) were designed to be read from the pulpit of every parish in the realm: they explained the articles of belief, justified them from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, and set doctrine on many public issues. The fourth pillar, in many respects the most important one in the daily life of most people, was the Edwardian Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549 and revised under Elizabeth ten years later. This contained the liturgy: prayers for many occasions; passages for reading from the psalms; and the text of all church services, from communion (the mass) and marriage to the last rites and burial. The liturgy unified the other three pillars of faith: recitations of the creed (which contained the articles of faith), readings from the Bible, and of course sermons and homilies. Eighteen years’ work, from 1536 to 1563, created a religion that supplemented Roman Catholicism and influenced profoundly the thinking and writing of the English to this day, when the Anglican Church remains the established or “government-sanctioned” faith of Great Britain. From the viewpoint of literary history rather than religious belief, the homilies have had a powerful, seminal effect on the English Renaissance. The first homily, “A Fruitfull Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” taught that every person was personally and entirely responsible for her or his faith and character, and that the only way of carrying out that responsibility was through reading and listening.

Therefore as many as bee desirous to enter into the right and perfect way vnto GOD, must applie their mindes to know holy Scripture, without the which, they can neither sufficiently know GOD and his will, neither their office and duty. And as drinke is plesant to them that bee drie, and meate to them that be hungrie: so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of holy Scripture, to them that bee desirous to know GOD or themselues, and to doe his will.

From 1547, when Cranmer and Somerset, the protector of the young Edward VI, established a dogma that made faith — not good works or charity — to be the sine qua non of salvation, all the props of Roman Catholicism on which the people formerly leaned for salvation (among them, the priest’s absolution, pardons, and gifts to the church) fell away useless. The Church could not save its flock, only help it to save itself; and the sole gateway to life after death in heaven rather than in hell lay in the individual’s ability to read and to analyze text, that is, what we call literacy. The new Church of England thus laid the foundation for a general interest in well-written poetry, prose, and drama. In a single stroke, it fostered a love of English in the people, whether they were farmers, servants, merchants, soldiers, wives, or the nobility. Within a decade there was a broad market for books and plays of all kinds. Writers like Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson could suddenly make a living by feeding the individual’s need “to know GOD or themselues.”

The titles of many homilies describe the themes of great literature of the period. “The misery of all mankinde” (1.2) renders well the thought of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Donne’s The Anatomy of the World, and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. For “the saluation of all mankinde” (1.3), the Elizabethan world read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I, whose Red Cross Knight weds Una, “the true and liuely fayth” (1.4), as the Restoration read Milton’s Paradise Lost. There are not more moving accounts “Of good workes” or “Of Christian loue and charity” (1.5-6) than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a casebook “Against swearing and periury” and “Of the declining from GOD” (1.7-8). Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, surely the most cheerful book on that gloomy subject ever written, exhorts us “against the feare of death.” Shakespeare’s history plays and Holinshed’s chronicle before them are extended studies on “good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates” (1.10), “Against strife and contention” (1.12) and “An Homily against disobedience and wilfull rebellion” (2.21). Homilies like “Of the right vse of the Church” (2.1), “For repayring and keeping cleane of Church” (2.3), played much more of a role in daily parish life than they do in literary history, but Shakespeare and his contemporaries applied many such specific homilies to his characters: “whoredome and adultery” (1.11) to Cressida, “gluttony and drunkenesse” (2.5) to Falstaff, prayer (2.7-8) to Claudius and Desdemona, “excesse of apparell” (2.6) to Lear and Osric, the passion of Christ (2.13) to Richard II, matrimony (2.18) to Petruchio and Katharina, and idleness (2.19) to Hamlet. The point here is not that the homilies are sources for these plays, but that Shakespeare’s characters defined themselves, like most Renaissance men and women, in Christian terms filtered through these homilies, read as they were, for decades, in parishes across the width and length of England. Everyone in the period from 1547 until at least the late 1580s listened to these homilies.

It certainly helps to be a Christian in reading them, because in many places they only knit together quotations or paraphrases from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. Yet many times the homilies render the strengths and weaknesses of their authors, and their heartfelt advice in coping with terrible things, in a clear, vivid, and memorable English that asks any reader, of whatever faith, to reflect.

A man may soone deceiue himselfe, and thinke in his owne phantasie that he by faith knoweth GOD, loueth him, feareth him, and belongeth to him, when in very deede he doeth nothing lesse. (C2r)

… the life in this world, is resembled and likened to a Pilgrimage in a strange countrey, farre from GOD, and … death, deliuering vs from our bodies, doth send vs straight home into our owne countrey, and maketh vs to dwell presently with GOD for euer, in euer-lasting rest and quietnesse … (F1v-F2r)

… he that shall despise the wrong done vnto him by his enemy, euery man shall perceiue that it was spoken or done without cause: whereas contrarily, he that doth fume and chafe at it, shall helpe the cause of his aduersarie, giuing suspicion that the thing is true. And in so going about to reuenge euill, wee shew our selues to bee euil, and while we will punish and reuenge another mans follie, we double and augment our owne follie. (H5r)

So are drunkards and gluttons altogether without power of themselues, and the more they drinke, the dryer they waxe, one banquet prouoketh another, they studie to fill their greedie stomackes. Therefore it is commonly sayd, A drunken man is alwayes drie, and A gluttons gut is neuer filled. (Ii1v)

Your high wayes should be considered in your walkes, to vnderstand where to bestow your dayes workes, according to the good Statutes prouided for the same. It is a good deed of mercie, to amend the dangerous and noisome wayes, whereby the poore neighbour sitting on his silly weake beast foundereth not in the deepe thereof, and so the Market the worse serued, for discouraging of poore vittailers to resort thither for the same cause. (Vv5r)

For this folly is euer from our tender age growne vp with vs, to haue a desire to rule, to thinke highly of our selfe, so that none thinketh it meet to giue place to another. That wicked vice of stubborne will and selfe loue, is more meet to breake and to disseuere the loue of heart, then to preserue concord. Wherefore married persons must apply their minds in most earnest wise to concorde, and must crave continually of GOD the helpe of his holy Spirit, so to rule their hearts, and to knit their minds together, that they be not disseuered by any diuision of discord. (UU6v)

Passages like these certainly imitate the scriptural tone of the Old and New Testaments, but they also render, in plain English, simple thoughts about important subjects expressed by thoughtful sixteenth-century clergy who earned, by living itself, the right to say what they thought.

A Brief History Of The Homilies

John Bill senior, the printer of the 1623 folio (STC 13659, 13675), and Bonham Norton had purchased the office of King’s Printer by 1619, and accordingly acquired the privilege to print “all parts of the Bible in whatever translation” (Greg 1967: 58). This extended to the official homilies of the Church of England, because the title-page of the folio includes the imprimatur “Cum Priuilegio” and states “and now thought fit to bee reprinted by Authority from the KINGS most Excellent Maiestie”. For this reason, Bill and Norton did not register this book in the Stationers’ Register. The two volumes of homilies had been last published by Edward Allde thirty years before, in 1595. James I must have ordered the homilies to be republished as a follow-up to his six directions to the Archbishop of Canterbury (issued August 4, 1622) that related to preaching. The fourth of these directions silenced all preachers licensed by bishops and deans from giving sermons “which shall not be comprehended and warranted in essence, substance, effect, or natural inference within some one of the articles of religion set forth MDLXII. or in some of the homilies set forth by authority in the church of England …” (Cardwell 1844: II.202). Since the use of the homilies was specified in the 35th of the Church of England’s 39 Articles as well as in the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, James was not making a new policy. He was simply acting, like Elizabeth before him, to instill greater uniformity of religious belief in his realm. Charles II in fact followed James by issuing like directions in 1662 (Cardwell 1844: II.306).

The writing of the first twelve homilies (Volume 1) was begun as early as 1539 by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury (Original Letters II. 626), but it appears to have a collaborative effort. The homilies were discussed at Convocation in 1542 and failed to muster approval at that time, owing to the opposition of clergy like Stephen Gardiner. He rejected Cranmer’s innovative dogma that Christians could be saved by faith alone, rather than by good works, refused to contribute to the collection, and so obstructed its publication that Cranmer had him jailed in the Fleet briefly in 1547 until Parliament could tidy away all legal obstacles to the matter (Gairdner 1933: 252-53, 296-99, 302-04, 309-11, 429, and passim). The second of the injunctions of Edward VI to his bishops in 1547 left little doubt about the homilies’ importance. It stated that the bishops:

“should not at any time or place preach, or set forth unto the people, any doctrine contrary or repugnant to the effect and intent contained or set forth in the king’s highness’ homilies; neither yet should admit or give license to preach to any within their diocese, but to such as they should know, or at least assuredly trust, would do the same; and if at any time, by hearing or by report proved, they should perceive the contrary, they should then incontinent not only inhibit that person so offending, but also punish him, and revoke their license.” (Cardwell 1844: I.32).

The homilies were accordingly published by R. Grafton on July 31, 1547, in the first year of Edward’s reign. The 1547 preface stiffly ordered:

“all persones, vicares, curates and all other havyng spirituall cure, every Sondaye in the yere, at hygh masse when the people be moste gathered together, to reade and declare to their parishioners, playnly and distinctely, in suche ordre as they stande in the boke — excepte any sermon bee preached, and then for that cause onely, and for none other, the reading of the sayde homelie to be differred unto the nexte Sondaye folowyng. And when the foresayde boke of homelies is redde over, the Kynges Majesties pleasure is that the same be repeted and redde agayn, in suche lyke sorte as was before prescribed, unto suche tyme as his Graces pleasure shall further be knowen in thys behalfe.” (Bond 1987: 56)

This commandment was also approved by the Privy Council (Haugaard 1968: 16).

The collection received additional printings in 1548, 1549, and 1551 so as to ensure that every church in the realm had a copy. On September 23, 1548, the king prohibited all sermons whatsoever with the exception of those in his own authorized collection and urged the people to “patient hearing of the godly homilies” (Cardwell 1844: I.71). Evidently parishes across England had become restless at their length. Hugh Latimer preached on March 15, 1549, before the king:

Some call them homilies, and indeed so they may be well called, for they are homely handled. For though the priest read them never so well, yet if the parish like them not, there is such talking and babbling in the church that nothing can be heard; and if the parish be good and the priest naught, he will so hack it and chop it, that it were as good for them to be without it, for any word that shall be understood. (Latimer 1844: 121)

Accordingly, in that same year, the twelve homilies were subdivided into 32 parts, so that each one would be suitable for easy reading and comfortable listening at a single service.

Indoctrination then continued apace. The first Book of Common Prayer, published by Edward Whitchurche on May 4 of the same year, made very clear where in each communion service the priest should place the homily:

After the Creed ended, shall follow the Sermon or Homily, or some portion of one of the Homilies, as they shall be hereafter divided: wherein if the people be not exhorted to the worthy receiving of the holy Sacrament of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, then shall the Curate give this exhortation, to those that be minded to receive the same. (Two Liturgies 1844: 79; cf. p. 268 for the simpler statement in the 1552 liturgy)

The 11th and 34th articles among the 42 Articles of 1549, as printed in A Short Catechism (London: John Day, 1553), also placed the homilies at the heart of the doctrine of the new church (Two Liturgies 1844: 528, 535; and cf. pp. 574 and 580 for the Latin versions). The (unnumbered) 11th states that:

Justification by only faith in Jesus Christ, in that sense as it is declared in the homily of Justification, is a most certain and wholesome doctrine for Christian men.

The third homily concerns justification and contains the doctrine of salvation by faith only that Gairdner and others, including Edmund Bonner (who contributed to the collection), objected to. The (unnumbered) 34th reads as follows:

The Homilies of late given, and set out by the king’s authority, be godly and wholesome, containing doctrine to be received of all men: and therefore are to be read to the people diligently, distinctly, and plainly.

Shortly after the 42 Articles received their final mandate on June 19, 1553 (Maclear and Williams 1896: 15), they and the homilies fell into swift disuse when Edward died and his Catholic sister Mary came to the throne. Bonner produced a new collection of thirteen homilies to replace the old for the brief years in which protestants like Cranmer were martyred for their innovations.

Elizabeth, coming to the throne in early 1559, quickly perceived the homilies to be an important instrument in the settlement of religious conflict, a precondition of political security. In April 1559 she restored them as official homilies of the Church of England in her 27th and 53rd injunctions to the clergy and laity.

XXVII. Also, Because through lack of preachers in many places of the queen’s realms and dominions the people continue in ignorance and blindness, all parsons, vicars, and curates shall read in their churches every Sunday one of the homilies, which are and shall be set forth for the same purpose by the queen’s authority, in such sort, as they shall be appointed to do in the preface of the same.

LIII. Item, That all ministers and readers of public prayers, chapters, and homilies shall be charged to read leisurely, plainly, and distinctly; and also such, as are but mean readers, shall peruse over before, once or twice the chapters, and homilies, to the intent they may read to the better understanding of the people, and the more encouragement to godliness. (Cardwell 1844: I.223-24, 231)

With these instructions in mind, the queen’s printers R. Jugge and J. Cawood accordingly issued the first book of homilies in 1559, 1560, 1562, and 1563.

On August 1, 1563, the second volume of homilies appeared. During the first Elizabethan Convocation in early 1562, which led up to the issuing of the 39 Articles the next year, the seventeen English bishops agreed on a number of “Interpretations” of Elizabeth’s injunctions. Specifically, they stated:

Homilies be made of those arguments which be showed in the book of homilies, or others of some convenient arguments, as of the sacrifice of the Mass, of the Common Prayers to be in English, that every particular church may alter and change their public rites and ceremonies of their church, keeping the substance of the faith inviolably, with such like. And that these be divided to be made by the bishops, every bishop two and the Bishop of London to have four. (Frere and Kennedy III.132; cf. p. 68 for a simpler version of the same)

At the conclusion of the 12th homily on contention, an advertisement appeared that promised a number of additional homilies in the future. Although from the time of Edward, it was reprinted in 1559.

Heereafter shall follow Sermons of Fasting, Praying, Almes deedes, of the Natiuity, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Sauiour Christ: of the due receiuing of his blessed Body and Blood, vnder the forme of Bread and Wine: against Idlenesse, against Gluttony and Drunkennesse, against Couetousnesse, against Enuie, ire, and malice, with many other matters, aswell fruitfull as necessary to the edifying of Christian people, and the increase of godly liuing. (1623 edition)

Only twenty new homilies were contributed by Elizabeth’s bishops to the second volume by 1563. They included those (promised in 1547) on fasting (no. 4), prayer (nos. 7 and 9), alms deeds (no. 11), the nativity, the passion, and the resurrection (nos. 12-14), the receiving of the sacrament (no. 15), idleness (no. 19), and gluttony and drunkenness (no. 5), but if there were any plans for homilies on covetousness, envy, anger, and malice, they were superseded by more urgent needs. Practical homilies on the proper use of the church (no. 1), idolatry (i.e., wrongful use of images; no. 2), repairing and cleaning the church (no. 3), excess of apparel (no. 6), persons offended by certain places of scripture (no. 10), Whitsunday and Rogation week (nos. 16-17), matrimony (no. 18), and repentance (no. 20) interested the bishops more.

The statement on, and the list of, the homilies appeared in 1563 in the 33rd and 34th of the 39 Articles but by 1571 — when the last or 21th homily, on rebellion, was added — they were combined into a new 35th article, the English version of which reads as follows (Maclear and Williams 1896: 390):

Of Homilies.
The second book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this article, do contain a godly and wholesome doctrine, and necessary for these times, as do the former book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edwarde the sixth: and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers diligently, and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people. Of the names of the Homilies.
  1. Of the right use of the Church.
  2. Against peril of Idolatry.
  3. Of repairing and keeping clean of Churches.
  4. Of good works, first of fasting.
  5. Against gluttony and drunkenness.
  6. Against excess of apparel.
  7. Of prayer.
  8. Of the place and time of prayer.
  9. That common prayers and Sacraments ought to be ministered in a known tongue.
  10. Of the reverent estimation of Gods word.
  11. Of alms doing.
  12. Of the Nativity of Christ.
  13. Of the passion of Christ.
  14. Of the resurrection of Christ.
  15. Of the worthy receiving of the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
  16. Of the gifts of the holy ghost.
  17. For the Rogation days.
  18. Of the state of Matrimony.
  19. Of repentance.
  20. Against Idleness.
  21. Against rebellion.
The queen delayed some time before authorizing this second volume (Parker 1853: 177) but she took a moderate position on how the reading of the homilies was to be managed by the clergy. They were only admonished to use them. Item 12 of Edmund Grindal’s injunctions for the clergy of York in 1571 (repeated for Canterbury in 1576) say only:
You shall every Sunday and holy day, when there is no sermon in your church or chapel, distinctly and plainly read in the pulpit some one of the Homilies set forth by the Queen’s Majesty’s authority, or one part thereof, at the least, in such sort as the same are divided and appointed to be read by the two books of the Homilies ... (Grindal 1843: 127, 161)
Thus no clergyman actually needed ever read from the homilies if he or another preached another sermon of their own.
The first volume of homilies was republished by Jugge and Cawood in 1569, and then by Jugge alone in 1569, 1574, and 1576. Jugge and Cawood printed ten editions of the second volume in 1563 and one in each of 1570 and 1571, at which time the last of the homilies, against disobedience and willful rebellion (2.21), was added to the collection. Jugge also issued the second book alone in 1574 and 1577.

During this period, from 1559 to the late 1570s, the homilies enjoyed 27 separate editions. They must have had their greatest impact on the English nation then, when Hakluyt, Hooker, Marlowe, Sidney, Shakespeare, Spenser, and other great writers of the period received their education. The Puritans, however, wanted all these constraints tossed out. In Admonition to the Parliament (1572), they demanded that the crown “Appoint to every congregation a learned & diligent preacher. Remove homilies, articles, injunctions, prescript order of service made out of the mass book” (Puritan Manifestoes 1907: 142). Yet many clergy would take the easy road and read these texts aloud instead of devising their own sermons, for those might get them into trouble with their parishioners or with the church authorities on grounds of unorthodoxy. Many clergy would also have had little skill in writing. Elizabeth certainly thought so: she told her archbishops firmly that England needed but three or four original preachers because the people’s needs could be entirely met by the reading of the homilies by their clergy (Bond 1987: 10). In 1577, when she wrote her bishops to prevent Puritan prophesyings, she stated

and where there shall not be sufficient able persons for learning in any cures to preach, or instruct their cures, as were requisite, there shall you limit the curates to read the public homilies, according to the injunctions heretofore by us given for like causes. (Cardwell 1844: I.431)

When C. Barker and H. Middleton issued the first and second volumes together for the first time in 1582, the public need for the homilies may have waned. Barker yielded publication rights to the Stationers Company on June 15, 1587, and then J. Charlewood and T. East printed them together next in 1587, the last time they appeared before Allde’s collection in 1595. The publication history during Elizabeth’s reign shows that the crown first flooded churches with the books from 1559 to 1563 and then reprinted them in intervals of four to five years (1569-71, 1574-77, 1582, 1587, 1595). The 30-year interval following Allde’s edition shows that the homilies had less impact late in Elizabeth’s reign, as Puritan opinion gathered strength, and then throughout the reign of James. In 1607 Thomas Rogers published a defense of the 39 Articles that describes a formidable opposition to the homilies — Anabaptists, the Family of Love, Brownists, Disciplinarians, and Sabbatarians, and “Puritans of all sorts” (325-26). J. J. S. Perown, Rogers’ 19th-century editor, particularly notes the Humble Petition by English ministers in 1604 (327, n. 9).