The Banning of Church Ales
Researching some heraldic details regarding a local rural Inn, a paragraph in A Little History of the English Country Church by Sir Roy Strong caught my eye:
Yet these upheavals were nothing, Sir Roy claims, in comparison to the puritanical purges of the civil war, during the mid-1600s, which devastated not only the fabric of the church but also the social communion of the congregation. Moreover, the loss of income, particularly from banning the making and selling of church ales, meant that the buildings started to crumble. The book's illustrations show churches stripped bare and others in which the gaudy tombs of the elite have replaced images of saints.
It seems that our modern day mirth,surprise and almost horror , as noted in my KMSA blog , Holy "Last" Orders, ( Sept 2nd ), that religious bodies could be benefiting from the sale of booze, is really a sign of our own era, and that Church Ale was not only a product but became a term for an actual event.
Before the introduction of hops into England from the Netherlands in the 15th century the name "ale" was exclusively applied to unhopped fermented beverages, the term "beer" being gradually introduced to describe a brew with an infusion of hops. This distinction no longer applies.
Beer generally needs a bittering agent to balance the sweetness of the malt, and act as a preservative. Ale was typically bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs and/or spices which was boiled in the wort in place of hops.
The rise of beer over ale in the 16th and 17th centuries was matched by the decline in the tradition known as the “ale”. This was a local celebration designed to raise funds for a particular purpose.
The longest-lasting was probably the “church-ale”, organised by the churchwardens, when the profit brought in from the brewing and selling of drink, and the consumption of food to go with it, was used for the maintenance of the local church, and for improvements such as a ring of bells or a new loft. Often the “ale” was held in a building called the church-house.
Other "ales" could be for municipal purposes. Lyme in the county of Dorset held regular “cobb ales” in the early 17th century to pay for keeping up the town’s harbour ( The Cobb ): the one in 1601 raised £20 14s 10d. But the more Puritan-minded Tudor clergy were appalled by "church-ales", with one in 1570 claiming they were occasions for “bul-beatings, beare-beatings, bowlings, dycing, cardyng, dauncynges, drunkenness and whoredom.” or what most people nowadays call a fun night out.
Church-ales had actually been largely suppressed under the Protestant Edward VI in the late 1540s, but had sprung back up under his Catholic sister Queen Mary in the 1550s right across the south and west of England. When Mary died and was replaced by another Protestant monarch, Elizabeth, "church-ales" continued at first in many places, with sometimes spectacular feasts. The “church ale games” for the parish of St Mary in Bungay, in the county of Suffolk, in 1566, had a menu that included lamb, veal, honey, eggs, butter, cream, custards, pastries and eight firkins of beer. But from the 1570s, under pressure from Protestant clergy and local magistrates, church-ale celebrations began to disappear from many counties, including all of East Anglia, Kent and Sussex, and to diminish sharply in number elsewhere. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign they were confined mostly to parishes in the West Country and the Thames Valley.
The holding of "church-ales" was still worrying Somerset’s County magistrates in 1633, and sporadic attempts to revive the feasts were suppressed by magistrates in Devon and Sussex during the Interregnum that followed the execution of Charles I in 1649. However, after Charles II’s Restoration in 1660, only one parish in England, Williton in Somerset, seems to have revived the "church-ale". It was restarted in 1662, even though the new tax on brewing, which also applied to the Williton churchwardens’ brews, reduced their profits. Takings were declining sharply in the 1680s, and the last blow was the introduction of the Window Tax in 1696, which forced the churchwardens to lease out the church house where the "ales" were held.
So once again, "History" shows that there really isn't anything new under the sun, just different mores and perspectives, and that there once was a time when, although they didn't make the scientific link that it was the boiling of the water, drinking ale was wondrously noted to be safer than drinking out of the Well.
So, as I once again taunt Sir Hook and Bowie with a picture of a freshly poured, foaming, hard-earned, end-of-day, British Pint, sitting in my Kitchen, I raise a glass to a time when "Merrye Olde England" probably was extremely Merry, ale was a matter of life and death, and the beer-drinkers were the bless-ed ones who lived to tell the tale.
Sir Dayvd (All Hail the Ale) of Oxfordshire.