Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Elizabethan Church Settlement
Halifax Parish Church experienced the impact of successive religious changes in the sixteenth century during a period when the flourishing cloth trade in the parish of Halifax was hailed by the Elizabethan antiquary, William Camden, as one of the wonders of the Tudor Age.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century the living at Halifax was held by Dr Thomas Brent, an ambitious pluralist, who had also served variously as a courtier, almoner and executor to Edward IV’s queen and chaplain to Henry VII. He was succeeded as Vicar of Halifax from 1502 to 1521 by one of the leading figures of the pre-Reformation Church, William Rokeby, who was also Archbishop of Dublin from 1511 and officiated at the baptism of Mary Tudor in 1516.
Following his death in Halifax, his heart and bowels, entombed in a lead casket were buried beneath the chancel of Halifax Parish Church, but later transferred to the chantry chapel founded in his memory in 1533.
In 1535, Dr Robert Holdsworth, Vicar of Halifax 1525-56, a wealthy pluralist and theological conservative, gloomily declared in the year following Henry VIII’s breach with Rome that ‘if the king reign any space he will take all that we ever had … and therefore I pray God send him a short reign’. He was fined heavily for treasonable speech, but his fears were realised when in 1537 the Cluniac priory of Lewes was dissolved and its estates transferred ultimately to the crown. In 1538 Holdsworth dutifully placed an English Bible in Halifax Parish Church and subsequently Halifax wills confirm a growing Protestant commitment amongst the laity. Holdsworth later closed the chantries in the parish following the enactment of the Chantries Act of 1548 and adopted Cranmer’s new English prayer book for worship on Easter Day 1549.
During the Catholic reaction of Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-58), Holdsworth readily restored the Latin mass and after his death a three-bay chantry chapel was constructed on the south wall, but the parish of Halifax began to display an increasingly militant Protestantism, particularly after Robert Ferrar, a native of the parish, went to the stake at Carmarthen in 1555 for refusing to renounce his ‘heresies, schisms and errors’.
However, the Elizabethan church settlement, embodied in the acts of supremacy and uniformity of 1559, was accepted with minimal opposition in the parish and in 1569-70 the parish remained famously loyal to the Queen during the Catholic rebellion of the northern earls.
Artist’s impression of a gargoyle at the top of the Bell Tower; the Rokeby Chapel on north side of the church, and the Ferrar Memorial in the south west corner of the church (both Chris lord Photography)