Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in England, 1520–1640

Written by Torrance Kirby and P. G. Stanwood, eds. Reviewed By Richard Snoddy

Paul’s Cross was an open-air pulpit in the north-east corner of the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. This pulpit was one of the most influential venues in the emerging public sphere of early modern England and therefore one of the most important contacts between government and people, a platform on which official religious policy was often represented, and occasionally criticised. Thousands would attend the weekly two-hour sermons that contributed significantly to the formation of a national religious identity. The prospect of preaching there could elicit mixed emotions in the clergy. A dagger was thrown at one preacher, another was shot at, and even the thought of mounting the steps could induce a shudder in John Foxe: “where I shall, like some ape among courtiers, be greeted with grimaces, or howled off by the hisses of the mob.”

This volume is a collection of twenty-four papers delivered at a conference held at McGill University, Montreal in 2012. Together with Mary Morrissey’s Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1558–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role of Paul’s Cross in this period of upheaval and more broadly to the importance of the sermon as the central means of communication and persuasion in early modern religious culture. It also reminds us of the proximity of the book trade, with the Stationers’ Company and many booksellers located in or near the churchyard. A symbiotic relationship existed between preachers and booksellers, the sermons echoing the latest print, and in turn being amplified by the presses.

Among the highlights is John Wall’s fascinating report on the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project. This interdisciplinary endeavour allows the visitor to its website to savour the experience of hearing a sermon at Paul’s Cross (the website is at and a visit is highly recommended). Sophisticated architectural, visual, and acoustic modelling allow users to experiment with different positions in the churchyard and witness the preacher compete with bells, birdsong, and barking dogs as well as the murmur of the crowd under a threatening November sky. Scholars have learnt much from this model. It reveals, for example, that audibility was good almost anywhere in the yard due to the architectural setting, with sound reflected from the surrounding buildings. Wall is insistent that this is not an attempt to recreate a particular historical event. Indeed, the sermon chosen, John Donne’s Powder Treason sermon of 1622, was actually preached indoors due to inclement weather, but one does gain a better sense of what it would have been like to attend Paul’s Cross. The performance of the sermon also affords valuable insights into Donne’s timing and delivery.

Richard Rex contributes a study of Paul’s Cross amidst the religious changes of the 1530s, a time of political tension and increasingly vigorous attempts by the crown to control the pulpit. Paul’s Cross was used to announce the marriage to Anne Boleyn, to proclaim the royal supremacy, and in the campaign against idolatry. Rex shows that Thomas Cromwell’s handing control of the pulpit to John Hilsey opened the way for a roster of evangelical preachers. After the Act of Six Articles, however, evangelicals became wary of exposing themselves to harassment from their conservative opponents in such a public forum. Conservatives, it seemed, had similar reservations so that it was a dubious honour to preach there. Rex has managed to untie some particularly difficult bibliographical knots and provide a more accurate dating for some of the Paul’s Cross sermons preached in this decade than that given in the pioneering work of Millar MacLure. This will help us to read these sermons in their proper context and better understand how the preachers spoke into that context.

David Neelands investigates Richard Hooker’s sermon at Paul’s Cross. Little is known about this sermon though Hooker’s biographer Izaak Walton, writing long afterwards, foregrounds this occasion as a crucial event, the young Hooker setting out his stall as an anti-Calvinist controversialist. Neelands questions Walton’s account, arguing from contemporary documents that Hooker’s sermon did indeed deal with the matter of predestination but with rather different emphases than those found in Walton’s narrative. He suggests that Walton embroidered his account with details from Hooker’s later work, the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, such as the attribution to God of antecedent and consequent wills. Neelands argues that Hooker laid out a moderate Reformed view on predestination; that he did so at the behest of Bishop John Aylmer, an exile in Zurich during Mary’s reign who had there come under the influence of Peter Martyr Vermigli and Heinrich Bullinger; and that Hooker preached his Paul’s Cross sermon in 1581 in the context of a campaign to answer the ‘Bragg’ of the Jesuit Edmund Campion who had complained that Calvin had made God the author of sin. This is a highly plausible reading of the sources that is sensitive to context and that provides a more nuanced interpretation of Hooker’s views than some that are available.

Many of the contributors offer fresh readings of individual sermons or preachers such as John Fisher, Richard Smith, John Jewel, and William Barlow. Brad Littlejohn’s analysis of the deeper issues underlying the dispute between Richard Bancroft and John Penry is excellent. So too is Jeanne Shami’s study of John Stoughton which reveals the subversive uses to which the Song of Songs could put in the critique of royal marriage policy. Taking a more wide-ranging approach, Mary Morrissey challenges conventional wisdom about the function of the Jeremiad.

This review can give only a taste of the fare on offer in this volume. The standard of contributions is generally very high. There are a few problems with internal cross-referencing by chapter number, seemingly due to rearrangement of the table of contents, but as the chapter author is always identified, this will not cause difficulty. This collection will be of immense value to anyone interested in preaching in early modern England and will be worth consulting by those with wider interests in the religious culture of the period.

Richard Snoddy

Richard Snoddy
London School of Theology
London, England, UK

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