Changes in St Neots churches during the 15th and 16th centuries
The fifteenth century was a time of great devotion to the Passion of Christ. The rebuilt parish church of St Maryís, St Neots, had, above the chancel step, a Rood Screen, a carved wooden frame with a statue of Christ upon the cross supported by the figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. John.
†In 1486 Thomas Mylys left money for the making of the rood screen.
Peopleís wills testify to the existence of a side altar to the Trinity (1486).
In 1489 William Crouker left money ' to the repariacion and makynge of the Rodeloft"; there were many other gifts.
The south chapel was dedicated to Our Lady, the mother of Christ.
In 1504 Robert Arnold desired to be buried in the chapel of Our Lady annexed to the chancel of the parish church.
In the roof there is still a carving of an angel with a fleur de lys, the emblem of the Blessed Virgin.
There were statues of our Lady of Pity next to the north chapel of Jesus (1528), of St. Gregory the Great in the south aisle (1534) and St. Ninian (1544).
There was a tabernacle of St. John (1529).
The side altars were for the chantry priests who, though they were paid to pray for the souls of the departed, also did pastoral work in the parish.
In the vestry there are some fifteenth century glass panels with the figures of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence which were formerly kept in the Dove's Chamber above the south porch.
The rood screen was removed in the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553).
Edward VI, a Protestant king, banned all Catholic devotions except the newly introduced Book of Common Prayer.
The new prayer book was criticised by Catholics as "a Christmas game" compared with the Mass.
When Edward's Commissioners visited they were not told about the gild lands. These were not revealed until 1552.
On Edward's death in 1553, Mary, a Catholic queen, ordered the restoration of English churches but not the return of the lands of the monasteries and nunneries.
Cardinal Pole's Commissioners came to St. Neots in August 1556 and ordered that all altars should be restored and re-erected by the end of the month together with the Rood Loft, and that images/statues should be restored by the following Easter.
The rood screen was replaced during the reign of Queen Mary.
Mary revived all the Roman Catholic devotions.
On Mary's death in 1559 Elizabeth I's Commissioners were instructed not only to remove carvings, statues, wall hangings depicting people, stone altars etc. but also to find objects that the priest or parishioners had removed and concealed.
Three months later in August 1559 St. Neots was visited three Protestant Commissioners including Dr. Bentham, shortly to become bishop of Lichfield. They ordered the altar and rood screen to be removed. They were "cut down by the seates of the quyer, leaving no memorial thereof.... as an example to the residue of the country to do the like".
The remains today show two bishops with their faces vandalised.
Elizabeth I abolished all church devotions other than those of the Book of Common Prayer.
There was a dispute over the destruction of images in the church. A number of townspeople wanted them removed but two members of the gentry, Sir Lawrence Taylard and Oliver Leader Esq. objected. The issue was brought to the Privy Council in London which took the side of the image breakers (iconoclasts).
In 1573 Queen Elizabeth appointed Rev. Peter White as the incumbent (vicar) of Eaton Socon church. He found the rood screen gone but the rood loft remaining. Fearing that the mere memory of the crucifix and figures would lead the congregation back to Catholicism, White preached on the necessity of its destruction.
Gradually, but only as a result of constant visits, all the artifacts of mediaeval religion were removed from the churches: stone altars, rood screens, statues, altar cloths, wall hangings, priests vestments, tabernacles, candlesticks, communion vessels, organs and even bells. Only a single tolling bell would have rung to call people to their worship.
The inside of the churches were whitewashed to hide all the early religious pictures of the Old and New Testament.
The post Reformation Church
The immediate effects of the Reformation worked themselves out over a long period.
In some places clergy continued to celebrate the new communion service wearing vestments and with Catholic ceremonial.
The Book of Common Prayer was now attacked by a new generation of Reformers (who became known as "Puritans") as being papalist (a belief in the Catholic Pope as leader of the church.††
In Eaton Socon the Puritan vicar, Peter White, (from 1573 to 1616), was described as "a severe Calvinist".
John Calvin (1509-64), the Genevan Reformer, taught the worthlessness of human effort and our utter reliance on the grace of God who has already determined our eternal fate (predestination).
Calvin was opposed to ceremonial of any kind in worship. Both Peter White and his son Francis, who became Bishop of Ely in 1631, engaged in controversy with the Roman Catholic Jesuits, by pamphlet and face to face, during that time "that he reduced many seduced Romanists to our Church".
Francis even thought the Presbyterians suspect as denying the idea of predestination.
The influence of Peter White was considerable, not only because of his strong views and indefatigable pamphleteering but also because he was incumbent of St. Neots.