In this post, we shall introduce you to Puritanism, a religious reform movement that arose in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and has had a varying degree of influence on manifestations in culture in general and literature in particular.


The terms “puritan” and “puritanism” originated in the 1560s. Puritanism, in its simplest form, was a religious reform movement in the late 16th and 17th centuries that sought to “purify” the Church of England from the remnants of the Roman Catholic “properly” (disparagingly used to refer to the over-arching role of the Pope in Catholic Christianity) that the Puritans claimed had been retained after the religious settlement reached early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In the 17th century, Puritans became known for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness that informed their whole way of life, and through church reform, they sought to make their lifestyle a model for the whole nation. Its efforts to reform the country led both to the civil war in England and to the creation of colonies in America as working examples of the Puritan way of life.

Needless to say, they were a group of people who were dissatisfied in the religious and social realms of contemporary England, but who had, by then, adopted Protestantism and the Anglican Church (Church of England). In this sense, puritanism may be seen as a more extreme movement that was thought appropriate after the Reformation. Puritanism in this sense was founded by John Calvin of the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558 as an activist movement within the Church of England. The Puritans, as stated earlier, were a group that had begun a movement within English Protestantism in both the British Isles and colonial America. Some even date it back to the activities of William Tyndale (1495- 1536).

The movement ‘s major impact was felt between 1558-1658, that is, from Queen Elizabeth’s reign to the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. The Puritans insisted on the purity of doctrine and ritual. In practice, this meant purity from the corruption of both Canterbury and Rome. Their basic efforts were aimed at purging the Catholic elements (in spirit) of the Anglican Church, rather than creating a rival church. The only object of the Reformation, even more, intense and astute, was that they had no independent identity. They felt that they were alien to their non-puritan friends. The Puritan theology comprised of righteousness and sovereignty of God. They thought that they were the chosen people to create the New Jerusalem and bring around the millennium.

Puritanism may primarily be defined by the intensity of the religious experience it fostered. Puritans claimed that in order to redeem one from one’s sinful state it was important to be in a covenant (a formal and severe arrangement or promise) connection with God. They further held that by preaching God had chosen to reveal salvation and that the Holy Spirit was the energetic instrument of salvation. Theology and polity of Calvinism proved to be major influences in the formation of Puritan teachings. This, of course, led to the rejection of much that at the time was characteristic of the Anglican ritual, considered as “popish idolatry.”

The Puritans, In its place, stressed preaching that pulled representations from scripture and daily life. Still, the Puritans put a premium on a qualified ministry because of the importance of preaching. Puritans’ signature moral and theological earnestness was fused with Calvinism ‘s inherited doctrine of predestination to create a “covenant theology,” a sense of themselves as God’s chosen elect spirits to lead godly lives both as individuals and as a community.

You will definitely get a hint from this that such radical views about religion were bound to have implications on politics. We take you a little back in time to the Elizabethan period to understand the root of this.

King Henry VIII, as you know, segregated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, and under Edward VI (reigned 1547–53) the cause of Protestantism advanced rapidly. However, England returned to the Roman Catholicism during Queen Mary ‘s reign (1553–58), and many Protestants were forced into exile. Many of the exiles found their way to Geneva, where the church of John Calvin provided a functioning model of a disciplined church.

From this experience came also the two most popular books of Elizabethan England — the Geneva Bible and John Foxe ‘s Book of Martyrs — which gave English Protestants justification for viewing England as an elected nation chosen by God to complete the work of the Reformation. Thus, these Protestants enthusiastically welcomed Elizabeth’s accession in 1558; but her early actions while reestablishing Protestantism disappointed those who sought extensive reform, and this faction was unable to achieve its goals in the Convocation, the church ‘s primary governing body.

Many of these Puritans — as they came to be known during a dispute over vestments (the Vesterian Dispute dealt with the issue of whether clerical vestments — declared to be “popish” by some — was theologically important) in the 1560s and 70s — were seeking parliamentary help in an attempt to enact a Presbyterian (Calvinist theory of church governance whereby Christ is the only head and all members are equal under him). Naturally, this caused resentment among the clergy ranks.

Other Puritans, concerned with the long delay in reform, decided on a “reformation without delay for any. “These” separatists “repudiated the state church and formed voluntary congregations based on an alliance with God and between themselves. The establishment repressed both groups but especially the separatists. Denied the opportunity to reform the established church, English Puritanism turned to preaching, pamphlets, and a variety of religious expression and social behaviour and organization experiments. Its successful growth also owed much to the nobility and parliamentary patrons and their control of the Oxford and Cambridge universities and professorships.

Puritan expectations were raised once more when Scotland’s Calvinist James VI succeeded Elizabeth as England’s James I in 1603, thus inaugurating what is known as the Jacobean era. Yet he dismissed the complaints of the Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 with the expression “no bishop, no king “. To James I Puritans were not a religion but a sect. They were the people, as Trevelyan writes, who either wished to purify the use of the property or to worship separately by means of forms to be “purified.” As a result, the Puritans remained under pressure. Some were deprived of their positions; others with minimal conformity; and yet others, unable to compromise, fled England.

Under Charles I (1625–49) and his archbishop William Laud the pressure for conformity increased. However, the Puritan spirit continued to spread, and when civil war broke out between Parliament and Charles I in the 1640s, Puritans took the opportunity to urge the Parliament and nation to renew their covenant with God. Parliament has called together a clergy body to advise on church administration. But this body — the Westminster Assembly — was so badly divided that church government and discipline reform was not achieved.

In the meantime, the New Model Army, which had defeated the royalist forces, feared that the Assembly and Parliament would reach a compromise with King Charles that would destroy their Puritanism gains so that it would seize power and hand it over to its hero, Oliver Cromwell. The religious settlement under the Cromwell Commonwealth allowed limited pluralism to favour the Puritans. Several radical Puritan groups appeared, including the Levelers, the Diggers, the Fifth Monarchy Men, and the Quakers (the only one of lasting significance).

After Cromwell ‘s death in 1658, the conservative Puritans supported the restoration of King Charles II and the modified episcopal (relating to a bishop or to bishops as a group) policy. However, those who re-established Laud ‘s strict episcopal pattern were outdone. Thus, English Puritanism had entered a period known as the Great Persecution. The English Puritans made a final unsuccessful attempt to secure their ideal of a comprehensive church during the Glorious Revolution. England ‘s religious solution was defined in 1689 by the Toleration Act, which continued the established church as episcopal but also tolerated dissident groups.

Thomas Dale carried the Puritan ideal of realizing the Holy Commonwealth through the establishment of a covenanted community to the American colony of Virginia, but New England had the greatest opportunity. The original pattern of church organization in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the “Middle Way” between Presbyterianism and Separatism, yet in 1648 four New England Puritan Colonies jointly adopted the Cambridge Platform to establish a congregational form of church government.

The hounded-out Puritans from England who migrated there came to have a firm control on socio-cultural ethos. They rejected all that was associated with the Church of Rome. They discarded all that were adjuncts to the Catholic and the Anglican faiths, like music, incense, rich vestments, etc. Faith, Reason and Logic replaced the sensuous appeals of worship. All that was detrimental to concentration was rejected. Hence sensuous imageries in literary compositions were an anathema. The Bible to them was the highest form of literature. Naturally, by accepting the Bible as the guide and guardian, the writers were least concerned with the literary tradition which had so far made alchemy of religious and secular aspects of culture and civilization. It was thus an insularity of approach to literature and life. Individual freedom of thought and expression was affected to the worst. Religion/Puritanism controlled law also, as shown by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, which, in fact, is a satire on Puritanism. While this was the situation in America, mainland England however, could never again become the preserve of Puritanism. Yet, the Puritan influence during the Commonwealth became a factor to reckon with, both in politics and culture, as we shall now see.


As with our understanding of the Puritan movement that began in England and gradually petered out to America, any attempt at understanding the cultural milieu they brought in should factor a historical perspective. We need to remember that these Bible-believing Christians and their Evangelical spiritual movement dates back to the time when the English Bible was being smuggled into England, thereby giving rise to Biblical Christianity and the English Reformation! With time however and with the coming of new mores, their position did decline, so much so that in his An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, John Dryden calls the Puritans a “barbarous race of men”.

The question before us is, how and in what ways did the Puritan view of culture affect the course of English literature?

For one, the Puritans were people who caused others to sit up and listen. They were bound and determined to make an impact on their generation. Their dreams and their goals were both individual and national. They were quite vociferous in the way they engaged with the challenges of their time.

The Puritans were inclined to express their opinion quite forcefully, even to the point of straining the social constraints of a rigid monarchical English society. This would cause them, and the mother country, some significant pains of travail. In their time, the Puritans were considered a formidable force in the socio-cultural sphere. They condemned not the drink, but the drunkard, they condemned not the sex but extramarital sex. They told about a unique lifestyle. Hence there was strong opposition to all the Italianate influences that were pervasive in England; just as their condemnation of the theatre as a place that fostered vice was very strong. It must be understood that more than the plays themselves, they were against the ways in which play-houses had turned into places of depravity and licentiousness. We shall learn more about this in the next sub-section. In all, the humanist spirit that pervaded the Elizabethan Age was randomly curbed under the Puritan influence. The scenario however changed dramatically once the Puritans went out of favour with the Restoration in 1660.

Was Puritanism pervasive in contemporary English Culture?

Even as you read the history of Puritan England, here is some food for thought that you may like to discuss as students of Literature:

The two great poets of Puritanism in England – Milton and Marvell could neither totally adhere to, nor ignore the existing literary tradition. In Paradise Lost Milton mingles religious and secular aspects through his motto of ‘justify(ing) the ways of God to men’. His adventure lies in treating a

Biblical theme in a pagan genre, and subtly incorporating contemporary politics. Thus Satan becomes Cromwell whose Latin Secretary Milton himself was. And his style too smacks of both religious and secular aspects. The base is the Bible but the superstructure is Pagan/Classical. Milton’s Renaissance humanism thus gets the better of his Puritan upbringing, failing which Paradise Lost would suffer the fate of a book of the liturgy.

Andrew Marvell, another Puritan poet, also, Like Milton, could not disregard the national tradition of poetry and classical/Latin poetry as well. Marvell’s The Garden in a Puritan’s appeal to all to love nature which is the manifestation of God and also a most congenial place for meditation. But many lines show a Spenserian sensuousness and symbolic connotation which a Puritan would not ratify. He re-interprets The Bible as to how Eve destroyed Adam’s perfect freedom and heavenly bliss. The purification of the soul thus happens not through The Bible, nor Puritanism, but by association with the garden. Here he deviates from Puritanism.

Even Bunyan was castigated by many for using an allegorical fictional style in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

With help from your counsellor, try to analyse these contra-indicatory trends in contemporary literature and how these reflected upon the culture of the period.


The English Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the worst enemies of English drama. The logic of the Puritans was both religious and social. The causes of the Puritan enmity the drama/stage can be enumerated thus:

First of all, in The Book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke to the Israelites, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.” (The Old Testament).

And the Puritans saw how the English stage was courageous and cheering the male actors dressed up as women, and women as dressed up as men. It was a sharp violation of the Biblical injunction, and they looked upon this cross-dressing as inimical both to religion and the moral code.

Secondly, the dramas were full of bawdy and blasphemy. Both premarital and post-marital love were given dramatic representation and the audience relished both, without any qualms. Here again, the Bible is the guide of the Puritans, and they did not take such violation kindly:

“If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman and the woman…”

Thirdly, the theatres attracted lewd women and apprentices. They increased the danger of plague and lessened the scope of profit and salvation.

In his History of England, Macaulay gives a picture of the Puritans of early 17th Century, which corroborates with the cause of general apathy and angst of the Puritans in relation to the stage:

“It was sin…to drink a friend‘s health, to hawk, to hunt a stag, to play at chess…to read the Fairy Queen…the fine arts were all proscribed.”

Fourth, Henri Fluchere wrote in Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, “…Puritans had a horror of beauty, sensuousness and sensuality. The stage appeared to them a school of corruption and lies, a vast industry of debauchery, an ever-increasingly degenerate activity…”

Fifth, many plays were staged on Sundays. And the playhouses drew away people from Sermons. It was a grave threat to the existence of religion, and the stage was doing all that was beyond religion.

Last, of all, the players were hated by the Puritans for another reason. The actors were regarded as superfluous sort of men. In their view, an actor might be a vagabond or a rogue, but evading legal hassles he was growing rich at the cost of the simple poor. He flaunted to be a gentleman with dresses costly and extravagant. Neither public nor the puritan eye could take these pleasure-seeking sections patronisingly.

For a long time, the pulpit and the stage were looked upon as rivals. The Puritan preacher would brook no much rivalry. A play cannot be a match for a sermon, nor could it be allowed to create any trouble in matters sermonic – that was the viewpoint. It was rather taught by the preachers that the players on the stage would incur God‘s wrath. It was even argued that the annual plague in London was the effect of sin, and the causes of the sin were players. It, therefore, stood to reason that the cause of the plagues were players. The Puritans continued this belief and expected the people to follow them. They, however, had about a hundred and seventy sects. It must be noted that not all of them were equally averse to pleasure and amusement.


The ordinance of September 2, 1642, is generally held to be the culmination of a protracted effort of the Puritans to ban drama. Or, rather reversely, dramatists/players after a prolonged struggle for survival finally gave in to the Puritans. The history of the efforts to stop performances of the dramas had started much earlier to 1642.

Roger Ascham was no Puritan. But he made his vehement outbursts against the popular Romances of the day. The tone of his invectives is akin to that of the Crusaders against plays which were dramatised versions of these romances. Then there was Witham Alley, Bishop of
Exeter, who condemned the “Wanton Books” in The Poore Man’s Librarie (1565). He was the first man in England to write against the stage. He cited the case of the City of Marseilles that did not allow any player to live within its territory for the sake of gravity. The contention was that plays are killers of soberness and sanctity of a place and a people. The writers of London harped on this example to bring home their point of condemnation of the stage. The third writer was Lewis Wager. In his Prologue to Life and Repentance of Marie Magdalene (1566), he defended his case as a dramatist. Efforts were there to suppress plays by bishop, preacher and mayor. London thus became an arena of the struggle between Puritan and player.

But the likes of Lodge and Heywood tried their best to defend plays. Lodge‘s A Defence of Stage Plays (1579-80) was against Gosson‘s School of Abuse (1579). Heywood must have studied Lodge‘s tract before writing An Apology for Actors (1612). Heywood argues that The New Testament has no such passage to show that drama is a profane art. Moreover, he was of the opinion that drama can well serve as a moral tonic and work decisively on a guilty conscience. He attempts to challenge the Puritans by referring to the Bible. In 1615 John Greene upheld the Puritan stand through A Refutation of the Apology for Actors and answers all the defensive points of Heywood. Overbury‘s Characters (1614) contains this Puritan- player controversy of the time. In 1616 the writer of The Rich Cabinet furnished with a variety of exquisite Descriptions shows the excellent qualities an actor has to possess – dancing, song, elocution, wit etc. Nathaniel Field, actor and playwright, defended stage acting against the Puritan attacks. By a careful study of the Bible, he learnt that no trade of life except “conjurers, sorcerers, and witches, ipso facts, are damned”. He wrote the quoted words to a certain Mr Sutton, preacher at St Mary Overs. In 1625 an anonymous Puritan wrote a petition to the Parliament, entitling it A Short Treatise Against Stage Players. It was an attempt to show how drama was the monster of vice and all sensuality.

William Prynne (1600-69) the pamphleteer and the writer of Histriomastix (1632) deserves a special mention in connection with the Puritan attack on the stage. It is a book of eleven hundred pages, summing up, as it were, the Puritan stand against drama as a whole. He went to the extreme by calling some French actresses “notorious whores”, who were all Queen‘s persons. The result was that he was condemned to stand in the pillory, pay penalty, lose both ears, and get perpetually imprisoned. He was also to lose his Oxford degree and was expelled from Lincoln’s Inn. His life sentence was afterwards cancelled by parliament. Prynne‘s objective was to suppress stage acting, though the royalty of his time was favouring drama. The fact is that drama before suppression in 1642 was in a prosperous condition, and it is evident from a tract named The Stage- Players Complaint (1641), which is an anonymous work.

The 1642 Ordinance was for full suppression of Stage plays. It brought to a close the glorious tradition and triumph of drama in the reign of Elizabeth and her two successors. Despite a long struggle for existence against the Puritans for three-quarters of a century, the players and writers made themselves a laughing- stock as it was to the puritans that victory finally fell. By this ordinance, the demolition of all playhouses was decreed. All actors were seized and whipped. Every audience attending a drama was liable to a fine of five shillings. The two straight ordinances of the parliament in 1647 and 1648 created a fear psychosis among the writers, actors and audience. These ordinances, however, saw some protests in the form of two tracts: The Actors Remonstrance (1643), and The Players Petition to the Parliament ( a piece of satirical verse). There was another book Mr William Prynne, his Defence of stage- players (1649). The Puritan attack on the stage was not for reforming the theatre, but for abolishing it. To the puritans, the stage served no ethical or moral function. It was rather posing a threat to all that was salubrious to mental, moral and spiritual health. Dramatists like Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe and John Heywood- on the other hand- regarded drama as an engine for moral instruction. They advocated for a synthesis of art and ethics. But their advocacy frittered away before the power of the Commonwealth and the tensions of the Civil War.

Did drama then die in full during Oliver Cromwell’s rule?

So far as Foucault’s theory of power is concerned, every power has its resistant power, otherwise, autocracy or fascism would never change. During Cromwell’s rule, drama pulsated in noblemen‘s houses, “Drolls” or farces or humorous scenes adapted from plays and stages were enacted, e.g. Merry conceits of Bottom the Weaver’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; ‘The Grave Diggers’ Colloquy’ from Hamlet; ‘Falstaff, the Bouncing Knight’ from Henry IV and so on.

Rules banning the stage were, however, beginning to be relaxed towards the close of Cromwell‘s rule. William Davenant was allowed to stage his Siege of Rhodes. Part 1 of The Siege of Rhodes was first performed in a small private theatre constructed at Davenant’s home Rutland House in 1656. Special permission had to be obtained from the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell by calling the production “recitative music”, music being still permissible within the law. When it was published in 1656, it was under the equivocating title The siege of Rhodes made a representation by the art of perspective in scenes, and the story sung in recitative musick, at the back part of Rutland-House in the upper end of Aldersgate-Street, London. The 1659 reprinting gives the location at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, a well-known theatre frequented by Samuel Pepys after the Restoration (1660). The Rutland House production also included England‘s first professional actress, Mrs Coleman. Davenant went on to open the Cockpit theatre in Drury Lane and produced two similar operas The Cruelty of a Spaniard in Peru and The History of Francis Drake.


You have by now formed a fair idea of the cross-currents that pervaded the cultural scene in general and the theatre in particular under the Puritan influence. It would be interesting to cast a look at the events that surrounded the closure of playhouses in 1642, what followed, and how the resurgence of drama came about with the Restoration of the monarchy.

In 1622 there were but four principal companies–the King’s, which acted at the Blackfriars and the Globe; the Prince’s, at the Curtain; the Palgrave’s, at the Fortune; the Queen of Bohemia’s, at the Cockpit. The year 1629 was significant in dramatic history; it being the first year in which a female performer was seen in the English theatre. The innovation was introduced by a French company, but the women were hissed and booed off the stage. This was at the new theatre just opened in Salisbury Court. Three weeks afterwards they made a second attempt, but the audience would not tolerate them. King Charles and his Queen had a great love for dramatic entertainments; the latter frequently took part in the Court Masques, which brought down upon her the brutal language of that canting fellow Prynne. Yet in 1635 Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, under whose jurisdiction all theatrical affairs were then placed, mentions only the King’s company under Lowin and Taylor at Blackfriars, the Queens under Beeston at the Cockpit, the Prince’s under Moore and Kane at the Fortune; in the next year, he adds a fourth, doubtless Salisbury Court, to the list, which house was probably closed on the previous date. On the 6th of September, 1642, the theatres were closed by ordinance, it being considered not seemly to indulge in any kind of diversions or amusements in such troubled times as the political turbulence indicated. In 1647 another and more imperative order was issued, in consequence of certain infractions of the previous one, threatening to imprison and punish as rogues all who broke its enactments. Close upon the heels of this second came a third, which declared all players to be rogues and vagabonds, and authorized the justices of the peace to demolish all stage galleries and seats; any actor discovered in the exercise of his vocation should for the first offence be whipped, for the second be treated as an incorrigible rogue, and every person found witnessing the performance of a stage play should be fined five shillings, as has been mentioned earlier. Verily, the reign of Praise-God Barebones had commenced. But not even these stringent regulations were found sufficient, and in the next year, a Provost-Marshal was appointed, whose duty it was to seize all ballad singers and suppress all stage-plays. It is mentioned in Whitelocke’s Memorials, that on the 20th of December, 1649, some stage players were seized by troopers at the Red Bull, their clothes taken away, and they were carried off to prison.

As you have read earlier, towards the end of Cromwell‘s period in 1658, this paranoia began to wane wand with Davenant, theatrical acting began to resurface. Two years later came the Restoration, and a new order of things dramatic. Theatres began to revive, and plays were openly performed at the Red Bull, the Cockpit in Drury Lane, and the theatre in Salisbury Court. The flamboyant Charles II was a huge patron of theatre and helped breathe new life into British drama. A patent was even issued for two new theatre companies, and these were allowed to organise ‗serious‘ drama. Led by William Davenant, The Duke’s Men was for younger performers, while older, more experienced actors were in The King’s Company, led by Thomas Killigrew. While the two companies created new opportunities theatrically, their monopoly on performances hampered the growth of British theatre. Soon further letters patent were granted to theatres in other English towns and cities, including the Theatre Royal, Bath in 1768, the Theatre Royal, Liverpool in 1772, and the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1778. The theatres that were not patented had to be satisfied with showing only comedy, pantomime and melodrama. These monopolies on the performance of “serious” plays were eventually revoked by the Theatres Act 1843, but censorship of the content of plays by the Lord Chamberlain under Robert Walpole’s Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 continued until 1968.

Many scenic innovations developed during the Restoration. One of the most innovative and influential designers of the 18th century was Philip Jacques de Loutherbourg. He was the first designer to break up floor space with pieces of scenery, giving more depth and dimension to the stage. Other designers experimented with lighting by using candles and large chandeliers which hung over the floor of the stage. Actors began to get paid on how popular they were, and they usually played the same type of roles; for instance, tragic actors always played tragic roles. The female was known as the ingenue and the male came to be known as the juvenile. Playwrights got the proceeds from the third night’s performance and also the sixth night’s performance, but only for the original run of the show. Pantomimes would also be performed before and after a play.

On the thematic front Restoration, the theatre became a way to celebrate the end of Puritan rule, with its strict moral codes. To celebrate the opening of the theatres’ Restoration plays were lavish, often immoral by Puritan standards, and poked fun at both royalists and round heads.

The lightness of the plays reflected a society recovering from years of division and unrest. Although the audience enjoyed the tragedy, the comedies were the hallmark of the Restoration plays. Classics such as Romeo and Juliet have been rewritten with a happy ending! However, the theatre that resurfaced was no longer national in character; there was a widespread presence of French playwrights such as Corneille, Racine and Moliere, as well as Spanish stories and plays that were already popular on the continent. The age was not one of heroism, and this was naturally reflected in the parody of the heroic drama that had taken place. As a corollary to this, comedy that inculcated the manner of restoration of England Became the widespread mode.


In this post, you have learnt of

 Puritanism as a religious movement that came to assume widespread socio-cultural dimensions, though it has always enjoyed varying fortunes in England.

 The impact of Puritan strictures on culture in general and on the drama in particular, leading finally to the closure of playhouses.

 Drama as a subversive activity during the period of the ban from 1642b to 1660.

 The revival of dramaturgy in a changed form in Restoration England.


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