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Welsh History Review


Vol. 9, nos. 1-4 1978-79

Bishop Williams, the altar controversy, and the Royal supremacy, 1627-41

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at stake. If the table was an altar, as Catholics believed, then the
sacrament would imply the Roman mass. Joseph Mede, a biblical
scholar whose views resembled Laud's, admitted as much: 'The
reason, I think, why the name ALTAR is so much scrupled at is,
because it is thought to imply Sacrifice'.2 The common people
especially were deemed susceptible to this error, for given their
ignorance and theological naievete, bread and wine consecrated upon
an altar might seem to undergo transubstantiation and then be
venerated by them in an idolatrous way. This fear motivated the
charges against John Cosin, later bishop of Durham, who was
indicted for introducing popish superstitions: 'the words Preist and
Altar were taken up by [Cosin], because without preist no sacryfice
can be offred, without preist and sacrifyce there is no use of an
altar, and without all three, preist, sacrifyce, and altar, there can be
no Mass'.3 If, however, the table were indeed a holy, or communion,
table, the integrity of the protestant communion as a commemoration
of Christ's sacrifice, not the actual sacrifice itself, would be
The Laudians, however, did not believe that the name altar
necessarily implied transubstantiation. But they did regard the
holy communion as the climactic act of Christian worship, when
the consecration of the bread and wine evoked the spiritual, but
nonetheless very real, presence of Christ. The table upon which
this miracle occurred should therefore be exalted as an altar, a name
which would also complement the increase in ritualism which the
Laudians preferred. To their enemies, however, this stress on
'empty and superstitious' ceremonialism seemed an 'inundation of
ceremonyes, crosses and crucifixes, and chalices, and images, copes
and candlesticks, and tapers, and basonns, with a thousand such
trynketts which attend upon the mass'.
The physical location of the table was also disputed. Under
Elizabeth, the table in most parish churches had been kept against
the east wall of the chancel but moved toward the nave or into the
choir for the communion service and placed 'table-wise', with the
ends east-west, so that the congregation might draw near. The
anti-Laudians wished to preserve this practice. For them, the holy
Joseph Mede, 'The Name Altar anciently given to the Holy Table', in John
Worthington (ed.), The Works of the Pious and Profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, B.D.
(London, 1677), p. 386.
'Articles again Cosin', in George Ornsby (ed.), The Correspondence of John Cosin, D.D.,
Lord Bishop of Durham (Durham: Surtees Society, 18), II, 177.
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