Sermons at Paul's Cross, 1520-1640

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Torrance Kirby, P. G. Stanwood, Mary Morrissey, John N. King
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     608 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For more than a century following the Henrician Reformation, Paul’s Cross, the open-air pulpit at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, arguably served as the most influential public platform in England. Attracting crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands, Paul’s Cross preachers, sanctioned by both Crown and Church, played a crucial role in the formation of popular religious sentiment and identity. Using biblical exegesis and homiletic rhetoric as their instruments of persuasion, Paul’s Cross preachers as different as John Fisher, Hugh Latimer, Richard Bancroft, and John Donne sought to uphold the doctrinal orthodoxy of the day in an effort to defend and promote government and ecclesiastical policy. Thus, the eighteen sermons presented in this valuable edition, selected from approximately three hundred surviving Paul’s Cross sermons in manuscript and print, offer a remarkable series of snapshots of the shifting religious politics of the period, through the reigns of five Tudor-Stuart English monarchs. 

Each preaching occasion presented its own unique and formidable challenges. For the religious conservative Simon Matthew, preaching in 1537, the challenge was to endorse the political legitimacy of the Royal Supremacy while maintaining the religious authority of contentious Catholic doctrines such as the real presence of Christ in the Mass and the freedom of the human will. A decade later, in the evangelical climate of the Edwardine Reformation, such tenets of late Henrician Catholicism could no longer be tolerated. It was under these circumstances that Richard Smyth was required to preach his “Retractation Sermon” of 1547, formally recanting his earlier adherence to transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and other traditional theological doctrines. Turn and turnabout, just six years after Smyth’s dramatic endorsement of Protestant reforms, James Brooks took to the Paul’s Cross pulpit to make the case for the Marian regime’s restoration of Catholicism to a skeptical if not downright hostile audience. With Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, yesterday’s orthodoxy once again became today’s heresy. John Jewel’s famous “Challenge Sermon,” preached in 1559, returned to the hotly contested doctrine of the Eucharist, challenging all comers to prove the validity of traditional scholastic teaching concerning the question of sacramental presence. The three Jacobean Paul’s Cross sermons in the edition, in quite different ways, exemplify the via media trodden by the English Church in the early 17th century between Rome and Geneva. The volume’s final sermon, Mark Frank’s outspoken Royalist call for obedience, preached by command of Charles I in 1642 at the outbreak of civil war, may also have been the last sermon preached at Paul’s Cross. By 1643 the pulpit cross was no more, thought to have been taken down in accordance with a Parliamentary ordinance against idolatry.

Under the leadership of Torrance Kirby, the distinguished editorial team of Paul Stanwood, Mary Morrissey, and John King, with contributing editors Cecilia Hatt, Mark Rankin, and Richard Rex, have done an outstanding job of bringing this selection of both famous and less well-known sermons vividly to life. Concise introductory essays preface the volume and each of the five regnal sections. Equally succinct essays precede each of the eighteen sermons, providing biographical information, historical, religious, and political contexts, and notes on textual and editorial conventions. Banks of footnotes contain both printed marginal glosses and editorial matter. Biblical and intermediary sources are identified, preachers’ terminology and hard words are glossed, textual variants recorded, and topical allusions explicated. The edition also contains an immensely useful bibliography of extant Paul’s Cross sermons, and readers will be grateful for an index that lists themes as well as names. I have no doubt that this volume, in tandem with both earlier and more recent critical works (such as Millar MacLure, The Pauls Cross Sermons, 1534-1642, Toronto University Press, 1958; Mary Morrissey, Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1558-1642, Oxford University Press, 2011; and Torrance Kirby and Paul Stanwood, eds., Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in England, 1520-1640, Brill, 2014) will stimulate considerable interest in the remarkable sermons preached at Paul’s Cross in the 16th and 17th centuries. More significantly perhaps, it will also admirably serve, as the editors wish, to introduce readers to the vast and still little-known realm of early modern sermon literature—a genre of speaking and writing that did as much, if not more, than any other to forge the religious and political identities of the period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hugh Adlington is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at teh University of Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Torrance Kirby is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at McGill University. He is the author of Richard Hooker Reformer and Platonist (Ashgate, 2005) and co-editor with P. G. Stanwood of Paul's Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in England, 1520-1640 (Brill, 2013). Professor Kirby is editor of A Companion to Richard Hooker (with Rowan Williams; Brill, 2008).

P. G. Stanwood is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. Professor Stanwood is a specialist in the Renaissance and in seventeenth-century English literature; he has edited nine books, including the final three books of Richard Hooker's Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity (Harvard University Press, 1981) and John Cosin: A Collection of Private Devotions (Oxford University Press, 1967).

Mary Morrissey is Associate Professor of English at the University of Reading. Her primary research subject is Reformation literature, particularly from London. She is particularly interested in Paul's Cross, the most important public pulpit in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Her publications include Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons, 1558-1642(OUP, 2011).

John N. King is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University. He is the author of English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition(Princeton University Press, 1982); Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton University Press, 1989), and Tudor Books and Readers: Materiality and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2009).


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