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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

The Tudors & Lenten Entertainment

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

"Welcome dear feast of Lent! Who loves not thee, He loves not Temperance, or Authority, but is compos'd of passion!”, the poet George Herbert wrote in 1633. For the Tudors, Lent was a time of conscious and public penitence. Yet throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many theologians across Europe condemned the way Lent was observed within the Roman Catholic Church as a superstitious mockery of biblical fasting.

As a result, most Protestant churches in Europe either stopped observing Lent altogether or made the Lent fast a matter of personal conscience.

However, in Tudor England, February’s Lent fast was enshrined by statute during the reign of Edward VI, and repeatedly enforced by his sister Elizabeth I thereafter.

Even after the Tudors, in the early Stuart period, theologians felt divided on the idea of Lent. Some defended the Lent fast as a purely secular observance, intended for political ends. Some ignored the fast days of Lent altogether.

This blog post explores why Lent became a source of contention amongst Tudor and European Protestant thinkers. We will look at the questions:

1. Who were the main parties to the debate about fasting during Lent?

2. What were their arguments about Lent as a February observance?

I am greatly indebted to Stephen Hampton’s 2012 article, “Welcome Dear Feast of Lent: Rival Understandings of the Forty-Day Fast in Early Stuart England” (see link below to the full article).

Breviary of Isabella of Castille BL Add Mss 18851 f2

Martin Luther was caustic about the fasting days observed within the Roman church, Lent included. He wrote: “Now if you put all this fasting together on one pile, it is not worth a heller. The ancient fathers may have meant it well and have observed the fasts properly, but the filth soon overwhelmed and ruined it and made it worthless."

Despite this statement, Luther did not condemn fasting completely. Fasting was, he argued, perfectly legitimate for the secular authorities to enjoin either fasting or dietary regulation for reasons of state. The government could call for fasting for example to avoid famine. But Luther underlined that “this should be a completely secular arrangement, subject to the authority of the government” and that “it is not required as a good work or as a divine service”.

Martin Luther attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder

For John Calvin, who lived decades after Martin Luther, fasting went beyond the frugality expected of all Christian believers. Calvin said February observances of Lent were a fast only “when we withdraw something from the normal regimen of living, either for a day or for a definite time, and pledge ourselves to a tighter and more severe restraint of diet than ordinarily”. During a fast, Calvin indicates, all delicacy of food should be avoided, and one should eat only for need, not for pleasure.

John Calvin

Edward VI, Henry VIII’s only surviving son, often read the works of John Calvin. Calvin is rightfully accounted as one of the theological influences on the young king. And during the reign of Edward VI, as Calvin advocated, he abandoned most of the traditional forms of external devotion associated with the liturgical year.

But Lenten fasting was a significant exception.

In 1549, Edward VI's government legislated to preserve compulsory observance of the seasonal fast days.

The stated intention of that statute was a hybrid of Tudor theology and statecraft. February fasting was to encourage godly abstinence, as well as to preserve livestock and encourage fishermen.

As a result, eating meat during Lent, Ember Days, Vigils, Wednesdays, or Fridays was illegal in England throughout the early Stuart period. And this set the Church of England apart from the other Protestant churches in Europe.

Edward VI’s law read, “no person or persons of what estate, degree or condition he or she be shall at any time after the said first day of May in the year of our Lord God 1549, willingly and wittingly eat any manner of flesh after what manner of kind or sort, it shall be ordered, dressed or used, upon…the Ember days, or in any day in the time commonly called Lent…”

The fine was no small amount—10 shillings and imprisonment for ten days for breaking the fast.

Book of Common Prayer 1549 BL C.25.l.14.(1)

These provisions were somewhat modified under Elizabeth I. Her statute (5 Elizabeth I cap. 5) increased the fine to 40 shillings. Even worse, people who had informed against fast breakers were paid a reward from the money generated by the fines.

Whatever the fines and terms, the laws in both the reigns of Edward and Elizabeth make clear that, despite Protestant objections, Lent was never treated as a purely secular observance.

Elizabeth's statute stated explicitly that these dietary laws were a matter of secular obedience and divine service. The law reads:

“Herein I condemn not the Lent fast among us…for I esteem it as lawful for a king for a time to forbid his subjects some sorts of meat and enjoin others as he seeth most fit for his commonwealth, as for a physician to prescribe a diet to his patient, forbidding some meats and appointing others for the health of his body.”

Book of Common Prayer 1552

The church did not require people to stop eating meat. Only from delicious and alluring meat dishes. In particular, the Church allows people to eat fish rather than flesh, because that is “a less pleasing diet and less desired by us."

So, behind the Tudor ideas of the Lent fast lie three quite different responses to the institutions which set the Church of England apart from the other Protestant churches on the Continent:

1. Those who defended the Lent fast as a purely civil ordinance were effectively trying to explain away these discrepancies and show that the Church of England was straightforwardly part of the wider Protestant family.

2. Those who defended the Lent fast as an apostolic tradition were instead using it to distance the English Church from other Protestant churches, by underlining what the Church of England shared with the early church and with the Church of Rome.

3. Those who defended Lent as a venerable ecclesiastical custom sought to find value in the Church of England's eccentricities, without isolating it from the wider Protestant world.

In other words, these differences over Lent are another symptom of the Tudor Church of England's crisis of identity.

What, if anything, are you doing to observe a Lenten fast?


Want to read my latest Tudor historical mystery featuring Anne of Cleves? You can find it here in Hook, Line, and Sinker!


Taken from 'Welcome Dear Feast of Lent: Rival Understandings of the Forty-Day Fast I Early Stuart England” by Stephen Hampton The Journal of Theological Studies, NEW SERIES, Vol. 63, No. 2 (OCTOBER 2012), pp. 608-648


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