The religious upheavals of this time left their mark on parochial life, as is apparent when the churchwardens of Dunstable at the visitation of Cardinal Pole in 1556 complained that the town was populous, but neither rector nor perpetual curate was found there, and “he that was hired could not preach”.
By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign Puritanism had become extremely active in South Bedfordshire. All was not well at Dunstable. John Richardson, the rector, was “presented” in 1603 for puritanical practices and for refusing to wear the surplice, but afterwards conformed. Edward Alport, the next rector, encountered great opposition from the Puritan element and from the Anabaptists. They obstructed his ministry and tried by every means to oust him from the living. They planned to set up a Presbyterian organisation and prevented the vicar of Totternhoe and other licenced clergy from doing duty in the absence of the rector. Then they complained to the bishop of Lincoln that no services had been held in the church on those Sundays. Edward Alport went in 1625.
Zachary Symmes next appears. He was an extremist, and for his puritanical practices aroused the hostility of the bishop. He eventually concluded that religious freedom could only be found in New England. He resigned the living in 1634, and with the rector of Odell, set sail for Massachussets the following year and bade farewell to Dunstable for ever.
William Pedder, appointed rector in 1634, was of moderate churchmanship and a royalist. He found the parish in a divided state and encountered much opposition. He was turned out of the living in 1642 and in his place Parliament appointed a group of eighteen “lecturers,” who preached in the church on Sundays and weekdays. However, this arrangement did not fulfil the expectations of the parishioners, many of whom wanted a minister of their own. Less than two years after this scheme was instituted, the town was raided by a party of Royalist soldiers from Leighton Buzzard, who on a Sunday in June, 1644, made an attack on the church during service time. The congregation had barricaded themselves in, and the soldiers forced the doors, shooting a “case of pistols” at the minister in the pulpit and wounding several of the congregation. The incident further embittered the factions.
Ten years afterwards, when feelings had calmed down, a group of parishioners petitioned Oliver Cromwell to give them a minister. So, in 1656, Cromwell’s “Triers” selected them a minister and Isaac Bringhurst became rector. He, of course, had to promise not to use the Book of Common Prayer. It is uncertain whether or not he was episcopally ordained, but he was a good man and did his best to repair the damage done during the fourteen years the parish had been without a rector. There was no more complaining and no more unreasonable opposition, and church life progressed along more normal lines.
(Image – Oliver Cromwell)