This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

It was the Saturday night before Christmas, 1721. Four bell-ringers from Northrepps in Norfolk had finished their ringing and were returning the keys of the church to the house of the parish clerk. They entered the kitchen to find George Bearfoot, the rector of the neighbouring parish of Sidestrand, sitting at the table. He invited them in for a game of whist, which they played for money and “strong liquors” until late into the night.

According to one of the men: “Mr Bearfoot drinking very freely was, when they left off playing, very much disguised in liquor and would have persuaded or obliged them to play longer. But they, considering the lateness of the night and approach of Sabbath, would play no longer.” Another bell-ringer recalled that Bearfoot was so drunk that he could not get on his horse, “and did curse and swear in a most desperate manner at least a hundred times”. Other villagers later reported Bearfoot’s regular, hangover-related absences from church and his failure to deliver the catechisms.

We know about his antics because he was subsequently charged with drunkenness in the church courts. Indeed, this festive incident is one of more than 50 cases alleging clerical drunkenness to be found in the church court records of two dioceses that we investigated for the years 1570–1740: Chester, which covered Cheshire, Lancashire and parts of the Lake District and North Yorkshire; and Norwich, which was made up of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Though these courts heard a range of disputes with a spiritual or ecclesiastical dimension – covering everything from defamation and marriage to the making of wills – complaints against drunken vicars formed a significant minority of cases, and, for the most part, they were brought by disgruntled parishioners.

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For the authorities, the issue of inebriated clergy was no laughing matter. The 1603 ecclesiastical canons forbade church personnel “from resorting to any taverns or alehouses” (apart from on “necessary business”) and indulging in “drinking or riot, spending their time idly by day or by night, playing at dice, cards or tables, or any other unlawful games”. The anxieties surrounding the excessive consumption of alcohol in early modern England were particularly acute when the impaired individual was charged with the care of souls.

One of those churchmen to succumb to temptation was George Dobson, vicar of Whalley in Lancashire. In 1575, Dobson was described as “a common drunkard and such an ale-knight as the like is not in our parish; and in the night… he is in the alehouse with a company like to himself, but not one of them can match his alehouse tricks, for he will, when he cannot discern black from blue, dance with a full cup on his head – a comely sight for his profession”.

In 1662 John Collins, rector of Tofts Monks and Haddiscoe in Norfolk, allegedly drank “whole pots to a health” at the Crown Inn, “and being blamed by some answered he had been advised so to do by one that had judgment in physic, for it was good for a trouble he had, and have heard him say, that the quantity of whole pots would do him no more harm than half pots would do other men”.

Drunk in a ditch

It is not difficult to see in these clerics the antecedents of the perpetually sloshed Father Jack Hackett, from the 1990s sitcom Father Ted. And there’s something undoubtedly comical about the image of the sozzled churchmen, stumbling to the pulpit and hiccuping his way through a sermon as the effects of his latest drinking session kicked in. For all that, though, the fallout from these binges could be seriously distressing for the drinker himself, not to mention his family, his neglected parishioners and women subjected to drunken sexual abuse.

Some habitual binge drinkers were clearly in the grip of what we would now recognise as a serious addictive illness. John Wythe, rector of Flixton in Suffolk, was prosecuted in 1690 on the grounds that he was regularly so intoxicated that “he did his excrements in the bed on sheets”, was “daubed and besmeared with eggs”, fell asleep in a hog sty, and “fell into a ditch, and there lay blubbering”. There are ruined lives behind these vivid anecdotes.

So why were drunken vicars such a problem in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? Part of the explanation perhaps lies in the nature of their vocation. As prominent members of local society, clergy were expected to share in sociable drinking with neighbours in homes and public houses, especially following rites of passage. They attended alehouses on business, to hire tradesmen, and to lodge when on ecclesiastical business in other parishes. When in the presence of alcohol for so much of their working days (and nights), is it any wonder that those with a weakness for the bottle sometimes overindulged?

When John Cooke, rector of Northenden in Cheshire, was accused of drunkenness in the 1670s, some of his defenders simply said that they had often seen him in alehouses but never drunk, as if it was no big issue that he was there. According to one witness, Cooke was only there “upon occasions of business, or when a… person of quality had sent for him, and if so, before he had gone (which was many times unwillingly) he would come to this deponent and bid him come to him at such a time and make some excuse or other to get him home”.

Parish festivities – from Christmas to harvest time – provided ministers with yet another opportunity to participate in, and even preside over, the consumption of alcohol. When Thomas Newman, rector of Little Cornard in Suffolk, invited his neighbours around for dinner one Christmas, he no doubt felt he was being a paragon of clerical hospitality. His timing, however, was unfortunate. Such celebrations were anathema to radical Puritans, and in 1644 (the height of the Civil War, when this incident brought him before parliament’s ‘Committee for Scandalous Ministers’), Suffolk was firmly under Puritan control. In fact, Christmas celebrations were soon to be banned altogether for giving “liberty to carnal and sensual delights”. What made matters worse was the drink-fuelled prank that followed: “After they eat and drink sufficiently Mr Newman caused diverse men and women to be thrust into his buttery, their own husbands and wives being absent, and there locked them up and conveyed away the key.”

Close reading of these stories suggests that, when enjoying a tipple, clergymen had two priorities if they were to avoid social outrage and potential prosecution: they needed to avoid sliding beyond “cheerly” intoxication into drunkenness; and they should shun inappropriate drinking companions.

The lengthy 1708 case against Nathaniel Rothwell, rector of Thursford in Norfolk, is a catalogue of these transgressions. At the Cross Keys, “the worst alehouse in Holt”, he engaged in a drinking bout with a sow-gelder (that is, a man who spayed pigs). He presumably lost, as he ended up “so disordered that he danced about the house… and at last was so drunk that they were forced to put him to bed in a bed where the mumpers [vagrants] and strollers used to lay”.

Rothwell also got drunk in domestic settings. At a baptismal party in Thursford, he “greedily” saw off two gotches (large-bellied earthenware jugs) of “strong drink” until he was “overcome”. He fell off his chair, attempted to put his wig on backwards, and used “very nasty filthy language”. His accusers also made much of the inappropriate company he kept in alehouses: “ordinary fellows”; “a sorry nasty old fellow, one John Curson a thatcher”; “the ostler, a little debauched boy”.

Malicious allegations

The accusations are serious ones, but it would be unwise not to apply at least a degree of scepticism to these stories. As collectors of tithes, clergymen were magnets for economic and political resentment. Many of their parishioners undoubtedly slung mud at them with alacrity – whether their accusations were rooted in reality or not.

Religious controversy was rife in the 16th and 17th centuries. From the imposition of a Protestant Church of England in the decades following the break with Rome in the 1530s, to the rise of Puritanism and the demand for social and moral reformation, to the British and Irish ‘wars of religion’, men of the cloth were especially vulnerable to accusations in their everyday lives.

For those wishing to frame a clergyman, their drinking habits were fertile ground. Not only did allegations of drunkenness carry real weight with parishioners and diocesan authorities, but the fact that clergymen spent so much of their time in the presence of alcohol meant that distorted accounts of their drinking habits would, more often than not, find some basis in the truth.

In the North West at least two ministers accused of drunkenness, including the aforementioned Cooke of Northenden, claimed they were the victims of co-ordinated nonconformist plots by “fanatics” and “conventiclers”. As Cooke put it: “This suit is prosecuted very maliciously and with a design to cast him out of his parsonage.” The Norfolk minister William Jacombe was prosecuted in 1678 both for drinking and for his excessive sympathy for local nonconformists and nostalgia for the days before Charles II had been restored, boasting how he had preached before Oliver Cromwell in Cambridge.

As well as reflecting the febrile political climate, these cases shine a light on regional and socioeconomic variations across England. Whereas most East Anglian clergy were prosperous graduates, in the upland parts of the north many were curates, non-graduate, and living on pittances. Here, clergymen might not just frequent alehouses but also run one as a way of making ends meet.

In 1634 William Coates, curate of St Bees in Cumberland (a former sailor), was charged with being “ignorant and unlearned”, that he often got drunk himself and that he did “keep a common drunken disorderly alehouse… and have called your parishioners to drink, and have kept them there so long that they have been drunk, and fought and quarrelled in your house”.

These stories tell of clergymen falling short of what was expected of them as figures of social and religious authority. George Bearfoot, with whom we began, was reported as a foul-mouthed and violent drunk (though, intriguingly, one who kept his living at Sidestrand until his death in 1748).

But these tales also reveal that a great deal of clerical misbehaviour was rooted in daily social interactions. Bearfoot’s Christmas drinking session began when he was visiting a neighbouring parish clerk when some thirsty bell-ringers turned up on a cold winter night. His failings were rooted in a culture in which drinking was expected of him as a member of the parish and pastor of his flock.

Phil Withington is professor of history, and James Brown and Tim Wales are research associates, at the University of Sheffield. All three work on the Intoxicants and Early Modernity project, funded by the ESRC and the AHRC.