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Lent in United Kingdom

In England a Lenten fast was first ordered to be observed by Earconberht, king of Kent (640-664). In the middle ages, meat, eggs and milk were forbidden in Lent not only by ecclesiastical but by statute law; and this rule was enforced until the reign of william III. The chief Lenten food from the earliest days was fish, and entries in the royal household accounts of Edward III. show the amount of fish supplied to the king. Herring-pies were a great delicacy. Charters granted to seaports often stipulated that the town should send so many herrings or other fish to the king annually during Lent.

How severely strict medieval abstinence was may be gauged from the fact that armies and garrisons were sometimes, in default of dispensations, as in the case of the siege of Orleans in 1429, reduced to starvation for want of Lenten food, though in full possession of meat and other supplies. The battle of the Herrings (February 1429) was fought in order to cover the march of a convoy of Lenten food to the English army besieging Orleans. Dispensations from fasting were, however, given in case of illness.

During the religious confusion of the Reformation, the practice of fasting was generally relaxed and it was found necessary to reassert the obligation of keeping Lent and the other periods and days of abstinence by a series of proclamations and statutes. In these, however, the religious was avowedly subordinate to a political motive, viz. to prevent the ruin of the fisheries, which were the great nursery of English seamen. Thus the statute of 2 and 3 Edward VI., cap. 9 (1549), while inculcating that “due and godly abstinence from flesh is a means to virtue,” adds that “by the eating of fish much flesh is saved to the country,” and that thereby, too, the fishing trade is encouraged.

The statute, however, would not seem to have had much effect; for in spite of a proclamation of Queen Elizabeth in 1560 imposing a fine of £20 for each offence on butchers slaughtering animals during Lent, in 1563 Sir William Cecil, in Notes upon an Act for the Increase of the Navy, says that “in old times no flesh at all was eaten on fish days; even the king himself could not have license; which was occasion of eating so much fish as now is eaten in flesh upon fish days.” The revolt against fish had ruined the fisheries and driven the fishermen to turn pirates, to the great scandal and detriment of the realm. Accordingly, in the session of 1562-1563, Cecil forced upon an unwilling parliament “a politic ordinance on fish eating,” by which the eating of flesh on fast days was made punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment, one meat dish being allowed on Wednesdays on condition that three fish dishes were present on the table.

The kind of argument by which Cecil overcame the Protestant temper of the parliament is illustrated by a clause which he had meditated adding to the statute, a draft of which in his own handwriting is preserved: “Because no person should misjudge the intent of the statute,” it runs, “which is politicly meant only for the increase of fishermen and mariners, and not for any superstition for choice of meats; whoever shall preach or teach that eating of fish or forbearing of flesh is for the saving of the soul of man, or for the service of God, shall be punished as the spreader of false news” (Dom. MSS., Elizabeth, vol. xxvii.). But in spite of statutes and proclamations, of occasional severities and of the patriotic example of Queen Elizabeth, the practice of fasting fell more and more into disuse. Ostentatious avoidance of a fish-diet became, indeed, one of the outward symbols of militant Protestantism among the Puritans.

“I have often noted,” writes John Taylor, the water-poet, in his Jack a Lent (1620), “that if any superfluous feasting or gormandizing, paunch-cramming assembly do meet, it is so ordered that it must be either in Lent, upon a Friday, or a fasting: for the meat does not relish well except it be sauced with disobedience and comtempt of authority.” The government continued to struggle against this spirit of defiance; proclamations of James I in 1619 and 1625, and of Charles I. in 1627 and 1631, again commanded abstinence from all flesh during Lent, and the High Church movement of the 17th century lent a fresh religious sanction to the official attitude. So late as 1687, James II. issued a proclamation ordering abstention from meat; but, after the Revolution, the Lenten laws fell obsolete, though they remained on the statute-book till repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1863.

But during the 18th century, though the strict observance of the Lenten fast was generally abandoned, it was still observed and inculcated by the more earnest of the clergy, such as William Law and John Wesley; and the custom of women wearing mourning in Lent, which had been followed by Queen Elizabeth and her court, survived until well into the 19th century. With the growth of the Oxford Movement in the English Church, the practice of observing Lent was revived; and, though no rules for fasting are authoritatively laid down, the duty of abstinence is now very generally inculcated by bishops and clergy, either as a discipline or as an exercise in self-denial. For the more “advanced” Churches, Lenten practice tends to conform to that of the pre-Reformation Church.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)


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  • Article Name: Lent
  • Author: International
  • Description: In England a Lenten fast was first ordered to be observed by Earconberht, king of Kent (640-664). In the middle ages, meat, [...]

This entry was last updated: October 22, 2016

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