Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religion, 1350-1550

Robert C. Palmer.

Published November 2002. Order online through The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-2743-7.

In the years of expanding state authority following the Black Death, English common law permitted the leasing of parishes by their rectors and vicars, who then pursued interests elsewhere and left the parish in the control of lay lessees. But a series of statutes enacted by Henry VIII between 1529 and 1540 effectively reduced such clerical absenteeism. Robert Palmer examines this transformation of the English parish and argues that it was an important part of the English Reformation.

Palmer analyzes an extensive set of data drawn from common law records to reveal a vigorous and effective effort by the laity to enforce the new statutes. Motivated by both economic and traditional ideals, the litigants made the commercial activities of leaseholding and buying for resale and profit the exclusive domain of the laity and acquired the power to regulate the clergy. According to Palmer, these parish-level reformations presaged and complemented other initiatives of the crown that have long been considered central to the reign of Henry VIII.


“Absolutely authoritative and indispensable. . . . Much of what Palmer says is new and significant. . . . This book is part of a welcome trend directing attention back to the early years of the English Reformation.”
– Times Literary Supplement

“An important contribution to the lively field of parish studies.”
– Ecclesiastical History

“This is an innovative and impressive study of the application of common and statute law to ecclesiastical affairs, and the argument is illustrated by a multitude of fascinating examples.”
– Albion

“Palmer lays out a series of provocative arguments in a clear, concise fashion. . . . Palmer’s book is a tour de force, bold in its claims, thought-provoking in its analysis, painstakingly researched, and compellingly argued. . . . No one who reads it will come away with their opinions of the English Reformation unchanged.”
– Anglican Theological Review

“Robert Palmer advances a brilliant, if controversial, thesis about the origins of the English Reformation that will transform the debate and make a lasting impact on the historiography. A genuine tour de force.”–John Guy, University of St. Andrews
“There is much in this book that is interesting, innovative, and almost certainly right. Leasing of parishes in late medieval and early reformation England has not been the subject of any full-scale study. Palmer has done it, and a fine study it is.”
– Charles Donahue Jr., Harvard Law School
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