This website includes a lot of information about peasant life under the heading “Understanding Your Western European Ancestors.” Much of the information found there applies to peasants in Buckinghamshire as well. Please read those sections first for a good background. I’ve chosen to highlight here mostly information that was particular to peasants in Buckinghamshire (or to England in general).
Although people in England enjoyed more freedom and a higher standard of living than many others in Europe, widespread poverty and oppression still existed. The power of the aristocracy reigned supreme. At the beginning of the 1800s, only three percent of the population could vote.
The elevated living conditions noticed by many visitors to England mostly existed among the new and growing middle class, a group not found to the same extent in other European countries. But, the middle class still comprised only a small minority of the population. Statistics from the 1841 and 1851 census reveal that over eighty percent of the people still fell into the working class category.
And, many working class people lived in basic, or even miserable, conditions. Homes of laborers were small and simple, with boarded roofs and floors remaining a novelty throughout the century. Diets included little meat, but instead consisted mostly of bread and potatoes. When meat was available, it was in small amounts – usually reserved for the working man in the home. Cheese served as the main source of protein.
Downturns in the economic cycle meant hunger and suffering for the common people. Outbreaks of disease claimed many lives among the young and old alike. In the 1840s, three of every twenty infants failed to reach his or her first birthday. At the beginning of the 1800s, the average life expectancy remained just under thirty-six years old. Fifty years later, it had only risen to 39.5.
Peasant children received only a limited education, if any. In the early 1800s, one-third of children never attended school at all. Working-class children, even those who went to school, rarely received more than three years of education. Families usually couldn’t afford to send children to school more than this, both because of the fees charged by the school and because of the productivity missed by not having their assistance at home. Most of children’s learning came from Sunday School or from the instruction of parents, rather than formal education.
The result was that many people in the countryside didn’t achieve even a basic level of literacy. In 1830, only 57.5 percent of adults could read. Many of our ancestors couldn’t write their own names and so signed them only with a mark.
The state church in England was the Church of England. The church’s controversial and unusual background led religion in a different direction in England than on the European continent.
The origins of the Church of England date back to the reign of Henry VIII. Prior to that time, England had functioned as a Roman Catholic state, although with an underground Protestant movement. Henry had been married for eighteen years to Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, without producing a male heir when he “fell in love” with Anne Boleyn. Unable to get a divorce approved from Pope Clement VII, Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. He appointed a new archbishop for England who agreed to annul his marriage to Catherine, allowing him to marry Anne in 1533.
Henry didn’t stop with this though. Soon after, he removed England from the papal jurisdiction. In 1534, he passed a law declaring the king to be the supreme head of the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church). Throughout the next centuries, the Church of England vacillated in its alignment between Catholicism and Protestantism at the whim of the ruling monarch. This differing of opinions set the stage for the other unique characteristic of religion in England - the prevalence of dissident denominations.
In many countries throughout Western Europe, the dominant religion functioned as almost the only religion through the early 1800s. By mid-century, dissident religions remained small, scattered, and persecuted in most places. In England though, diversity existed on a whole new level. The Church of England still occupied a privileged place in society, and other religious groups (particularly Catholics) did meet some discrimination. However, other religions enjoyed a level of autonomy not found elsewhere.
Dissidence had been present in England for a long time. Throughout England’s early history, members of dissident religions sometimes enjoyed protection and rights. Other times, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and nonconformist churches suffered. For example, in 1660 a new king and Parliament clamped down on religious freedom. They passed the Corporation Act of 1661 and later the Test Act of 1673 which limited people of religions outside the Church of England from holding public office. Soon afterwards, the Glorious Revolution and its legislation guaranteed freedom of worship to Protestants and nonconformists, although law still denied Catholics the rights to own firearms.
Changes like this continued throughout the 1700s, with progress toward equality moving forward in uneven lurches. Finally in 1828, Parliament repealed the Test and Corporation Acts, granting nonconformists equal political rights with Anglicans. The next year, the hotly disputed Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 improved the political standing of Catholics in England.
A variety of denominations flourished in England in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most significant nonconformist religion was Methodism. Methodists represented a homegrown derivation of the Church of England started by John Wesley. From the time he began preaching in 1738 until his death in 1791, Wesley insisted he was no dissenter. Instead, he said, he offered supplemental teaching to the Anglican Church. However, many of his followers didn’t agree. Their actions in the early 1800s made it apparent that Methodism had evolved into a religion of its own with an emphasis on spirituality and emotions not found in the Church of England. The religion continued to attract followers so that by mid-century, nearly 2.5 million people attended over eleven thousand places of worship.
Other nonconformist religions also drew sizable crowds. Baptists and Independents, both of which had been around for longer than the Methodists, increased in numbers throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in response to the evangelical revival that swept through England. Membership rose from 26,000 in 1790 to 165,000 in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sunday attendance reached over a million. Unitarians and Quakers also claimed large followings, although their numbers began declining in the mid 1800s.
Nonconformist churches had an important presence in Buckinghamshire. In many places, as many people attended a Methodist church as the Anglican Church. Although fewer people attended Baptist and Independent churches than Methodist churches, attendance in these churches ranked among the highest of any of the English counties.
Dissenting religious groups in Buckinghamshire demanded the respect and attention of local leaders and politicians. Members of these denominations often held a disproportionate amount of positions of power in the community. Sometimes, they succeeded in organizing their interests solidly, making their influence even stronger. Catholics in the county, on the other hand, were few in numbers and had little political clout. Anti-Catholicism ran rampant in many of the villages, particularly throughout the 1820s and 1830s.