Monday, 18 July 2011

Great Beards of the English Reformation and beyond

< This short essay is based on an article written and published in the magazine of Croydon Minster a few years ago and on comments made by Professors Alexandra Walsham and Alec Ryrie during the recent annual lecture of the Church of England Record Society, held  at Lambeth Palace in early July 2011. It explores clerical beards, first in the context of the English Reformation, then more widely in the wider Church, both Roman Catholic and Eastern/ Oriental Orthodox. Interestingly Christianity is one of the few religions which does not lay down dress codes for its believers which is what makes recent arguments over attempts to ban Christians from wearing religious symbols all the more interesting. >

Believe it or not, beards have in the past had religious significance, not for themselves, but because of they have helped betray the inner thoughts of those who’ve worn them, in particular they played an important (if unacknowledged) part in the 16th Century Reformation. The simple rule is that during the early Reformation period, for a Priest, a beard was symptomatic of reforming principles. Catholic Priests were, on the whole, prohibited from growing beards. There is no particular theological reason or this other than that consecrated matter might get caught on the moustache.

A good example of this would be Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer started off as a Roman Catholic and was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury as such (though he was a latent Protestant since his time at University and had married in secret, though the legend that he kept his wife in a box is surely just that, a legend). Or most of his career as Archbishop (and for the period he served under Henry VIII) he remained clean shaven – the famous picture of Henry on his death bed proves this. It is only after Henry dies and Edward assumes the throne that Cranmer is shown wearing (and ever lengthy) beard.

Why did the reformers grow beards?

It is difficult to know the mind of our predecessors, esp. when they have little in writing about their choice of hair/ beard styles – they had more important things to worry about!

One argument, put forward by Walsham (or possibly Ryrie) is that the beard signifies wisdom and/ or age. (Catholic/ Jesuit missionaries to China often grew lengthy beards to place them in the tradition and image of the Confucian scholar – the beard indicates both age and wisdom). For the Reformers a beard would have helped give an outward appearance of both wisdom but also of age – for them their reforming ideas weren’t new of innovative, but were reconnecting the Church with a more ancient tradition, as they saw their Protestant faith being a more accurate reconnection with the Early Church. The beard then was a symbol of antiquity, not of innovation, of wisdom not of youthfulness.

Another is that beards mark a clear separation from clean shaven Catholicism, where for Protestant/ Reformed thinking there is less of an emphasis on the sanctity of the sacraments and therefore less of a need to protect against misuse or consecrated matter, in particular the wine, becoming caught in the beard. Of course facial hair would not have mattered for the laity where reception was in one kind only, and on a very infrequent basis, e.g. Christmas, Easter and in preparation for death. More normally the laity would have viewed the Mass from afar, i.e. behind the Rood Screen and would have been expected to kiss the Pax Board/Bread.

Yet another argument, put forward the ‘Orthodox England’ website is that Roman Catholic Priests follow the Roman tradition of being clean shaven and that being clean shaven marked one as “civilised” (a member of the Roman Citizenry) as opposed to a “Barbarian” from beyond the city walls, who would have more likely to have been bearded. Beards did continue to be worn by Catholic Priests up until the 11 Century when they started to go out of fashion/ were banned by decrees of the Church Councils (e.g. Aachen) or by Canon Law. (

Following the first flush or the reformation beards rapidly go out of fashion, though the latter two Elizabethan Archbishops of Canterbury (Grindal and Whitgift) are both shown wearing full beards. During the Stewart period beards (in particular beards associated with the Court) become tidier and more dandified and much less Patriarchal. Goatees of various forms become the norm for both Priests and nobles, as can be seen from the paintings/ tomb of Archbishop Laud or Sheldon. This development was presumably because, following the death of Elizabeth, the Church had remained comfortably reformed and there was no need for political statements of this sort (the main problem was with Protestant Reformers/ Puritans who wanted to see the Church reformed further along European Protestant lines – their main beef was with liturgy, Church furniture and vestments, rather than with facial hair fashions).

Catholic Beards

As I have noted above, for Catholic clergy the prohibition against the growing of beards is a strong one, based in culture (the culture coming out of imperial Rome) and by Canon Law. In England for example the prohibition against clergy growing beards goes back to the Middle Ages it was apparently considered uncanonical for a Cleric to grow his beard (though it would seem that the evidence for this is negative, in that there it comes out of a Law promulgated by King Alfred on the fine that should be paid if one person shaves off the beard of another so that he looks like a Priest. However, by 1119 an ordinance was promulgated by the Council of Toulouse, which threatened with excommunication to clerics who "like a layman allowed hair and beard to grow".

However, this is not the end of the story – there are always exceptions to the rule. As with the Sappers of the French Foreign Legion (an unusually hirsute part of the French Army there is a tradition in some monastic orders for the growing of beards, not as an aesthetic consideration, but as a mark of austerity. In particular this is a tradition of the Capuchins and Camaldolese Hermits for whom the growing of a beard is a mark of personal austerity and penance.

Again, it would seem that not every cleric has followed this rule all the time. There are many examples of Popes who have grown beards (some to a good length) and the portraits of many Popes from the 16 Century onwards show them with beards, e.g.: Clement VII; Paul III (who apparently allowed the beard to grow to considerable length!) However, a rule for one was not a rule for all and even in the mid-19 Century a group of Bavarian Clergy were censured by the Vatican for their attempt to gain permission for clergy to grow beards. It has to be noted, however, that they chose a particular inopportune time as the Church was taking on a more ultramontane tone. (Ultramontanism is a Roman Catholic philosophy which emphasises the power of the Pontiff over that of local prerogative, rights of Bishops or other spiritual authorities).

Further information on Roman Catholic beards can be found on the New Advent website from which some of this section has been taken (

Orthodox Beards

Of course, the matter is completely different for Priests in the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) traditions. Here beards and long hair are the norm rather than the exception. Many Orthodox Priests wear beards and long hair because Jesus would have done so and they are following in that tradition and because they are dispensing the Sacraments and Grace given by Christ. They are, as many Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Priests would hold, in persona Christi and so represent Christ to the people, as well as bringing the things of God to the people of God. More information on the Orthodox tradition of growing beards can be found on the Orthodox England website referenced above.

The wearing of beards by Orthodox clergy also places them in the tradition of the Levitical Priests of the Hebrew Testament and in line with other Laws laid down in the Levitical Law (which is why many Orthodox Jewish men wear beards and peyote). S. Paul describes Christ as being ‘our great High Priest’ a clear reference to the Temple and to the Jewish nature of early Christianity. By seeking to emulate the Levitical Law in their own lives, Orthodox clergy are aligning themselves with Christ.

Finally, there is the suggestion made the Roman Catholic on-line encyclopaedia New Advent, that in the Orthodox/ Eastern tradition, to no wear a beard suggests effeminacy.


Outside of the Roma Catholic Church today there seems to be no particular guidance on who can, should or shouldn’t wear beards and it has now has little to do with which Church party you associate with. Many modern Catholic monks sport beards, as do Anglican of differing shades (both ++Rowan, an Anglo-Catholic and +Tom Wright, an evangelical, wear beards) though I would suggest that those who are strongly Catholic or Protestant are less likely (though not totally unlikely) to wear a beard.

Within the Roman Catholic Church things seem to be slightly different, with beards being prohibited to Clergy, other than for those who have a medical exemption. As with the Roman Catholic Church, so the opposite is true for the Orthodox Churches. Being Churches that do not have a magisterium in the way that the Roman Catholic Church does, but rather who follow the teachings of the Church Fathers and tradition, beards remain de rigeur. If only it were so in Anglicanism.

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