Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: The Case of the Missing Vicar -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 3

Why do we know the name of Downton’s local doctor, but not its vicar? Who is in charge of that charming chapel, and who is charged with the care of Downton’s souls? Never mind the odd slang (“Can I help?”) and the weird intimacy of employer and employed: the most anachronistic thing about Downton Abbey may be the near-total absence of religion from its characters’ lives.

On Sunday night, this season’s most pleasing storyline reached its apex as Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson exchanged vows before a gathering of familiar faces. The words they exchanged are taken from the Book of Common Prayer, the standard liturgical work that emerged from the Reformation and formed the basis of worship within the Church of England. We hear Mr. Carson promise: “With this ring, I thee wed. With my body, I thee worship… All my worldly goods, I thee endow.” And Mrs. Hughes: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.”


The Book of Common Prayer, which had survived in much the same form since 1662, was at this very moment being revised in response to decades of pressure. A Royal Commission, created to undertake this work in 1906, finished its work in 1927. But the new book was rejected by the House of Commons, not once but twice, led by a group of MPs who believed that the new forms permitted undermined the church’s Reformation principles. The Church of England is an established, state church, and the monarch of Britain is its nominal head; according to a 1919 Act, any changes to the prayer book required parliamentary approval before they could receive the royal assent. Parliament’s rejection set up an awkward situation, resolved, somewhat tenuously, by the decision of the Church to assert its authority and allow bishops to use the new liturgy. In many books the old and the new forms were printed alongside one another.

Had Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes married just a few years later, then, Mrs. Hughes could have promised “to love and to cherish,” rather than “to obey,” her new partner, while Mr. Carson could have merely honored her with his body and shared his world goods. But, old-fashioned sentimentalists that they were, they probably would have stuck with the old form, just as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane do in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Busman’s Honeymoon (1937). Here, in his mother’s words, is the scene:

Helen [Peter’s sister] obligingly presented us with a copy of the new form of marriage service, with all the vulgar bits left out—which was asking for trouble. Peter very funny about it—said he knew all about the ‘procreation of children,’ in theory though not in practice, but that the ‘increase of mankind’ by any other method sounded too advanced for him, and that, if he ever did indulge in such dangerous amusements, he would, with his wife’s permission, stick to the old-fashioned procedure. He also said that, as for the ‘gift of continence,’ he wouldn’t have it as a gift, and had no objection to admitting as much. At this point, Helen got up and left the house, leaving P. and Harriet to wrangle over the word ‘obey.’ P. said he would consider it a breach of manners to give orders to his wife, but H. said, Oh, no—he’d give orders fast enough if the place was on fire or a tree falling down and he wanted her to stand clear. P. said, in that case they ought both to say ‘obey,’ but it would be too much jam for the reporters. Left them to fight it out. When I came back, found Peter had consented to be obeyed on condition he might ‘endow’ and not ‘share’ his worldly goods. Shocking victory of sentiment over principle.

To what extent did these doctrinal debates matter to English people in general? Historian A. J. P. Taylor dismissed the whole episode and insisted that, by 1928, England had “ceased to be, in any real sense, a Christian nation.” But measuring religion, and its decline, is not so simple, and most historians now would agree that interwar England was still a religious place, although one whose spiritual character was in transition. Beginning in the 1870s, there was a shift from the severe personal convictions of evangelical mid-Victorians, to a more undogmatic, social Christianity that accepted multiple forms of belief even while it continued to regulate morality and behavior. By the 1880s, churchgoing had begun to decline.

This was fueled, too, by the rise of government welfare and professional philanthropies, which lifted much of the burden of caring for the sick and the poor from the churches. But Christianity in general, and the Church of England in particular, remained a kind of cultural default until after World War II. The historian Callum Brown, for example, dates the “death of Christian Britain” to the “short and sharp cultural revolution” of the 1960s. The census did not ask about religion until 2001, but other measures suggest that religion remained a pervasive presence in the interwar decades. According to the Gallup poll, for example, 78% of respondents in 1937 said that they belonged to a Christian church, dropping to 41% in 1990.


Downton Abbey has given us glimpses of the church before, most prominently in the debate over where Sybil and Tom’s baby should be baptized. But in general it is kept resolutely off-stage, against all historical evidence. No dramas play out through glances and whispers during Sunday services. The Dowager Countess spends her energies on influencing the hospital administration, not whether the new vicar will be high or low church in his style. Lady Mary and Lady Edith are haunted by lower-class women—blackmailers and distraught kidnappers—for their indiscretions, but never by a church-imposed morality or even just the gimlet eye of a clergyman. Sunday night’s episode saw both Mary and Cora realize they were acting selfishly and seek to make amends, but this, too, happened in strictly secular, almost therapized language rather than with reference to any religious ethic or spiritual advisor.

Less than a year ago, in his Easter message, prime minister declared Britain to be “a Christian country,” insisting: “The church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force doing great works across our country.” Downton, by contrast, gives us precisely a church that is a collection of beautiful old buildings: the rugged, ancient stone behind Mr. Carson was far more evocative than the minister, who said almost nothing even in the wedding scene. It is an accurate reflection of modern England, where 25% of the population said in 2011 that they had no religion at all and a further 5% identified as Muslim, making Islam the second-largest religious group in the country. Two-thirds of marriages are now civil ceremonies rather than religious ones. In 1925, however, things were quite different. Downton’s vicar is missing, but what’s really striking is that, as modern viewers, we’ve hardly missed him at all.


Callum G. Brown. The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000 (London: Routledge, 2001)

Jeffrey Cox, The English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930 (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Clive D. Field, Religion in Great Britain, 1939-99: A Compendium of Gallup Poll Data (BRIN Working Papers on Religious Statistics, No. 2, February 2015)

Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870-1914 (Oxford University Press, 1993)

George Ian Thom Machin, “Parliament, the Church of England, and the Prayer Book Crisis, 1927-1928,” Parliamentary History Vol. 19 (2000): 131-47

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