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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2000

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2000 Contents

Archdeaconry records and the family historian

Joan Dils

On 31st January 1569, the Archdeacon of Berkshire, Thomas White, was holding his court at St. Helen's Church, Abingdon. The case before him concerned a middle-aged lady with a problem. Her new married name was Anne Barber but she was previously Widow Bradshaw, her husband, Thomas having died well over a year before. She had married Thomas as the supposed widow of John Fitzherbert, gent., whose wife she had been for almost twenty years and who had fathered her five children 'of which 4 be not alive'.1 He had gone overseas about 1553 and fourteen years later she had word from another traveller that he had died in Antwerp, hence her two subsequent marriages. However she had recently heard rumours that he was alive, and moreover some witnesses came to the court saying they had seen him. To whom was she now validly married?

The Archdeacon, or his Official, usually had less problematic work. He was the 'eye' of the bishop and often had legal qualifications since much of his work involved matters of church law. Every diocese had its archdeacons, supervising sub-divisions of the diocese, archdeaconries, so helping the bishop to administer and control his flock. The Salisbury Diocese had two, Wiltshire and Berkshire, each roughly co-terminous with the county, though excluding areas of peculiar jurisdiction. At courts held in large centres round his territory every few weeks, and at his annual visitations, the Archdeacon dealt with such non-contentious matters as the probate of wills and the granting of licences for schoolmasters, midwives and for marriage without banns.2 He also judged those accused of offences against church law: non-attendance at church, deviation from the prescribed order of church services, non-payment of tithes, libel and a range of sexual misdemeanours including premarital sex, irregular marriages and adultery. It is these latter cases which have earned the archdeacon's court the name of 'bawdy court', an inappropriate title, as sexual immorality comprised a small proportion of his work. He could order convicted offenders to do penance or, as the ultimate penalty, excommunicate them. Many offenders were reported to the court by churchwardens, sometimes as the result of a set of questions sent to them in advance of a visitation. The questions would include the state of the church, the service books, bible and sacred vessels but also the spiritual and moral behaviour of the incumbent and parishioners. Any matters dealt with because of this process were called office cases. Others, called instance cases, were brought by individuals complaining of libel by neighbours, unfair treatment in a will, breach of promise bv one partner in an irregular marriage or adultery by a spouse. Ve brief summaries of the cases and the archdeacon's judgements were recorded, in abbreviated Latin in volumes called Act Books. They are very difficult to use without a good knowledge of Latin, secretary hand and court procedure.3

Illustration - line drawing of people at table

In some instance cases the evidence of witnesses for both parties was recorded in the form of written answers (depositions) to written questions. There are also a few examples of personal statements made by defendants summoned to answer charges made against them. The evidence is in documents called Deposition Books, of which six survive for Berkshire between 1558 and 1620.4 The depositions themselves are in English (though the rest of the court's business was in Latin) and are perhaps the most interesting of the archdeaconry records for the family historian.

Though they are not easy to read - the clerks wrote quickly in an inelegant secretary hand - the search can be rewarding. They are unlikely to yield details of individual family history since very few people ever went to court and the records (unindexed) cover whole counties, but they are a mine of information about the way of life of our Tudor and Stuart ancestors.5

Before giving their version of the events in dispute, witnesses had

"He utter'd not one word of truth,
but with delusions led me on,
And cropt the rose-bud of my youth,
so that my splendid glory's gone:
My wounded heart no one can heal,
Too soon I left my spinning-wheel.

Illustration - line drawing of couple on bed

"I am a damsel now defil'd,
and am exposed to open shame,
For here I find myself with child,
and have no father for the same.
My very tears do's grief reveal,
Too soon I left my spinning-wheel.

to provide, as proof of their fitness to appear, a truncated autobiography (duly translated into Latin by the clerk before he wrote it down); this was customary in church courts and in civil courts too. A typical example in Berkshire is that of Thomas Macall, thirty years old, born in Cholsey, who then worked in Dorchester and Wallingford and in 1598 was living in Sutton Courtenay, about nine miles from his birthplace; or Thomas Fry of Abingdon, born there twenty years before but who had spent three years in London.

What is striking about many of these very incomplete life histories is that two-thirds of village witnesses and three-quarters of town dwellers had left their birthplaces either temporarily or permanently. Berkshire people were not unusual in this; studies of church and quarter sessions courts from many other counties show very similar results.6

Most people only moved a short distance, usually within a ten-mile radius, to take up an apprenticeship, to marry or to find work. At the age of 76, Roger Taylor was a husbandman in Greenham where he had spent sixteen years. Born at Bishopstone in Wiltshire he had worked in Speen for nineteen years, Sandleford for ten and Donnington for three. Women were just as mobile, often leaving home as teenagers to work as farm servants. Evidence from hamlets in the large parish of Shrivenham illustrates this very well. In 1571 Margaret Wise, aged nineteen, had been working in Longcot for two years, before which she was at Goosey, before that at Garsington, Oxfordshire, though she was born at Highworth, a small Wiltshire market town about four miles away from Shrivenham. Joan Smith had been in Bour-ton for about eight years, possibly working for Edmund and Edith Dawbram, though the two previous years were spent in the town of Wantage to which she travelled from her home at Charney Bassett at the age of sixteen. Somewhat older was Juliana Buckland, aged thirty, who had come to Shrivenham from her birthplace at Wroughton, Wiltshire about 1582; she stayed for the next twenty years.

Others travelled long distances. Thomas Purcell from Winkfield was a Salopian who had spent eight years in London, continued to practise there as a lawyer in the Court of King's Bench, and had friends in Reading; Walter Bateman, a wealthy clothier of Reading, was born in Kendall in the Lake District; Simon Painton, a teenager working in Warfield, had come from Worcester.

The evidence witnesses gave can be interesting but more so are the details of daily life which were the context in which they described events relevant to the case. Many incidents happened at home. The rooms of the Tudor and Stuart house are familiar from wills and probate inventories; depositions describe how they were used. The fireside in the hall was the place to sit and chat with family, friends and neighbours like those who on a September Sunday in 1567 went to visit Catherine Bradstock of Abingdon who was expecting a baby soon. Friends invited to dinner or supper would eat in the hall with the family and sometimes watch the meal being prepared if there was no kitchen.

There was little privacy for anyone. Few people had a bedroom, or

Illustration - line drawing of people at harvest

even a bed of their own. Servants (including dairy maids and farm workers) shared beds as a matter of course, frequently referring to each other as 'bedfellows'. Occasionally a maidservant might share a room with her mistress if the master was away, as did Elizabeth Coles employed by Margaret Champion of Reading. Even when young folk might assume they were alone for some discreet courtship, they were often overlooked; Thomas Roberts sent the family servant, Margaret, out of the hall to give him time with his sweetheart, Joan Bennet, in her father's house in Newbury in 1565, but Margaret 'conveyed herself privily to a little house thereby and did hear their talk'.

Houses in town and country had their long gardens, quaintly called 'backsides'. Here poultry and pigs were kept and vegetables grown, but occasionally important events such as formal betrothals took place in this semi-public setting; John Ene and Alice Keate were betrothed in the backside of Richard Keate's house in Harwell in February 1560.

Houses of craftsmen in towns and of yeomen and husbandmen in villages were workplaces and lodgings for employees as well as homes for the master and his family. Work was, in sociological terms, 'gender-related' and for both men and women was physically demanding. Women milked the cows in the fields, having a good gossip on the way, scrubbed dirty clothes and tended the garden; men worked in the fields or the workshop, coming home for meals which were sometimes rather meagre. William Lowe of Hampstead Marshall found only 'a cupple of eggs and a messe of milke' for his supper in 1617. Hours were long yet there was always 'time to stand and stare' since machines and the clock did not yet control the pace of work: Richard Bowen left his tailor's loft in Reading in 1557 to listen to a quarrel in the street outside.

Leisure activities were often simple and traditional: bowls or football on the common, a visit to an alehouse, a meal with friends. More elaborate events involving all or some of the community persisted despite the Reformation: beating the bounds as at Newbury in Rogation Week; summer festivals like the one at Wasing or Milton in 1590 when the young people chose a 'whitson lord' or a 'summer lady' to preside over their supper and celebrations in the church house, and of course weddings when the whole village joined in the festivities. Not all weddings were formal affairs in church, solemnised by a clergyman, much as the church tried to insist on it; the old tradition of handfasting still survived but how frequently is impossible to say since only where things went wrong did the case come before the courts. The essential elements of the ceremony were the exchange of vows and the giving of tokens. In 1570 on the Sunday before St. Mark's Day (23 April) in the kitchen of his house, John Ridge claimed that he and Margaret Bourne had exchanged vows saying, 'I, John Ridge, do take you, Margaret, to wife' and she said the same, 'then gave either of them faith and troth and drew hands and kissed and in token of the same he gave her a ring which she put on her finger in the right hand.' If this were true and the union consummated, then they were validly, if irregularly, married. However the wording had to be in the present tense and unconditional or there was no marriage. In this case Margaret refuted John's version of events and both brought witnesses to support their respective cases. It is easy to see how handfasting could make for endless arguments if one party decided to end the relationship, and why the authorities frowned on the practice.

Of family life after the wedding the church court records give a very jaundiced view, similar to that in lurid press reports of marriage breakup today. Occasionally we glimpse what were probably normal family relations: a husband and wife working together in his carrier's business at Abingdon, or Mistress Gastrell and her husband running their farm at East Garston and only quarrelling with the vicar about the tithe pig. Most family problems were probably sorted out between themselves. When they weren't, the community, and as a last resort the courts were called on. Some married people, men and women, were unfaithful such as Joan Godwin of Tilehurst who was caught by her husband in bed with one of their lodgers, Francis Headache, a carpenter, working on a new house for Sir Peter Vanlore. Some wives were assaulted by their husbands, so badly that they needed medical attention: Robert Blake beat his wife, Joan, throughout the three years of their marriage, on one occasion so severely that the wound needed dressing with sugar 'to stay the blood'. Others were deserted. A few were over-domineering, refusing the accepted role of the obedient, submissive wife. Witnesses said that Eleanor Pincke of Milton slept upstairs and her husband, Edmund, downstairs. He was, they said, 'all togeather overruled by his wiffe', who, to add to her sins, was having an affair with William Coome. If matters reached crisis point, one spouse might ask for a separation 'a thoro et mensa' (from bed and table) as did John Keate who claimed his wife, Dorothy, had committed adultery in his own house and whom he suspected of plotting to kill him. In all such cases the court would attempt to restore traditional marital relations, though we can beg leave to question how long any reconciliation might last.

Other family arguments might occur over the content of wills, the probate of which was granted by the archdeacon. Sometimes the witnesses' evidence throws light on will-making. On a Sunday morning in September 1572 John Tesdale 'lay upon his bed in a chamber called the Crosse Chamber in the New Inne at Abingdon' surrounded by family and friends. He was obviously dying and was persuaded to make his will. It was written by a friend, Richard Bostock, on a 'table sitting on a forme...... by his bedde side .... first he wrote one half and read that to hym [John Tesdale] then wrote the rest and so read the whole to hym and then he conformed hit'. Having several witnesses to a will might be important if it were challenged; in this case those present confirmed Richard Bostock's account, adding a few details of particular concern to themselves.

Such confirmation was even more important in the case of a nuncupative will, often written down from memory after the testator's death, or when he was so sick as to be incapable of even putting his mark to it. John Robbin's relations challenged his will in which he gave all his goods to Richard West of Abingdon with whose family he was living. The will was written by a scrivener the day after he died, Ralph Wise, who had also read some prayers by the bedside. In such a situation, it was vital for the beneficiary to be able to call on well-regarded citizens to vouch that Robbins ,spoke sensibly' and did not want to give anything to his kindred.

The everyday speech of ordinary folk is one of the most interesting aspects of depositions. Time was not always reckoned by the clock but by activities: 'a little before milking tyme at nyght'; 'at candle- tendinge' time; 'before the last change of the moon before Michaelmas in the afternoon between dinner and evensong'. Two young folk were said to have spent the whole night 'until the grey morninge alone together in the milkinge house'. Distances were expressed by using familiar objects: the night was so dark that lone might diseerne and know a man from a nother a quayts [quoit'sl cast from him; 'he was so nere them that he could have cut of a peace of his coate'. A word which frequently occurs is ,cuckoo', used when a man was being cuckolded by an unfaithful wife. As Alice Bennet of Reading put it to Joan Forster's husband in 1592, 'You are come out of the wood. I think it is more and tyme for it is cuckowe tyme, and the cuckoo is very loud'. Instead of words some neighbours used actions, such as putting up a pair of horns over the door of a house where they suspected someone of adultery.

Much of the landscape and way of life which gave rise to these expressions and actions has long since disappeared. Such records as deposition books allow us to recapture a small fraction of this lost world.

1 All the examples quoted in this article come from the Archdeaconry of Berkshire Deposition Books (Berkshire Record Office (D/ A2/c 40,46,61,153-5). Detailed references will not be given.

2 For more details about the courts, though in another diocese, see R. Houlbrooke, Church courts and the people during the English Reformation 1520-1570, (1979), and for details of cases see M. Ingram, Church courts, sex and marriage in England 1570-1640 (1987)

3 A useful introduction to the Act Books is E.R. Brinkworth, 'The study and use of the archdeacons' court records: illustrated from the Oxford Records' in Trans. of Royal Hist. Soc. 4th series 25 (1943)

4 In the Berkshire Archdeacon the answers alone have survived for a few years in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

5 Some of the deposition books for the diocese of Oxfordshire have been calendared by J. Howard-Drake and published by Oxfordshire County Council.

6 See, for example, P. Clark, 'Migration in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries'in Past and Present 83 (1979)


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updated 20th June 2001