Church Courts

  • 20 Feb 2023
  • Crime and Legal
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The Church Courts exercised great power over rural life until 1860. They dealt not only with church affairs, but with matters affecting the whole life - marriage, -slander, drunkenness, schools, witchcraft, trading on Sundays and failing to observe Holy Days. Offenders were brought to the notice of the Church Court by a presentment made by the churchwarden, and the Court possessed the power of enforcement.

Avast quantity of presentments for the Diocese of Worcester are in the Worcester Hive. A few excerpts show what a valuable insight they give to daily life of past generations. Referring to the church fabric , the churchwardens of Dodderhill reported in 1662, 'that part of our church which re-built, the whole was burnt in the time of the rebellion, is kept in good repair decent and in order'. At Madresfield in the same year, the presentment read: 'One of our bells was taken by the soldiers of the ... garrison and broken and rendered non-serviceable, and therefore sold to repair the church'.

Very occasionally a presentment was made critical of the minister. From Croome dAbitot in 1738, the Revd. Bryan Harding and Ann Matthews were presented for a 'fame', or rumour of immoral conduct . At Defford in 1687 the minister was presented as 'a man of an ill exemplary life and such given to swearing and often debauched with much drinking'. And in the same parish in 1798, the curate, Robert Griffiths, was presented 'for being several times drunk in a common ale house at an unseasonable time of the night'.

From Berrow comes a sad tale of 'deficiencies' attributed to lack of ministry:

'The fault is not in us but in our minister for he has not been in our church this seven weeks, neither do we know when he will and our parish is much dissatisfied at it...   Now he is gone again and did not take care for any other minister. And we had a dead corpse to be buried and nobody to bury her. We had a corpse lie in our church all night and have been forced to have a minister out of another county'.

Such complaints however were rare. Most presentments were as at Hanbury in 1712:

'Our Minister is an ingenious and learned and sober man and such as will make himself and his parishioners happy... We hope that he has a competent allowance and wish and pray that he may live long to enjoy the same'.

Among the presentments are complaints regarding parishioners. For mis-behaviour in church at Claine's in 1697, John Randall and James Ford, Junr, were presented for breaking into the church and 'for ring-ing and jangling the bells... the said Randall laying hands upon the clerk's wife, taking her fast by the throat and threatening that he would kill her if she should tell that she saw them in church'.

In the same year, 1697, from Churchill, Richard Horniblow is presented: 'For profaning the Lord's day in following the unjustfiable recreation of fishing ...I do likewise present him for his most abominable, most unseemly and unchristian like behavour towards me in that when, according to my duty, l privately reproved him for the above mentioned crime... Instead of a Christian like submission he broke forth into bitter, spiteful expressions, saying he cared not a fart for me and scornfully saying -- do your worst. Yet in 1705, Richard Horniblow signs the presentments as churchwarden.

There were many presentments for bastardy and adultery, and from Ipsley, in 1664, comes the form and procedure of penanace.

'The said (penitent) shall come into church aforesaid at the hearing of the first lesson at Morning Prayer arrayed in a white sheet over her wearing apparel, holding a candle... and ... a white rod of an ell long in her hand and shall be placed in some eminent place near the ministers reading desk where she shall continue the time of Divine Service and Sermon and after the reading of the second lesson she shall make her humble confession unto Almighty God saying after the Minister as Followeth...'

Then comes the words of the penance. By the 18th century the authority of the Church Courts began to wane, and the penalties held less terror. At Leigh in 1701, Elizabeth Pudge of Hanbury, had been 'publishing and solemnly and frequently declaring that she hath been guilty of adultery with several persons...'

From Kidderminster in 1705, 'Mary, wife of Samuel Robinson, for taking away the good name and scandalizing the late churchwarden for doing his office to her daughter Margaret who was in child and sent to Worcester the place of her last legal settlement'.

The above is from Canon J.S.Leatherborrow's 'Churchwardens' Presentments in the Diocese of Worcester, c.1660-1760. Worc Historical Society, 1977