It is very rare to know who built a new church, as we do for High Wycombe. In William of Malmesbury’s almost contemporary biography of Wulfstan, the last surviving Anglo-Saxon bishop who died in 1095, he records Wulfstan’s visit to consecrate a new church at Wycombe, built at his own expense by a certain Swertlin, ‘blessed with great riches‘.
Because Swertlin had provided the money and land needed to build the church and provide an income for the priest, he was its proprietor. He owned it as a property and could do what he liked with it.
He received the tithes or tenth part of the output of every family and could decide how much he would give the priest. If he appointed a rector then all the tithes would go to the rector, whereas a vicar (vicarius or substitute) would get only the lesser tithes on farming produce such as milk, cheese, vegetables, fish, wild fowl, eggs and locally made goods, all of which were much more difficult to assess and naturally led to endless disputes. The proprietor would then keep the great tithes paid in corn and hay and so relatively easy to assess and collect. Penn had rectors in the late Middle Ages but has had vicars since. In either case the priest could be assigned some land to farm to provide his basic livelihood.
In 1372, we see Segrave Manor paying the tithe of a lamb, a gosling, and a share of the proceeds of a sale of wool fleeces.
A church was thus a valuable property and was bought and sold as such. Indeed King Ethelred felt obliged to introduce a law code in c.1008 to forbid ‘men trading in churches as with mills’.
In 1291, a tax imposed by Pope Nicholas was based on the assessed value of each church. Penn was valued at £13. 6. 8d and Taplow at exactly half this. Amersham stood out at £40 and may have been a ‘mother’ church to its immediate area at some stage. There is a record of medieval Whitsuntide processions from Chesham to Amersham which suggests a superior status for Amersham.
The advowson or patronage, the right to appoint the priest, could be, and often was, held separately from the ownership of the church and lands. Disputes about both were frequent and legal arguments sometimes dragged on over centuries. Soon after 1231, the Turville overlords gave the advowson of Penn to Chalcombe Priory in Northamptonshire but in 1240 the Prior of Merton in Surrey was claiming in the King’s Court that he was being unjustly prevented by Chalcombe and the Turvilles from appointing a suitable person to ‘the church of Taplow with its Chapel of La Penne’, Merton won that round but Missenden Abbey successfully entered the field and one of the de la Penne family was appointed vicar of Penn by the Abbot in 1274.
Chalcombe Priory had apparently regained the advowson by 1302 when the Prior appointed a new rector, but not the proprietorship despite obtaining a royal licence in 1326 a royal charter from the new king (Edward III) in 1328. It was not until the Prior appealed over the Bishop’s head to Rome, in 1344, that Chalcombe was finally confirmed as proprietor and appointed the rector for the next two centuries until the dissolution of the priory in 1539
© Miles Green, August 1997