Our Church during the Middle Ages

No 9: Links with Taplow

In 1240, Merton Priory in Surrey claimed the right to appoint a suitable person to the church of Taplow with its chapel of ‘la Penne.’ How could Penn be described as a chapel of Taplow?

I noted in an earlier article that Penn does not appear in Domesday Book because it was included with Taplow and paid taxes through the manor house there. The Taplow link is confirmed by a legal agreement in 1199 which reveals that William de Penne was obliged to convey his lord’s hay From Taplow to Penn.

There are good reasons to suppose that the manorial link between Penn and Taplow is likely to have been dictated by the military need before the Conquest to defend a crossing point on the Thames. Penn provided both armed men for a fort on an island at Hedsor and a beacon and look-out point on Beacon Hill.

Meanwhile, it is truly surprising to discover that this administrative and military link remained intact for over 500 years after the Conquest. In 1552, tax lists were still headed ‘Taplow with Penn’ and the two parishes were jointly required to provide harness for one soldier. As late as 1590, just after the Armada, the vicars of Penn and Hitcham (Taplow and Hitcham churches were united in 1517) were jointly required to equip a man with a culiver or harquebus (an early handgun) to defend against a Spanish lnvasion.

At the time of the Conquest, Taplow had about 500 acres under plough, whereas Penn had nearly 1500 acres, and later tax returns show that Penn consistently had more taxpayers and paid more tax. However, Taplow was more valuable to the de Turvilles, the lords of both Taplow and Penn, because their manor house and lands were mainly in Taplow.

In 1197, this manorial link was broken when William de Turville and his wife granted their lands in Taplow and the patronage of the church there, to Merton Priory, but added ‘Be it known also that the whole vill of La Penne which was called a member of Tapelawe ….. remains to William and his heirs and the canons shall claim nothing in it.’

© Miles Green, June 1997


No 10: Tithes, Taxes, Chalcombe Priory

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


No 11: Church enlargement; Windows, the Nave

Penn is typical of almost all old parish churches in that it grew steadily during the centuries following the Norman Conquest in order to accommodate a growing population and a more elaborate ritual, as well as in response to developing architectural techniques and fashion. We would not recognise the very simple 12th century church, probably consisting only of a small nave (Latin, navis, a ship, from its shape) and chancel, which were to be radically enlarged and rebuilt by almost every succeeding generation. There was no antiquarian prejudice in those days to preserve the older church intact.

No recorded details of the many changes to the fabric of the church have survived from the Middle Ages, although changes of ownership, discussed in earlier articles, sometimes offer us promising benchmarks.

The flint and clunch of which the walls are built do not offer any clues as to their age, but the shape and design of the windows and doors tell us (roughly) when they themselves were put into the wall, always bearing in mind that styles overlapped by a generation or two and that windows and doors came and went in the same wall. The north wall of the nave illustrates this very well. The nine windows that you can see as you approach the porch from the lychgate are of five different periods and four of these windows were found, blocked up, (two still are) when the roughcast was taken off the outside of the walls, in 1951.

There was a very effective renovation and inspection of the church in 1951, master-minded by the Rev. Oscar Muspratt and carried out with care and skill by Frank Perfect & Son. Mr Muspratt must take great credit for ensuring that the work was carefully monitored by experts at every stage and has consequently added enormously to our knowledge of how the church developed.

The Nave. – We have already noted (part 2) that Dr Clive Rouse was able to assign the yellow mortar used in the north wall of the nave, to the 12th century and that this ties in with the date of 1177 reportedly seen on a foundation stone under the chancel. Interestingly, 1177 also ties in with the very start of the Early English phase of church architecture when the Gothic pointed arches started to replace the earlier Norman or Romanesque round headed arches, in small churches, following the example of the Canterbury Cathedral choir.

© Miles Green, October 1997


No 12: The Nave (cont’d); The Tower

The nave interior was revealed when the peeling distemper was removed by steam cleaning in 1951. Three fine consecration crosses were found on the south and west walls, notable for their unusual elaboration and for the fact that they were all different. Dr Clive Rouse dated them confidently to the 13th century by the pigment used and by the method of scribing. There would typically have been 12 crosses on the inside walls with a further 12 outside, now lost to erosion. These crosses indicate a reconsecration by the Bishop of Lincoln after a major change to the church, apparently by leaving the north wall standing and pushing out the south wall. The north wall is about 30 inches wide, noticeably thicker than the south.

The oldest surviving window in the nave is the wide lancet, close to and east of the north porch, partly covered by a later buttress, which was revealed in 1951 and is supposed to be early 14th century.

An 18th century print (LG.Jenkins, History of Penn, opposite p.138) shows this window close to a double lancet of similar appearance, (parts of which can still be seen), but since blocked in and replaced (probably in the Victorian restoration of 1863) to match the lower, c.1500, double window on the other side of the porch.

The Tower.- According to the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments (R.CH.M., 1912), the tower was built early in the 14th century. This judgement was based on the style of the lancet-pointed arch between the tower and the nave and the badly deteriorated lancet window immediately above the external west door. Penn roof tiles (not Roman tiles as so often supposed), were used to divide the courses of flint, at the same time achieving an attractive decorative effect. The suggested date for the tower also ties in with Chalcombe Priory’s confirmation as proprietor by royal licence (1326) and charter (1328).

Major repairs were carried out in 1903 when the tower was cracked from top to bottom on two sides. The parapet was rebuilt and new windows put in (except for the lancet).

© Miles Green, December 1997.