Interesting Vicars of Penn

Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw (1679-1744)

Two hitherto unpublished documents in the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society’s library give both sides of an angry dispute between an earlier Vicar of Penn and the Bishop of Lincoln. They throw a revealing light on the fierce religious arguments of the day and show how closely intertwined were church and state and how strongly the bitter memories of the Civil War and the Revolution of 1688 continued to dominate political and religious controversies well into the eighteenth-century, with violence and civil war very close to the surface.

Benjamin Robertshaw was Vicar of Penn from 1716-28 and rector of Amersham from 1728-44.  His memoir, 15 closely written pages, is preserved in the Bucks Archaeological Society’s library in Aylesbury and I quoted from it when writing in the February newsletter about his friend and patron, Roger Penn, the last male heir of the Penn family. It is a well written review of the major events and people in his life, looking back when he was about 60 years old.

He was born, in 1679, near Burnley in Lancashire and was educated by his father who was a schoolmaster. He took a degree at Brasenose College, Oxford and, in 1702, arrived in Amersham to run the Free School there at the invitation of the Rector, Humphry Drake, an earlier graduate of Brasenose. He was ordained two years later and married Mary Salter of Amersham in 1709. He was very hard up and couldn’t find the money to take his degree and he had to hold three jobs at once, deacon at Amersham, curate at Chalfont St Giles as well as continuing to run the school, ‘that arduous business‘, he called it.

An extremely unflattering assessment of Robertshaw’s performance as Vicar of Penn is given in a long three page memorandum from Daniel Baker, a wealthy and well-connected Penn parishioner who lived in a large mansion overlooking the common by Widmer Pond. He was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire when he wrote the memorandum to the Bishop of Lincoln around autumn 1721 (see extract below). Daniel Baker complained that Robertshaw lived in Amersham because of his school; let his vicarage in Penn to a carpenter and shoemaker; neglected his parishioners, never visiting them; hated dissenters, preaching against them and refusing to either register or bury any that had been baptised by Presbyterian ministers whose authority to preach or baptise he refused to recognise because they had not been ordained by a bishop. He was reported to have described dissenters in sermons as, ‘the most turbulent and seditious people in the world and added ‘schismaticers‘ (i.e., all those who had broken away from the Church of England) to the biblical description of those ‘dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolators, and whosover loveth and maketh a lie‘, who were excluded from heaven.

Robertshaw also reportedly refused to pray for King George and took the compulsory oath of fidelity to him only with great reluctance. Furthermore, Daniel Baker accused him of being an overt Jacobite and possibly a Catholic sympathiser who, in 1715, had preached publicly in favour of the Old Pretender. Daniel Baker had no time for Jacobites. In 1715 he had written to his brother-in-law, Lord Fermanagh, ‘You are too much a Protestant and Lover of the Country than to Embarque in any such wicked design, as to bring in the Pretender, which consequently must be to bring in Popery and Slavery with him …. therefore I am the more surprised at this time to find any English gentleman for him ... ‘

A wholly damning indictment apparently, but as we shall see in Part 2, the Rev. Robertshaw saw no shame in such accusations and made no attempt to deny them. In this he was supported by many of the most influential gentry and clergy of his day.

© Miles Green, June 2004


Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw – Part 2

Benjamin Robertshaw was Vicar of Penn from 1716-28 and Rector of Amersham from 1728-44. We heard in Part 1 the extremely unflattering assessment of Robertshaw’s performance as Vicar of Penn from Daniel Baker, who was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire when he wrote a memorandum to the Bishop of Lincoln around autumn 1721.

Daniel Baker’s memorandum clearly had an effect because by March 1722, the Penn Parish Register shows that a curate, John Page, later to be the Vicar, was established in Penn, and by 1724 was improving the Vicarage and churchyard. The Penn register records Robertshaw, from 1703 onwards, periodically signing the affidavits (required by law since 1678 to be signed by a priest or a Justice) that the deceased had been buried in a woollen shroud. Before he became Vicar, he was described in the Register either as Curate of Amersham or Curate of Chalfont St Giles. The paucity of marriages, only 12 in the six years of his incumbency before John Page arrived as Curate, and the absence of the usual notes of any alterations or additions to the church or vicarage, support the charges against him of absence and neglect. Pluralism of this kind, holding several benefices in order to increase income and using poorly paid curates to do the work, was typical of the period and led to some scandalous abuses.

One might have expected to find a robust denial in Robertshaw’s memoir of all the apparently damning accusations against him, but not a bit of it. His own account entirely confirms Daniel Baker’s and makes it clear that Protestant Dissenters and Whigs, or ‘Whigs and infidels’ as described by Robertshaw, were absolutely abhorrent to him and that he was indeed a Jacobite sympathiser. He was a vehement High Church Tory, greatly resenting the Hanoverian George I who had succeeded Anne, the last Stuart sovereign, in 1714. Not only had Robertshaw preached publicly in favour of James Stuart, the Pretender, the Catholic son of James 11, in 1715, he was also chaplain to the Earl of Scarsdale who was arrested as a Jacobite supporter the same year.

His views sound dangerously violent to modern ears, but they were entirely typical of the time and were shared by the majority of country gentry and clergy. High Churchmen identified the Church with the state, regarding dissent from one as like treachery to the other. lan Gilmour maintains that half the nation was probably Jacobite in 1714-15 when even Marlborough and Queen Anne’s former Lord Treasurer took the precaution of sending James a large sum of money. England was there for the taking, despite the widespread fear of the return of Popery, but for Jacobite ineptitude.1  Robertshaw’s sermon in 1715, according to Daniel Baker, was preached ‘before a great many persons of Quality by whom I hear he was well rewarded’. It was the MP for Amersham, Sir Samuel Garrard, a High Tory, who as Mayor of London, in 1709, invited Dr Henry Sacheverell to preach the sermon in St Paul’s, a violent, incoherent harangue, which raised the cry of ‘The Church in Danger’ and led to his impeachment and the worst riots of the century in London until the Gordon riots of 1780. Robertshaw twice refers approvingly in his memoir to Sacheverell’s trial at which he was virtually acquitted, and his own sermons reflected the same extreme views.

© Miles Green, August 2004

1 Ian Gilmour, Riot, Risings and Revolution, Governance and Violence in Eighteenth-Century England, Pimlico (1993), Ch. 1-3, provided good background for this period.


Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw – Part 3

Vicar of Penn 1716-28; Rector of Amersham 1728-44

We have seen from Parts 1 & 2 that our former vicar was a vehement High Church Tory who despised Whigs and abhorred Protestant Dissenters, describing them as ‘infidels’ certain to be excluded from heaven. Daniel Baker, his most influential parishioner and a leading Whig, was High Sheriff of the county when he wrote a memorandum of complaint about Robertshaw to the Bishop of Lincoln, setting out all his many faults, including his absence from Penn, his Jacobite sympathies and his hatred of dissenters.

The memorandum led to a furious argument between Robertshaw and his bishop. Robertshaw’s own account makes it clear that the most serious charge against him was ‘my refusing to bury a Presbyterian’s child, sprinkled in their unauthorised way, in my Parish at Penn.’ He wrote, ‘About the year 1721 I was so unfortunate as to fall under the displeasure of my Diocesan … Upon my absolute refusal (to bury the child), the Parents never brought it to the Church Yard at Penn ; but carried it to Wycombe, where it was buried, by one who I suppose would have given X­ian burial even to Pontius Pilate himself, provided he had but in his life-time, used to cry King George for ever. Mr Daniel Baker, a silly but zealous Justice of the Peace in my Parish, officiously complained of me for this to the Bishop. And the Bishop who was then eagerly pursuing Court favour (Bishop Gibson later became Bishop of London): wrote me a very angry letter; & told me such a step tended to make K. G. himself looked on as no Christian: … I answered him; that I thought my business was to find out and & pursue truth & not to regard consequences … & if indeed the case was so, as his lordship represented, I should not alter the Cap, but e’en let it be worn, by all whom it fitted. Upon this he was highly provoked, we at once plunged pretty far into the Controversy about Lay-Baptism, etc …. & in short, I gave him as little quarter as common decency towards a Superior, would admit of …. The truth is, I did use him, as I found he deserved …. He threatened to punish me … I, who knew that an Action would not lie, (meerly because they had neglected to bring the Corps to the Church yard, & there offer it for burial), answered him pertly enough.

However at length the matter drop’t; but not without his making me promise never again to refuse burying such a person; which I was obliged to comply with, or quit my School & go to live at Penn, as he enjoined me. But I never did bury any such …. easie to get that done by some other Clergyman, who would bury all the non-Cons in the country …. with this their mitred Patron into the bargain, for half a Crown.’

Robertshaw went on to report with relish that not long afterwards, three of the Bishop’s own grandchildren were baptised by a man falsely claiming to be an ordained clergyman & ‘notwithstanding his above pretences to me‘, the Bishop had them re-baptised. He added, ‘I had the pleasure afterwards, to see this very Bishop in disgrace at Court, amongst his own Clan.

© Miles Green, October 2004


Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw – Part 4

Vicar of Penn 1716-28; Rector of Amersham 1728-44

In 1721, only a few months after his furious argument with his bishop about his refusal to bury a ‘non-Con’ (a non-conformist, in this case a Presbyterian child), Benjamin Robertshaw records in his memoir that he became Curate at Amersham for the Rector, Or Brydges, whilst staying as vicar of Penn, ‘which I did against the Bishop’s will‘, using the licence he already held as Deacon at Amersham. 1 The Bishop did not recall the licence, in part because he knew that Robertshaw was also chaplain to the Earl of Scarsdale, ‘of whom he stood in some kind of awe‘. Or Brydges was also Archdeacon of Rochester, presumably appointed by Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester, who was an ardent Jacobite, banished in 1722 for his plotting to restore the Stuarts.  Robertshaw also had a powerful ally in Roger Penn, the lord of the Manor and his Patron, a near contemporary at Oxford and, judging from Robertshaw’s memoir, a good friend, sharing a common view.

Robertshaw was well-educated, his memoirs include the occasional classical quotation, and he was clearly popular in High Tory circles. His uncompromising certainties probably made him a powerful preacher – ‘First find out the Will of God, in any point of duty, & learn what is right & true, (for truth is always but one thing & so easier to be found, whereas Error is various and endless).’ His final verdict on his quarrel with the Bishop was : ‘God forgive all that was amiss in this controversy, either in the Bishop, or me; I was perhaps too warm: But I am sure I meant well; & spoke nothing but my real sentiments, in a stile natural, free, & unguarded; tho’ if I had thought more, to be sure I had writ less. ‘

The Old Rectory, Amersham

Much of his memoir deals with Amersham and his relationships with the Drake family. He included an account of the ‘Honourable Family of my best friend & Patron Montagu Garrard Drake’ and refers to Queen Elizabeth’s stay at Shardeloes. He was bequeathed £700, as Rector of Amersham, with which he bought Stock Place Manor and Farm to provide him and his successors with about £20 pa additional income. He also built a lovely seven bedroom Georgian Parsonage House and moved into it from the town in 1736. It is now known as The Old Rectory and is currently on the market for £3 million (2004). He rebuilt an old house in the town, at his own expense of £220, for the Schoolmaster of the Grammar School founded by Or Challoner.

His memoir brings home how closely intertwined were church and state and     how strongly the bitter memories of the Civil War and the Revolution of 1688 continued to dominate political and religious controversies well into     the eighteenth-century with violence and civil war very close to the surface. He described Whig Justices, to whom he preached an Assize sermon at Aylesbury in 1707, as talking bitterly against Monarchy and Episcopacy and told of one ‘whose sullen inexorable temper makes even his mercies to be cruel‘. He later met and argued with this same Justice at a friend’s house in Amersham and remembered, ‘I so far ruffled the hot and heavy lawyer, that he was put quite off his guard and let fall some rude, illbred expressions or reflections upon Queen Anne‘, with the result that their hostess ‘never afterwards admitted him into her house. He saw ‘Whigs and infidels’ who took their arguments from Reason rather than Revelation, as the successors to the Puritan Preachers of Elizabeth’s reign, who had ‘such a malignancy towards     Monarchy and Episcopacy … as have     proved highly pernicious to great Britain in general; & are so still‘.

© Miles Green, December 2004

1 Dr. Brydges was later advised to go to Bath for his health and Robertshaw observed ‘whither the London Physicians commonly send their Patients to be out ofthe way, when they can get neither more money nor reputation, by attending them at home.’

Continued in ‘Monuments and Memorials‘.