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Two hitherto unpublished documents in the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society’s library give both sides of an angry dispute between an earlier Vicar of Penn and the Bishop of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 Dr 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‘.


Rev. Oscar Muspratt, Part.1

Bucks Free Press: 26/8/1988.

The Rev, Oscar Muspratt has been a country churchman for the last 44 years.  His parish is the sleepy village of Penn. A quiet life one may think – seeing to the weddings, baptisms and funerals of his villagers. But behind this genteel façade stretches a life of excitement, heroism and adventure.  Mr Muspratt has climbed mountains, preached in the wilds of Australia, picked pineapples in Queensland and tended the dying at the siege of Malta in World war Two.  Indeed his war service is impeccable.  Mr Muspratt served, often in hazardous conditions, as a chaplain in the army. He was at Dunkirk, El Alamein, and joined the famous 51st Highland Division for the invasion of Sicily and later the D-Day landings in 1944.  After the war, he kept his taste for excitement and the unusual.  He buried the arch-traitor … Maclean … And he conducted the marriage of Capt. Robert Lawrence, the controversial author of the Falklands play Tumbledown. Over the next three weeks, Andrew Neish maps the intriguing life of this fascinating man.  Here is the first instalment tracking the adventurer’s life from Jersey to Australia and the turning point in his life where he devoted his life to God.

THE YOUNG Oscar Muspratt never knew a quiet and cosy childhood. He start­ed life as he meant to go on -with an irresistible taste for adventure.
At the age of only seven he helped his father run a fishing business from their home on the island of Jer­sey. His early years were unortho­dox and, at times, dangerous.  His father Frederic led the way in flouting conventions. He had once been a parson himself but fled to Jersey to escape the tedious restraints of church life. On the grey waters off Jersey, Oscar’s story truly begins ….

“My eldest sister Mona and I would go out on the 30-foot fishing boat that my father had built himself,” he recalls.  “It could be quite dangerous out there. There were conga eels six feet long that could take your hand off with just one snap.  “Sometimes it was so foggy on the water you could hardly see in front of you at all. “We could have been ship­wrecked a number of times especial­ly as the sea hid miles and miles of dangerous rocks.  “But that was the risk we naturally took every day.”

Oscar’s father had no qualms about teaching his young son the finer points of a rugged outdoor life – the hard way.  “My father never pampered us when we learnt new things. He would teach me to swim by dangling me over the side of the boat by a rope – and this was in very deep sea­water”.  These early adventures stood the young Oscar in good stead for his later life as a vicar and an army chaplain.

“I was always dealing with hard­ship as a child. It was during those years that I learnt to face danger. And the fearlessness I needed later on in life developed.” 
The independent life was valu­able in other ways. Oscar would have to lug a heavy basket around houses in the hope of selling the lob­sters his father had caught. “Again this knocking on people’s doors helped me develop this tough­ness and fearlessness I would need later on as a parson.    I would have to talk to all sorts of people I had never met from different backgrounds.  “Mind you – I did look rather sweet in those days, I actually had some hair then! It was a mass of curls and I had bright blue ‘eyes; “This probably helped me make my sales -to the ladies at any rate!”.

Oscar knew the hardships of being short of money and the dangers of a fisherman’s life. But there was laughter and schoolboy pranks as well.  His family were staying in St Helier by the local vicarage while his father and brother Eric were working in America.  “I was great friends with the vicar’s son Victor. We got up to all sorts of mischief,” he says.  “In winter we used to pour buckets of water on the pavement outside the church to make it slip­pery in the hope that people would faH over. But it never seemed to work!”

But the greatest hardship was to come. When Oscar was only eleven, his 19-year-old brother, Freddie, was killed in action in one of the First World War’s bloodiest battles, the Battle of the Somme.  “I was devastated. He was so young. It had a huge effect on me,” remembers Oscar.
But brighter things lay ahead. The family moved to Australia in 1920. A new life … and new chal­lenges.  Brother Eric took over an aunt’s pineapple plantation at Woombye in Queensland. Oscar and sister Mona helped out. The work was tough and ceaseless.  “We toiled morning noon and night, hoeing and weeding, and picking the fruit.  “The weather could be very ad­verse. Sometimes we could have a foot of rain in 24 hours and we would be holed up.”  In that wild mountainous region lurked many dangers – not least from deadly snakes.’ Mr Muspratt says: “There were snakes called Death Adders that used to hide in the long grass. But never seemed to be restricted by such dangers. We would run through the grass with our trouser cuffs rolled up.”

Oscar’s next project was to run a dairy farm near Melbourne with his sis­ter. They looked after 24 cows for 18 months.  Up to this time, Oscar’s education had been sparse and intermittent. But university lay ahead and he had to think of way to earn his fees.  Again the outdoor life beckoned. He harvested wheat in New South Wales and drove a 16-horse transport wagon to the station with ten tons of wheat at a time.  Oscar, found a job as a docker in Mel­bourne when he was 19. The work was tough and dangerous.   “Once I was working in the refriger­ation hold of a ship transporting mut­ton and a carcass came loose from its sling and fell 50 feet, landing right next to me.  If it had been any closer, that would’ve been the end of this story, “The men I worked with were tough But so friendly. I learned a lot about people and life on the docks of Melbourne.”

But Oscar was soon to learn a far more important lesson. He had been studying chemistry and ancient at Melbourne University.   At that time he had thought little of God. He had attended the services of a visiting vicar in the Outback but that was all.  But on a summer job wheat harvesting in New South Wales, he had an acci­dent that would change his life and finally bring him to God.”   He was driving a waggon-load of wheat to the station. The team of horses was startled and he was thrown under the wheels, badly injuring his left leg.  Oscar struggled back on and – despite the severe pain – made his own way to hospital.  He lay there for several weeks while the muscle which had been torn from the bone healed.

Mr Muspratt remembers: “To have agonising pain is an experience of a lifetime.
“Lying there bearing the pain made me realise the pain that Jesus must have felt on the cross. It made me think about my life.   “It was a matter of bearing that pain and sharing it with Him and somehow I felt closer to God.  “But nothing happens in isolation. The accident was only a one of several ‘. factors influencing me.  “After I left hospital I went to a church Christmas service and all the childhood memories of Christmas and associations with the Church came back.  “Also I had been attracted to’ the work of one or two of the preachers at university. Oscar switched to theology at university and went on to offer himself as a missionary in China.   “I wanted to preach but I still wanted adventure,” he remembers. “But the Chinese government closed the country to missionaries and I had to think of something else.”  With the door to China closed to him, Oscar was to use the rich learning experiences of earlier years to preach to the poorest and richest of Melbourne’s Christians.

This new phase in Oscar’s life was to mean, inevitably, new adventures.