Our Church during the Middle Ages


No 35. Who looked after the altars?

My previous article established that five centuries ago, in the years leading up to the Reformation, Penn Church had at least eight altars, very probably several more, and that bequests of sheep, bees and money were left for their maintenance. So how was all this organised? What was the medieval equivalent of today’s PCC?   Churchwardens’ accounts would be useful, but very few have survived for this period and none for Penn.   However, all is not lost because we still have some useful clues and we have Morebath.

 The Vicar of Morebath , a parish in Devon on the Somerset border, 25 miles north of Exeter, kept meticulous records from 1520 to 1574 and Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath, uses them to provide an unrivalled picture of life in a late medieval parish. Penn and Morebath were remarkably similar: both were 4,000 acres, mainly sheep country, with about 200 inhabitants in scattered farms and hamlets on the edge of a large heath (Wycombe Heath/Exmoor). Their churches were roughly the same size and both had a small Augustinian Priory as their patron. Where evidence from Penn is available it invariably confirms that from Morebath, as we shall see in my next article, and so you can read the following description much as if it were for Penn.

 The lights burning in front of the twelve altars in Morebath Church were maintained by various ‘stores’ or devotional funds provided in various ways – by the return on wool from small flocks of sheep which were literally ‘earmarked’ for that purpose, as well as from church ‘ales’, devotional gatherings, and gifts and bequests such as money, sheep and bees to provide the wax for the lights. Each store, there were eight in Morebath, was maintained by a different group of parishioners who accounted for them every year in detail.

Two Church Wardens, known as High Wardens were elected annually. They had to account for the central funds of the parish, including the surplus from other stores and expenditure on purchases, repairs and projects. They also accounted for the two stores of the side chapel. They were elected together and served for just one year with election travelling in a rota round the farms and cottages of the parish. The head of every household was expected to serve in their turn, the poor as well as the prosperous, even if a widow. On a few occasions, both wardens were women. The junior of the two was responsible for the High Warden’s parish ale, the most important fund raising event of the year.

 The store of Our Lady was the most important in the parish and owned the largest flock of sheep, up to two dozen, each with a distinctive mark cut in its ear. It was managed by its own two wardens and existed to maintain a light in front of the principal image of the Virgin, which was next to the high altar in the chancel, with profits going to other needs of the church. The wool from these sheep, which were all looked after and accounted for, by individual parishioners, produced 30 to 40 shillings every year.

 The Maiden store was run by all the unmarried women of over 12 or so, who elected two of their number as wardens every year with fathers occasionally serving in their place if they were too young or inexperienced. They maintained ‘a taper be fore our Lady and a nother a fore the hye crosse’( ie the Rood) and another before a local female saint. They had no sheep and raised a few shillings from an annual gathering.

The Young Men’s store, consisting of all the bachelors of about fourteen years and above, maintained a taper (candle) before the patronal image of St George (for Penn, it would have been the Trinity) and two more before the Rood. They too elected two wardens every year, with fathers or mothers standing in if necessary, and they raised most of their money, several pounds a year, from an annual ‘ale’.

There were also four smaller stores for the remaining images.

© Miles Green, June 2005