Our Church during the Middle Ages


No 36. The Six Men of Penn

W e saw in the previous article that all the inhabitants of Morebath in Devon, a parish remarkably similar to Penn, were directly and actively involved in the life of the church. The head of every household, rich or poor, male or female, served for a year as one of the two churchwardens, with the rota travelling methodically around the parish. In anyone year, twelve parishioners held office of some kind, including women and teenagers. Sheep were the basis of the economy and two thirds or more of the households looked after at least one of the church sheep, a parochial obligation that if refused, and it seldom was, resulted in a fine of 3d or 4d. One family looked after the church bees. It was an unexpectedly democratic society. Decisions were reached by consensus rather than by majority and great efforts were made to overcome objections even by the poorer parishioners.

We can reasonably assume that it was much the same in Penn, where the evidence, although much sparser, nonetheless invariably confirms the same picture.

For instance:
The importance of sheep in Penn, is confirmed by wills . Thomas Alday’s only bequests in 1505 were one sheep to each of his five older children, with a lamb to his youngest daughter. William Grove, in 1513, bequeathed ‘unto the rode Iyght of Penne 1 shepe‘, ‘to the trinite 1 shepe‘. Nicholas Asshwell left no sheep to the church but two sheep and a bullock were his only bequests to both his son and daughter, and he left a sheep to three other beneficiaries.

A swarm of bees was bequeathed by Thomas Alday for the sepulchre light of Penn in 1505.

Penn also had two churchwardens, who were named, in 1520, as John Grove and Roger Playter. The 1522 Muster Return shows that Roger Playter held no land at that time and John Grove only a modest holding. This fits the Morebath model as does the reasonably close neighbourly placing of the two men on the 1524 and 1546 tax returns.

The most important parishioners in Morebath were a small group of the more senior and most prosperous, who were elected for as long as they were willing to serve, to act, in effect, as bankers for the parish. They were separate from the two churchwardens and held any surplus money from the church stores and provided financial continuity and stability. They met extraordinary demands for money imposed by the manorial or Hundred Courts, setting parish tax levies afterwards to recoup their outlay. The number varied from three to six, and they are referred to in the records accordingly as the ‘Three Men’ , ‘Four Men’ etc. Together with the Vicar and occasionally under the chairmanship of the Lord of the Manor or his Steward, they helped resolve parish disputes. They also appeared at Visitations by the Bishop or by royal Commissioners.

They became even more important after the radical Protestant reforms, following Edward VI’s accession in 1547, removed the whole basis of the parish’s traditional methods of raising and administering money for the church. The Six Men took over the effective financial management of the parish. We catch a glimpse of a similar Six Men system in Penn in the pivotal moment of the inventory and sale of the remaining Catholic church goods, which was drawn up in 1552. The inventory notes that ‘there is solde by the consentes of Richard Bovington, John Grove, John Bovington, John Balam, Thomas Robertes, Richard Wright and the churche wardens

Contemporary tax returns and wills show that the first four named were the most prosperous in the parish after the gentry families of the Pennes and Puttenhams and Ugnalls, who were not apparently required to take on these parish responsibilities. The Groves of Stonehouse and the Bovingtons of Glory Farm continued to be prominent in the parish for centuries afterwards. Thomas Robertes was also prosperous and Richard Wright was described as a yeoman in his will of 1556.

Miles Green August – September 2005

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