Our Church during the Middle Ages


No 38: The Last Catholic generation

One of the many surprises from the detailed records of Morebath in Devon a parish which was remarkably similar to Penn, is how actively Catholic they remained in the years from the first break with Rome in 1529, until the Protestant tidal wave of 1547. In that short period, Morebath put up new carved wooden screens for both the chancel and side chapel; installed a new Rood group and Rood beam on which to stand the Rood cross; renewed all the pews using ten local oaks; renewed or rebuilt nearly all the images and tabernacles with painted ‘ceilings of honour’ over them; put in new choir stalls; retiled the whole of the church floor; repaired the bells; the chancel and high altar were re-ordered, whitewashed and re-roofed and re-consecrated by the bishop.

This all represents a staggering investment for a small parish and shows the Catholic Church in its most favourable light as the focus of both religious devotion and community spirit. However, a general visitation of Buckinghamshire in 1519 had revealed a contrasting and melancholy picture of forlorn and unkempt churches and church property. Some graveyards were desecrated by browsing cattle; priests were not always very conscientious, or even fully literate. One was reported as living outside his parish and when he did say mass it was too early in the morning for his parishioners to attend. In Beaconsfield, the rector was non-resident, the rectory house in ruihs and the churchyard not properly enclosed.

Where did Penn fit into this widely contrasting picture? Probably somewhere in the middle, because whilst the visitation made no specific criticisms, it did note that the Vicar was non-resident. He received an annual stipend of £9 (Morebath was £8) and paid £6 of this for a curate, and it seems unlikely that the curate would have inspired the ceaseless activity recorded in Morebath where the Vicar was clearly the leader of his community.

In the last generation before the Reformation, many of the religious houses had deteriorated beyond all measure. The patron of Penn Church was not yet the Penn family – it was still Chacombe Priory in Northants, a small Augustinian priory with an annual income of about £100, mainly from the lands and tithes from four churches, one of which was Penn, which it had been given two centuries earlier (Chacombe Place in Knotty Green is named after the Priory).

The Priory provided the vicar of Penn from amongst its own friars, for more than a century, but then seems to have sold the right of appointment to a third party. An inspection or ‘visitation’ by the Bishop of Lincoln’s Commissioner, on 15 June 1520, found the Priory in a dreadful state.

The Prior had only five brothers under him and he kept all the offices in his own hand offering no account of his expenditure: providing the brothers with inadequate food, drink and heating and making no provision for their illness. Even the Prior was not a graduate and none of the brothers was sufficiently learned or skilled – one was singled out as ‘not expert in grammar’ – they had no pens or writing materials and they were not given any instruction. The Prior was very severe and beat them, on one occasion drawing ‘an effusion of blood’, and they were in trouble if they made any Gomplaint during a visitation.

The strict routine of five daily divine services, one every three hours from 6am (prime, terce, sext, none, vespers) was not followed since the Prior usually kept the brothers waiting so long that one service ran into the other. The brothers did not sit in silence in the refectory as they were supposed to and went out drinking and visiting lay people’s houses. The Prior was enjoined to put all these things right and to recruit more brothers, but he was left in office and ten years later another visitation reported, rather improbably, ‘omnia bene‘, except for repairs needed to the chancel of the Priory church.

Missenden Abbey was another Augustinian foundation with close connections with the Turville and Penne families in the 12th and 13th centuries. One of the Abbots was also rector of Penn and appointed Hugh de Penna as Vicar in 1274. Visitations in 1530 and 1531 revealed a far worse situation even than in Chacombe Priory. The Abbot had been having an affair with the wife of a villager, his sister had been appointed the Abbey’s brewer and her daughter was a woman of ill-repute. One canon had keys to every lock in the Abbey, shared the Abbot’s mistress and went out at night in a doublet and jerkin with a sword at his side. Yet another canon had been found guilty of buggery. The canons were so ignorant of Latin that the Bishop’s injunctions had to be drawn up in ‘our vulgar English tongue’. An unscrupulous bailiff had kept no record of expenditure and brought the Abbey into debt. All the buildings were in need of repair, and every place needing to be preserved from filth and stench. The Abbot was suspended but later restored.

It was this type of visitation report that Henry VIII was able to use to justify dissolving the monasteries and Chacombe Priory was closed in 1535 and the Prior pensioned off.

© Miles Green, December 2005

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