Our Church during the Middle Ages


The Font – Historical background

The font derives its name from the Latin fons, meaning a spring of water and it often provides one of the oldest pieces of evidence for the age of a church because it frequently survived the extensive expansion and re-building of the medieval period. There were good reasons for this.  It could survive because it was not part of the fixed structure;  it would be expensive to replace;  and as we have seen, the importance of baptism as a sacrament meant that parishioners tended to want to keep the font, hallowed by use over generations.

In 1240, in a dispute between Merton Priory and the Turville family, about who had the right to appoint the priest, Penn is referred to by Merton Priory as a capella or chapel of the church at Taplow.[1]  This is significant when considering the font because mother churches jealously guarded their lucrative rights to baptism as well as to burial, marriage and other ceremonies that brought income to the church.  Thus a capella parochialis would usually have neither font, bells nor graveyard.[2]

There is no doubt about Penn’s early status as a chapel of Taplow.  The question is when was it separated from Taplow?   In 1183, Geoffrey de Turville, the Clerk (priest) of Taplow, agreed to pay Missenden Abbey £3 yearly from the revenues of Taplow church.  The agreement was signed in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Hugh, Clerk of Penn, was also present as a witness.  He was described in exactly the same way as Geoffrey de Turville with no suggestion of subordinate status or of any obligation to contribute.[3]
It seems unlikely that a humble curate would be invited to such a prestigious occasion and appears to suggest that Penn was already independent.   A few years later, in 1197, when the Turvilles relinquished their lordship of Taplow to Merton Priory together with the patronage of the church, they specifically added that ‘the vill of La Penne which was said to be a part of Taplow, remained with the Turvilles ‘and the Canons can claim nothing therein.’[4]

Previous articles (Parts 5 to 8) have concluded that there was an earlier wooden church on Church Knoll.  As a chapel, it is unlikely to have had a font.  The lack of a font was not then seen as an unusual difficulty because Rome required baptism to be confined to Easter and Pentecost except in cases of extreme need.  Moreover, in theory, baptism and confirmation were still parts of one rite and so required the presence of the Bishop, necessarily intermittent because Penn came under the Bishop of Lincoln who had to cover a huge diocese.   Papal legates were still trying to enforce this rule well into the 13th C, although the English, believing that the unbaptised child had no hope of heaven, had for centuries obstinately preferred early baptism and this ultimately led to a need for a font in every church.[5]

The absence of any trace of a churchyard at Church Knoll, or of any burials, despite considerable digging of deep foundations in recent years, supports the likelihood that it was a chapel.  In contrast, our present church has the rectangular churchyard of almost exactly one modern acre that was entirely typical of a Norman layout, known throughout the Middle Ages as ‘God’s Acre’.[6]

[1]  Curia Regis Rolls (1240), XVI, 1423
[2]  J.G.Davies, op. cit., pp.57-8
[3] Missenden Cartulary, I, 245
[4] Feet of Fines, 8 Rich I, Case 12
[5] J.G.Davies, op.cit.,p.53.  Even in the 16th C, both sacraments were administered together to both the future Queen Elizabeth and her brother Edward VI
[6] W.Norman Paul, Enjoying old parish churches, I (1994), p.59

© Miles Green, January 2004