From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 24
May - June 1983
Curbing Lust In Lenton : The Archdeaconary Records of the 1590s
A group of amateur local historians under the auspices of Nottingham WEA and the University Centre for Local History Studies have been studying the Act Books of the Court of the Archdeacon of Nottingham in late Tudor times. The original texts had been copied out into modern script by a certain Mr. Hodgkinson back in the 1920s, but such is their complexity that the group has so far managed to examine just twenty years of court activities. One of the group, Julia Neville, decided to look out for court cases with a Lenton connection. Given the opportunity to provide our readers with a glimpse of the lives of ordinary, if erring, Lenton parishioners in Tudor times, we have adapted her account (*) for local consumption.
Church courts administering church law existed side by side with state courts administering the King's Law. Parishioners could be commanded to appear in the church court as a result of enquiries made at the Archdeacon's visitation or because of accusations by churchwardens, the parish priest or fellow parishioners. These courts were normally held within a church building. In the l590s Newark's parish church of St. Mary Magdalene was the usual choice, but sometimes sessions took place in more private locations such as the Registrar's house in Frere Row, Nottingham or in 'the Inn called the Castle, Nottingham'.
Church officials took an interest in almost every aspect of a parishioner's life from heresy (both Romish and ultra-protestant), usury and witchcraft to the playing of bowls on Sundays while divine service was taking place. Far and away the most frequent charges, however, were those concerned with sexual immorality and the church's role in enforcing the approved code of sexual conduct. Julia discovered ten cases between April 1592 and March 1594 in which Lenton parishioners were called to account for their activities. Of these, nine cases involved accusations of fornication or harbouring unmarried pregnant women.
Lenton in the 1590s was an independent community. An indication of its separation from Nottingham can be found in court records, which show that when plague was raging within Nottingham and no court cases could be heard, Lenton appears to have been quite unaffected. The available evidence suggests that at the time of Julia's cases Lenton was a medium sized village. At an archiepiscopal visitation later in 1603, the number of adult parishioners was estimated at 313 - based on 260 communicants, 6 recusants who refused to attend church services, and 47 persons 'within the monasterye who are not of our parish and yet do come to our church'. The monasterye is obviously a reference to the decaying buildings of Lenton Priory, but who the 47 persons were is not clear.
A reconstruction of a Penance in Lenton Church.
Drawn by Judith Moore (1983)
5th May 1592: Robert Windley for harbouring a fornicator
Thomas Sturton of Sturton had made pregnant a young woman, Dorothy Stile, a servant in his house. On finding out, Dorothy claimed that Mr. Sturton had sent her to stay at the house of one Robert Windley in Lenton and that Mistress Sturton had given her 30 shillings and sent a further 20 shillings to Dorothy's mother to appease her. Before the birth of the child, Dorothy further claimed that Sturton had visited her at Lenton and given her 6s and 8d to 'discharge the courte'. She indicated that she sent this money back to Sturton via Windley telling him that it 'would not serve to discharge the courte'.
In his examination, Robert Windley says nothing of this apparent attempt at bribery. In fact he seems to suffer a convenient lapse of memory. He answered on oath that 'about one years sithens, Dorothie Stile ... came with childe alone to this respondent's hous in Lenton, whom he, in respect that she is his wieves kinswoman, received and harboured till she was delivered there, and that in the meantime he had nothing for her keeping, neither did any person come to him in her favour nor to his wief as he believeth.' When he was questioned as to whether he had asked who had got her with child, he replied 'he did' but when asked about the girl's answer said he could not remember.
The court, as usual in cases where the fornicators themselves were prosecuted, exacted no penalty from Robert Windley for his role in the affair.
5th June 1592: William Hall for fornication with Grace Dove
The second case is an example of the speed with which the court could work. William Hall was charged with fornication on 5th June, admitted the offence, was ordered to do penance and certified on 23rd June that he had done so. Penance was the most usual punishment ordered by the Archdeacon's court and involved the offender appearing in a public place, such as the church or the market place, barefoot, clad in a penitent's robe and repeating at the minister's dictation the circumstances of his sin and his own contrition for his wrongdoing. The better off, in order to avoid this humiliation could buy a commutation.
31st January 1592/3: Nicholas Stampe and Margaret Matthewe for fornication before marriage also John Warde and Alice Matthewe for fornication before marriage
These two cases involved women with the same surname, possibly sisters. The court dealt swiftly with them. Guilt was admitted and the sentence passed that they should each pay 2 shillings to the poor box. It is not clear why this should have been their sentence when for a similar offence in Beeston at the same time the couple were told not only to pay 2 shillings to the poor box but also to do public penance in church. It was also relatively unusual for a fine to be paid direct to the parish poor box; in fact, the court was not technically empowered to order such a payment. The court normally collected its own fines and used the money for charitable purposes such as the relief of the plague in Nottingham or the repair of bridges.
12th February 1592/3: Joan Salte for fornication and 12th March 1592/3 John Mothersed for incontinence with Joan Blankbie
Open sessions of the court had taken place at Newark in January and again the following March. These two cases, however, were heard in between in semi-private circumstances at 'the Inn called the Castle, Nottingham' where they were the only new business. Perhaps the cases were considered particularly urgent or perhaps the accused had paid for the privilege of a 'private' hearing? Joan Salte was charged with being a notorious fornicatrix. She pleaded guilty to fornication with 'William Smith, late of Lenton, miller', but no other and was sentenced to do penance in Lenton Church. Three weeks later it was confirmed that she had completed her penance. John Mothersed requested that he be allowed to 'purge himself', that is, to clear himself by producing witnesses who would swear that they believed him innocent of the charge. He successfully completed his purgation on 2nd April in St. Mary's Church Nottingham, calling John Chapman, George Sore, Richard Stanley and John Thorneycroft as compurgators or witnesses. The case was then dismissed, but the story does not end there. John's alleged partner, Joan Blankbie, was not a Lenton woman. She came from Mansfield, and was summoned to answer for her own part in the case. On 2nd April she appeared at the same session where John Mothersed obtained his successful purgation. There she pleaded guilty to the offence, but with William Mothersed. Had John Mothersed been summoned to answer as a result of a clerical error? Perhaps the right couple had, in fact, been cited but as not infrequently happened, the man had found witnesses to vouch for his good name and had his case dismissed while the woman had pleaded guilty and been required to perform her penance?
18th September 1593 William Mothersed for brawling in Lenton Church also John Burbage and Susan Brown for living together as man and wife
There was indeed a William Mothersed in Lenton and soon afterwards he was charged with fighting in church. His defence was that his wife had tried to clip one Joan _____ round the ear one Sunday in Lent shortly after evening prayer and he had merely stepped between them to try and keep the peace. This defence was accepted and the case dismissed. The brawl had taken place around the time of Joan Blankbie hearing and it is quite conceivable that Mrs. Mothersed has been suffering the provocation of village gossips or that Joan (her surname is not given) was none other than Joan Blankbie herself.
The second case heard that day was the only instance amongst the ten Lenton cases where the accused ignored the command to appear (the average for all the cases studied was about 50%). John Burbage and Susan Brown obviously did not intend to pay heed to the authority of the parish. They did not appear on either of the two occasions when their case was called, nor did they respond to the sentence of excommunication pronounced on them for contempt of court.
30th January 1593/4: Anne Goulding for fornication with John Trowell of Nottingham also Robert Pike for harbouring a fornicator
Anne Goulding had been made pregnant by John Trowell. Robert Pike, probably her master, had turned her out when he learned of this but 'for pity's sake gave her room for the birth'. The vicar, a certain John Wood, had come to hear of this and made him promise to 'Inlawe her in the court'. Robert Pike kept his promise and on 30th January he appeared in court on the charge of harbouring and there explained the circumstances. At the same time the 'lovers' appeared to answer the charge of fornication, to which they duly confessed. They were sentenced to do penance and certified that they had done so on 29th February.
The high level of activity in the church courts found in the 1590s continued well into the Civil War period, but after that gradually decreased as more and more of the offences became the province of the secular criminal courts. As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century penance was being prescribed by church courts in some parts of England, but legislation during the Victorian era took away jurisdiction over bigamy, incest, divorce, matrimonial cases, testamentary matters and rioting in church. In 1932 even the failure to repair a church became a matter for the secular courts. The hierarchy of church courts survives today only in the form of the diocesan consistory court and the archbishops courts of appeal. The courts deal solely with issues of patronage, faculty suits, and charges against the clergy. Penance is no longer prescribed but the chancellor, acting for the bishop, is still empowered to impose spiritual punishment, ranging from rebukes to inhibitions and the ultimate penalty of deprivation, on errant clergymen.
(*) Julia's work on Lenton is part of a larger piece to be published in Local Studies Bulletin (East Midlands).