Skip to content

Breaking the Seal: Church records

Updated Monday 6th March 2000

Bettany Hughes reveals what church records can tell us about life in the past.

Worcester Cathedral Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Bettany Hughes
This is the parish church of All Hallows Barking near the Tower of London, and here in the vaults there are a remarkable collection of original documents. There are records of all sorts here, detailing people’s lives and deaths over the last 400 years.

This is the parish register for 1665, the year of the Great Plague, and if you look at each page it’s absolutely crammed with entries. This is the survey of all the privies, that’s loos to you and me, and chimneys in the parish in 1579. So that’s the church acting as a local sanitary inspector in Elizabeth I’s reign. It’s just fascinating. If you want to get to grips with the country’s social history then the church records are an excellent place to start.

I’m off to the Cathedral city of Chester. Church records are not just about births, marriages and deaths. They give us a picture of all aspects of people’s lives. The church in the past dealt with many things which today we’d say were the council’s job. It also had a major role in law and order. From the 11th century it had its own network of courts. And I’ve heard there is still a good example here at Chester Cathedral. This is the only complete church court still remaining in England. The furniture here dates from the early 1600s. And Michael, I know that you’ve spent years studying the Court. If we imagine it’s 1635, who would have been working here? And you must explain to me why you’re sitting in that ridiculous kid’s high chair.

Dr Michael Snape
The reason why I’m sitting on this chair is, because this chair would have belonged to the court’s Appariter and the task of the Appariter was to take messages from the court, to any concerned parties in the diocese and also to keep order in the body of the court whilst the court was in session. The chair which you’ve just come from would have been occupied by the Diocesan Chancellor who was the Judge in this court and was an appointee of the Bishop. He would have been helped by a Scribe and by the Diocesan Registrar. What you would have found round the table would have been ecclesiastical warriors known as Proctors, who acted as attorneys, who represented the parties involved in any particular case.

Bettany
What kind of cases are being brought to a court like this?

Michael
A whole range of cases, but the most common form of private prosecution was defamation.

Bettany
Is defamation slander?

Michael
It is slander. If you were called a thief, you would sue in a secular court. If you were called a fornicator or charged with any kind of moral offence, you would sue in the spiritual court.

Bettany
York Minster, the traditional Christian capital of the north. Apparently it’s the only cathedral in the country to have its own police force. There’s been an important church court here since Medieval times. The more I hear about these cases the more it strikes me they are pretty much all to do with sex.

I am here to meet legal historian Dick Helmholst, and I have got to ask him if he agreed that the church’s real concern was morality.

Dick
Well they certainly said so and they brought a lot of people before them in attempting to mould the morality of the county. Whether they improved the morality of the country is a little harder to say.

Bettany
I’ve heard then referred to as bawdy courts, why would that be?

Dick
Well that wasn’t a name that the court itself would have been willing to accept. But they were called bawdy courts because so many of the offences that came before them were sexual offences. This is the strong room where the records are kept.

Bettany
Why the need for all this security?

Dick
Well I think it’s fire more than anything else.

Bettany
Dick then took me to the Borthwick Institute to look at the records of the Bishop’s Court of York.

Its an extraordinary mass of material. How does it compare to similar archives elsewhere?

Dick
Well they probably have more here than almost anywhere else in England. More for example than in London, because the Great Fire in London destroyed so many of the church’s records. This is a penance form, from the 18th century. Here is one example from 1757 - a penance enjoyed on William Hudson. You can see in that year he was required to be present at the time of divine service.

Bettany
Let’s see. "In the presence of the whole congregation then assembled, being bare head, bare foot and bare legged, having a white sheet wrapped about him, from the shoulders to the feet and white wand in his hand."

Dick
Must have been quite humiliating don’t you think?

Bettany
Extremely.

Dick
See what he’d done.

Bettany
Oh he’s committed the "detestable sin of fornication with Hannah Hudson".

Dick
There is another interesting matter I thought you might like to see. Some of the actual cases, the instance cases which were heard by the ecclesiastical court here. This was a case, rather an unusual case, brought by a woman named Alice Russell, to dissolve a marriage on the grounds of the sexual impotence of her husband, John Scathlaw I think is his name is.

Bettany
What year are we in?

Dick
This is 1433. In this case they tried to establish whether or not he was impotent by employing what they called "seven honest women" and the honest women went into a room at the top of a house in York, and there was a magnum ignum - a big fire in the room. It was burning and they took off most of their clothes and then they hugged John and often kissed him and, in so far as they could, stirred him up on "ostendum virilitactem, potensium suum", which means to show his virility and his potency.

Bettany
And?

Dick
Well, unfortunately for this poor man, he failed and it must have been quite a humiliating experience for him because the women cursed him, and walked out.

Bettany
And what conclusion did the court come to?

DickWell I have the sentence here. We don’t always have sentences, but luckily we do here. Alice here was successful. She was divorced from her husband so the honest women cursed him, and he lost his wife.

 

 

Bettany
London now, to meet a brother and sister. Derrick Phillips and Mary Sanders have been using church records to follow up a family story that they are descended from aristocrats, the Staffords. It’s a spicy tale of denied birth rights, bawdy and incest.

 

So it sounds like it’s a very good story behind these records.

Mary
Well my aunt came back from India in 1941 with many trunks. In one of which was this paper story.

Bettany
But was there any popular mythology in the family that you had aristocratic . . .

Derrick
My family always used to say, and we took no real notice about it, oh your mother was well born and her descent was good, and we had no idea what he was talking about until we found this.

Bettany
The story hinges on their ancestor, Charlotte McCarthy. In the early 1800s, she staked a claim in the house of Lords to be Baroness Stafford. She lost the case but Derrick and Mary want to find out more about her, and if her claim was unfairly dismissed.

Derrick
There’s a Charlotte Gertrude who was the claimant in 1825 according to this. She is married to someone who is not named here, there is a blank box and that looks strange.

Bettany
Very strange.

Derrick
She in fact married her uncle, who was the youngest brother of her father.

Bettany
So you can’t admit to that through the family tree.

Derrick
Well they couldn’t admit to that because they were rather foolish in those days.

Bettany
But she’s clearly an interesting character to follow, she sounds very feisty. She was marrying her uncle and then tried to claim a title, going back hundreds and hundreds of years.

Bettany
Derrick and Mary are going to the London Metropolitan archives, to check out Charlotte’s marriage to her uncle. We’ll join them there later.

What interests me about the church courts is that the punishments don’t seem to have been too harsh. In the Middle Ages you might have got a whipping, otherwise you were likely to have to confess your sins in church. But there was also excommunication - exclusion from the church and possibly damnation. Surely that was very serious?

Dr Martin Ingram
The way the church thought about excommunication was actually less harsh and less severe than that. It was always thought of as being medicinal, something which was designed to encourage people to repent, encourage people to confess their sins. And so people were excommunicated with a view to bringing them back in.

Bettany
To Lambeth Palace library. There were of course radical clergymen and dissenters who didn’t want to be brought back into the fold because they thought the church was wrong and the church has never responded well to people it’s labelled as heretics.

While England was still Catholic, probably the most persistent heretics were the Lollards. They rejected the major beliefs of the Catholic church and called for a Bible written in English. At that time, there is only one punishment for those who did not repent of their heresy.

Bettany
So, how was heresy defined in England, before the Reformation?

Rob Lutton
It was anything that was seen as a threat to the doctrines of the orthodox church. Which ultimately were defined by the Papacy. There were ideas in circulation which did challenge that but they tended to be academic circles normally, because when those ideas were popularised, and were picked up by lay people, they were seen as dangerous and then defined as heresy. And Lollardy in England is a very good example of that sort of movement.

This is the trial of Agnes Grabble on 29th April in 1511. And we see here "Agnes Grabble, uxor Johannes Grabble snr, atatis sexginta annori adulterer". So, appearing personally, Agnes Grabble, wife of John Grabble Senior, of Tenterton, aged 60 or more, so she was quite an old woman when she was tried. And here are a list of the charges against her which included denying the miracle of the Mass, of the actual physical presence of Chris in the Eucharist.

And Agnes’s husband and two sons are tried on the same day and they are brought in as witnesses against her. There is mention of something that they did together here, "examined how the said Agnes believed of Holy Bread and Holy Water" - it’s said that she believed that they were no better than other water and other bread. How they knew that, he says, is that "they brought home Holy Bread at diverse times to his house and eat it and had none other regard unto it, but as to other bread". So she brought it home and ate it for her supper.

The next day on the 30th April, the Sunday, she was brought back in to the trial and the depositions were presented to her and read to her and she again denies all the charges that were made against her, denies the evidence that her family has given against her, and there is a final phrase saying that these witnesses including her husband and two sons, have "perfidiously betrayed her and their own souls" and that it grieved her to have ever borne those sons of hers.

Bettany
And so what happened when she didn’t recant?

Rob
Well the Archbishop gave her another two days until the Tuesday of that week to decide whether she would confess her errors or not.

 

Martin
The church courts in fact didn’t have the power to inflict physical harm in cases of heresy, again the aim always was to get them to recant, to get them to repent, and get them to renounce their errors. But if they didn’t then the church excommunicated them, and handed them over to the secular powers.

 

Bettany
Agnes’s trial was held at Knowle House in Sevenoaks, one of the Archbishop William Waring’s private residences. It was here in 1511, deep within the palace, that Agnes’s fate was decided.

Bettany
So, the court proceedings took over a year, but this is where the trial itself took place?

Rob
Yes that’s right. This is the chapel at the Archbishop’s residence, the Palace of Knowle. And you can imagine these individuals being brought out of prison somewhere else in the palace, brought through the corridors of the palace, into this chapel. To stand perhaps roughly where we’re standing, and to face the Archbishop and his officials, to be questioned regarding their heresy.

Bettany
What happened to Agnes?

Rob
Well she is brought here, to the chapel, on 2nd May to be sentenced and the wording of the sentence in the register is very interesting: "We relinquish the said heretics and each one of them, to your Royal Highness, and your secular arms". And the relinquishment here included another two individuals, William Carder, and Robert Harrison, who were handed over to the secular authorities, handed over to Henry VIII, to the State, to be punished.

Bettany
And how do we pick up Agnes’s trial from here?

Rob
Well we can’t pick up Agnes’s trail as such but we think we know what happened to William Carder. The first penance that was imposed on John Grabble and his two sons, and some other individuals, was that item "quad eant advidendum Carder, ignem pasorem procte, suam incorigabilitate", that is that they go to watch William Carder being burnt, on account of his incorrigibility. So, we know that Carder was burnt and if Carder was burnt then there is a good chance that poor Agnes was too.

Bettany
At the London Metropolitan archives, Derrick and Mary have made a find. Charlotte’s marriage to her uncle is safely stored on microfilm.

Derrick
We need every 1803 still in January. There it is - John James Alexander McCarthy of this parish, and he is a bachelor, marrying Charlotte Gertrude McCarthy of the same parish, and there is their actual signatures.

Mary
They were so close in age Derrick.

Derrick
And presumably they thought they were cousins.

Bettany
They then went to look at the House of Lords record of Charlotte’s case. Her claim rested on her descent from one Anne Howard in the 1600s. When Anne married she stated in the Marriage Register that she was a daughter of the Earl of Stafford. Charlotte’s rival for the peerage, the Gerninghams, said Anne’s marriage records were fakes and they tried to brow beat a priest into saying that his register had been recently tampered with.

Derrick
They get the priest down and they bully him, bully him and bully him because they want him to say that a McCarthy, he visited the church to look at the registers, had the opportunity in fact to insert this particular item. Now the priest is very adamant, repeatedly he says that he was the one who found the entry first.

Mary
I just feel that the attorney general was predisposed to awarding the title to the Gerningham family from the beginning.

Derrick
Yes, in fact there was something said right at the start.

Mary
And what we need to do now is go down to Worcester and Evesham and look at the registers.

Derrick
Next stop Evesham and Worcester.

Bettany
Heresy, divorce, defamation, adultery, fornication - the church courts seem to have had an eye on everyone’s most private concerns. Their influence across the country must have been huge. Of course things did change over the years, as the state took over large parts of the church’s legal authority, and as time went on the courts seemed more like a money making scheme than a system of justice.

Church courts have always provided a service and by the 1800s they were making good money out of it. Proving the validity of wills turned out to be exceptionally profitable. A job which they hung onto until 1858. As Charles Dickens said, it was a light and lucrative business.

Even in the tough times, like the Civil War, when the church courts were technically abolished, they clung onto wills. To get a feel for that lucrative business in the 1700s and early 1800s, I joined historian Jane Cox in the City of London. This is where the church courts used to stand, but unfortunately all the buildings are gone and so are the records. To the Public Record Office, at Kew.

Bettany
If the Fire of London destroyed so many church court records, how many are left here at the Public Record Office?

Jane Cox
Well there are said to be 84 tonnes.

Bettany
84 tonnes!

Jane
Yes, 84 tonnes.

Bettany
If you died leaving an estate valued at £5, £10 if you lived in London, the prerogative court of Canterbury had the job of verifying the will. And if there wasn’t a will, it was the church court that decided who was the rightful inheritor.

 

 

Jane
Now, this case involves a woman who was almost certainly a prostitute, called Lucy Hungate. The case is about her attempts to get money from the Ray family. She had been having an affair with lady Olympia’s son, Sir Christopher Ray. He was a wealthy man, a Baronet, a young man and he died aged 27 of small pox and didn’t leave a will. She was trying to prove in this case that she had been married to him. because if she was married to him she was entitled to a third of his money.

 

There were hundreds of witnesses produced. These two volumes here contain the examinations of these witnesses and the first one that we’re going to look at is the wicked vicar himself. The vicar in a way is the leading character in the story. He was the only witness to this wedding, if it happened, he conducted it. He was called Randolph Yarwood, and here is his evidence. He was the vicar of Kentish Town and he was a notorious character. He was a drunkard, he was cruelsome, he rowed with his parishioners, he married people without licences, he went to court all the time. Anyway, this is his account of the wedding, and it’s perfectly straight forward. He conducted the wedding according to the book of common prayer and he signs it.

The next one’s his sister. Now, as far as one can make out, one of the other witnesses gave evidence to the fact that he’d actually seen Sir Christopher Ray, the deceased, in this part in this place, in bed with one Hungate sister on one side, and one Hungate sister on the other side. So you can’t really take too much notice if what Jane Hungate says, any more than Lucy. Anyway, her evidence again is totally circumstantial and it mainly concerns a venison pasty. Now a lot of this evidence concerns a venison pasty. You may wonder why - well apparently she says that a venison pasty was baked for the wedding breakfast and that her sister turned up one morning and said, "Here have a bit of Venison pasty, this was baked for my wedding breakfast. We should have had it yesterday but the vicar didn’t turn up so we’re going to get married today instead."

Bettany
That’s a ridiculous bit of evidence to bring there.

Jane
Yes it is.

Bettany
What do you think the balance of the case was? Were people pro-Lucy or pro-Lady Olympia.

Jane
Well, I don’t know about people, but I know I was utterly pro-Lady Olympia from the start because it was so obvious that this was a transparent story. Evidence that’s based heavily on a venison pasty, you can’t really believe it can you?

BettanyDerrick and Mary are in Worcestershire, still looking for their aristocratic lineage. Their ancestor Anne’s second marriage took place here at St Lawrence’s Church in Evesham. Derrick and Mary had come to see the marriage register to decide for themselves whether they think the entry was forged.

Derrick
Weddings in 1691 . . .

Mary
It says December 12th, Thomas Gorland, gent, and Anne Rawlins, widow of Edward Rawlins, was the late Viscount Lord Stafford.

Derrick
There’s the entry. I’m not an expert but unless you can look at letters of that Thomas, it could well be the same writing.

Bettany
Now, they’re a bit stuck. So we asked hand writing expert Elizabeth Denbury to give her opinion.

Elizabeth
Now there is a problem of course, because the hand writing on either side of the entry was quite obviously different and anybody could see that. It may be necessary to look at other parts of the register. In 1683, we have, I think, the same hand. "Thomas" again, just "Anne" - look at that "Anne, daughter of Thomas", and he goes on. 1685, 1687, 1688, 1690 and there he stops.

Bettany
So why did that writer’s hand appear again in the middle of 1691? Was it really a forgery or simply an afterthought?

Elizabeth
Did they get married in 1690 and he suddenly entered it in a fit of panic at the bottom? I do not know. It’s not a 19th century hand.

Derrick
That is extremely encouraging and interesting because the whole case of the Gerningham side was to indicate that this entry had been inserted in and round 1825.

Elizabeth
Well if it was, whoever did it was extremely good.

Bettany
So that’s Anne’s second marriage, and it looks like that wasn’t a forgery. What about the first? Time to go to Worcester record office.

Mary
I’m absolutely certain that it would have been almost impossible to fake this, the hand writing, everything. Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned it’s exonerated the McCarthys yet again.

Derrick
And the great thing is that we do know, from tracing our own lineage back from ourselves, that we have evidence of father to son, mother to son relationships, all the way from us right up to this good lady.

Mary
That is a very good thing to know.

Derrick
Whether or not she was the daughter of a peer.

Mary
Does that matter?

Derrick
Especially as they have got rid of the House of Lords’ privileges.

Bettany
From the 1830s the church gradually ceased to play such an important part in the country’s administration and record keeping. The State took over. The church courts hung on to wills until the 1850s but they were under frequent attack for making too much money out of them. In any case, with more Christian denominations around, people began to ask why the Church of England was involved in legal matters at all.

Perhaps, surprisingly, the church courts still exist but they aren’t what they used to be. At their height there were over 300 of them administering canon law throughout England and Wales. They still take their business seriously and they don’t allow their full proceedings to be filmed. But today the cases are about church property, mending roofs, or selling communion cups - maybe the odd indiscretion by a clergyman, if you’re lucky. It’s a far cry from the vivid insight they once gave into the passions and peccadilloes of the English people.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Photographing Hitler Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Walter Frenz Archive article icon

History & The Arts 

Photographing Hitler

Freelance photo-researcher Joanne King explains how Hitler used the talents of photographers like Heinrich Hoffman and Walter Frenz to project a striking image of himself to the German people.

Article
Industrial Revolution: changing landscapes Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission activity icon

History & The Arts 

Industrial Revolution: changing landscapes

Explore the effects of the Industrial Revolution an agrarian nation slowly became a mechanised one

Activity
History for 50p Creative commons image Icon Stephen Burch under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

History for 50p

A charity shop can offer a wealth of primary source material for a modern historian.

Article
Disraeli on Munich Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: W. & D. Downey article icon

History & The Arts 

Disraeli on Munich

Writing in 1840, Benjamin Disraeli shared his passion for the Bavarian capital.

Article
Poundbury Creative commons image Icon I Like under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Poundbury

Was Prince Charles' model village more than a crusty throwback?

Article
The profits of slavery: The Jeffersons of Whitehaven Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC North article icon

History & The Arts 

The profits of slavery: The Jeffersons of Whitehaven

A museum in Whitehaven tells the "Rum Story" of two Cumbrian wine merchants who owned slaves in the West Indies.

Article
Conspiring Against The Queen Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Conspiring Against The Queen

In 1594 Roderigo Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered for trying to poison Queen Elizabeth I. Many historians have argued that he was framed - but David Katz believes he can prove his guilt.

Article
Erno Goldfinger Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Erno Goldfinger

Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower would be the building to discredit an entire movement.

Article
Death on the tracks: A 19th century train crash Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: LBSCR article icon

History & The Arts 

Death on the tracks: A 19th century train crash

An 1853 inquest takes evidence about a fatal train crash at New Cross.

Article