Books and Bookmen, by Andrew Lang

Curiosities of Parish Registers

There are three classes of persons who are deeply concerned with parish registers — namely, villains, antiquaries, and the sedulous readers, “parish clerks and others,” of the second or “agony” column of the Times. Villains are probably the most numerous of these three classes. The villain of fiction dearly loves a parish register: he cuts out pages, inserts others, intercalates remarks in a different coloured ink, and generally manipulates the register as a Greek manages his hand at ecarte, or as a Hebrew dealer in Moabite bric-a-brac treats a synagogue roll. We well remember one villain who had locked himself into the vestry (he was disguised as an archaeologist), and who was enjoying his wicked pleasure with the register, when the vestry somehow caught fire, the rusty key would not turn in the door, and the villain was roasted alive, in spite of the disinterested efforts to save him made by all the virtuous characters in the story. Let the fate of this bold, bad man be a warning to wicked earls, baronets, and all others who attempt to destroy the record of the marriage of a hero’s parents. Fate will be too strong for them in the long run, though they bribe the parish clerk, or carry off in white wax an impression of the keys of the vestry and of the iron chest in which a register should repose.

There is another and more prosaic danger in the way of villains, if the new bill, entitled “The Parish Registers Preservation Act,” ever becomes law. The bill provides that every register earlier than 1837 shall be committed to the care of the Master of the Rolls, and removed to the Record Office. Now the common villain of fiction would feel sadly out of place in the Register Office, where a more watchful eye than that of a comic parish clerk would be kept on his proceedings. Villains and local antiquaries will, therefore, use all their parliamentary influence to oppose and delay this bill, which is certainly hard on the parish archaeologist. The men who grub in their local registers, and slowly compile parish or county history, deserve to be encouraged rather than depressed. Mr. Chester Waters, therefore, has suggested that copies of registers should be made, and the comparatively legible copy left in the parish, while the crabbed original is conveyed to the Record Office in London. Thus the local antiquary would really have his work made more easy for him (though it may be doubted whether he would quite enjoy that condescension), while the villain of romance would be foiled; for it is useless (as a novel of Mr. Christie Murray’s proves) to alter the register in the keeping of the parish when the original document is safe in the Record Office. But previous examples of enforced transcription (as in 1603) do not encourage us to suppose that the copies would be very scrupulously made. Thus, after the Reformation, the prayers for the dead in the old registers were omitted by the copyist, who seemed to think (as the contractor for “sandwich men” said to the poor fellows who carried the letter H), “I don’t want you, and the public don’t want you, and you’re no use to nobody.” Again, when Laurence Fletcher was buried in St. Saviour’s, Southwark, in 1608, the old register described him as “a player, the King’s servant.” But the clerk, keeping a note-book, simply called Laurence Fletcher “a man,” and (in 1625) he also styled Mr. John Fletcher “a man.” Now, the old register calls Mr. John Fletcher “a poet.” To copy all the parish registers in England would be a very serious task, and would probably be but slovenly performed. If they were reproduced, again, by any process of photography, the old difficult court hand would remain as hard as ever. But this is a minor objection, for the local antiquary revels in the old court hand.

From the little volume by Mr. Chester Waters, already referred to (‘Parish Registers in England;’ printed for the author by F. J. Roberts, Little Britain, E.C.), we proceed to appropriate such matters of curiosity as may interest minds neither parochial nor doggedly antiquarian. Parish registers among the civilised peoples of antiquity do not greatly concern us. It seems certain that many Polynesian races have managed to record (in verse, or by some rude marks) the genealogies of their chiefs through many hundreds of years. These oral registers are accepted as fairly truthful by some students, yet we must remember that Pindar supposed himself to possess knowledge of at least twenty-five generations before his own time, and that only brought him up to the birth of Jason. Nobody believes in Jason and Medea, and possibly the genealogical records of Maoris and Fijians are as little trustworthy as those of Pindaric Greece. However, to consider thus is to consider too curiously. We only know for certain that genealogy very soon becomes important, and, therefore, that records are early kept, in a growing civilisation. “After Nehemiah’s return from the captivity in Babylon, the priests at Jerusalem whose register was not found were as polluted put from the priesthood.” Rome had her parish registers, which were kept in the temple of Saturn. But modern parish registers were “discovered” (like America) in 1497, when Cardinal Ximenes found it desirable to put on record the names of the godfathers and godmothers of baptised children. When these relations of “gossip,” or God’s kin (as the word literally means), were not certainly known, married persons could easily obtain divorces, by pretending previous spiritual relationship.

But it was only during the reign of Mary, (called the Bloody) that this rule of registering godfathers and godmothers prevailed in England. Henry VIII. introduced the custom of parish registers when in a Protestant humour. By the way, how curiously has Madame de Flamareil (la femme de quarante ans, in Charles de Bernard’s novel) anticipated the verdict of Mr. Froude on Henry VIII.! ‘On accuse Henri VIII.,’ dit Madame de Flamareil, “moi je le comprends, et je l’absous; c’etait un coeur genereux, lorsqu’il ne les aimait plus, il les tuait.’” The public of England mistrusted, in the matter of parish registers, the generous heart of Henry VIII. It is the fixed conviction of the public that all novelties in administration mean new taxes. Thus the Croatian peasantry were once on the point of revolting because they imagined that they were to be taxed in proportion to the length of their moustaches. The English believed, and the insurgents of the famous Pilgrimage of Grace declared, that baptism was to be refused to all children who did not pay a “trybette” (tribute) to the king. But Henry, or rather his minister, Cromwell, stuck to his plan, and (September 29, 1538) issued an injunction that a weekly register of weddings, christenings, and burials should be kept by the curate of every parish. The cost of the book (twopence in the case of St. Margaret’s, Westminster) was defrayed by the parishioners. The oldest extant register books are those thus acquired in 1597 or 1603. These volumes were of parchment, and entries were copied into them out of the old books on paper. The copyists, as we have seen, were indolent, and omitted characteristic points in the more ancient records.

In the civil war parish registers fell into some confusion, and when the clergy did make entries they commonly expressed their political feelings in a mixture of Latin and English. Latin, by the way, went out as Protestantism came in, but the curate of Rotherby, in Leicestershire, writes, “Bellum, Bellum, Bellum, interruption! persecution!” At St. Bridget’s, in Chester, is the quaint entry, “1643. Here the register is defective till 1653. The tymes were SUCH!” At Hilton, in Dorset, William Snoke, minister, entered his opinion that persons whose baptism and marriage were not registered “will be made uncapable of any earthly inheritance if they live. This I note for the satisfaction of any that do:” though we may doubt whether these parishioners found the information thus conveyed highly satisfactory.

The register of Maid’s Moreton, Bucks, tells how the reading-desk (a spread eagle, gilt) was “doomed to perish as an abominable idoll;” and how the cross on the steeple nearly (but not quite) knocked out the brains of the Puritan who removed it. The Puritans had their way with the registers as well as with the eagle (“the vowl,” as the old country people call it), and laymen took the place of parsons as registrars in 1653. The books from 1653 to 1660, while this regime lasted, “were kept exceptionally well,” new brooms sweeping clean. The books of the period contain fewer of the old Puritan Christian names than we might have expected. We find, “REPENTE Kytchens,” so styled before the poor little thing had anything but original sin to repent of. “FAINT NOT Kennard” is also registered, and “FREEGIFT Mabbe.”

A novelty was introduced into registers in 1678. The law required (for purposes of protecting trade) that all the dead should be buried in woollen winding-sheets. The price of the wool was the obolus paid to the Charon of the Revenue. After March 25, 1667, no person was to be “buried in any shirt, shift, or sheet other that should be made of woole only.” Thus when the children in a little Oxfordshire village lately beheld a ghost, “dressed in a long narrow gown of woollen, with bandages round the head and chin,” it is clear that the ghost was much more than a hundred years old, for the act “had fallen into disuse long before it was repealed in 1814.” But this has little to do with parish registers. The addition made to the duties of the keeper of the register in 1678 was this — he had to take and record the affidavit of a kinsman of the dead, to the effect that the corpse was actually buried in woollen fabric. The upper classes, however, preferred to bury in linen, and to pay the fine of 5L. When Mistress Oldfield, the famous actress, was interred in 1730, her body was arrayed “in a very fine Brussels lace headdress, a holland shift with a tucker and double ruffles of the same lace, and a pair of new kid gloves.”

In 1694 an empty exchequer was replenished by a tax on marriages, births, and burials, the very extortion which had been feared by the insurgents in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The tax collectors had access without payment of fee to the registers. The registration of births was discontinued when the Taxation Acts expired. An attempt to introduce the registration of births was made in 1753, but unsuccessfully. The public had the old superstitious dread of anything like a census. Moreover, the custom was denounced as “French,” and therefore abominable. In the same way it was thought telling to call the cloture “the French gag” during some recent discussions of parliamentary rules. In 1783 the parish register was again made the instrument of taxation, and threepence was charged on every entry. Thus “the clergyman was placed in the invidious light of a tax collector, and as the poor were often unable or unwilling to pay the tax, the clergy had a direct inducement to retain their good-will by keeping the registers defective.”

It is easy to imagine the indignation in Scotland when “bang went saxpence” every time a poor man had twins! Of course the Scotch rose up against this unparalleled extortion. At last, in 1812, “Rose’s Act” was passed. It is styled “an Act for the better regulating and preserving registers of births,” but the registration of births is altogether omitted from its provisions. By a stroke of the wildest wit the penalty of transportation for fourteen years, for making a false entry, “is to be divided equally between the informer and the poor of the parish.” A more casual Act has rarely been drafted.

Without entering into the modern history of parish registers, we may borrow a few of the ancient curiosities to be found therein, the blunders and the waggeries of forgotten priests, and curates, and parish clerks. In quite recent times (1832) it was thought worth while to record that Charity Morrell at her wedding had signed her name in the register with her right foot, and that the ring had been placed on the fourth toe of her left foot; for poor Charity was born without arms. Sometimes the time of a birth was recorded with much minuteness, that the astrologers might draw a more accurate horoscope. Unlucky children, with no acknowledged fathers, were entered in a variety of odd ways. In Lambeth (1685), George Speedwell is put down as “a merry begot;” Anne Twine is “filia uniuscujusque.” At Croydon, a certain William is “terraefilius” (1582), an autochthonous infant. Among the queer names of foundlings are “Nameless,” “Godsend,” “Subpoena,” and “Moyses and Aaron, two children found,” not in the bulrushes, but “in the street.”

The rule was to give the foundling for surname the name of the parish, and from the Temple Church came no fewer than one hundred and four foundlings named “Temple,” between 1728 and 1755. These Temples are the plebeian gens of the patrician house which claims descent from Godiva. The use of surnames as Christian names is later than the Reformation, and is the result of a reaction against the exclusive use of saints’ names from the calendar. Another example of the same reaction is the use of Old Testament names, and “Ananias and Sapphira were favourite names with the Presbyterians.” It is only fair to add that these names are no longer popular with Presbyterians, at any rate in the Kirk of Scotland. The old Puritan argument was that you would hardly select the name of too notorious a scriptural sinner, “as bearing testimony to the triumph of grace over original sin.” But in America a clergyman has been known to decline to christen a child “Pontius Pilate,” and no wonder.

Entries of burials in ancient times often contained some biographical information about the deceased. But nothing could possibly be vaguer than this: “1615, February 28, St. Martin’s, Ludgate, was buried an anatomy from the College of Physicians.” Man, woman, or child, sinner or saint, we know not, only that “an anatomy” found Christian burial in St. Martin’s, Ludgate. How much more full and characteristic is this, from St. Peter’s-inthe-East, Oxford (1568): ‘There was buried Alyce, the wiff of a naughty fellow whose name is Matthew Manne.’ There is immortality for Matthew Manne, and there is, in short-hand, the tragedy of “Alyce his wiff.” The reader of this record knows more of Matthew than in two hundred years any one is likely to know of us who moralise over Matthew! At Kyloe, in Northumberland, the intellectual defects of Henry Watson have, like the naughtiness of Manne, secured him a measure of fame. (1696.) “Henry was so great a fooll, that he never could put on his own close, nor never went a quarter of a mile off the house,” as Voltaire’s Memnon resolved never to do, and as Pascal partly recommends.

What had Mary Woodfield done to deserve the alias which the Croydon register gives her of “Queen of Hell”? (1788.) Distinguished people were buried in effigy, in all the different churches with which they were connected, and each sham burial service was entered in the parish registers, a snare and stumbling-block to the historian. This curious custom is very ancient. Thus we read in the Odyssey that when Menelaus heard in Egypt of the death of Agamemnon he reared for him a cenotaph, and piled an empty barrow “that the fame of the dead man might never be quenched.” Probably this old usage gave rise to the claims of several Greek cities to possess the tomb of this or that ancient hero. A heroic tomb, as of Cassandra for example, several towns had to show, but which was the true grave, which were the cenotaphs? Queen Elizabeth was buried in all the London churches, and poor Cassandra had her barrow in Argos, Mycenae, and Amyclae.

“A drynkyng for the soul” of the dead, a [Greek text] or funeral feast, was as common in England before the Reformation as in ancient Greece. James Cooke, of Sporle, in Norfolk (1528), left six shillings and eightpence to pay for this “drynkyng for his soul;” and the funeral feast, which long survived in the distribution of wine, wafers, and rosemary, still endures as a slight collation of wine and cake in Scotland. What a funeral could be, as late as 1731, Mr. Chester Waters proves by the bill for the burial of Andrew Card, senior bencher of Gray’s Inn. The deceased was brave in a “superfine pinked shroud” (cheap at 1L. 5S. 6D.), and there were eight large plate candle-sticks on stands round the dais, and ninety-six buckram escutcheons. The pall-bearers wore Alamode hatbands covered with frizances, and so did the divines who were present at the melancholy but gorgeous function. A hundred men in mourning carried a hundred white wax branch lights, and the gloves of the porters in Gray’s Inn were ash-coloured with black points. Yet the wine cost no more than 1L. 19S. 6D.; a “deal of sack,” by no means “intolerable.”

Leaving the funerals, we find that the parish register sometimes records ancient and obsolete modes of death. Thus, martyrs are scarce now, but the register of All Saints’, Derby, 1556, mentions “a poor blinde woman called Joan Waste, of this parish, a martyr, burned in Windmill pit.” She was condemned by Ralph Baynes, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. In 1558, at Richmond, in Yorkshire, we find “Richard Snell, b’rnt, bur. 9 Sept.” At Croydon, in 1585, Roger Shepherd probably never expected to be eaten by a lioness. Roger was not, like Wyllyam Barker, “a common drunkard and blasphemer,” and we cannot regard the Croydon lioness, like the Nemean lion, as a miraculous monster sent against the county of Surrey for the sins of the people. The lioness “was brought into the town to be seen of such as would give money to see her. He” (Roger) “was sore wounded in sundry places, and was buried the 26th Aug.”

In 1590, the register of St. Oswald’s, Durham, informs us that “Duke, Hyll, Hogge, and Holiday” were hanged and burned for “there horrible offences.” The arm of one of these horrible offenders was preserved at St. Omer as the relic of a martyr, “a most precious treasure,” in 1686. But no one knew whether the arm belonged originally to Holiday, Hyll, Duke, or Hogge. The coals, when these unfortunate men were burned, cost sixpence; the other items in the account of the abominable execution are, perhaps, too repulsive to be quoted.

According to some critics of the British government, we do not treat the Egyptians well. But our conduct towards the Fellahs has certainly improved since this entry was made in the register of St. Nicholas, Durham (1592, August 8th): ‘Simson, Arington, Featherston, Fenwick, and Lancaster, WERE HANGED FOR BEING EGYPTIANS.’ They were, in fact, gypsies, or had been consorting with gypsies, and they suffered under 5 Eliz. c. 20. In 1783 this statute was abolished, and was even considered “a law of excessive severity.” For even a hundred years ago “the puling cant of sickly humanitarianism” was making itself heard to the injury of our sturdy old English legislation. To be killed by a poet is now an unusual fate, but the St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, register (1598) mentions how “Gabriel Spencer, being slayne, was buried.” Gabriel was “slayne” by Rare Ben Jonson, in Hoxton Fields.

The burning of witches is, naturally, not an uncommon item in parish registers, and is set forth in a bold, business-like manner. On August 21 (1650) fifteen women and one man were executed for the imaginary crime of witchcraft. “A grave, for a witch, sixpence,” is an item in the municipal accounts. And the grave was a cheap haven for the poor woman who had been committed to the tender mercies of a Scotch witch-trier. Cetewayo’s medicine-men, who “smelt out” witches, were only some two centuries in the rear of our civilisation. Three hundred years ago Bishop Jewell, preaching before Elizabeth, was quite of the mind of Cetewayo and Saul, as to the wickedness of suffering a witch to live. As late as 1691, the register of Holy Island, Northumberland, mentions “William Cleugh, bewitched to death,” and the superstition is almost as powerful as ever among the rural people. Between July 13 and July 24 (1699) the widow Comon, in Essex, was thrice swum for a witch. She was not drowned, but survived her immersion for only five months. A singular homicide is recorded at Newington Butts, 1689. “John Arris and Derwick Farlin in one grave, being both Dutch soldiers; one killed the other drinking brandy.” But who slew the slayer? The register is silent; but “often eating a shoulder of mutton or a peck of hasty pudding at a time caused the death of James Parsons,” at Teddington, in Middlesex, 1743. Parsons had resisted the effects of shoulders of mutton and hasty pudding till the age of thirty-six.

And so the registers run on. Sometimes they tell of the death of a glutton, sometimes of a GRACE WYFE (grosse femme). Now the bell tolls for the decease of a duke, now of a “dog-whipper.” “Lutenists” and “Saltpetremen”— the skeleton of the old German allegory whispers to each and twitches him by the sleeve. “Ellis Thompson, insipiens,” leaves Chester-le-Street, where he had gabbled and scrabbled on the doors, and follows “William, foole to my Lady Jerningham,” and “Edward Errington, the Towne’s Fooll” (Newcastle-on-Tyne) down the way to dusty death. Edward Errington died “of the pest,” and another idiot took his place and office, for Newcastle had her regular town fools before she acquired her singularly advanced modern representatives. The “aquavity man” dies (in Cripplegate), and the “dumb-man who was a fortune-teller” (Stepney, 1628), and the “King’s Falkner,” and Mr. Gregory Isham, who combined the professions, not frequently united, of “attorney and husbandman,” in Barwell, Leicestershire (1655). “The lame chimney-sweeper,” and the “King of the gypsies,” and Alexander Willis, “qui calographiam docuit,” the linguist, and the Tom o’ Bedlam, the comfit-maker, and the panyer-man, and the tack-maker, and the suicide, they all found death; or, if they sought him, the churchyard where they were “hurled into a grave” was interdicted, and purified, after a fortnight, with “frankincense and sweet perfumes, and herbs.”

Sometimes people died wholesale of pestilence, and the Longborough register mentions a fresh way of death, “the swat called New Acquaintance, alias Stoupe Knave, and know thy master.” Another malady was ‘the posting swet, that posted from towne to towne through England.’ The plague of 1591 was imported in bales of cloth from the Levant, just as British commerce still patriotically tries to introduce cholera in cargoes of Egyptian rags. The register of Malpas, in Cheshire (Aug. 24, 1625), has this strange story of the plague:—

“Richard Dawson being sicke of the plague, and perceiving he must die at yt time, arose out of his bed, and made his grave, and caused his nefew, John Dawson, to cast strawe into the grave which was not farre from the house, and went and lay’d him down in the say’d grave, and caused clothes to be lay’d uppon and so dep’ted out of this world; this he did because he was a strong man, and heavier than his said nefew and another wench were able to bury.”

And John Dawson died, and Rose Smyth, the “wench” already spoken of, died, the last of the household.

Old customs survive in the parish registers. Scolding wives were ducked, and in Kingston-on-Thames, 1572, the register tells how the sexton’s wife “was sett on a new cukking-stoole, and brought to Temes brydge, and there had three duckings over head and eres, because she was a common scold and fighter.” The cucking-stool, a very elaborate engine of the law, cost 1L. 3S. 4D. Men were ducked for beating their wives, and if that custom were revived the profession of cucking-stool maker would become busy and lucrative. Penances of a graver sort are on record in the registers. Margaret Sherioux, in Croydon (1597), was ordered to stand three market days in the town, and three Sundays in the church, in a white sheet. The sin imputed to her was a dreadful one. “She stood one Saturday, and one Sunday, and died the next.” Innocent or guilty, this world was no longer a fit abiding-place for Margaret Sherioux. Occasionally the keeper of the register entered any event which seemed out of the common. Thus the register of St. Nicholas, Durham (1568), has this contribution to natural history:—

“A certaine Italian brought into the cittie of Durham a very greate strange and monstrous serpent, in length sixteen feet, in quantitie and dimentions greater than a greate horse, which was taken and killed by special policie, in Ethiopia within the Turkas dominions. But before it was killed, it had devoured (as is credibly thought) more than 1,000 persons, and destroyed a great country.”

This must have been a descendant of the monster that would have eaten Andromeda, and was slain by Perseus in the country of the blameless Ethiopians. Collections of money are recorded occasionally, as in 1680, when no less than one pound eight shillings was contributed “for redemption of Christians (taken by ye Turkish pyrates) out of Turkish slavery.” Two hundred years ago the Turk was pretty “unspeakable” still. Of all blundering Dogberries, the most confused kept (in 1670) the parish register at Melton Mowbray:—

“Here [he writes] is a bill of Burton Lazareth’s people, which was buried, and which was and maried above 10 years old, for because the clarke was dead, and therefore they was not set down according as they was, but they all set down sure enough one among another here in this place.”

“They all set down sure enough,” nor does it matter much now to know whom they married, and how long they lived in Melton Mowbray. The following entry sufficed for the great Villiers that expired “in the worst inn’s worst room,”—“Kirkby Moorside, Yorkshire, 1687. Georges vilaris Lord dooke of Bookingham, bur. 17. April.”

“So much for Buckingham!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03