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Parish records and people of African and Asian origins

03/30/2016 in British Isles, genealogy and family history, Parish sources

This post is a repost of a comment by Marika Sherwood.

Marika Sherwood urges My-Parish members to carry out research in parish records on people of African and Asian origins. They begin appearing in the 16th century.

An example of such records can be seen here:

Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section: Black and Asian people discovered in records held by the Manuscripts Section



Open access to ‘Political Freedom’ collection

02/09/2016 in British Isles, Eastern Europe, Germany, Italian Peninsula, Media, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

Front Cover Pic WebThe full text of the essay collection Politische Freiheit und republikanische Kultur im alten Europa (Vitznau, 2015) is now accessible online. Published last year to mark the bicentenary of the (temporary) restoration of the Swiss parish republic of Gersau in 1814, the volume includes studies of political freedom in Austrian, Swiss, German and Italian communities, thematic surveys of republican thought and constitutional conflict alongside two contributions in English: Ann Hughes on ‘Gender and Republicanism’ and Marc Lerner on ‘William Tell – The Material Culture of a Freedom Myth’. If you’d rather have a hardcopy, just drop me a line!

Update on The Medieval Churches of Norwich Research Project

01/18/2016 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, British Isles, towns and urban environment

The Medieval Churches of Norwich research project had a productive year in 2015 and is already busy planning luckhurst-nchchurches-3events and pursuing partnerships for 2016. Visit our website to see drafts of the project’s case studies, updates on partnerships and cultural engagement funding, and news and events. The Medieval Churches of Norwich is a three-year project undertaken by researchers from the University of East Anglia. The research activity, its dissemination and communication have been made possible through the support of The Leverhulme Trust and the Norwich Research Park Translational Fund.


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by Pat Cox

Chester Consistory Court Cause Papers of the Sixteenth Century

07/28/2015 in British Isles, Parish sources, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change

A new project coming soon.

A new project hosted by My-parish will present material from the sixteenth-century church court at Chester. The cause papers, which are the basis of the project, illuminate parish life in an English archdeaconry during the age of the Reformation.

This innovative venture will feature images of the papers juxtaposed with transcriptions, translations and supporting materials for each cause and there is much more information to be found under the ‘Parish Projects’ tab above.

Once the pilot, planned for later this year, is up and running the involvement of a wider community in the transcription and/or translation of the remaining records would be warmly welcomed.

Do take a look at the additional information available and let us have your comments.

Parish Records – a new guide

03/10/2015 in British Isles, genealogy and family history, officeholding and local government, Parish sources, Secular law and regulation

Cover It is now more than half a century since W.E. Tate provided us with his comprehensive review of the contents of The Parish Chest. His work remains the authoritative guide to parish records. However, since he wrote, a huge amount of research has been undertaken, as witnessed by the contents of this website. In his day, parish records were generally still held in parish chests; today, apart from current records, they are in record offices. Many, if not most, are fully listed in online catalogues. Numerous transcripts – especially of parish registers and churchwardens’ accounts – have been published by record societies and others. The value of parish records is now widely accepted by academics, as well as by enthusiastic family and local historians. Seminal works such as Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath (Yale2003), and Wrigley & Schofield’s’s Population history of England 1541-1871 (Harvard, 1981), have been based upon them. The internet has many relevant sites (such as this one). It is therefore surprising that Tate’s work has not been fully updated until now. My Tracing Your Ancestors’ Parish Records: a guide for family and local historians (Pen & Sword, 2015) is an attempt to remedy the omission. I begin by placing parish records in the context of the history of the parish. Parish records mostly owe their existence, not just to the clergy, but also to churchwardens, poor law overseers, parish constables, and highway surveyors, so the roles that each of them played is analysed. Then follows the meat of the book – detailed discussions of the various different types of records that could once be found in parish chests. Vestry minutes, officers’ accounts, poor law records, various records relating to ecclesiastical administration, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, and the records of tithes, enclosure, and charities, are all considered. Detailed information concerning sources published both in hard copy, and on the internet, is provided. I hope that my book will be of assistance to everyone interested in the study of both local and family history, whether they are academics, undergraduates, local enthusiasts, or just trying to trace their family history.

Clerics and Witchcraft, Part Two

02/11/2015 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

In my first blog entry, we looked at some examples of clerics who warned of the evils of witchcraft and magic, and also met Richard Napier, a cleric who preferred to heal victims of witchcraft and other patients through performing natural magic in the name of God.  However (and perhaps more interestingly), not even members of the Church were safe from magic and witchcraft accusations!  Gilbert Smythe, the minister of Swithland in Leicestershire brought a complaint against Christopher Moncke in 1620 for public slander and for accusing him of being a sorcerer and forsaking God. Moncke also accused Smythe of breaking of his wife’s arm and the reason for his son cutting his own throat, and that Smythe and his three sons were felons.  Smythe further claimed that by slandering him by petition to the King, the mayor of Leicester, the circuit judges and the people of Mountsorel, Leicester and London, ‘hee hath adventured my lyfe goods and reputation thereby and the undoinge of my wife and famylie which lyve by my breath’.  Moncke brought a counter-complaint, noting that he had attempted many times to solve a crime against him, and ‘has been put off by various great men’, as the judges apparently did not look at his case with any degree of seriousness:

The premises considered the faithful Justices of the County of Leicester dare not deale with Gilbert Smyth his approved pilfery, foreknowne periury, suspected sorcery and murther least money and freinds should lull the Judges asleepe as in the County of Darby they have beene and laughed to scorne by the favorites thereof.

Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson, the curate of Cranwell, Lincolnshire was indicted in 1603 at Spalding Court of Sewers, for acting as a wise man, and for administering ‘physic’ to sick people without a licence.  He was also accused of using witchcraft, charms and conjuration, calling up spirits, and deceiving the poor so that he could find stolen goods and foretell the future.  In doing this, he was not fulfilling his religious duties in instructing the people and youth of Cranwell in the North Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, on the articles of faith as laid down in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Some clergymen and physicians were known to practice as cunning-folk, mostly to increase their incomes.  In 1606 the Royal College of Physicians intervened to stop the Reverend John Bell from writing words on a piece of paper to treat fevers, and in 1637, the vicar of Fleckney, Leicestershire, was accused of making charms to treat toothache.   Non-conformist clergy were also accused, as in the case of Nicholas Gretton of Tamworth, cunning man, astrologer and leader of a Lichfield Independent congregation in 1654, who ‘was there discovered to be a fortune teller, or an Inchanter, a Wizard that tells people lyes for mony’.

George Fox was born in the strongly puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, (now known as Fenny Drayton), and, given to ‘wander[ing] around the Midlands’ in his early youth, he became the acknowledged founder of the Quaker movement after his ‘enlightenment’ in 1647, at the age of twenty-three.  Attempts by some ministers and justices to accuse Quakers of witchcraft led to George Fox himself being denounced as a witch or sorcerer, who rode around on a large black horse converting people to Quakerism by holding their hands or touching their foreheads.  The meeting places of the Quakers, in woods, commons and in houses ‘most solitary and remote from Neighbours, situated in Dales and by-places’, stimulated speculation and fear.   The strange noises that could be heard emanating from their meeting-places, and the trembling and shaking of the Quakers during their meetings were associated with Satan and demonic possession.

Other cases, adding to our narrative on the clergy, include that of the vicar of Cawnton, Nottinghamshire who was convicted of sorcery in 1472 at Southwell Minster, and was compelled to resign.  Additionally, the minister of Hope, Derbyshire, a Mr. Jones, gave a woman, distraught after hearing a warning in the Communion service against profane livers, an ‘amulet, viz. some verses of John i written in a paper to hang about her neck, as also certain herbs to drive the devil out of her’.  The role of the clergy, particularly in rural communities after the Reformation, often combined both ministry and medicine, with sometimes little difference compared to the methods of the local cunning folk and healers.

Consequently, the same accusations of magic and witchcraft applied to the ministers as well as the lay communities.  Even charges of petty sorcery served on the clergy, as we can see above, were brought before the ecclesiastical courts.  The need for assistance when faced with illness or loss provoked a search for whoever was deemed able to provide such solace – whether this was a witch, a cunning man or a man of God, and whatever methods they used to provide some comfort, was often not important.



Leach, Arthur Francis, Visitations and Memorials of Southwell Minster (London, 1891), p. 15.

Lincolnshire Archives, Sessions Papers, Spalding Sewers/460/1/6.

Lincolnshire Archives, Diocesan Court Papers 58/2/70.

Reay, Barry, The Quakers and the English Revolution (Hounslow, 1985), pp. 7, 70-71.

Stocks, Helen (ed.) & Stevenson, H., Records of the Borough of Leicester, 1603-1688 (Cambridge, 1923), pp. 193-94.

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971), pp. 311, 328-29.

Wood, A. C. (ed.), ‘The Nottinghamshire Presentment Bills of 1587’, Thoroton Society Record Series, XI, A Miscellany (1943), p. 22.



Clerics and Witchcraft, Part One

02/08/2015 in Blogs, British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

My area of academic research concentrates on magic and witchcraft in the early modern English Midlands. Both personally and academically, and as a born-and-bred Coventrian, I have always been interested in local history, witchcraft, magic, folk customs, paganism, religion and the unorthodox within Warwickshire and the Midlands, hence the geographical area within which I have focussed my attention. I also like to visit the Midlands parish churches my ancestors worshipped at, as part of my family history research, and visiting churches and cathedrals generally as I have a fascination with ecclesiastical architecture and enjoy taking photographs documenting my visits, concentrating particularly on doors and porches.

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

The main objective for my research is to redress the lack of evidence for magic and witchcraft in the Midlands within existing secondary sources, in comparison with the extensive volumes of information available for the Home Counties, the South of England, and Scotland.  For the MA by Research in History, which I completed in September 2014, I concentrated on the Midland Assize Circuit areas of the Midlands – Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Due to word count limitations and the number of cases I was finding, my original plans to write a full history of witchcraft and magic for the Midlands regrettably had to be reduced, and so the study concentrated only on the areas of the Midland Assize Circuit, leaving around half of the Midlands still to be researched.  I now intend to broaden my investigation through further study including research on the Oxford Assize Circuit areas – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and some parts of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, depending on the county or assize boundaries of the time. My recent research has shown that, with only half of the Midlands researched so far, and if one is prepared to look hard enough for the evidence, there are a surprising number of cases for magic and witchcraft.  One of the exciting questions I hope to look at further is the involvement of the clergy in witchcraft and magic, as accuser, healer and even accused.

Our first vicar, Humphrey Michel, of Horninghold, Leicestershire, was ‘a staunch Tory, a closet Jacobite, a scourge of the local dissenters’, and often presented who he deemed to be ‘moral offenders’ at the local church courts.  Michel also believed wholeheartedly in the existence of witches, and discussed the problems of witchcraft in his diary.  In June 1709, he recorded the swimming of two witches, Mary Palmer, a cripple, who ‘though bound hand and feet, did not sink but swim [sic] before the said company’, and Joseph Harding, who ‘sunk immediately like a stone before them all’.  Other entries include a woman named Goody Ridgway who had ‘in all probability’ been bewitched to death, and Michel had also accusingly noted the strange behaviour of ‘a wench of the widow Barlow, a supposed witch’, who ‘went out of the church when I had named and read my text, Deut Chap 18, where is the word “witch”’.

Sir Richard Newdigate, a lawyer from a family of wealthy landowners in Arbury, Warwickshire, attended a sermon at Fillongley a few miles away, given by Josiah Packwood.  In the sermon, the minister denounced members of the congregation for seeking help from cunning men, as this action of seeking remedy itself constituted witchcraft.  Newdigate carefully recorded the preacher’s advice in his diary, on how to counter the arguments of  ‘those that seek to witches for remedies’, including advising those tempted that help should be sought only from God, and that ‘the Devil is full of subtlety and simulation.  His end is to enlarge his kingdom by curing diseases’.

The English Reformation should have removed the clergy from the world of popular magic, and to some extent this did happen, as the number of sacraments was reduced, sacramentals rejected and exorcism suppressed, relics were destroyed, and prayers had to be said in the vernacular.   However, at parish level, many clergymen, such as Richard Napier, continued to be involved with the physical and mental illnesses and magical distresses of their laity.  Napier, a well-respected Protestant rector of Great Linford, Buckinghamshire, employed a series of curates to deal with the majority of his clerical obligations, and dedicated himself to private study and public practice of natural magic and astrological physic until his death in 1634.  Napier saw himself as fulfilling his Christian duties, charging little if anything for his services for those who considered him both clergyman and physician, by not only healing the souls of his clients who were drawn from all social classes, but also their bodies and minds.  He dealt with hundreds of cases of witchcraft and thousands of patients during his career, all noted carefully in casebooks.  Napier believed in witchcraft, but seldom ever verified any suspicions of bewitchment.  He preferred instead to interpret his clients’ symptoms as the result of natural physical illnesses and diseases or spiritual disorder, as did most doctors, Protestant churchmen and educated laymen.

(To be continued – Clerics as sorcerers and other magical practitioners)


Davies, Owen, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London, 2003), pp. 170-72.

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (London, 1997), pp. 286-87.

Warwickshire County Record Office., CR0136/7: Richard Newdigate’s Diary.

Sulien Books

12/18/2014 in art and imagery, British Isles

I have recently produced three small books on the visual culture of three churches in Wales, and decided to establish a small press to publish similar titles on an occasional basis in the future.

Cover of book.

The Medieval Tiles of Strata Florida

In August I produced a limited-edition picture book based on the medieval grotesques at Gresford to coincide with my summer exhibition at Narberth, ‘Patterns, Monsters and Mysteries‘. A similar limited-edition book of my images of the tiles at the former abbey church of Strata Florida was published last month as the first publication from Sulien Books, accompanying my exhibition at Tregaron in mid-Wales, near Strata Florida.

In September my guide to the stained glass at the Church of St Mary, Tenby, was produced for the Friends of St Mary’s, following the pattern of my guide to the stained glass of the little church at Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn (2013). I am hopeful that further similar booklets and guides along these lines will be forthcoming from Sulien Books in the future.

Sulien was the most important figure at the eleventh-century scriptorium at the monastic church of Llanbadarn Fawr in west Wales, now situated on the outskirts of Aberystwyth.

Beyond the Archives

10/20/2014 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, preservation and memory

Wymondham Abbey

I’ve taken a break from the archives: initially to finish writing my thesis and currently to intern at Norwich Cathedral as a parish heritage adviser, a strange feeling after spending the better part of three years traveling to England to spend as much time in archives as I possibly could. Bound by the limitations of studying medieval parish life while based in an American university, I never took for granted my visits to the record offices of England that held the records necessary to write my thesis. When I finally received the funding I needed to remain in England for several months to conduct full-time research, I prioritized the archives, dividing my time between the Norfolk Record Office, TNA, British Library, as well as record offices in Essex, Dorset and Wiltshire—perhaps not the most glamorous type of research according to some but for me an adventure. And yet, I admit that I also longed for human contact—a longing to talk to people about grassroots parish life, to see what I could learn from them that I couldn’t learn from archives. I wanted to spend time not just examining their churches and their documents but also experiencing community life that purported to carry on the same traditions as their medieval predecessors. So, once a week, I arranged to meet with parishioners who were active in the churches I was researching for my thesis on medieval monastic-parochial conflicts. And from there, I ventured into the world of ethnography, seeking to understand how parishioners understood and imagined their medieval past and how their perceptions have influenced how medieval parish history has been passed down to us.

Medieval history and ethnography seem an unlikely combination, yet a combination that can bring new voices into the academic conversation about parish life, past and present. Endeavoring to understand how parishioners understand themselves and their communities’ histories—including the antiquarians and local historians who have written those histories—sheds light on the history that has shaped public and academic perceptions of the English parish church and community. What does the medieval past mean to parishioners today who actively care for and worship in these medieval churches, and how do they identify with that past? I first came to these questions in the second year of my PhD studies as I sought to narrow down my thesis topic, faced with the challenge of deciding how best to approach grassroots medieval religious practice when churchwarden accounts for Norfolk were few and far between. Frustrated with the paucity of documents available in the States to get me started on a topic that would eventually require on-the-ground research, my supervisor suggested a rather unorthodox method of finding my topic: sifting through boxes of his collection of English parish church guidebooks. I spent an entire day sat on the floor of my study, surrounded by these guidebooks, my excitement growing from my realization that these taken-for-granted books provided precisely the human element I was looking for in the English parish church—the belief that these parish communities’ identities had roots in the past, roots in the fabric of their medieval churches, and these present identities were relevant to my historical research of the medieval past. The topic that emerged from this day of guidebook research was the function of conflict in creating parish community identity and collective memory. Beginning with medieval monastic-parochial conflicts and the churches that emerged from parishioners’ success in their riots against monks, I continued with an exploration of antiquarian and current parish histories that point to these conflicts as defining moments for their current building and community. Most rewarding about this research is how it resonates with people today, whether or not they have any knowledge of medieval monastic-parochial life. When I explain my thesis to churchgoers of various denominations in England and the United States, they almost always have a story about conflict over church space and embellishment—whether over the color of the carpet, the type of wood used to build the new altar, or pew cushions. And such conflicts did not entail mere quibbling amongst the decorating committee, but often resulted entire factions leaving the church. Indeed, the relationship between the church building and its community is not only potent but also enduring in grassroots religious life, a relationship that is quite evident in the pamphlets and booklets available in parish churches throughout the UK.

Returning to the ethnographic work I conducted when I was researching my thesis, I have begun to reflect upon what role I might have in shaping parishioners’ corporate conventions when I interview them about the relationship between their medieval and modern past, and am even more curious about this role as I currently assist parishioners in writing historical texts for their guides, not to mention when I choose which information from probate records to transcribe or the details from medieval documents I choose to present in public lectures about local history. Indeed, exploring the different ways parish churches’ medieval pasts are conveyed to the public also brings to the fore the academic’s role in complicating these histories and processes. Exploring a church’s history amongst those who are highly invested in it has allowed me to observe today’s parish communities—their practices as well as their relationships to the space of the church and its history—from the vantage point of the documents that record their medieval past. Whether or not medievalists are aware of this role, when we enter a church for the purposes of observing its medieval space, we cannot help but encounter a living, breathing, active parish church and community, whose everyday practices and experiences influence how we understand and encounter its medieval past. Apropos is Professor Robert Orsi’s study Between Heaven and Earth, in which he explains that scholars of religion explore “a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures together.” In the process, we become entangled in the networks of past and present through regular interactions with parishioners and their church’s history, and we inhabit this religious environment in palpable ways. During my visits to Wymondham’s parish church, I have researched to the sound of children singing during their weekly Noc Noc Club meeting as well as to the sound of the organ playing for an afternoon funeral. I have spent two hours wandering the aisles of the church with the chief steward as he narrated its history in great detail, and once managed to convince the Master Ringer to take me on a tour of the fifteenth-century west bell tower. And on one occasion, after I had explained my project to a churchwarden, he then asked the archivist to distribute details of the medieval conflict to the stewards so that they could explain it in detail during their tours. To be sure, by blending archival research with ethnography and even heritage consultancy, I am not just studying a church’s history and the shaping of that history, but I am, quite unintentionally, becoming a part of that shaping process. Even more, as historians of the parish, our very presence in these places of worship and heritage, and the work that we produce and disseminate, is likewise part of the shaping process of local perceptions of the past.

Kristi Woodward Bain, PhD (Religious Studies/Medieval History, Northwestern University)
Parish Heritage Adviser, Norwich Cathedral

Reformed churches on the move

08/17/2014 in archeology and architecture, British Isles, Other, Parish Research Today

Cape Town Slave Lodge, Slave Auction Tree Spin St and Groote Kerk

Greenock nr Glasgow Old West Kirk 1591 moved 1926 (Laird John Shaw crest + staircase)The remarkable mobility of Calvinism has long been noted by religious historians. Soon after its emergence in Geneva, the new confession attracted followers not only in numerous neighbouring territories, but also other Continents. The roots of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town (left) reach back to the establishment of a Dutch staging and supply post at the south-western tip of Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. Conditions here were very different from its European home base. Immediately adjacent to the former churchyard was the slave lodge (the white building to the left of the church, where the East India Company VOC kept hundreds of unfree labourers under lock and key), while individual slaves were auctioned on a spot under the trees in the foreground.

A very different kind of mobility, however, marks the story of the Old West Kirk at Greenock near Glasgow (pic on the right). When the local inhabitants petitioned laird John Shaw for permission to have their own place of worship, one of Scotland’s first post-Reformation churches was built here in 1591. In the 1920s, however, the expansion of a nearby shipyard led to its dismantling and stone-by-stone reconstruction a short distance away on today’s Esplanade. The image shows Shaw’s personal staircase and family crest on the side wall.