Don’t forget the ecclesiastical courts

I have mentioned in previous articles how certain records, such as probate documents, can provide a unique insight into the everyday lives of our ancestors. We are therefore very fortunate as family researchers when we come across this type of record; in effect, they can bring people to life who may have died centuries before. Another very useful source of information which can bring people intimately alive are the records of the ecclesiastical courts. These are the courts of bishops and archdeacons administering church law, and their records survive from the 15th century. Typically they deal with such matters as heresy, non-attendance at church, behaviour at church and in the churchyard, betrothals, wills, allegations of slander, immorality, tithes, the maintenance of church property and so on. Penalties could include excommunication but more usually they involved a remorseful declaration of guilt before the church congregation. Since a large proportion of the cases concern fornication and adultery, not surprisingly the term “Bawdy Court” was commonly used to describe these courts. Needless to say, the records provide an interesting – and often very amusing- insight into everyday parish life which is quite unique. Although the proceedings are recorded in Latin, the Attestations (Depositions)- of most interest to the family historian – are in English; and the witnesses are identified by name, condition, occupation, age, and length of abode in the parish concerned.

Fortunately I have found several references to the Lin(d)fields which provide a colourful and certainly very different record of the activities of some of our ancestors. Of particular interest are the cases of alleged defamation. At the West Sussex Record Office, one is able to consult the deposition books (WSRO Ep. 1/11 Vols 1-16) which contain the statements of witnesses at the Archdeacon’s Court between 1556-1640. The amount of detail is quite unbelievable – often whole dialogues – of how and why defamations occurred. The earliest known case to involve a Lin(d)field took place in the parish of Nuthurst in 1601. This case is described so well in the guide to the parish church (Arthur Lloyd-Davies (Rector). The Long Tapestry: A Guide to Nuthurst Parish Church; Southwater Computers Limited -Date Unknown- early 1980s?) that I make no apology for quoting it in full:

“The churchyard would have been a lively place one Sunday morning in 1601. The Chichester Archdeaconry Court detection list reports that William Seale “did bitterlie raile at Richard Linfield, Churchwarden, after morning service and called him ‘baggage knave, poaching knave and thievish knave'”. This quarrel spilled over to the next Sunday when the Rector, trying to intercede, was greeted with “diverse vehement words like skyrvy knave, arrant knave”. The case was judged by Richard Juxon, father of William Juxon, who comforted Charles I at his execution and became Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles II. He ordered William Seale to seek forgiveness of the Minister and Churchwardens at divine service on the next Lord’s day. William Juxon was a Sussex man, living at Albourne Place.”

Richard Linfield was either the son or grandson of William Lyndfeilde, husbandman of Nuthurst who died in 1578. In his will of March 23 1577, Richard was appointed sole executor and received a “two yerlinge bullocke” which he was to share with his sister Edith. But what motivated the plaintiffs in these defamation cases? Haigh (C A Haigh: Slander and the Church Courts in the XVI century. Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Vol. LXXVII 1975 p5.) has suggested that “we are dealing less with tender consciences and men prickly about their reputations, than with those who used one element in the legal process to protect themselves against another.” No doubt the satisfaction of seeing the slanderer squirming before the whole parish also played its part.

Another case of defamation involving a Lin(d)field occured at West Grinstead in 1634 (George Hottersall: “Defamations in Elizabethan & Early Stuart West Sussex” West Sussex History – Journal of the West Sussex Archives Society Number 48 October 1991 p10.). Thomas Martin accused Eleanor Lindfield of having an illegitimate child, adding “that if he thought she would trouble him saying so, he would go into the churchyard and there speak it before the whole parish”. Eleanor Cooke of Coldwaltham married Richard Linfeild of West Grinstead on October 7 1630, and they had two children, Susan baptised 17 January 1635/36 and Abigail, baptised 30 January 1642/43. Eleanor, by now a widow, died in 1652, and in her will (WSRO PCC Prob II/227 f257) she appoints John Tredcroft of West Grinstead, ‘Bachelohr of Devinity’ and John Woolvyn, yeoman of ‘Thistleworth’ (Littleworth?), overseers to administer her estate during the minority of her two children.

There can be little doubt that some of the more amusing cases to reach the Archdeacon’s ears concern the antics of Richard Linfield of the parish of St. Pancras in Chichester. Richard was undoubtedly the father of Richard and Ralph Linfield of St Pancras who took the Protestation Oath in 1641/2.(The West Sussex Protestation Returns 1641/2; Longshot Volume 3 No. 1 – May 1994.) Richard obviously lead a fairly unconventional life, and his scandalous behaviour brought him before the Archdeacon on a number of occasions. At a Presentment (WSRO Ep III/4/6 f24) in 1602, he was referred to as a “common drunkerde” who “pulled his mother out of her bed stark naked” . Two years later, he appears again in the records for failing to receive his Communion at Easter. At another presentment (WSRO Ep III/4/6 f 4,5,6) in 1601, however, the case was instigated by Richard “who had reported that Thomas Collins had the use of the bodye of his, the said Lindfields wife”

The passing years apparently did little to modify Richard’s behaviour. On 11th December 1618, he was summoned to appear before the Archdeacon’s court for quarrelling in the church, when he was struck by Richard Aylinge with one of the bell ropes. At a Presentment (WSRO Ep III/4/10 f 9,10) in 1619 he appears again “for striking and fygting with Richard Ayling in his parish church of St. Pancras” . For this offence, he “did penance for fighting in the church on 6 June 1619 in time of divine service.” Richard was obviously somebody who must have been dreaded by the local community, especially the rector. The seriousness of his offences is reflected by the fact that he was excommunicated on at least two separate occasions, on February 5, 1619 and June 18, 1621. One of the immediate effects of his excommunication would have been his complete ostracism by everyone in the parish.

And yet despite these various setbacks, Richard appears impervious to change. In 1621, he is summoned (WSRO Ep III 4/10 f105) with William White to reply to Master John Lellipott, Sequestrator of the tithes of St. Andrews. At a Presentment in the following year (WSRO Ep III/4/10 f152, 157), he appears once again, this time “for deteyning the Clarckes wages” . According to the parish registers of St. Pancras, ‘old’ Richard Linfield was buried on January 11 1628; undoubtedly his passing gave a new meaning to the term ‘parish relief.’

Unfortunately (some may say fortunately), we have no idea how these Chichester Linfields connect into any of the main Lin(d)field branches. The burial of a ‘Jone Linffield’ in 1593 is the earliest entry in the parish registers of St. Pancras. The first baptism is that of Christian, daughter of Richard Lynffielde, on June 25 1696. Richard and Mary Linfield had two children who reached adulthood, Richard and Ralph, who both took the Protestation Oath in 1641/42, as mentioned earlier. We also know from his will of 1647 that Richard Linfield of St. Pancras was a brickmaker:

WILL OF RICHARD LINFEILD OF ST. PANCRAS, CHICHESTER BRICKMAKER 25 September 1647 Proved 14 September 1649 Ref: #4850 WSRO


In the Name of God Amen I Richard Linfeild of St. Pancrasse within the County of Sussex Brickmaker being sicke in body but of perfect remembrance praised bee to God doo at this time make & ordayne this my last will & Testament in manner & forme following: Firstly I bequeath my soule to Almighty God my only Saviour & Redeemer. And my body to the Earth from whence it came. Imprimis first I bequeath the lease of my house wherein I live to my wife Margaret Linfeild to have & injoy the same during her life & after her decease I give & bequeath my sayd house & garden aforesayd to Richard Linfeild my sonne, to have & to injoy the same during the remaynder of yeares therein that shalbee to come & unexpired. Item I give all my goods & household stuffe to my wife during her life & upon her decease I give all my sayd goods & household stuffe to my sonne Richard Linfeild. & my will is my sonne Richard Linfeild shall pay unto Nicholas Moore my sonne in law the money I owe him, which is the remaynder of my daughter Sarah her portion, yet unpayd. Item I give to my daughter Sara now the wife of Nicholas Moore twelve pence lawfull money of England, & to her sonne my Godsonne twelve pence. Item I make & ordayne Margaret my wife my Executrix of this my last will & testament, & Richard Lake (?), & Edward Whitington Overseers requesting my wife to content them for their paynes. In witness where of I have unto set my hand & seale the five & twentith day of September & in the yeare of our Lord AD 1647, witness Richard Hill Decimo quarto die Septembris Ao Dom 1649 Apud Arundell magister Robertus Sybson… (Proved 14th September 1649 at Arundel.)

It is quite interesting to note that as far as the records of Chichester are concerned, Richard is the earliest brickmaker to be recorded in the city (Roy Morgan: Chichester: A Documentary History (1992) p66.) Although very few buildings in Chichester were made of brick before 1690, there were bricklayers and brickmakers much earlier than this date. Their products were used to make chimneys and ovens, and for ecclesiastical buildings. The Civil War led to much destruction in the City – in fact, the 13th century church of St. Pancras was one of the victims – so there must have been quite a lot of available work for Richard in the 1640s. As coal became more available during the 17th century, the demand for chimney stacks rose to efficiently dispose of the more noxious smoke.

In this article, I have looked at the value of ecclesiastical courts to the genealogist; I have also looked at some interesting cases which have involved members of the Lin(d)field families. As far as the Lin(d)fields of Chichester are concerned, we have not been able to connect them with any of the other branches, but perhaps, one day, we will find the missing link. Somebody may already claim them as their direct ancestors; but will they have the courage to let us know?

One thought on “Don’t forget the ecclesiastical courts”

  1. We did our tree about 12 years ago, but this goes a little further back than we got, so thank you for the information!

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