The Stuart Tragedy

Reminder of James in St Mary’s Old Church

James 1 Royal Coat of Arms
Painted on the tympanum above the nave are James’s royal arms

After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 came James I (James VI of Scotland) and there is a tangible reminder of his reign in the old church of St Mary.  Painted on the tympanum above the nave are James’s royal arms.  They were undiscovered until 1986 when a team of experts removed the five layers of lime wash that hid them from view.  The top of the painting is still partly hidden by the curved ceiling which was added long after the arms were painted.  Only traces of the royal motto “Honi Soi Qui Mal y Pense” remain, but beneath the arms the words “Exurgat Deus dissipenter inimici” can be clearly seen.  They are the opening words of Psalm 68: “Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.

Henry VIII Heads the Church of England

After Henry VIII became Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534 the royal arms began to appear in churches to represent the link between the monarch and the church. Apart from a few mass-produced Victorian versions, each coat of arms was painted specifically for the church that ordered it.  So no two are the same.  For instance, in the arms at St Mary’s there are three balls or discs on either side beneath the lion and the unicorn that do not appear in other versions.  Those under the lion are white with traces of petals on them; those under the unicorn are red.  It has been suggested this may have been a reference to the Wars of the Roses.  The Rector at the time the arms were painted was Sydney Ketteridge who was presented to the living by Queen Elizabeth.

On the front of the gallery are the royal arms of the House of Hanover.   They are made of cast iron and were probably cast in 1826 during the reign of George IV.  They are believed to be the work of Joseph Wallis who had a foundry in Colchester High Street.  When the Hanoverian arms were altered, Wallis mass produced the new version.  Twenty-three of them have been traced and all but two of them are in Essex and Suffolk.  (St Mary’s Old Church,West Bergholt, Essex,by Roy Tricker.)

Conflict between Anglican & Puritan

While the Fordham incident of the stolen pulpit has the smack of comedy about it, on the national stage, the conflict between Anglican and Puritan was set to end in tragedy during the Stuart years– the death of a king and the horror of civil war.  Charles I and a strongly Puritan Parliament were at loggerheads over who should rule the country and how.

The people of West Bergholt, if not directly involved in the fighting, were very close to it.  Parties of the besieged Royalists in Colchester came out into the country looking for food.   In the fields around St Mary’s, people with metal detectors have found musket balls that must have been fired in skirmishes with Parliamentary patrols.

Scandalous Priest

There was a strong current of Puritanism flowing in the parish because in 1644, just as the first civil war was ending, someone informed on the Rector, accusing him of being a “scandalous priest”.

 Parliament had passed to local committees in seven eastern counties the power to deal with “idle, disaffected and scandalous clergy” who had taken an active part against Parliament.  They were to be ejected from their livings and their property confiscated.   This was part of a witch hunt which saw some 3,000 priests removed from their livings and condemned to considerable hardship.  (Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in the County Of Essex, by TW Davids, P512)

Gregory Holland, who had been Rector at St Mary’s since 1613, was accused by two witnesses of preaching  

that it was not fit for farmers and tradesman to know the mystery of their salvation, but only for himself and such as he.

It was also claimed that

having subscribed ten pounds to Parliament, he said he would go to prison before he paid it and would do no more for the Parliament than he was forced to.

He described the Scots, who had fought with the Parliament forces, as rebels and “prayed for their confusion.”  The King and cavaliers, he said, stood to maintain the Protestant religion.  There were complaints about the way he conducted the sacrament,  that he was

a haunter of inns and taverns and was divers times drunk

… and that he swore, even in church.

Manufactured Cases

Some historians claim that informers manufactured cases against the clergy and were rewarded for the evidence they gave.  One of the commonest charges made was of drunkenness.  (Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in the County Of Essex, by TW Davids, 9 197/8)   Although it was obvious that Mr Holland was a card-carrying Royalist with Catholic tendencies, the committee hearing his case was lenient.  Because he was old, he was not disturbed in his living but was obliged to hand over the greater part of his stipend to a curate chosen by the parishioners.  Their choice was the existing curate, Robert Billio who later established a conconformist church in Hertfordshire.  Holland remained Rector until 1658 when his place was taken by Nathanial Seaman who had been master of Colchester Grammar School.  (Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in the County Of Essex, by TW Davids, p512)

The Book of Sports a work of Satan?

The Puritans also accused Gregory Holland of reading The Book of Sports which they regarded as a work of Satan.  This was a set of rules issued by James I intended to control what activities were permissible on Sundays.  The Book said it was all right to take part in dancing, archery, leaping and vaulting.  May games, Whitsun ales, morris dancing and the setting up of Maypoles were also al-lowed.  You could do any or all of these things – so long as you went to church.  But bear and bull-baiting and bowling were prohibited.  In 1618, King James ordered the rules to be read out in church, but the storm of protest from the Puritans was so great that he withdrew the order.  Fif-teen years later, Charles I reissued the book and again tried to enforce the rules.  (Encyclopaedia Britannica, DeLuxe Edition, Chicago, 2008.)

With the end of the civil war and the restoration of the monarchy, the pendulum swung again and this time it was the Quakers who suffered from penal laws.  They were barred from holding meet-ings and and the penalty for a third offence was transportation.  What happened to the Quaker families who lived in West Bergholt is not  known, but their situation cannot have been a happy one.

As the 17th century wore on there were fewer conflicts recorded in the archives, only the domestic dramas of births marriages and deaths.  There are also some curiosities in the parish records such as the certificates for sufferers from the disease known as King’s Evil.

The King’s Touch

It was believed that people with the disease, which was a form of tuberculosis, could be cured by the King’s touch.  Charles II was reckoned to have touched more than 90,000 victims in the twenty-three years after he came to the throne.  There is no record of the number of cases he cured.  Be-cause people made repeated requests for the King to touch them, a declaration was issued in 1683 that people could only approach the King if they had a certificate to say it was their first time.

In the parish records for 1683, the Rector, the Rev John Newton, writes that a village girl, Mary Bigesby, had asked him for a certificate.  Dr Vaughaunne, of Colchester, confirmed that she was suffering from the disease so a certificate was prepared.  After giving the doctor’s diagnosis, it continues: “In obedience, therefore, to the Declaration of the King’s most Excellent Majesty dated at the court at Whitehall the  nineth of Jan 1683, we doe certifie under our hands and  seals that she hath not at any time been touched by his sacred Majesty to the intent to be healed of that dis-ease.”  The certificate was signed by the churchwardens, John Brewar and John Hoborogh, and the Rector.  A similar certificate was issued for Elizabeth, the wife of Cornelius in October 1686.  (ERO ref DP 59/1/3, Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths.)

The custom of touching victims of the disease was first adopted in England by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century.  In the time of Henry VII in the 16th century, sufferers were given coins that had been touched by the King and this was thought to be equally effective. The coins were worn as charms.

Buried in Woolen Act

In 1666, a madly bureaucratic piece of legislation called the Burial in Woollen Act came into force.  The idea was to boost the English wool trade and it declared that everybody – except victims of the plague – must be buried in a woollen shroud in a wool-lined coffin.  An affidavit had to be sworn by a relative of the deceased in front of a JP with two witnesses to state that the law had been observed and the parish register had to record that the affidavit had been sworn.  There was a massive and absurd fine of £5 if the departed had been buried in any other way.  It is difficult to calculate historical values in today’s money, but that £5 fine would be about £8,500 in 2012 ( ) if you compared average earnings then and now.  Initially the law was strictly enforced despite its unpopularity, but gradually the authorities and the priests ceased to take it very seriously.

And certainly, John Newton at St Mary’s was pretty lax about it, according to a 1686 entry in the parish register.  It says: “John Newton, Rector of West Bergholt, not having time to write down in this book the names of those that were buried, do hereby certify that if required (he can swear) an affidavit for all that were buried in our parish that they were not wrapt up in anything but what was made of sheep’s wool only.” (ERO ref D/P 59/1/3 Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths.)  The Burial in Woollen Act was repealed early in the 19th century.

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