The Sackvilles, who arrived from Normandy shortly after the Conquest, held the Lordship for more than 300 years. Most of the Sackvilles were close to the royal court. The last of the family to be Lord of Bergholt Manor, Sir Richard, was Treasurer of the Exchequer and was appointed to organise the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. After the Sackvilles, the advowson was either inherited or sold until 1946 when the Bishop of Chelmsford assumed the right to appoint the priest.
The church at West Bergholt in the time of the Sackvilles probably had very little furniture apart from an altar, altar rails, pulpit, lectern, font and a chest. And St Mary’s chest is a particularly fine one. In the mid 1560s, a law was passed that every parish church must have a chest and that the chest must have three locks, so it was at about this time that St Mary’s acquired the great iron-bound box that still stands at the back of the church. It has been described (The Church Chests of Essex, by H William Lewer and J Charles Wall, Talbot and Co, London, 1893.), as being very different from all other church chests in Essex. This is not particularly surprising as they were all made to measure, probably by a village craftsman and are all therefore unique. But the St Mary’s chest is a particularly massive and splendid piece of furniture. It is made of three inch thick oak boards and bound with iron bands. One curious feature is the two-fold lid. All the exposed wood is covered with iron nails driven in at random. The three locks were to deter thieves and were to make sure that the chest could not be opened by just one person. The Rector had one key, the churchwarden the second and either another churchwarden or a member of the congregation the third. The chest was where the parish kept all its documents and its silver plate.
The only piece of silver that was in use at that time and to survive is an Elizabethan cup which the authors of The Church Plate of the County of Essex say is “of somewhat exceptional character…..and has nothing in common with any other Essex Elizabethan cup.” Their devastating critique of the cup makes it sound most interesting. It is undated and has neither a maker’s mark nor an inscription. What makes the cup different and controversial is the decoration on it which consists of three heads with an engraved oval outline. This, say the authors, “is in keeping neither with the character of the vessel nor with the sacred purpose for which it was intended. Moreover, the workmanship is coarse and the figures are crude and ungainly.” They are not sure whether this decoration, or “vandalism” as they call it, was done when the cup was made or was a later addition. They add dryly that whenever it was done, “it has not enhanced the attractiveness of the piece, though it may have added to its interest.”
The church plate is now kept at the new church. Apart from the “exceptional” cup it consists of a 1780 flagon by Richard Yates, described as a “reputable maker;” a silver paten given to the church in 1816 by the then Rector, Joseph Fisher; and a modern cup and paten by Messrs Wippell and Co. (The Church Plate of the County of Essex, edited by the Rev W J Pressey, Benham and Co., Colchester, 1926.)
In the middle ages, if you were wealthy and worried about whether you would go to heaven, you could pay for a priest to pray for your soul and the souls of your family. In 1332, James Bures founded a chantry at St Mary’s where masses could be said for him and his family. The priest was paid with the income from two houses and nearly fifty acres of land dedicated in his will for this purpose. A chantry priest was last recorded at Mary’s in 1511. (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol. X, p35.)
In the early 1500s, in churches like St Mary’s right across Europe, change was in the air. People were questioning the sanctity of a church whose servants did not always practice the righteousness they preached. They wondered why, when the church was so rich, its priests lived in poverty and often ignorance. And the very doctrines of the church were being challenged by thinkers like Wycliff in England and Luther in Europe.
St Mary’s was at the centre of many dramas involving both clergy and lay people during the religious upheavals of the Tudor and Stuart reigns. Some were tragic, some were comic and we have a record of some of them. Most of the parishioners were farmers, farm workers and craftsmen and although they had little or no education, they took their religion seriously and did not hesitate to challenge their spiritual leaders. Even before the upheaval of the Reformation properly got under way, they were at it. In 1520, a member of the congregation abused the Rector, the Rev John Peacock, in the pulpit, calling him “a false, forsworn man.” (ERO. D/DMa M3 rot. 20.) There is no record of why he was so angry with the Rector.
The average churchgoer in England became aware of the Reformation after Henry VIII turned his back on Rome and made himself head of the church in England. His wife Katherine had failed after more than twenty years of marriage to bear the son he needed to continue the Tudor dynasty and stabilise the political situation in England. After years of failing to persuade the Pope to give him a divorce, he broke with the Church of Rome in 1534. He was in a hurry to marry Anne Boleyn who was expected to produce the heir he needed..
The effects of the great schism were slow to be felt in the parish churches. Little changed in the way services were conducted. The Book of Common Prayer and the Bible became available in English but life in the parish went on more or less as before. Probably the first time the worshippers of West Bergholt realised what a massive change was taking place around them was when the Dissolution of the Monasteries came close to home. The King was looting the religious foundations and selling their property off. Henry closed St John’s Abbey in Colchester, executed the Abbot and seized the Abbey’s riches These included the land on the edge of West Bergholt known as the Almery or Armoury estate that had been given to the Abbey by Robert de Sackville in 1137. For centuries it had provided enough income to support four monks. Henry sold it to one of his civil servants for £163 12s 8d,, which in today’s money is nearly a million pounds if you compare the value of wages. (measuringworth.com)
One of the reasons the reformers wanted change was the poor quality of many of the clergy, and West Bergholt had one of the priests they were concerned about. In 1545, the Rev Edmund Tarrell, Rector of St Mary’s since 1531, was reported to the Bishop for drunkenness, fighting and neglecting his duties. He failed to give the last rites to the dying wife of Mr John Grene because he was in Colchester (probably in a tavern); there were times when he did not turn up for Evensong; and he failed to read to the congregation the Injunction on Religious Doctrine issued by the King which was supposed to be read in every church. It was also said that he never read out the Ten Commandments or said the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers. (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol. X, p36.) There is no record of what sort of rebuke he received, but perhaps it made Mr Tarrell turn over a new leaf because he managed to remain Rector until his death in 1559.
While King Henry himself still clung to the rites and beliefs of the Catholic Church, Protestant thought and practices were spreading through England and they found fertile ground in West Bergholt. Protestants believed that man could be saved by faith alone; that the Bible was the source of the church’s authority and that everyone should be entitled to read it in English; and they opposed the heirarchical structure of the Catholic Church and the Catholic belief in transubstantiation – the doctrine that the wine and wafer of the Eucharist became the blood and body of Christ.
Under the Tudors, the pendulum of belief and doctrine was to swing violently to and fro to the bewilderment and concern of many believers. Henry’s limited reforms were replaced by the firmly Protestant regime of his son, Edward VI. Then came Mary, an unreconstructed Roman
Catholic, determined to restore the old faith; and finally Elizabeth whose Protestantism was reinforced by her fear of Catholic plots to drive her from the throne.
Protestantism became more firmly established during the six-year reign of Edward VI, especially in East Anglia, which became a hotbed of non-conformity. People in the region began to suffer for their beliefs when Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553 determined to drive her people back to the Catholic faith – by force if necessary. Mr Tarrell at St Mary’s was dutifully conducting services according to the Roman Catholic tradition as Queen Mary decreed, but some in the parish made a statement of their Protestant beliefs by refusing to go to a church where such rites were performed.
One of them was Mrs Agnes George, the 26-year-old wife of farmer Richard George. In June 1556, she was arrested on the orders of Colchester alderman Robert Maynard for failing to attend church. She was brought before the Right Reverend Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who was described by Protestants “as a bloody butcher and a ravening wolf.” She refused to return to the Roman Catholic faith and was sentenced with others to be burned at the stake.
The condemned group issued a statement from prison saying they did not believe that the bread and wine of the mass became the body and blood of Christ as the Roman Church claimed and they described the Vatican as “the anti-Christ and the congregation of the wicked.” On 27 June they were executed at Stratford. The terrible scene is described in Fox’s Book of Martyrs: “The eleven men were tied to three stakes and the (two) women lose in the middle without any stake; and so they were burned in one fire with such love to each other and constancy in our saviour Christ that it made all the lookers on to marvel.”
These were years of terrifying uncertainty for those in the parish who rebelled against the Catholic faith. Two years later Richard George’s second wife followed Agnes to the stake. George himself was arrested on a charge of heresy but escaped with his life and was released from Colchester Castle dungeon when Queen Elizabeth came the throne in 1558. (Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in the County of Essex, by T W Davids, Pastor of the Congregational Church, Lion Walk, Colchester. Jackson, Walford and Hodder, 27 Paternoster Row, London, 1863.) Persecution of Protestants came to an end but now life became uncomfortable for those who clung to the old religion.
The Queen’s first Parliament in 1559 passed an Act of Supremacy confirming her as head of the church and an Act of Uniformity which again made it an offence not to go to church and for the clergy not to use the new revised prayer book. The general effect of the new law was to identify Roman Catholicism with treason. To attend or conduct the mass was illegal.
Three people in West Bergholt fell foul of the law, including the Rector. In 1581, the Rev Richard Kyrby, who clearly had Catholic tendencies, was accused by a Parishioner of saying that lay people should not read the prayer book in English. The See of London was vacant at the time, so in the absence of the Bishop, Queen Elizabeth herself intervened, removed Kyrby from the living and installed Sydney Ketteridge, who was safely within the Protestant fold, in his place. (Repertorium Eccliasticum Parochiale Londinense, vol II, (1708-10); Grindal, 1591/2-1600 (MS 9531/3, part 2).)
While he was Rector of St Mary’s, Kyrby was also Vicar at White Notley and this may have been another factor in his dismissal because pluralism was frowned on. Despite his ejection from the West Bergholt living, his career in the church was not over. He must have conformed to the new Anglican ways because he went on to become Vicar of High Easter, near Chelmsford, and continued in the ministry until his death in 1608. It is possible, of course, that he did not change and that the congregation at High Easter were more sympathetic to his views.
Kyrby’s accuser, Gilbert Spede, ended up in court accused by the Rector of slandering him. He was also accused of addressing the Rector as “thou” – an insult when used by a person of inferior rank. Another charge against Spede was that he owned “an unlawful book of soothsaying, palmistry and such like.” (Elizabethan Life, Morals and the Church, by F G Emmison, Essex Record Office, 1973, p207.) It is not known what happened to him.
In 1601, the churchwarden at St Mary’s received a pathetic note from the third victim of Elizabeth’s law, parishioner John Smith, who said that he dare not come to church in case he was arrested. He had stood surety for someone who was due to appear in court and the person had not turned up for trial. So now Mr Smith must forfeit his bail bond. But he had not got the money to pay the court so he faced being arrested for debt. Poor Mr Smith managed to commit two offences without really trying. The fine for failing to attend church was twelve pence for each offence.
Kyrby’s successor, Sydney Ketteridge, who was presented to the living by Queen Elizabeth, was in trouble with the Bishop in 1589 because the Ten Commandments were not on display in the church. He remained Rector until 1613. (The History Of Essex, OUP, Oxford, 2001, Vol. X, p36.)
While many priests like Kyrby were fighting to come to terms with the new doctrine, the Roman Church began fighting back against Elizabeth’s Protestant regime by sending missionaries into England from France to bring the mass to families who were clinging to the old faith. Those who harboured “renegade” priests and the priests themselves faced a charge of treason if they were caught and death if they were convicted. In the homes of some Catholic families there were “priest holes” where the visiting priest could be hidden while the Queen’s men searched.
One such cunningly hidden hole was found in the house known as Horsepits in West Bergholt in 1944. German bombs had fallen in the village and plaster had been dislodged from a wall by the blast, revealing the entrance to a small room. On one of the walls was painted the date 10 November 1628 and the initials DTS. One can only hope that DTS (if he was a Catholic missionary) escaped with his life. Some 250 people died in twenty years of Elizabeth’s penal laws. In the five years of Mary’s reign, 300 Protestants were burned to death. (The Oxford History of England: The Reign of Elizabeth, by J B Black, 2nd edition, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, p188.)
In 1562, Lady Sackville, wife of the Lord of Bergholt Sackville manor, and her companion, Lady Cary, were among a group of people who were arrested for attending mass. Lady Cary was sentenced to three months in prison. There is no mention of what happened to Lady Sackville. She probably escaped with a warning because of Sir Richard’s closeness to the Queen. (The History of the Sackville Family, by Charles J Philliops.)
But it was not just Catholics who were living dangerously at this time. Quakers, Puritans and, curiously, Presbyterians were all gathering strength in East Anglia. And they were all busy in West Bergholt. And all lived in fear of persecution.
A group of clergymen and lay people from ten parishes including West Bergholt, formed what was known as The Dedham Classis. Although they were active in the Anglican church, they were Presbyterians who wanted more extensive reform of the established church. In spite of their name, their very first meeting took place on 3 December 1582 in what they called in their records Barfold – just one of the names by which West Bergholt was known. None of the Rectors of St Mary’s appears to have been involved, but the name of John Tilney, a village resident, appears regularly in the Classis minute book. They believed they escaped serious persecution because the government was too preoccupied with the Catholic threat. Nevertheless, some of the brethren did go to prison for their beliefs. Their meetings, which were held in each of the ten parishes in turn, seem to have consisted of prayer, discussion of doctrine and the practical problems they encountered in their ministry. They met on the first Monday of every month at eight o’clock in the morning. (The Presbyterian Movement in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Roland G Usher, Royal Historical Society, London, 1905.)
There is evidence of a strong Quaker presence in the parish because, in 1655, a service in St Mary’s being conducted by the Rector, Gregory Holland, was interrupted by three people in the congregation, who were known to be Quakers. Samuel Skillingham, Mary Cooke and Jonathan Bundock waited until he had finished his sermon and then in turn gave their views of what he had said. They refused to be quiet and were arrested. It is known that Bundock was imprisoned in Colchester Castle, but the fate of the others is not known. (Essex Review: Sufferings of Essex Quakers in the Commonwealth Period, vol 44, p22.) Bundock’s children and many of their descendants were prominent in the Quaker movement. (Rectors of Two Essex Parishes, by the Rev F W Austen.)
The Puritans believed that the church reforms had not gone far enough and that the Anglican church was still too close to Catholicism. They also opposed the Book of Common Prayer, the priest’s cap and gown being worn during services, the use of the cross in baptism and kneeling during sacrament. They wanted to rid the churches of the last vestiges of Catholicism, including bishops and images.
Robert Cotton, a member of a family of Puritans who lived in West Bergholt, became Rector of All Saints Church at Fordham and clearly conducted services according to his Puritan beliefs. In March 1628, some members of his congregation staged a protest against his lengthy sermons. One night they broke into the church, removed the pulpit and left it at the foot of the church tower. (All Saints Church, Fordham – A Guide, by Patricia Lewis, 1984.)