Anthea Jones traces 1000 years of development

The Church of England recognizes some 13,000 parishes as the comprehensive framework for ministry, and of these, about two thirds may have existed for a thousand years, although some boundaries may have been altered; the other one third have been defined over the last 200 years. It is a formidable task to compress the history of such a long period into three short articles, or even into a book. A Thousand Years of the English Parish has inevitably omitted some aspects which others might think important. But to endure for so many centuries suggests that there are great and even fundamental strengths in parish organization and each of these three articles attempts to highlight one period and one aspect of this history, at the same time hoping to keep in mind the future of the parish.

Village Vicar

A network of parishes seems to have existed already by 1086, when the Domesday Inquest was made in the country recently conquered by the Normans. The monks of Ely Abbey noted how in 1086:

the King’s barons inquired by the oath of the sheriff of the shire and of all the barons and of their Frenchmen and of the whole hundred, the priest, reeve and six villagers of every vill …

This need not imply that there was a priest in every vill, the area used for tax gathering, but that for every vill there was a priest recognized as having responsibility. Vills were quite small areas, otherwise known as townships. Domesday’s information was not comprehensive, and the cryptic entries are not always easy to interpret now, but still it shows a wide dispersion of priests and churches through Norman England. Suffolk is the most striking example. There seem to have been as many as 436 churches in the county, in 345 villages and seven towns, which can be compared with 484 in 1256 recorded by Bishop Suffield, and Suffolk has continued to have an extraordinary number of small parishes and many parish churches.

Throughout the history of the parish, initiatives by an individual have been an important source of development. It seems that in the century before 1086 numerous men with authority over tracts of land which the Normans called ‘manors’ had built a church, and provided a small land-holding and house for a priest, to whom some or all of the tithes or taxes paid to the Church could be directed. ‘Wards’ in towns were the urban equivalents of manors, and each man who controlled a block of land in a town also often provided a church for his tenants. A church was described as parochial if the inhabitants could be baptised in its font and buried in its churchyard. Here was the principal task of the church – to provide for the cure of souls. A second task was to teach the next generation of priests. Their literacy made parish priests natural administrators for central government, as in helping with the collection of information for the Domesday survey.

Multiple Benefice

Both manors and parishes were based on the existing townships, the very practical divisions of the land into self sufficient farming units where the inhabitants had access to as fair a division of natural resources as could be established: some arable land, meadow, pasture and wood. Nothing was schematically simple and tidy in medieval administration, and to some extent the pattern of parishes was accidental. It was also extremely varied: some were large, some small; some were simple, just one township or even only part of a township; others were complex, containing many townships. But there are signs in certain areas that bishops organized parishes – filling gaps where there were none and breaking up over-large parishes where they had authority to do so. It is surprising how often a parish was made up of six townships; it occurs far more often than chance would suggest. To take the example of the parish in which I live, Shipton under Wychwood. Milton, Lyneham, Leafield, Ramsden and Langley were in the parish as well as Shipton itself where the church was situated. In this respect parish names can be misleading. A parish of more than one township was alternatively named by reference to the church itself, like Whitkirk in Yorkshire where the church was in Colton township but served another five townships, or Ashchurch in Newton township in Gloucestershire which also served six.

There were also some earlier strands in the parochial structure, as for example in the estates given for the maintenance of bishops and monasteries which usually were the basis for large parishes, and these churches could be reluctant to yield up any of their authority or revenue to a local parish priest. Such ecclesiastical estate owners often made provision for local churches to be served by members of the episcopal or monastic community, or they appointed curates to live near their churches.

Parishioner Pay

The Church itself by the thirteenth century made it difficult to create new parishes as the canon lawyers gradually hammered out the rules which were to govern the church for many centuries. The income of existing churches was defended. It became accepted that only one church could have responsibility for cure of souls in any one area; other churches had to accept a lesser status as chapels. The obligation of parishioners to pay for the maintenance of the church was also established. A survey of churches made in 1291 by the King on the authority of Pope Nicholas, in order that the King could collect Papal taxes for a number of years to contribute to a crusade, shows that there were at least 8000 parish churches. From this time the number of parish churches hardly changed for 500 years.

It was an obligation on parishioners to support their parish priest. From the tenth century the King’s government had backed the Church in requiring payment of tithes, one tenth of the produce of the land, normally paid to a parish church from all the land in that parish; but the valuable tithe of corn and hay by no means always went to the local parish priest; instead it helped to support the bishops and monasteries. Priests in many parishes therefore, both urban and rural, had to rely for their sustenance on small payments made by their parishioners: the small tithe of lambs, wool, and garden produce, the personal tithe of a few pennies from every householder, and the quarterly offerings, usually all collected at Easter. A huge variety of arrangements made by individual parishes and priests existed at the Reformation. Then during the reign of Edward VI personal tithes were strictly limited by act of parliament, and this struck a severe blow to many parish priests. Thereafter personal tithes gradually died out; those that survived were finally extinguished in the nineteenth century with the abolition of church rates in 1868.

The origins of the parish were fundamentally in the need to establish a priest and church with responsibility to baptize and bury the inhabitants, and to establish the boundaries of the area whose inhabitants would contribute to his sustenance. But once formalized, the system was also one of authority over any other churches and curates within a parish. However, individual and community initiatives found ways of breaking through the formal structure.

Anthea Jones is the author of A Thousand Years of the English Parish, published by Windrush Press (2000) ISBN 1-900624-50-8.