I have been reading Adam Smyth’s excellent Autobiography in Early Modern England recently, which argues that the genesis of life-writing can be found in early modern forms and genres that we are unaccustomed, through twenty-first century eyes, to seeing as autobiographical. Successive chapters look at annotated almanacs, financial accounts, commonplace books, and parish registers as sources in which we can see the origins of autobiography.
Reading the chapter on registers, I was reminded of the parish records kept by Sir Thomas Butler, vicar of Much Wenlock during the mid-sixteenth century. I have blogged previously about a specific incident recorded in Butler’s register, in which an 11-year old girl was hanged. But in fact Butler’s records do not just contain information about the personal and religious milestones of his parishioners. They also show that, even from the start, registers could contain occasional glimpses of a self-reflexive subjectivity that gives an insight into the personal and religious lives of parish priests.
Butler’s original register does not survive: it was destroyed in a fire, but extracts in the Cambrian Journal from 1861 give at least something of its contents. It covers 1538 to 1562, and Butler’s views about the establishment of the Church of England start to insinuate themselves onto the page as the register goes on. Here is the first overt reference to the Reformation:
The Monastery of Wenlock surrendered on the morrow of the feast of the Conversion of S’ Paul. 1539.
This feast is celebrated on 25 January. In an entry for February 1539, Butler has written:
20 of the above rotten moneth was christened here Jone the daughter of of Rauf Patson Brewer to the Monastre of St Milburga of this towne of Moch Wenlok.
Implicit references to the dissolution and its casualties recur throughout the register:
- Here was buried out of Hopton Monachorum Sir John Gough, there at that time curate, otherwise called Sir John Castle, some time Monck in the monastery of St. Milburghe here in Moch Wenlock, and Prior of the Cell in Preen, the last Prior that there was, whose bodie is here buried.
- Here was buried out of Broseley the body of Sir Thos. Parkes priest, sometime a White Monk of the Cistercian order in the monastery of Buildwas.
The juxtaposition of incident and location in this entry is particularly poignant:
Richard Philips who hanged himself at the ynde of the Lane going toward Calowton at the plotte of grownde wher somtyme was a Crosse of tymbre called Hamfis Weales crosse.
The dissolution was only the start of seismic changes to the religious culture of Much Wenlock. Here Butler records in Latin what must have been, for him, a particularly difficult incident:
7 Nov 1547. quo die combusta fuerunt ossa dive Virginis Milburge in fori itroitu cimiterii cu quatuof images vz. St Jo. Bapt. de Hopebowdlar, Imagines St Blasii de Stanto long, imagines St Marie Vgis Matris Xti de Acton Ronde, et imagines eiusdem St Virginis Marise.
[My Latin is very rusty but a rough translation is something like: on which day the bones of the holy Virgin Milburga [founder of the local priory] were burned in the market place by the entrance to the graveyard and four images viz. St John the Baptist from [the village of] Hope Bowdler, images of St Blaise from Hope Stanton, images of St Mary the Virgin Mother of Christ from Acton Round, and images from the same of St Mary the Virgin.]
Not surprisingly, the death of Edward VI, and the crowning of Mary I, is greeted with joy:
1553. Mem. That as some say King Edward the VI. by the Grace of God died the 6th day of this instant month of July, in the year of our Lord God as it is above written, and as some do say he died the 4th day of May last preceeding, in the same year of our Lord, and upon Mary Magdalenes, which is the 22nd day of this instant month, at Bridgnorth in the fair, there was proclaimed Lady Mary Queen of England, &c., after which proclamation finished the people made great joy, casting up their caps and hats, lauding, thanking and praising God Almighty with ringing of bells and making of Bonfires in every street. And so was she proclaimed Queen the same day at Shrewsbury, and at the Battlefield in the same evening with the like joy of the people, and triumphal solemnity made in Shrewsbury, and also in this Borough of Much Wenlock.
Mary’s coronation quickly makes its impact on the day-to-day life of Butler and his parishioners:
7 Oct. A child first Christned in the Latyne tongue by the booke called the Manuale.
31st Oct. A child first buryed after the Coronacon of the Queens Majestic in the latyne tongue after the use of the Church of Sarum.
Butler’s hopes at Mary’s accession must have been dashed when Elizabeth succeeded her – something he found out just before conducting a mass:
In remembrance to be had it is, that the 17th day of this instant month of November, in the year of our Saviour Jesus Christ, 1558, in the morning of the same day departed by death the noble Queen Marie, in the 6th year of her reigne the daughter of King the 8th, and of Queen Catherine his first wife; and the same day of her departing at 11 of the Clock, with the whole assent of the nobility, was Elizabeth the daughter of the said King Henry proclaimed Queen of England &c. in London. And upon St. Catherines day, as Sir Thomas Botelar Vicar of this Church of the Holy Trinity of Moch Wenlock was going toward the Altar to celebration of the Mass, Mr. Richard Newport of High Ercal Esqr then being Sheriff of Salop, coming late from London, came unto me and bad me that I after the Offertorie should come down into the Body of the Church, and unto the people here being, should say these words in open audience and loud voice.
Butler passes on the news to his parishioners, but his reluctance to do so is very apparent:
Then I said, Friends, Mr. Bailiff of this Town & of the liberties of the same, & Mr. Richd Lawley his father, with other that have been Bailiffs, have willed me to shew you that are poor folks that ye may at afternoon about one of the Clock resort to the Bonfire where ye shall have Bread & Cheese & drink to pray unto God Almighty for the prosperity of the Queen’s Noble Majesty, and this said we went forthwith.
In 1559 Butler makes this mournful entry into the register:
It is to be had in Remebrance that the celebration of the divine Svice in the Englysh Tonge was begun this day in crastino Nativitat St John bapt.
Thomas Cromwell’s original instructions to parishes in 1538 were for:
every person, vicar or curate to provide for every parish one book or register, wherein he shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening and burial, and also therein insert every person’s name who shall be so wedded, christened or buried.
Reading Butler’s register, however, it becomes clear that pretty quickly a lot more starts to creep into them than just the bare details of hatches, matches and dispatches.