Stepping into Early Modern Norfolk

One of the great pleasures of doing family history and what provides the basis for it to be radical in its impact is its collective nature, ‘organised’ as it is around numerous local societies. Norfolk has the advantage of a well endowed centre of its own and a goodly body of volunteers to keep it running. Although I have only the most slender connection with the county via a couple of generations beyond one of my grandmothers, it has been a pleasure to join in with Norfolk FHS and help transcribe some of their vast collection of parish registers for eventual posting on their website.

I have begun with a Marshland parish, well to the west of the city and in a landscape with which I am not at all familiar. Terrington St John lies some way south of King’s Lynn. Once part of a much larger parish it had a chapel of ease which around 1423 became St John’s parish church and gave this community its nominal identity different from Terrington St Clement, the original home parish. This pattern of development is similar to the very different Pennine parishes west of Barnsley with which I am more familiar.

The parish register commenced in 1538 following a mandate originating with Thomas Cromwell and part of his grand plan to make sure the State and the Crown had precedence over religious practices and culture at a local level (not without its conflicts of course). The first volume runs to 1585. It is very much in the nature of things that many of these early records are incomplete and it is evident that the ‘original’ from which these were taken was in fact a copy of an older register, probably one made up of loose pages roughly and incompletely stitched together. There is a significant gap between 1555 and 1559, with parts of 1570 and 1584 also missing.

The vicars were Henry Mynne (until 1540), Robert Evans (1540-1554), Christopher Barton (1554-1560, who seems to have attempted to gather together the previous register pages), Marmaduke Woodde (1560-1569), William Sanderson (1569-1574), Henry Warren (1574-1582) and John Waters from 1582. Nevertheless there were other priests mentioned in the register – one marriage (John Holland to Jane Browne) and two or burials William Laceshy and Thomas Metcalf). Where did they come from and why were they buried here? The pattern of changes for the vicars seems also to follow a little behind key events during the Tudor Reformation. Henry Mynne drops out shortly after Cromwell’s fall from grace, Robert Evans shortly after the accession of Queen Mary and the return to Catholicism, and Christopher Barton falls by the wayside soon after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I and the return to Protestant supremacy.

There are some oddities about the register that are worth investigation. From 1538 to 1549, and sporadically afterwards, it was the practice not to record the surnames of brides in marriage: on 53 occasions in all before 1585. Occasionally deaths miss out forenames as well: hence ‘the wife of so and so’. Was this laziness alone or was it combined with a degree of gender bias towards the male of the species? The culprits were the vicars Henry Mynne and Robert Evans, though the latter relented in the practice in 1549. Marmaduke Woodde also temporarily revived the practice in the 1560s for a while.

A second phenomenon was the prevalence of aliases: Fichett for Hitchyn, Boston for Tyler and Drinkwill for Morflett. By and large this was maintained for marriages and baptisms during the period for these particular characters. There was at least one occasion of an adult baptism: Jane the wife of Godwyn Kidd was baptised 6 March 1547/48.

Given my abiding interest in anything to do with population studies, it is not surprising that I have been counting the marriages, baptisms and burials. Burials slightly outnumbered baptisms in the period by 385 to 354, while there were 238 marriages. Some of the latter inevitably involved incomers to the parish and this may have roughly balanced out or even exceeded the population loss. It would take a great deal of analysis to determine this in detail, perhaps by examining surname changes – but this is very inexact, especially with nothing beforehand to use as a comparator.

Chatting to fellow members with Fenland connections, I was interested to hear about the practice of some local women for concocting a potion out of poppies: a crude form of laudanum no doubt. They used this to quieten the youngest children, left in the care of an older child while the women worked. I am not sure whether this was prevalent in the 16th century or a later practice in the 19th, but I was told that there was a tendency to overdose the children. This was one cause among many that explained a significantly large attrition among infants.

Perhaps the saddest of these was one child baptised around 1584 where the mother’s name was not mentioned, but there were two reputed fathers listed in the register (one of which I know to have been married). The child died within a few weeks and was at least buried with the name of just one father, the married one. I wonder what lay behind this dispute.

More questions than answers, but many opportunities and reasons for giving closer examination to Fenland communities in the 16th century.