Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Sacred People, Sacred Spaces: Evidence of Parish Respect and Contempt toward the Pre-Reformation Clergy

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Sacred People, Sacred Spaces: Evidence of Parish Respect and Contempt toward the Pre-Reformation Clergy

Article excerpt

When John Hikson arrived in the tiny farming village of what is today Wisborough Green (W. Sussex) to take up his post as vicar, he probably felt as if he was one of the lucky ones. Long gone were the golden days in which parish clergy were simply members of the village community; late fifteenth-century England was awash with ordained priests competing for a limited number of benefices in a world in which family and personal connections were everything. (1) Becoming ordained was easy enough; becoming beneficed was "a massive hurdle." (2) Ordained priests in the fifteenth-century could wait as long as twenty-three years for presentation. (3) Although most ordained clergy aspired to the less onerous and better-funded positions as chantry priest or other sinecures, given the obstacles poised against him and others eager for presentation, a position as vicar must have seemed like a godsend. (4) Hikson appeared determined to begin his residence properly, establishing the appropriate pecking order, and adhering strictly to church policy. His parishioners were not so compliant. Hikson's preliminary request that all officers and ministers of the church swear obedience to him, as dictated by the provincial constitutions, was met with suspicion. Fearing that he "would bring new customs and controversies among them," his parishioners advised the officers of the church to disregard Hikson's demand. Undeterred, Hikson responded by having his ministers cited before the ordinary for their defiance, and reminded his community of worshippers that to him "they owe their obedience ... as their curate." They should be "ruled by him in all things and obedience concerning the ministering of divine service within the said church" (presumably the Church of St Peter Ad Vincula). While Hikson may have hoped for reluctant acquiescence to his authority, that is not the reaction his self-assurance elicited. As his bill in Chancery later noted, it was at this fateful point that his parishioners turned to "malice," beginning to "compass things against" him. Their next dispute revolved around a door leading into the chancel, long used by parishioners to enter the church. Chafing at the intrusion into traditional priestly territory, Hikson forbid them from using it, regardless of their insistence "that it had been accustomed before time there so to be done," pointing instead to the many other doors into the body of the church (parishioner territory). His disregard for community tradition was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Not long afterwards, Hikson found himself facing a royal indictment claiming he willingly assented to and aided in a recent robbery of the church. Since "no evident proof could be showed," the jury acquitted Hikson. Despite the humiliation and inconvenience of the trial they had already foisted upon their now dispirited vicar, the parishioners were still not satisfied. They continued to labour county justices of the peace for warrants both of surety of the peace and for suspension of felony) Finding a sympathetic ear among the justices, the parishioners had their day. While Hikson

   ministered unto them divine service and holy bread on a Sunday and
   kneeled before the altar in his suffrages and prayers, [the
   parishioners] laid upon him violent hands and arrested him and
   entreated him so rigorously that in the same place they drew blood
   upon him, for which diverse of them were excommunicated, and yet
   continue in the same and so with outrageous violence drew him out
   of the said church and incontinently laid him openly and shamefully
   in the stocks and after that, as a thief with his arms bound, with
   a cord led him unto the king's gaol of Guildford [Surrey] where, by
   their untrue suggestions, he was entreated as a thief and laid in
   great duress of imprisonment.

Taking pity on the disgruntled vicar, the Lord of Arundel arranged for his gaol delivery and appointed arbitrators who reckoned the vicar deserving of an award to pay for "the manifest injury and wrong that was done unto him. …

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