The Story of the English Parish

Notes from lectures

Riseley WEA Week 1  Jan 2013

Origins and Function

In origin, the parish is fundamentally an ecclesiastical unit. It is the lowest part of the Church’s
hierarchy and has been so since the tenth century, both for the Church of England and the Pre
Reformation Church. As such, it is therefore a geographical unit with prescribed parish boundaries.
From the Church’s point of view it decreed to whom tithes were paid and it also decided the area for which a priest was responsible.

The parochial system as we know it developed many years after the original conversion of England in the seventh century. For a long time, local churches did not exist and local communities received, at best, the services of a visiting priest from a large central church. At first, tithes would have been paid to these central churches which were often called minsters.

It was sometime around the tenth century that local churches were created. The initiative seems to Have  been taken by local lords who built churches for their own convenience and appointed a priest to  care, for it. The right of patronage or advowson still partly exists. The lord provided the site for the church building and also presumably for a clergy house. This is the reason that the parish church is so often found next to the manor house. An advantage of this was that tithes could now be directed to a more local use. These churches are sometimes known as proprietary churches because they were almost owned by the lord. Subsequently, the Church established more control over its own affairs although the lord remained its patron.

The parish which was created in this way would presumably correspond to the lord’s estate.
Sometimes these estates might subsequently get subdivided and in that case, new parishes were sometimes created, even occasionally leading to two parishes in the same village. However, as time went by, it became increasingly difficult to create new parishes, even if there were quite distinct villages or settlements. In this case, chapels of ease were sometimes built which were locations for services but did not change the pattern of tithes or pastoral responsibility.

Reproduced by kind permission  of David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 2  Jan 2013

All Shapes and Sizes

Parishes on the ground come in all sorts of shape and size and show a bewildering variety

Parishes are defined by parish boundaries which may be very old. Today they can be identified from Ordnance Survey maps but in earlier times they had to be remembered. This explains the ancient custom of “beating the bounds”, when clergy and parishioners would walk around the boundaries on a perambulation. At various points there would be markers of different sorts and these would be noted and checked so that people would remember them. Once established, parish boundaries remained pretty constant at least until the 19th century.

The parishes varied greatly and this reflected the circumstances when they were created.
Sometimes they were also affected by later developments.

Among the factors that were important were-:

•     the nature of the ground, density of population and settlement pattern. Dispersed settlements and low population density usually meant larger parishes.

•     later land reclamation. This could also result in larger parishes, as for example, in the Fens. Here, there is a very big distinction between the silt fens around The Wash with very elongated shapes and the peat fens where settlements on fen islands could expand out in all directions.

•     later sub-division. Parishes were usually based on lords’ estates and these estates could get sub-divided, which could lead to new parishes. Occasionally, one village could have two parishes.

•     parish amalgamation. By contrast, parishes could amalgamate. This often came about  because of population movement or decline, as in the case of deserted villages.

When we add to this the places that remained chapeiries and places that never acquired churches in the first place, we can begin to understand why there is such a rich variety and how, in turn, this variety can illuminate the history and background of any particular area.

Reproduced by kind permission  of David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 3  Jan 2013

Rectors, Vicars and Canons

Parish clergy in the Middle Ages had several sources of income. They had their own
land (glebe), they had various fees and above all they had tithes. This income was for
them personally, not for church expenses and consequently, they could become quite
wealthy. Those who received tithes were known as rectors. The lord, or patron, had
the right to appoint to these positions. As, in a way, he owned the church, he could
also give it away, that is, he could give the patronage away to a different body AND
the income that went to the clergyman. Nearly always, it was to a monastery that such
a gift would be made. The monastery would appoint a deputy or a vicar to provide the
pastoral care and pay him a stipend and provide a house. They would retain the tithes
for their own use as part of their endowment. These endowments were known as

At the Reformation, the Crown disposed of these “spiritualities” along with the other
monastic property. Often they went to gentry or aristocrats who would pay for them.
They thus became “lay rectors” and now received the tithes whilst continuing to pay a
vicar his stipend. This continued until tithes were commuted in the 1 8C and 1 9C but
lay rectors still continue to exist.

Sometimes, instead of to a monastery, these gifts were made to a cathedral or
collegiate church such as Southwell Minster. These were staffed by a community of
priests, often known as canons. They were financed by endowments, or prebends, and
the clergy are often called prebendaries. Frequently, these prebends were rectories.
Again, the income paid for them to work in the cathedral minster whilst they
maintained a deputy in the parish. Often they had a large house in the cathedral close
or precincts and another one in the parish. This system survived the Reformation and
lasted until the 1 9C when most were abolished and most canons became non
residentiary and the title became an honour given to senior clergy in the diocese.

Reproduced by kind permission  of David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 4  Jan 2013

There were no notes given out this week - we discussed the meanings of a list of ecclesiastical words.

Riseley WEA Week 5  Feb 2013

The Parish Community.

At its most developed, the parish community was a cohesive unit that reflected the nature of society as a whole.We can perhaps think of it as a pyramid. At the top was the Lord of the Manor who might either be resident or non resident. If he was non resident a steward would represent him. He might not have much day to day input in the direct running of the parish but would control much through his ownership of the land. He would probably hold the advowson.

Next in social standing would come the clergyman who might be either a vicar or a rector, might perhaps be a junior member of the squire!s family and could be considerably wealthy. Below these people come the rate payers of the parish, either landowners or significant tenants. These would be the leaders of the parish community and from whom the officers of the parish would be taken.

Finally, at the base of the pyramid would be the smallholders, craftsmen and labourers. A similar type of pyramid would be found in neighbouring parishes. Each pyramid would be linked into wider society by the diocesan officials for the Church and the magistrates for secular society. The magistrates represented the gently and squires, and thus the various units of society interlocked with each other. Furthermore, the Church was expected to support the state and the state to defend the Church.

Each parish had officials to assist the churchwardens in their role. Three officers were particularly significant:-
The Constable.
The constable had many jobs. He had the power to arrest miscreants. He had charge of the instruments of punishment. He was responsible for the Militia. He collected dues as necessary He removed vagrants and supervised ale houses. On the whole, it was not a popular job and many constables did little. It tended to become an office held by one of the lesser people in the parish.
They were responsible to J.P.s but had their expenses paid by the parish. Consequently, among the parish records may be found constables accounts.

Surveyor of the Highways.
The parish was responsible for the upkeep of roads. Each person within the parish was expected to provide resources for their upkeep and labourers had to work for four days each year to maintain them. The surveyor oversaw this work. He was expected to view the roads three times a year, check that the carriages that used them did not have too many horses and supervise the labour and report defaulters to the Justices. Again, it was not a popular job and relatively few records survive since it was an unsatisfactory system.

The Overseer of the Poor.
From the 16C, poor relief was the responsibility of the parish but each parish was only expected to provide for those who had a legitimate claim on that parish. The overseers could levy a rate for poor relief but also move on any vagrants or possible claimants who had no rights in the parish. Many records survive relating to poor relief, settlement disputes and also apprenticeships.

Reproduced by kind permission  of David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 6  Feb  2013


From its high point in the 18C the parish as a meaningful unit has declined in significance, though of course, in many areas it is still important. Basically, the parish came under challenge from two directions as society changed. That meant that it no longer reflected the society it was supposed to serve. The first challenge was the growth of Dissent, that is, the number of people who did not accept the religious rationale on which the parish was based, namely that everyone would belong to the one church.

In the Middle Ages there was one church, the Catholic church headed by the pope. At the Reformation, the pope’s authority was removed but it was at first assumed that everybody would still belong to one church. The debate centred on what would be the nature of this church. However, no agreement could be reached about this and after 1688 it was accepted that people could opt out. These people were known as Non-Conformists or Dissenters.

There were many strands to this Dissent - from Roman Catholic to Baptist, Quaker, Independent, Presbyterian, Unitarian and so on. These old Dissenters received a large boost with the arrival of Methodism in the 18C. All of this meant that there were many in the parish who did not participate in the religious side of parish life and thus the organic unity of the parish was broken. Furthermore, the established Church of England itself began to split into parties with high and low (Anglo Catholic and Evangelical) mistrusting each other.

More recently the arrival of other faiths and the development of a secular society further diminished the significance of the parish as an ecclesiastical unit. In some areas, especially the countryside, it remains important but even here it is common for people, if they worship at all, to live in one place and worship in another of their choice. The old ideal of the parish in many places has been replaced by a view that sees the church as a voluntary society or even a club, a view that attaches little importance to the geographical parish.

Reproduced by kind permission  of  David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 7  Feb 2013

Parish Registers

Among the many records that were kept as a result of the increasing activities of parishes, probably the best known and most used are parish registers. These record the baptisms, burials and marriages that took place in the local parish church. They were the responsibility of the incumbent although they may have been completed by a curate or the parish clerk. The first order for their keeping dates to 1538. Not many registers survive from this early, although in 1558 it was ordered that they should be copied out afresh. More parishes have registers dating from 1558 though rarely are these complete. Furthermore, there is nearly always a hiatus during the Civil War period. Many more registers survive from the 1 660s onwards and from then until the beginning of civil registration in 1837 they are absolutely invaluable as a source of information. Of course, allowance has to be made for nonconformity and clerical errors but this hardly detracts from their value.

They can be used in a variety of ways. Recording annual totals of baptisms and burials will give crude numbers for birth and death rates and make possible, calculation of population trends.
Particularly bad years for mortality may be identified. More refined techniques make further research possible. The story of families may be recreated which allows calculations about age at death or marriage and the percentage of infant mortality. Genealogists and family historians rely on them for their work.

Registers are sometimes made more interesting by the additional notes that may be found. These notes may be about anything. For example, the weather is frequently noted as are notes about current affairs and food prices. Details may be included about the families being recorded. All of this enables the registers to inform us about much of the life of the local community.
Sometimes registers may still be found in the original church. Usually, however, they are now deposited in the appropriate diocesan record office.

Reproduced by kind permission  of  David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA Week 8  Feb 2013

The Parsonage.

Normally among the most interesting buildings of any village or parish will be the parsonage, whether rectory or vicarage or something else. Rarely today will this still be owned by the Church
but parsonages provide a wealth of information about the local society and landscape.

The parsonage belonged to the church but became the property of the incumbent when he took office until be resigned or died, therefore an incumbent could make alterations or rebuild if he had the inclination. Because incumbents became relatively more wealthy over the centuries, many could make changes. Furthermore, because clergymen not only had a relatively high social status but had also enjoyed a sound education, they were likely to be men of taste and learning. Consequently, the houses that they built were often of high quality.

Individual houses will vary according to circumstance but taken as a whole, parsonages provide a wonderful history of English domestic architecture with examples of almost every date and style.
They will often reflect local traditions especially in the choice of materials. Furthermore, their design will also illustrate changing attitudes to the role and function of both the Church and clergy,. for example, an 18C parsonage is often a very different sort of building from that of its 19C equivalent because by the 19C many clergy had a different concept of their job.

A particular advantage of the study of parsonages is the relative frequency of documents about them. Glebe terriers are a particularly good source of information and diocesan records are good for the 19C and 20C.

Riseley WEA Week 9 Mar 2013

Civil and Ecclesiastical Parishes.

Parishes were originally created as ecclesiastical units although often based on earlier boundaries.
Over the centuries they were increasingly used by secular authorities and became the basic unit of local government. However, at the end of the 19C the wheel came full circle and civil parishes were created alongside ecclesiastical parishes.

There were several reasons for this. One was that it was clear that a large number of people no
longer felt part of the Church of England. The growth of Dissent and Catholic Emancipation meant that many attended other churches and felt outside the parish system. Another reason was the growth of towns where the parish system did not really work. A third was the social change arising from huge population growth which meant that different organisations were needed for matters such as highways and poor relief. Finally, there had been a wholesale reform of government and this culminated in the reform of local government. Thus in the 1 890s, Civil Parishes were created to run alongside the ecclesiastical parishes, the latter now being responsible only for matters to do with the church.

Civil parishes are still the lowest unit of local government but have a number of functions and
responsibilities. These can include responsibility for
cemeteries, recreation grounds, allotments, village greens,commons, ponds
halls and buildings for community use
car parks
the churchyard
war memorials and other public structures
Most importantly, they are available for advice, representation, consultation and communication.

Today, there are around ten thousand parish councils with a hundred thousand councillors and they do much to foster a sense of community and identity.

Parish councils mostly apply to rural areas. Some small towns, such as Oundle or Stamford have town councils which are really glorified parish councils. In larger towns parishes are replaced by wards but these don’t have a similar sense of identity and community.

Reproduced by kind permission  of  David Bond – WEA Lecturer.

Riseley WEA week 10 Mar 2013

Urban Parishes.

The story of parishes in towns is a complex one. In the Middle Ages we can make a
distinction between those towns that had very many parishes and those that were a
single parish. The former are the older towns. These are places like Stamford,
Lincoln, York, Norwich and above all, London. In these there can be very many small
parishes (Norwich had about 50 and London, around 100). The reason for the number
of churches is that they were founded by lay people and there were a number of
communities within the town each having their own church. By contrast, other towns
were under the control of a single lord and these tend to have just one parish.
Examples are Boston, Newark, Peterborough and Salisbury. The very latest towns
were deliberate plantations which were fitted into an existing parochial system and
some of which never achieved parochial status and remained chapeiries, for example,
Market Harborough.

After the Black Death hardly any new parishes were created for several centuries and
instead, amalgamations of existing ones took place in those towns which had lots of
churches. It wasn’t until the 17C and 18C when the population began to grow and
towns to expand, that new parishes were created. The earliest of these were in London
and the expansion of the West End can be seen in the creation of parishes such as St
Paul’s, Covent Garden, St James’, Piccadilly and St George’s, Hanover Square.

It was with the industrial growth of the late 1 8C and 1 9Cs that a vast number of new
parishes were created. As the industrial towns or suburbs grew so gradually new
churches were built for the growing population. In any town one can trace the growth
of the town by the expansion in the number of churches. This led to the creation of
new parishes but these were nearly always vicarages and were purely ecclesiastical
units. In some cases what had been villages developed into towns and here too,
parishes got subdivided. A good example of this is provided by March itself.

Reproduced by kind permission  of  David Bond – WEA Lecturer.