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A Turbulent Priest

This article originally appeared in the Cumbria Family History Society Newsletter, No.53, November 1989, pp.3-5..

A Turbulent Priest
By Peter Park

I am sure that many of us have found when carrying out family history research that, for a variety of reasons, parish registers often become less helpful at some time before 1700 either because they are missing, or the lack of detail in them. In desperation we turn to other source material (that we should have looked at anyway). Among the records we may use to supplement the registers are those of the manor courts and of the quarter sessions. This article is based mainly on theses two classes of record and illustrates some of the wealth of detail of the personalities and the everyday life of our ancestors that can be gleaned from them.

The manor of Torver lies on the west bank of Coniston Water two miles south of Coniston village. Its boundaries approximate the modern parish of Torver, which until the mid-nineteenth century was a chapelry of the parish of Ulverston. An isolated community even today, in the mid-seventeenth century it was even more remote, so much so that half of the population had only three surnames – Atkinson, Wilson and Parke. Manorial records for the first half of the seventeenth century are in the Cumbria Archives, Barrow. The Lancashire Quarter Sessions covered the area North of the Sands and its records are to be found at Lancashire Atchives, Preston. (1)

Sometime in the late 1620s a new curate was appointed to the chapelry, a man by the name of Robert Place. Place is not a Cumbrian surname, however, the administrator of his estate after his death in 1643 was his brother Christopher of the parish of Clapham in Yorkshire, and the parish registers there, indicate that they were sons of George Place, farmer, of Austwick. Robert had been ordained in 1626 at Carlisle. The only mention of a Robert Place in Furness parish registers is a marriage at Hawkshead in 1628, this Robert’s wife was called Margaret Dodgshon, she died in March 1629/30. As we shall see, it is very probable that this Robert Place became the Curate of Torver. (2)

Robert Place was Minister at Torver until his death in 1643. During his incumbency he seems to have been unpopular with his flock – even allowing for the general unpopularity of the clergy during this period. (3) Between 1629 and 1633 he appeared as defendant before the manor court on twenty six occasions. It is not so much the fact of his appearances, but the nature of the charges that is interesting. In seven cases he was accused of debt, but this was not unusual. What is remarkable is the number of disputes of a personal nature he was involved in – six fights, five cases of slander, two of threatening behaviour and one of being offensive in court.

Robert Place first appearance in the manor records is at the 1629 court baron, when he was fined 3s 4d for calling John Wilson ‘meansworn rogue’ – a liar. At the court leet which followed the baron he was defendant in a plea of debt brought by Myles Gardiner for the sum of 39s 11d, and another brought by Rowland Wilson for a debt of 7s 6d. In this last case there was evidently some ill feeling, ‘we find him [i.e. Place] liable to another 5s for that the defendant denyeth to swear nor would he suffer the plaintiff to swear so he wanteth’ – this was crossed out, so perhaps Place made amends before the court. Place’s disagreements with the Wilsons did not end with his amercement in 1629, for at the next baron (1630) he was amerced 7d for ‘beating John Wilson at the last court’ and bound over for ‘a blodwicke upon Row: Wilson in the High way’. (4)

In the meantime a mortgage had been raised by Thomas Wilson of Bridgehouse ‘towards the maintenance & bettering of the Ministers wage of Torver’; this was the first of a number of similar mortgages made by various people over the next few years.

The Indexes to the Quarter Sessions Recognizances and Petitions for Epiphany 1630/1 at Lancashire Archives have the rather intriguing entry ‘Torver – Evil behaviour of Robert Place minister to Agnes wid of Richard Croudson in the church’. A detailed complaint of rape was made to a local justice, Roger Kirkby of Kirkby Ireleth, on behalf of Agnes by Thomas and John Croudson and John Newby; the Croudsons were probably in-laws of Agnes and John Newby her brother. Richard Croudson had died on Sunday 19th September 1630; on the following Thursday his widow Agnes approached Place to ask for advice on proving her husband’s will and making the inventory of his goods. He took her into the Church, barred the door and asked her to come to the altar where he took a book, probably the Bible, out of a chest and asked her to repeat after him ‘as his wife Margaret did’ – he wanted her to go through a form of marriage. Agnes refused, whereupon ‘he put his hand into his hose or britches and pulled out a thing and let her see’ which he said ‘he had never offered to any since the death of Margaret, his late wife, and embraced her in his arms and demanded if she was with child and said if she was he would be the father of it; and kissing her he put his tongue in her mouth and she bidding him be quiet and resisting [but] he had his unlawful and beastly kind of usage’. He then said that he would not make the inventory unless she married him. Agnes subsequently complained to her kinsmen who brought the complaint to the magistrate Roger Kirkby. The case does not seem to have been taken any further, as there is no mention of it either in the Sessions Rolls or in the Indictments. The Ecclesiastical court records for the period do not seem to have survived. (5)

During conversation before the ‘evil behaviour’ Place made reference to his wife Margaret ‘which heretofore was dead’ and, considering the rarity of Place’s surname in Furness, it is evident that this Margaret was the Margaret Place buried at Hawkshead earlier that year.

It is not surprising that Place wanted to marry Agnes – Richard had left possessions and debts due to him in excess of £150; and the manor court’s record of 24th February 1631/2 shows the rent on his tenement to have been the considerable sum of 11s 3d. Although there is no record in the Torver registers (or on the International Genealogical Index for any of the northern counties), it seems that Agnes Croudson eventually married Robert Place, as the records of the manor court for 1633 show Robert Place and Agnes his wife as joint executors disposing of Richard Croudson’s tenure, even though his will designated only his widow Agnes.  (6)

In 1631 Place lent £4 on a mortgage to William Wilson of Undercragg and Ellen his wife, to take effect from 1633. This might have been the origin of a complaint by Place at the following court leet (1631/2) that Wilson owed him 16s. At the same court, Place was in dispute with Thomas Wilson of Bridge­house who, he claimed, owed him 20s. In addition, Robert Parke brought no less than three separate cases of debt against Place, for the sums of 6s 10d, 18s and 20s.

It now comes as no surprise to us to find our turbulent priest before the court baron again two days later – for a ‘blodwicke upon Robert Parke’ – possibly in connection with the debts. Place’s arguments with William Wilson had evidently not finished either, for he was fined 6d for calling William Wilson villain.

Place had a field day at the 1631/2 court, when he was engaged in a vendetta with the Fleming family: he was bound over for threatening Thomas Fleming that ‘if he [Place] had not worn the coat he did [i.e. if he hadn’t been a man of the cloth] he would have cut of his [Fleming’s] ears’; amerced 3s 4d for ‘saying to Thomas Fleming that he did not stow other men’s sheep ears in the hoghouse as he did’ and another 3s 4d ‘for calling David Fleming pinried lad’ and ‘so he would prove by Ed: Parke’. Bearing in mind that a sheep’s ownership was proven by the way in which its ears were clipped, Place was in effect calling Thomas Fleming a sheep stealer – a serious charge at a time when it was a capital offence. He was also in trouble with the court itself; failing to make his hedges secure cost him another 3s 4d and he was given till Michaelmas to make good houses that he had allowed to fall into ‘Ruen and decay’ against pain of 20s. Place, like so many other clerics in the area also worked the land to eke out a living (Robert ‘Wonderful’ Walker, immortalized by Wordsworth, was to be one of Place’s successors at Torver for a short period about a hundred years later). Two interesting cases involving Place at this court were regarding incidents in the church and churchyard. In the first he was charged with ‘pulling Myles Gardner hat of his head four times together in the Church on a Sabbath day After Evening Prayers’. He was also charged with another, similar offence ‘striking William Wilson elder’s hat of his head in the church yard’. Gardner and Wilson were possibly puritans and wore their hats in church as a token of defiance. As Torver was a Crown manor it is to be expected that the minister at this time was orthodox in outlook – later ministers were more tolerant and within a couple of generations there was a strong Baptist element in Torver. (7)

A warrant for the arrest of Place was issued ‘To all constables within the liberties of Furness and only of them their’, by Roger Kirkby, on the 5th September 1632. On this occasion Place ‘hath beaten strucken and dangerously hurt’ Thomas Atkinson who, ‘being afraid further bodily hurt or harm be done to him, prayeth surety of the peace by him the said Mr Place’. If Place failed to give assurances that he would appear before the justices at Lancaster, then he was to be taken to His Majesty’s Gaol at Lancaster ‘there to remain till he shall willingly do the same. (8)

In 1633 we find Place at loggerheads yet again, charged with calling John Atkinson the tanner ‘meansworn’, moreover he was also charged with stopping Atkinson’s workmen ‘upon his own [i.e. Atkinson’s] ground’. This dispute did not stop at the manor court, in August Atkinson complained of both Robert and Agnes Place’s behaviour to Roger Kirkby, who directed the pair to appear before the Quarter Sessions at Michaelmas ‘and in the mean time to keep the peace […] especially towards John Atkinson’. (9)

1634 was another argumentative year for Place: Edward Parke was presented to the manor court for ‘calling Mr Place lying thief’; Place was presented for ‘calling William Croudson lying rogue’; Jo: Croudson ‘for calling Mr Place’ the page is torn, but it was obviously not a compliment since he was amerced (fined) 2d for it. These disagreements did not end with the name-calling and violence erupted: Mr. Place ‘for a bloodwick upon William Croudson’; William Croudson ‘for a bloodwicke upon Mr. Place’; Mr. Place ‘for a bloodwicke upon John Wilson’ and ‘a hubbleshowe between Mr. Place and Edward Parke’. (10)

Although Place continues to appear in the Manor Court records in similar vein until he died in 1643, but he seems to have avoided the further attentions of Roger Kirkby and the other justices. I have painted a black picture of Robert Place. He was undoubtedly a disagreeable man with a very short fuse, but he seems to have been honest in his dealings – time and time again he was witness to the wills and other documents of his flock. In 1634 yet another mortgage was raised to supplement his stipend. At the bottom in Place’s hand we find ‘I would have the moneys to tarry in Edw: Parke hand till this surrender be admitted by the steward’ (interestingly, his old adversary John Atkinson the tanner was one of the trustees).

Agnes Place has remained relatively quiet in this account, but this was evidently not entirely in her nature, for in 1633/4 Place was fined 6s 8d for ‘his wife’s vulgar speeches in court’ – perhaps the poor woman deserves to have the last word – after all she had to live with him.

Notes and references
  1. A Commonwealth survey of 1649 lists 70 tenants of the manor of which 35 are named either Atkinson, Wilson or Parke, The National Archives, ref: E317/Lancashire/18; all references to manorial courts are from Cumbria Archives, Barrow, ref: BD/HJ/200/10-12.
  2. Place’s administration, Lancashire Archives, ref WRW/F Robert Place 1646; his christening, Charlesworth, J (1921) The parish registers of Clapham, Pt 1: 1595-1683, Yorkshire Parish Register Society; his ordination, C Roy Hudleston, personal communication; his marriage, Hawkshead parish register, Cumbria Archives, Kendal, ref: WPR/83.
  3. For a detailed discussion of attitudes towards the clergy at this period see Christopher Hill (1975) The world turned upside down, Pelican. Especially page 25 et seq.
  4.  ‘meansworn rogue’ – liar; ‘blodwicke’ – approximately grievous bodily harm; amercement – what we would now call a fine, but ‘fine’ had a specific meaning in the manor courts.
  5. Complaint to justice, Lancashire Archives, ref: QSB/l/80/26.
  6. Torver parish registers, Cumbria Archives, Kendal, ref: WPR/52; Croudson’s will, Lancashire Archives, ref: WRW/F Richard Croudson 1630.
  7. The Reader in 1650 was ‘Sir’ Roger Atkinson who was probably a native of Torver.
  8. Warrant for arrest, Lancashire Archives, ref: QSB/l/108/8.
  9. Magistrate’s order, Lancashire Archives, ref: QSB/l/124/9.
  10. hubbleshowe’ approximately disturbing the peace.