The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village

The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village

by Eamon Duffy
In the fifty years between 1530 and 1580, England moved from being one of the most lavishly Catholic countries in Europe to being a Protestant nation, a land of whitewashed churches and anti-papal preaching. What was the impact of this religious change in the countryside? And how did country people feel about the revolutionary upheavals that transformed their mental


In the fifty years between 1530 and 1580, England moved from being one of the most lavishly Catholic countries in Europe to being a Protestant nation, a land of whitewashed churches and anti-papal preaching. What was the impact of this religious change in the countryside? And how did country people feel about the revolutionary upheavals that transformed their mental and material worlds under Henry VIII and his three children?

In this book a reformation historian takes us inside the mind and heart of Morebath, a remote and tiny sheep farming village where thirty-three families worked the difficult land on the southern edge of Exmoor. The bulk of Morebath's conventional archives have long since vanished. But from 1520 to 1574, through nearly all the drama of the English Reformation, Morebath's only priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, kept the parish accounts on behalf of the churchwardens. Opinionated, eccentric, and talkative, Sir Christopher filled these vivid scripts for parish meetings with the names and doings of his parishioners. Through his eyes we catch a rare glimpse of the life and pre-reformation piety of a sixteenth-century English village.

The book also offers a unique window into a rural world in crisis as the reformation progressed. Sir Christopher Trychay's accounts provide direct evidence of the motives which drove hitherto law-abiding West-Country communities to participate in the doomed Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 -- a siege that ended in bloody defeat and a wave of executions. Its church bells confiscated and silenced, Morebath shared in the punishment imposed on all the towns and villages of Devon and Cornwall. Sir Christopher documents the changes in the community reluctantly Protestant, no longer focused on the religious life of the parish church, and increasingly preoccupied with the secular demands of the Elizabethan state, the equipping of armies and the payment of taxes. Morebath's priest, garrulous to the end of his days, describes a rural world irrevocably altered, and enables us to hear the voices of his villagers after four hundred years of silence.

Editorial Reviews

Commonweal - Carlos Eire
"Few other books accomplish such a vivid reconstruction of the past, and Duffy manages tit using the most prosaic documents."—Carlos Eire, Commonweal
AmericaAlbert J. Loomie, S.J., and John Breslin, S.J., America
[R]ichly detailed. (Albert J. Loomie S.J. and John Breslin S.J.
Paul Lewis
Stories like the one Duffy skillfully tells here, for historian and general reader alike. . . bear remembering.
NY Times Book Review

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Yale University Press
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The Voices of Morebath

Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village
By Eamon Duffy

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Eamon Duffy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300098251

Chapter One

Morebath is a remote Devonshire community on the rain-swept southern edge of Exmoor, ten miles north of Tiverton, twenty-five miles north of Exeter. Now as in the sixteenth century there is not much that can convincingly be described as a village, just a huddle of houses round a small gaunt church, gutted and rebuilt by the Victorians, and a wider scatter of farms across the foothills and valleys that run down to the river Exe from the moor. The parish forms a compact rectangle, three and a half miles by two and a half, on the southern skirts of Exmoor. To the west it is flanked by the valley of the Exe, from which it rises steeply between six hundred and a thousand feet above sea level, and runs east along the country boundary with Somerset, which forms its northern edge. To the south it stops just short of the market town of Bampton, from which it is separated by the river Bathern, while on the north-west its nearest neighbours are the Somerset village of Brushford and the market town of Dulverton, in the valley of the river Barle.

Nowadays a visitor is likely to approach Morebath via the A396, the scenic road which runs from Tiverton along the Exe to Bampton, and from Bampton on to Exebridge, on the south-western side of the parish. But the road from Bampton to Tiverton in the sixteenth century was more tortuous; it ran southwards along the ridge tops well to the east of the Exe, avoiding the valley bottom to follow the higher ground. The geography of the parish was changed decisively in November 1873, when the Devon and Somerset Railway opened a line to Barnstaple via Dulverton, and Morebath became the main station for Bampton and the surrounding villages. New carriage routes from Bampton and Shillingford were cut across the valleys to Morebath station, easing access to what had once been, even by Devon standards, one of the county's remotest communities.

The roads of Tudor Morebath were narrow, deeply banked and hedged in the Devon manner, poorly surfaced with soft slate, river gravel, and stones gathered from the fields, broken by fords and often awash with mud and water during the incessant winter rains drawn down by the moor, impassable in hard weather. Even in modern times, during the winter of 1963 every road in Morebath filled to the height of the hedges with layer upon layer of frozen snow. For weeks the only way in or out of the village was across the higher fields, where driving wind had kept the snow from settling. In Tudor England's savage 'little Ice Age' the parish must often have been totally isolated. Even the hardy long-woolled sheep which were the mainstay of Tudor Morebath's economy were vulnerable to the inhospitable moorland winters of the sixteenth century. The annual sheep counts of the church flocks are punctuated by reports of animals 'lost and gone', 'drowned', 'dede and gone wolle and all', or 'lost at crystmas'.

North Devon was sheep country, above all here on the skirts of the moor, for, as an early Stuart survey of the county observed, 'moors and hills are untractable to tillage'. In much of the parish the land was 'lean and barren ... churlish and unthankful to the husbandman's labour'. Some corn was grown -- at best wheat and barley, but mostly rye and oats, the staples which until the nineteenth century provided the whole region with its black bread and small beer. A narrow ridge of good red loam reached westward into Morebath from the direction of Shillingford, and the farms to the east of the church -- Loyton, Keens, the two farms or 'bargains' at Wood -- all benefited from this fertile soil. But the valley floor was solid clay, cold and sodden in winter, and the thin sour soils of the hill farms in the northern half of the parish were good only for grazing. The northern half of the parish was still comparatively heavily wooded in Tudor times, with beech and especially oak available in abundance for even the most extensive building work: the woodland was coppiced for fuel and fencing.

There are many small and isolated places in this border country on the fringe of the moor, but Tudor Morebath was one of the smallest communities in the Hundred of Bampton and the region generally. A set of regulations preserved in the parish records for the collection of the ecclesiastical tax known as 'Peter's Pence', dating from 1531, reveals that there were just thirty-three households in the parish, five of them cottagers, the rest tenant-farmers or 'placeholders'. Most were tenants of the Manor of Morebath, whose lord was the local priory of Barlinch, 'one of the poorest, remotest monasteries of medieval Somerset', by the 1530s a somewhat run-down house of six Augustinian canons and a prior, with an income of under £100 a year, much of it derived from Morebath. After the dissolution in 1536 the manor was acquired by Sir John Wallop, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and in due course passed to his son Henry. A couple of the cottagers at Exebridge were tenants of the Sydenhams of the neighbouring Somersets parish of Dulverton. The Sydenhams also grazed sheep on sixty acres of moorland in the north of the parish at Hawkridge Down.

The sixteenth-century parish consisted of a series of farms, distributed more or less evenly over the surrounding hills. Some of the smaller holdings are now difficult to place, but most remain. To the east was Combe, a cluster of households belonging to the Timewell clan, one of the dominant families in the parish. Slightly to the west, on the next hillside, was Court, the base for another of the richest households in Morebath, the Norman family. Directly east of Court was Rill (now Morebath Manor), also farmed by a branch of the Normans. North and slightly west of Court was the small hill farm of Brockhole, eventually held by the Borrage family whose main base was at Warmore, but evidently a difficult let. Even today it is hard to find, the farmhouse tucked two fields away from the nearest road, an 'outlandish place' as one Morebath resident described it to me. In the mid-Tudor period it was often without a tenant. Moving west and south again, closer to the parish centre, was Timewell, like Combe divided into an 'ester' and 'wester Tymewyll', and housing several branches of the ubiquitous Timewell clan. In the valley at the western side of the same hill was Hayne, until the beginning of Elizabeth's reign also held by Timewells, then passing to the Lambert family. To the west of Hayne was Warmore, farmed by the Borrage family. On a steep rise above the river, but facing north towards Warmore, was Burston, where there were more Timewells; west of that towards Brushford was Perry, and at the western foot of the rise, in the valley, was Poole, held by yet more Normans.

At the southernmost point of the western border of the parish was Exebridge, where there was a huddle of cottages but no major farmstead though Grants, on the Bampton side of the parish boundary, was farmed by more Timewells and features regularly in Morebath parish affairs. Immediately south of the village centre was Moore. In a farm slightly west of the village centre, and therefore called 'Town', lived the richest family of all, the Morsses. Just under a mile to the east of the church was Loyton, with one household occupied by another branch of the Norman family, though there were Morsses here too. To the east of Loyton were the 'ester' and 'wester' Woods, farmed by yet more Timewells and Normans. At the southern end of the eastern boundary was Hukeley, and the Hukeley bridge over the river Bathern which flows south to join the Exe below Bampton. On the fringes to the east was Quartley, technically part of Bampton parish but closer to Morebath church and once again farmed by the Timewells and so, like Grants, its western counterpart, often drawn into Morebath affairs. The location of the mill is uncertain: it may have been near the cluster of cottages at Exebridge, but by the eighteenth century there were two mills on the Ben Brook, which runs through the Easter and Wester Timewells, past Rill, Loyton and Keens to join the Bathern at Hukeley, one to the south of Loyton (Keens Mill), the other marked now only by an old mill leet near Rill cottages: either of these is a likely enough site for the Tudor mill. There were also a number of smaller holdings, farmed by established families along with 'the home place' -- 'priers hay' and 'Galberdis yatte', which I have not been able to locate, and 'Bollyn', a stretch of land with a house, long since disappeared, between Loyton and Keens. Field sizes on these farms were small, ranging from one to fifteen acres, most at the lower end of the scale.

Surnames in Morebath were often simply the farm name -- Alsyn at Perry, John at Moore, William at Timewell, Robert at Wood -- and the priest often identifies householders by a single-word reference to their farm -- Burston, Court, Wood -- as even minor Scottish lairds are still addressed. However, occupational and family surnames were also Freely used: George the Smith is interchangeable with George Smith; John Hukeley is called John Smith in 1537, presumably because of his occupation; Lucy Scely, widow of the miller William, is Luce at Mill, and Thomas Borrage, who seems to have taken over the mill in the late 1540s, calls himself Borrage but is referred to by the Commissioners appointed by the crown to handle the confiscation of Devon bells in 1549 as Thomas Mill. Occasionally, patronyms are used as surnames -- Lewis Trychay's daughter Joan occurs as 'Jone Lewys', as indeed does his wife. It is all very confusing.

As it happens, despite the loss of the manorial records, the pre-1558 parish registers and almost all the wills of the region, we are specially well placed to calculate the population of Tudor Morebath. A combination of the parish priest's obsessive penchant for list-making and the fiscal and military efficiency of the Tudor state has provided us with lists of the Morebath tax-payers in 1524 and 1545 (55 and 48 names respectively), the tenants of the manor of Morebath in 1532 (33 names), again in 1546 (31 names or farms), 1557 (24 names), and again in 1558 (31 names), the names of all the unmarried men and maidens in April 1534 (105 names, 68 of them men, but including an uncertain number of men and women with connections to the parish while living outside it, like the two chaplains from Bampton named there), a list of the wives in 1554 (27 names), a list of householders in 1554 (32 names), and a muster roll of 1569 listing 41 able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60. Despite the large number of 'young men and maidens', inflated by the inclusion of outsiders, these sources combine to suggest a population of not many more than 150 men women and children through the mid-Tudor period.

In so small a community, everyone was known and communal life intense, even perhaps at times claustrophobic. The parish church was by no means its only focus. Since almost everyone was a tenant of Morebath Manor, the Manor Court and the obligations and relationships which flowed from it feature large in Morebath's records, even though the court records themselves have long since disappeared. The court and its officials were used to settle parish disputes and regulate common obligations -- to the Crown, to the church, to one another -- which strictly speaking had nothing to do with the Manor and its farms, and the priest recorded it all in the church book. At Morebath, no rigid distraction was drawn between the community at prayer, and the community as it went about its business.

The restoration of Morebath church by Butterfield in the late 1870s scraped away most of its history along with its seventeenth-century plaster and eighteenth-century woodwork. It now has an unglamorous railway-age gothic interior which retains few traces of its late medieval and Tudor evolution. It is not clear how much the curious saddle-backed top to the tower owes to this restoration, though Butterfield clearly did not altogether invent it: Richard Polwhele, the eighteenth-century historian of Devon, noted that the tower was in shape 'a rectangular parallelopepidon', that is, a box topped by a prism. But the windows were certainly altered and made smaller: a burglar could not now enter the church this way, as one did in 1534, and the modern tower roof cannot in fact be reached from within, so that all major repairs require elaborate scaffolding. In the sixteenth century the tower was forty-two feet high, almost twice the height of the church itself, its bells in constant need of minor outlay on ropes and stays and greasing. Even with the north aisle, the church interior was never large -- sixty-five feet long by twenty-nine at its widest, a tight fit even for 150 people, which was no doubt why the aisle, with its handsome barrel vault, was added sometime in the fifteenth century, the one interior feature of the present building we can be sure its Tudor parishioners would recognise. This aisle, or 'almatory' as their priest preferred to call it, was a favourite place for burials, especially after the cult of St Sidwell took hold at the side altar which was located there. The wealthier men and women of Morebath regularly left the sum of 6/8d for a grave in the church, and the priest notes when someone was buried there, 'for he/she Iyeth in the almatory', which happened often enough for him to keep a nervous tally of the numbers of 'corps beryd ... yn the church actenus [so far]'. The tower and nave of the church were roofed with lead laid over timber, the aisle with tiles, and the roof, like the bells, was a constant demand on parish resources, its gutters in perpetual need of attention, its lead lifting clean away, 'ryppyd with the wynd' in 1545, so that a plumber spent the best part of a week lodging in the parish to fix it down again. In the 1520s and 1530s the parish had an annual maintenance contract with a travelling plumber 'when he cummyth thys ways ... to mendd all fawtis a pon our churche and gutters and towre', 'to keppe us dry', on one occasion the plumber was given old pewter plates from the church house in part payment for this work. From the 1520s to the early 1540s, in any case, a stream of devotional investment by parishioners and priest must have made the interior seem a constant building site, stacked with boards and building materials as new high and side altars were installed, along with new screens, new standings or tabernacles for the images, a new High Cross, a new floor and a complete re-pewing. Morebath church had only two altars but many images, most of them standing in niched tabernacles, curtained and gilded, and with candles or lamps in bowls or basins or branched candlesticks of timber or latten (a type of brass) burning before them during service time. Parish business was conducted there, bargains concluded, contracts signed and debts paid, 'here before the quyre dore', and parishioners were prone to linger there long after service was done, so that the exasperated clerk who kept the keys was forced to knock loudly on the door to hurry them home.

After the church, the most important building in the parish was the church house, also called the church ale-house. Located on the south-east side of the churchyard, in the cluster of ten or eleven dwellings that made up the village centre or 'Morebath town', it was the parish's place of public entertainment, a two-storey building furnished with a fireplace and spit, with cups and platters and trenchers of treen [turned wood] and tin and pewter: its tressle tables and tablecloths were sometimes loaned to parishioners for events like weddings. Visiting merchants could hire a 'sete' or stall there to sell their wares, like William the merchant who had a 'standing' in the house in 1535, or the Tiverton ciderman John Walshman, who sold cider there for four weeks in 1538. The 'pleers' [players] who paid 12d to the wardens to perform in Morebath at Easter 1533 may well have been hiring the church house. Above all, the fund-raising banquets known as church ales, organised by the churchwardens and by the Young Men of the parish (the 'grooming ale'), and which between them provided the bulk of the parish's income, were held here. Beer brewed or bought by the wardens and food cooked in the church house itself were sold and served at these ales: in 1527 the menu at the high wardens' ale included a roast lamb from the church flock, which had accidentally bled to death after being castrated. By Elizabeth's reign, and perhaps before, minstrels and a local man, John Timewell the harper, were being paid to entertain the drinkers. Parishioners were expected to attend and spend their money, and official representatives came and supported from surrounding parishes, a favour which had to be returned when the parishes concerned held their own ales.

This was not merry England, however. Friction was as notable a feature of this intensely communal life as harmony. On St George's day 1537 the whole parish attended a party at Timewells for the betrothal of Margaret Timewell and William Taylor. But we catch a glimpse of the event only because it was a disaster, with tempers flaring and two of the guests 'a most by the eris', so that the whole parish 'resonyd shamfully' all that day: poor Margaret Timewell. The language in which the priest reports the incident is value laden, a rhetoric designed to shame 'froward fellows' and to persuade the 'parish universall' to cease 'trobyll or vexacion: and 'be contendyd to be ordred', so as to have 'unite and pece a mongg us'. The quest for unity and peace, at Morebath as everywhere else in Tudor England, was an ideal eagerly pursued because often lacking.

Small and remote as it was, we would be quite mistaken in dismissing Morebath as one of what seventeenth-century puritans liked to call the 'dark corners of the land'. A serviceable road ran from Exeter to Bampton, and Bampton itself was a bustling place, claiming 600 houselling folk (communicant adults) in the 1540s, and supporting a community of gentry, merchants, tradesmen, artisans, lawyers and parish and chantry clergy, representatives of all of whom feature in the Morebath accounts. Morebath parishioners and their priest attended ales, employed workmen and transacted business in the surrounding towns and villages like Dulverton, Brushford and Bampton itself, attended the court at Bradninch as part of the sheriff's twice-yearly progress through the county (the 'sherows towrne'), and regularly travelled on ecclesiastical or civil business to Exeter or, nearer at hand, to Oakford, Uffculme, Sampford Peverell and Tiverton. Morebath was one of the churches 'next ionyng [joining] unto Tyverton' which in the 1530s attracted the minor benefaction of a corporas case from Joan Greneway, widow of the richest man in Tiverton, who had so magnificently extended his parish church of St Peter there with a chantry aisle and its splendid south porch. When they needed a lawyer in 1532 they employed one of the most distinguished in the country, who had a house at Wellington in Somerset, and the unbeneficed priest who made and repaired their church's vestments lived at Dunster, near the Somerset coast and the Bristol Channel. At least one parishioner travelled sufficiently regularly to London on business to be given errands to perform for the parish. Books and church furnishings beyond the resources of Bampton, Tiverton or Exeter thereby found their way to Morebath, and along with them, no doubt, budgets of news of the outside world.

Nor was the parish without educational resources. The chance survival of some pages from a notebook used in the binding of one of the Luttrell Manuscripts now in the Somerset Record Office establishes the existence of a school at Barlinch in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, offering the standard grammar-school curriculum and taught by 'Master David Juyne'. A visitation of the priory in 1510 had required the canons to make good the lack of such an educational provision, stipulated in their rule, and Juyne's appointment was almost certainly the result. The first objective of such teaching would have been the preparation of novices for ordination and the education of any choir and serving boys attached to the house, but Barlinch was too small and poor to have had many such pupils, and the presence of a competent schoolmaster there must certainly have attracted a wider clientele. The syllabus Juyne followed was identical to that available in the established schools in larger centres of population. The scrappy notes which survive from some early sixteenth-century Barlinch schoolboy's copy-book include quotations from standard grammar-school texts like Alain de Lille's Liber Parabolorum and Robert Grosseteste's Stans Puer ad Mensam; a Latin sentence declaring that 'we are all off to the swimming-pool' suggests that the proximity of the Exe was appreciated by the boys, and an English sentence prescribed for translation declaring that 'I ha[v]e ete my belyfull of coloppes and egges today' [bacon and eggs] suggests a down-to-earth approach by the schoolmaster in his choice of illustrative material. We have no way of knowing whether the sons of the farmers of Morebath made the two-mile walk across the moor or up the valley of the Exe to Barlinch, but the opportunity was certainly there, and there is evidence in the accounts of literacy in the parish, even among the cottagers and wage-earners.

There were no very rich men in Morebath, and the gap between the well-to-do and the poor was narrower than in many more prosperous communities. The lay subsidy for 1524 lists fifty-five tax-payers, assessed at sums ranging from £1 in wages -- the normal valuation for farm labourers -- to £14 in goods, held by William Morsse, with John Norman senior a close second at £13/6s/8d; other indications in the accounts suggest that Norman was under-assessed in 1524, and may in fact have been the wealthiest man in the parish. Only five parishioners in all -- two Normans, two Morsses and a Timewell -- were rated at more than £10, and these families, together with the Raws and the Borrages, consistently show up in subsidy and muster rolls and in manorial and parish setts [local taxes] and rates as the wealthiest in the parish. As these modest figures suggest, Morebath was a parish without resident gentry, though the nearest gentry household, that of the Sydenhams of Dulverton, was not far away, just over the parish boundary in Somerset. Members of the Sydenham family were called in on several occasions to help sort out parish rows, and Morebath's priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, was clearly on excellent terms with them. Edward Sydenham, the family patriarch, had married into the Combe family of Dulverton at the beginning of Henry VIII's reign. He came originally from Culmstock in Devon, the priest's home village, and he must have known Sir Christopher's parents since he occurs along with Thomas Trychay senior, almost certainly the priest's father, in a list of jurors in a Culmstock manorial court roll in 1509. Though he was not a beneficiary of Sydenham's will, Sir Christopher paid the parish the large sum of 3/= in 1543 for a knell 'for Mr Edward Sydenham ys sowle', too much for ringing simply on the burial day and month's mind. It probably represents payment for the elaborate tolling of the great bell every night for a month, a practice which continued to mark the obsequies of the more prosperous inhabitants of the Morebath even in Elizabeth's reign. It is too costly a gesture for casual acquaintance, and suggests a relationship of real friendship or perhaps of patronage and clientage.


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