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11/29/2006 Archived Entry: "Peculiar Courts"
A visit to the delightful North Yorkshire market town of Masham, with the inevitable tour of the market place, shops and parish church, reminded me of the town's ancient Peculiar Court. The strange name of the court does not suggest anything odd, curious or different from the normal for in this case it was an ecclesiastical court which was independent of the diocese in which the parish was located.
This kind of church court was common in medieval times - there were monastic peculiars, cathedral peculiars, royal peculiars, archiepiscopal peculiars and diocesan peculiars, each attending to their own needs and operating quite independently of the ordinary jurisdiction of the diocese. By 1832, some 300 peculiars still existed but, with a few exceptions, they were abolished between 1838 and 1850.
In Masham's case, the court exercised its jurisdiction over Masham and Kirkby Malzeard parishes, along with their chapelries. It supervised a range of matters with its officials proving wills, issuing marriage licences, dealing with all aspects of church business such as tithes and various legal and matrimonial cases. The officials also visited the parishes within their jurisdiction to check on the work of both clergy and laity so far as church administration and duties were concerned.
Old records contain references to churchwardens failing to keep the church building in a state of good repair. They were also dealt with for not providing the required furniture, fittings and plate. Morality was another important aspect and offences included fornication, adultery, incest, prohibited or clandestine marriage, the birth of illegitimate children, malicious defaming of neighbours and a host of other minor wrongs. The penalties for those found guilty were often little more than a penance of some kind and this might include the public reading of a confession in church before the Sunday congregation whilst "being bare-head, bare-foot and bare-legged, having a white sheet wrapped about him from the shoulders to the feet and a white wand in his hand."
Another later function of the Peculiar was to try those who committed offences against the newly created Church of England. This included not attending the Sunday service and not receiving the sacrament, failing to pay church assessments, and working or playing on a Sunday, eg by ploughing, playing bowls, delivering goods, drinking at the tavern and other similar minor offences. The Peculiar also dealt with those who professed a different religion such as Catholics, Quakers and other dissenters who refused to attend Church of England services.
Much of our present legal system originated in the early church courts. One example is probate. In the middle ages, the administration of wills was a function of the ecclesiastical courts. If a man failed to decide the fate of his property, the church would do it for him. Even when a will was made, the bishop's court would make sure it was proven before the trustees executed the wishes of the dead person. If a person died intestate, the bishop's court would oversee disposal of his goods.
In spite of their status, ecclesiastical courts steadily lost their powers after the sixteenth century. Prior to 1533, the laws of the church in England consisted of common law and the laws of the Roman Catholic church, known as canons. The Reformation with the subsequent creation of the Church of England altered much of that law, with civil legislation increasingly dealing with non-ecclesiastical matters. Nonetheless, legislation produced by the Church of England, which was, and perhaps still is, binding upon everyone irrespective of their faith, has the effect of a statute and although the church has its own courts to administer its laws, the state courts supersede them to prevent them abusing their ancient powers.
After the Reformation, the jurisdiction of the Peculiar Court of Masham was inherited by Trinity College, Cambridge. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many of those ancient church courts were finally abolished, including the Peculiar of Masham.
On the topic of the Reformation, a correspondent from Marton near Middlesbrough sent me a copy of some monastic suppression notes. These concern Jervaulx Abbey, Coverham Abbey and Bridlington Priory, with most of the letters being written in 1537. One is from the Duke of Norfolk to Henry VIII, dated May 10, 1537 in which the Duke writes, concerning Bridlington and Jervaulx, "I think most convenient that I should be at the suppressing because the countries about them be populous and the houses (ie the abbeys) greatly beloved with the people, and also as I think well stored with cattle and other things profitable that will not come to light so well if I be absent."
Sir Arthur Darcy wrote to Henry VIII's agent, Thomas Cromwell on June 8, 1537, saying he was at the suppression of Jervaulx, adding that the abbey was covered wholly with lead and referring to the richness of the grounds, and the fine breed of horses at the abbey. On November 14, 1537, Richard Bellycis (sic) wrote to Thomas Cromwell, saying, "I have taken down all the lead of Jervaulx and made it in pieces of half fothers, which lead amounteth to the number of 365 fothers, with 34 and a half fothers that were there before, and the said lead may not be carried until next summer for the ways in that country are foul and steep that no carriage can pass in winter." I think 364 fothers was just under a ton in weight!
The destruction of Coverham Abbey makes sad reading, if only in an account for Henry's receiver. Between February 4, 1536 and Michaelmas 1537, he received £980.18s. 8d for goods sold, including 27 oxen, 78 cows, 33 stones of wool,
£36. 0s. 8d for church ornaments, £156.2s.0d. for plate, £403. 6s. 8d for 124 fothers of lead obtained in pulling down the monastery and £16. 13s. 4d. for six bells weighing 2000 lbs. I wonder where some of those items are today?