Colne Engaine: A Medieval English Parish

The usual narrative for the history of the development of the parish structure in England is fairly simple, as in this account by Roy Strong in A Little History of the English Country Church (London: Vintage, 2008):

The basic structure of our present parish system developed in the tenth century. The Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical system centred on the minster, or monasterium; these were major churches with attendant buildings that housed priests servicing the outlying areas. (Strong, p. 19)

These were followed by smaller churches built by local lords during the ‘Great Rebuilding’ from 1050 to 1150:

The minsters went into eclipse as local churches multiplied in response to the emergence of both self-contained manors presided over by thegns and by the village as a new rural social unit. Such a configuration demanded a new ecclesiastical system to service it.’ (Strong, p. 20)

This new system was of a network of parishes covering the whole country, so that by the thirteenth century everyone belonged to a parish with its own parish priest, and to whom (or to whose patron) tithes were paid.

This is, basically, what Anthea Jones calls the ‘minster hypothesis’ which she suggests is ‘too tidy’, while the neat idea of a uniform network of parishes and a regular system of mutual  payment via tithes and responsibility in the form of pastoral care is ‘too tight a definition of parochial responsibility’, [Anthea Jones, A Thousand Years of the English Parish: Medieval Patterns & Modern Interpretations, (Moreton-in-Marsh: Windrush Press, 2000) p. 40]. She points out the complexity of parish formation, and the variety in types of parishes. Parish formation may have been encouraged in the Anglo-Saxon period during the reign of King Edgar, at the same time as bishops were reforming the monasteries. Collegiate churches, which look similar to minsters in that they were served by a group of clerics, continued into the later Middle Ages, and the reform of canons (clerics living in community) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries provided another layer of pastoral care [see Sarah Hamilton, Church and People in the Medieval West, 900-1200 (Harlow: Pearson, 2013), p. 150]. In towns the division into parishes, especially where there were portionary churches, could be very complex [Jones, p. 110]. Richard Morris [The Church in British Archaeology, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 47 (London, 1983), 72] available online as a PDF to download] makes a similar point when he says that ‘In recent years a number of scholars have come to question the concept of slow growth’ [p. 74]. He is questioning the thesis that there is a  constant, reliable pattern of development of churches in communities; rather, archaeology requires the investigation of data and the accurate dating of that data to establish a more nuanced picture.

Jones does point out the expectation that Anglo-Saxon lords (thegns) would build a church on their land; indeed it became law under King Edgar that a thegn should have a church on his land, and a ceorl (a free man of low status), if he owned five hides of land, could become a thegn by building a church if he also had ‘seat and office/in the king’s hall’ [p. 74]. Anglo-Saxon laws and customs would have been of no concern to the new Norman over-lords, but being a patron of a church had advantages, social and economic, and landholders established patronal churches from the eighth century, as N. J. G. Pounds points out [in History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp. 29 & 22], continuing to do so after the Norman conquest. Pounds claims that ‘It is generally agreed . . . that the majority of parish churches in rural England today derive from the  patronal churches of Saxon thegns or Norman lords’ [p. 29]. This is the probable case in Colne Engaine, where a church was built close to the manor house of Parva Colun, the manor that came into the possession of the Engaine family that is, and later became the parish church of Colne Engaine.

Pounds suggests that parishes were usually co-extensive with manors [p. 32]; but that seems not to have been the case here. As we shall see, the parish consists of a number of manors, which existed from the time of the Domesday survey, 150 years before the first parish priest was appointed. Domesday Book can be a useful source of information about the presence of churches and priests in particular areas but, as many historians point out (including Richard Morris in The Church in British Archaeology, p. 68), the data given on churches are incomplete, and vary widely from area to area. There is no mention of church or priest in the area now covered by the parish of Colne Engaine, but the church was built a century or so after the Conquest, the present building dating in part to the twelfth century; the nave dates from ‘early in the 12th century’ [Arthur Chilton, Colne Engaine and St. Andrew’s Church (Colne Engaine: privately published, 1941), p. 7; based on ‘the Report contained in Vol. III of the Royal Commission on Historical onuments (English, 1922)]. This may have been during the reign of Henry I (1100-35) when there was a lot of revision and reform, not only of buildings but of ecclesiastical organisation.

The first record of a parish priest, however, is 1219. This would support my opinion that the church was originally a proprietary church (defined on Wikipedia as ‘a church, abbey or cloister built on private ground by a feudal lord, over which he retained proprietary interests, especially the right of what in English law is “advowson“, that of nominating the ecclesiastic personnel’; also defined by Albert Simeon Cote Jr in the Abstract of his Ph.D. Dissertation, ‘The Anglo-Saxon and Norman “Eigenkirche” and the  Ecclesiastical Policy of William I’) and, in effect, acting as the personal chapel of the lords of the manor, who also became the patrons when the Rector was appointed.

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