Parish and Church

AuthorChristopher Jessel

Chapter 20

Parish and Church


Many lords have rights and duties affecting the parish church.1The lord may appoint the vicar and may be responsible for the repair of part of the church building. Just as the manor does not necessarily correspond to the village, so it may not coincide with the parish.2The imaginary manor of Middleton in 1.1 did so for the sake of simplicity, but that is unusual. All three institutions developed at the same time in the eleventh century and their concurrent jurisdiction affected the way each developed.

Parishes are parts of dioceses, the sphere of responsibility of a bishop. When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity each kingdom became a separate diocese. Several have now been split up but English dioceses were – and are – large by continental standards. At an early date they were divided into parts each called a parochia which was organised from a regional church called a minster from which a group of clergy ministered to the local people. Parochiae were the religious counterparts of hundreds and in some parts of the country had the same boundaries, so that most people lived within walking distance of their minster church.3

As private estates developed within hundreds the theigns who administered them employed their own clergy. This was partly because a priest was educated and could read and write. More importantly, he could preach and administer the sacraments, which was necessary for the wellbeing of the souls of the theign and his family. The theign built the priest a church next to, or even as part of, his hall. To this the people of the estate came and as time passed the priest was expected to look after the moral and spiritual wellbeing of the villagers, thus

1 See generally Halsbury’s Laws Vol 34, Ecclesiastical Law (Butterworths, 5th edn).

2 Blackstone, Sir William, Commentaries on the Laws of England I.4.

3 Blair, J, Early Medieval Surrey: Landholding, Church and Settlement before 1300 (Surrey

Archaeological Society, 1991) 104, 119, 153.

332 The Law of the Manor

gradually taking over this duty from the minster clergy. The area became known as a parish, derived from parochia, although only a part of it. If one village included several estates – or, after 1066, manors – it was likely that the church belonged to the principal estate.

It is common to find several manors within one parish but rare to find several parishes wholly within one manor. In the north of England, where manors could be very large, townships, which often had their own chapels, were made into parishes after the Middle Ages. This also occurred in growing towns where the Victorians often organised new parishes. Thus, the boundaries of the parish of Kensington in London at one time corresponded to the manor of that name but in the mid-nineteenth century the parish was divided. Modern town parishes may be smaller than the remains of a manor. Likewise the result of parish reorganisation in the twentieth century often involved combining a number of parishes which were once distinct and whose boundaries once corresponded to those of a manor.

A few villages had several churches and parishes, especially in East Anglia. The best known is Swaffham Prior where the church of St Mary is only a few feet away from the church of St Gyriac and St Julia. East Anglia had many small manors and independent freeholders and some of this duplication may have come from groups of freeholders who built their own church (often dedicated to St Mary) to be free of the lord who was hardly more powerful than themselves.4

By contrast some churches were physically divided, perhaps following the division of the manor, with the rectors in the same building. Bracton5gives an example of this in the case of de Huwelle v Richard rector of Claypole.6

When parishes were carved out of parochiae the minster church remained responsible for what was left. A few minsters, such as York, rose in standing to become the equal of cathedrals. Others became little more than parish churches with a few special privileges such as the right to demand that parishioners of another church (once part of the parochia) be buried in the minster churchyard. Parts of the old parochia which were some distance from the church and were cut off when parishes were carved out of the parochia remained as extra-parochial areas until the reorganisation of the nineteenth century. Part of the

4 Warner, P, ‘Shared churches, freemen church builders and the development of parishes in eleventh century East Anglia’, in Landscape History Vol 8 (1986) 39; Rowley, T, Villages in the Landscape (1978) plate VII; Rowley, T, The High Middle Ages (1988) 88; Williamson, T and Bellamy, L, Property and Landscape (George Philip, 1987) 34.

5 Bracton, Sir H, De legibus et consuetudinibus angliae (c 1257) (SE Thorne (ed)) (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977) f 286.

6 Ibid f 286.

income needed to support the rector of the parish came from tithes and part from glebe land, both discussed below.

Until the Reformation the law of the Church was separate from the secular law administered through the royal courts and those of shire, hundred and leet. There was a hierarchy of church courts from that of the archdeacon to the bishop, eventually up to that of the pope of Rome. The rules of canon law owed much more to the civil law derived from Roman law than to principles of English law. Church courts were responsible for administering wills and dealing with the inheritance of chattels. The Church also had a wide jurisdiction over family law matters including marriage, separation and legitimacy. As a result there were numerous conflicts of jurisdiction, the best known of which ended in the death of Archbishop Thomas à Becket. At the Reformation the system of church courts was brought into domestic law, although it still exists. It no longer has a wide general jurisdiction but it deals with many matters relating to the property of the Church of England, the behaviour of clergy and other issues of domestic significance.


An advowson is the right to present a clergyman to a benefice, the living of a church, so that he becomes the parish priest or parson as rector or vicar. When Anglo-Saxon lords built churches for their own house or estate priest they naturally had the right to appoint whoever they wished, provided he had been ordained. Where there was originally no estate church the right to appoint clergy belonged to the bishop or the king and many advowsons still belong to the diocese or the Crown for that reason; but private appointments were more usual. Where several manors were held together in honours the lord was usually no longer resident. By that time, the law of the Church required that there should be at least one clergyman for every parish. The parish priest became the most important person – or parson – in the locality. He was also known as the ruler – Latin rector – of the parish.

Advowsons were highly valued property. As explained below, most parishes had substantial endowments for the clergy and the patron decided who could have that income. In the Middle Ages the pulpit was the main place from which people learnt news or received ideas and control over that meant control over peoples’ minds. In the seventeenth century much of the struggle between Puritans and High Churchmen, and hence between Parliament and the King, was influenced by who had the advowson and appointed the preacher. In the eighteenth century financial influences were more to the fore. The plot of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park depends on what happened when Sir Thomas

334 The Law of the Manor

Bertram ran into financial difficulties and had to accept money for the appointment of a wealthy sophisticated urban cleric whose family introduced unsettling ideas, rather than keep the living for his younger son for whom it had been intended.

In the nineteenth century advowsons were bought for large sums by supporters of both High and Low Church ideas, which was considered scandalous. Under a number of statutes, including the Sale of Advowsons Act 1856, the Benefices Act 1898 and the Benefices Measure 1933, advowsons could not be sold except in conjunction with a landed estate. Section 3 of the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986 provides that they cannot be sold at all. Some advowsons have always been exercised in turn7with one patron making the appointment only on every second or third vacancy. This may originally have derived from disputed rights or manors divided among co-heiresses. In the twentieth century it became common practice as parish churches were closed and parishes amalgamated.

Formerly, most advowsons were attached to manors.8The first to be detached were on royal grants. The statute, De Prerogativa Regis 13249provided that if the Crown granted a manor to a subject and an advowson had previously been enjoyed with it, the grant did not include the advowson unless it was expressly mentioned. The advowson was treated as similar to a flower franchise. In Attorney-General v Sitwell10Sir George Sitwell agreed to purchase from the Crown the manor of Eckington in Derbyshire and the contract contained general words including appurtenances. Sitwell claimed that this included the advowson of the parish church which he said was either appurtenant or appendant. The court, relying on the statute, held that while such words would have carried the advowson if it had been between subjects, the effect of the Act was that it was excluded.

Advowsons could, however, be appendant to a manor and passed with it without having to be mentioned in the conveyance.11Advowsons are not included in s 62(3) of the Law of Property Act 1925 and were not previously included in general words...

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