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The Ancient Office of Parish Clerk and the Parish Clerks Company of London

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2008

Oswald Clark
Parish Clerk of St Andrew by the Wardrobe in the City of London


Attempt is made to trace the work and role of the parish clerk from menial monastic beginnings to its emergence in the thirteenth century as a canonically recognised office–probably the oldest unordained office at the parochial level in the English church and the last vestigial survival of Minor Orders. In parallel is developed the story of the coming together of London parish clerks as a guild or fraternity, radically distinguished from the merchant, craft and service guilds, and of the grant to that fraternity of ‘clerici et literati’– with its unique livery and ethos–of the first of its six Royal Charters. The duties and activities of mediaeval parish clerks and the constitution of their Company are considered along with its possessions, especially its Bede Roll. Attention is paid to the understanding of Purgatory and the devastating effects of the Chantries Act 1548. The parish clerk's changing role following the Reformation is examined within the prevailing continuities and discontinuities. New duties in relation to Registration and Bills of Mortality are marked in addition to the parish clerk's increasing social involvement in the civil affairs of the parish. The decline in the parish clerk's duties from the nineteenth century is studied and its effect on the office, the London Company and the ancient parishes of old London, from which the Company is exclusively recruited.

Copyright © Ecclesiastical Law Society 2006

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1 An edited version of a paper delivered on 10 November 2004 as a contribution to the 2004 series of London Lectures of the Ecclesiastical Law Society. An earlier and much shorter version of this paper was given on 9 July 2003 to the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the City Churches.Google Scholar

2 Ditchfield, PH, The Parish Clerk (Methuen & Co 1907).Google Scholar

3 No one—and certainly no one who like the present writer is neither lawyer, liturgist, theologian nor historian—can presume to contribute on this topic without acknowleding from the outset an overwhelming debt of gratitude to Adams, RH, The Parish Clerks of London (Phillimore 1971).Google Scholar Adams, friend and mentor to so many clerks, cites helpfully a number of the earlier authorities, especially Christie, J, Some Account of Parish Clerk, (privately printed 1893)Google Scholar and Ebblewhite, EA, The Parish Clerks' Company and its Charters (privately printed 1932).Google Scholar

4 Bede, , Ecclesiastical History of the English People(Penguin rev edn 1990), p 98.Google Scholar See also Deanesly, M., The Pre-Conquest Church in England (A & C Black 1961). The English Church conceived of itself as the child of Pope Gregory I (Deanesly op cit p 224).Google Scholar

5 Bede op cit p 78.Google Scholar

6 Deanesly op cit p 50.Google Scholar

7 See Atchley, C, The Parish Clerk and his Right to read the Liturgical Epistle (Alcuin Club Tracts IV) (Longman's Green & Co 1903).Google Scholar

8 Ditchfield op cit p 17.Google Scholar

9 Migne Patrologia Latina cxv, vol 677 qu Atchley op cit.Google Scholar

10 Decretales Gregorii IX, 3.1.3.Google Scholar

11 Lyndwood. Provinciale Lib III tit. De Concessione Prebende.Google Scholar

12 Inasmuch as there is almost nothing in that ancient Canon Law touching parish clerks which is repugnant or contrariant to English statute law or to the Royal Prerogative, it is at least arguable that, insofar as they have not been repealed or substantially amended, those parts of the old law are still binding in the Church of England.Google Scholar

13 Westlake, HF, The Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England (SPCK 1919) pp 1 et seq.Google Scholar

14 The Weavers' Company (though No 42 in the civic order of company precedence) has a Charter date related to 1155 and is widely held to be the earliest company. The Saddlers' Company No 25 has a document of 1160 which seems to point to an Anglo-Saxon Company existence, though the earliest Saddlers' Charter dates from 1395. The newest company (as at December 2004), that of the International Bankers No 106, received its grant of livery in October 2004.Google Scholar

15 Westlake op cit and pp 38 et seq.Google Scholar

16 The Bede Roll of the Fraternity of St Nicholas ed , NW and James, VA, 2 vols (London Record Society 2004) p xiv.Google Scholar

17 I am much indebted to Clanchy, MT, From Memory to Written Record (Blackwell 1993) for this data (see pp 75et passim).Google ScholarCR Cheney has pointed out that ‘in England no sign has been seen of diocesan statutes before 1215’ (p 35) and that ‘among the earliest, if not the very first of English synodal statutes are those of Richard Poore with a date of c 1217–1221’: English Synodialia of the Thirteenth Century (OUP 1941).Google Scholar

18 Decretum Gratiani D 77 c iv.Google Scholar

19 Power, E, The Wool Trade in English Mediaeval History (OUP 1941) p. 25.Google Scholar

20 ‘Sounds’, wrote Isidore of Seville (d 636), ‘must be held in the memory of man, because they cannot be written’ qu Deanesly op cit, p 93. King Alfred's mother showed him a beautifully illuminated book of Saxon poems and when he could recite them all by heart, she fulfilled her promise to give him the book (op cit p 257). Alfred did not learn to read or write until he was twelve.Google Scholar

21 Powicke, FM, Henry III and the Lord Edward (Oxford Clarendon 1947) tells (p 74 and p 134) how Ralph Nevill was not translated from Chichester to Canterbury in 1231 because he was held to be curialis et illitteratus (‘an illiterate courtier’).Google Scholar

22 As recently as 1972 and 1990 the Clerks of London were still performing their plays – and may do so again before too long.Google Scholar

23 McFarlane, KB, The Lesser Nobility of Late Mediaeval England (Oxford Clarendon 1973), p. 284.Google Scholar For later opinions, see Pollard, AJ, Late Mediaeval England, 1399–1509 (Longman 2000) pp 116, 137,Google Scholarand Griffiths, RA, The Reign of Henry VI (1981).Google Scholar

24 Lyndwood Provinciale Lib III tit De Concessione Prebende.Google Scholar

25 It was for long held that legally a woman could not be elected to the office of parish clerk, though she might be a sexton (Olave v Ingram (1739) 7 Mod Rep 263, 2 Stra 1114). In fact there are many instances from the eighteenth century onwards when women acted as parish clerks. The mediaeval Company appears to have regarded the wives of brethren as ‘sisterne’ and certainly as a part of the Company's wider family. Many appear in the Bede Roll. There is no evidence, however, of any women having been elected as brethren of the Company prior to 1999. At December 2004, there were five women parish clerks in membership of the Company.Google Scholar

26 In addition to Henry VI, there appear the names of three further kings of England, one queen, many peers of the realm, Lady Margaret Beaufort, some 30 abbots, priors and prioresses, 35 and more (Lord) mayors, including Richard Whittington, 15 or so Masters of the Mercers Company, to say nothing of William Caxton.Google Scholar

27 William Cowper may be recalled: Here lies within this tomb so calm Old Giles–pray sound his knell– who thought no song was like a psalm No music like a bell (On a Parish Clerk Epitomie 1792).Google Scholar

28 ‘It was an act of spoliation devoid either of excuse in its cause or benefit in its results’ (ie to the King's wars in Scotland and France). Hibbert, FA, Influence and Development of English Gilds qu Westlake op cit p 134.Google Scholar

29 ‘Between heaven and earth there was incessant coming and going. The watchful choir of angels was drawn up against the cohort of demons who swooped on men whose sins called out to them’: J Le Goff, Mediaeval Civilisation. See also ARCIC II Church as Communion, p. 48 ‘The Eucharistic Community on earth is a participation in a larger communion which includes the martyrs and confessors and all who have fallen asleep in Christ throughout the ages’. For mediaeval man there was little distinction between the planes of earth and heaven – and there was constant traffic between them. CS Lewis noted that Hooker's universe was ‘drenched with deity’. The Mediaeval Church believed it.Google Scholar

30 See Ed Kitching, CJ, London and Middlesex Chantry Certificate, 1548 (London Record Society 1980).Google Scholar See also Westlake, op cit p 135. In 1548 St Magnus church still had twelve or more chantry priests and St Dunstan in the East and St James, Garlickhythe, had ten each. At St Paul's forty-eight chantry priests served fifty or so chantries. Excluding all these, there were some 250 chantry priests in the City in 1548.Google Scholar

31 E Duffy in a lecture to the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 9 December 2003, reproduced at (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 429, and in Platten, S (ed) Anglicanism and the Western Christian Tradition, (Canterbury 2003), Ch 3, p 42.Google Scholar

32 ‘In one of the great untidinesses of the Reformation the Protestant church courts of England went on using the Pope's Canon Law’: D MacCulloch in a lecture to the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 9 December 2003, reproduced at (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 418. See also MacCulloch's book review in (2005) 8 Ecc LJ 109–111 and his contribution (ch 2) to Platten, S (ed) ‘Anglicanism’ op cit.Google Scholar

33 Excommunication declined as a sentence but it was not until 1612 that the last person was burned in England for heresy. See Foster, A in O'Day, R and Heal, F (eds) Continuity and Chance (Leicester University Press 1976) p 43.Google Scholar

34 Men like Parker, Whitgift and Toby Matthew of York were lavish and hospitable entertainers; each had over a hundred servants and in their charitable giving, in life and death, strove to emulate their Pre-Reformation predecessors: see Barlatsky, J in O'Day, R and Heal, F (eds) Princes and Paupers (Leicester University Press 1981) at p 114 et seq.Google Scholar See also Croft, P for Cecil, William, Burghley, Lord (d 1598), ‘a man who never moved much beyond the mid-Tudor years’ and Platten, S (ed) Anglicanism op cit at pp 77, 78.Google Scholar

35 See Zell, ML in Princes and Paupers, op cit p. 41.Google Scholar

36 See Duffy lecture op cit at (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 429, and in Platten, S (ed) ‘Anglicanism’ op cit at p 45.Google Scholar

37 Duffy, E, The Voices of Morebath (Yale University Press 2001), esp at pp 5464, for the ever-controversial issue of the parish clerk's wages.Google Scholar

38 ‘severe in whipping forth dogs from the Temple all except the lapdog of good widow Howard… yet they were men of a clear and sweet voice and of becoming gravity’ Pope's Words, vol VI, p 248.Google Scholar

39 Quoted Adams op cit pp 69, 79.Google Scholar

40 Lecturers and Parish Clerks Act 1844 (7 & 8 Vict, c 59).Google Scholar

41 Lawrence v Edwards [1891] 2 Ch 72. See also Lawrence v Edwards [1891] 1 Ch 144.Google Scholar

42 Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1921 (11 & 12 Geo 5, No 1), s 6(iii).Google Scholar

43 A map showing colourfully the parishes of the City of London prior to the City of London (Union of Parishes) Act 1907 (7 Edw. 7 cap cxi) has been published by the London Topographical Society.Google Scholar

44 The saying of a loud AMEN has always been seen as a particular responsibility of the parish clerk: Alas, poor Johnis dead and gone who often toll'd the Bell And with a spade Dug many a grave And said AMEN as well. Epitaph John Blackburn, Scothorne, Lincs 1739/40 quoted in Ditchfield, op cit p 93.Google Scholar

45 MacCulloch, D, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (Yale University Press 1996) p 15.Google Scholar

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