Our history…… Early Days
The truth is that ‘we don’t know much’! The parish name of Shilbottle suggests a Saxon origin – Shil’s botel or home – someone who in his own day was respected as a leader. Within a few miles there is the ‘Howick House’, said to date from 7600BC. In romantic moments you might consider Shil and his extended family huddled in a round camp of huts just under the ‘Beacon’, perhaps a settlement rather like the one above where the stream meets the sea at Iron Scars east of Longhoughton. But no-one has discovered evidence for this and our few pre-historic discoveries include a Greenstone axe-hammer 6″x2½” found at Longridge field (Dene Moor) and a Bronze age ‘food vessel’ found in a field near Hazon in March 1833 (Alnwick Castle Museum). These have been dated 3000 – 2000BC. So someone was around, but of their way of life we can only surmise from discoveries found largely elsewhere. A local user of a metal detector made discoveries in Long Dene (a glacial valley running between Longdyke and where the Grange Pit was sunk. In the peat were discovered bronze axe-heads and jewellery. There were reported to the Archeological Society in Newcastle. At a later date a copper axe-head is said to have come to light. Near Woodhouse Farm, a quern-stone was discovered, said to be Romano-British in date. Other finds there include stone mortars and horse-shoes galore!
But moving on, it would be surprising if Shilbottle wasn’t somehow influenced by the Christian mission from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne from the 7th century AD onwards. The earliest evidence for Christians in Northumbria comes with the building and staffing of the Roman Wall, but this seems to have receded with the soldiers withdrawal. The political boundaries were redrawn and eventually Northumbria became the Supreme Kingdom and in 616AD, Edwin became first Christian King, ruling from Bamburgh. Edwin had married the Christian Ethelburg, sister of King Eadbald of Kent. They were accompanied to York by Paulinus, one of a Augustine’s monks sent by Pope Gregory to Canterbury, who stayed until Edwin died in 633AD, leaving James the Deacon and others to continue this missionary work. There is a story in Bede of Paulinus baptising converts at the royal palace of Yeavering (on the very edge of the Cheviots near Wooler) for 36 days.
Yet Edwin’s son King Oswald invited the monks of Iona (where he had been schooled) to send a missionary team and after one false start, the leader of a small contingent was Aidan, who became Bishop at Lindisfarne in 635AD. His ‘method’ of evangelism was to travel the area freely, chatting gently with those he encountered and encouraging them if already Christian or introducing them to Jesus if they weren’t. The story of these early days of Christian mission are recorded by England’s first historian, the monk Bede from Jarrow and Wearmouth. Aidan also began a school on Holy Island, attended by the younger sons of the local important families. From his early cohort came the great missionary bishops of Cedd, Chad and Wilfrid who with others, spearheaded the evangelism of the Celtic church from the north.
In 684AD a Synod was called at Twyford or ‘Adtwifyrdi’ – a name describing a place of meeting of a river and the sea and thought to be used by Bede to describe nearby Alnmouth. It was presided over by Archbishop Theodore (of Canterbury, the founder of the English parish system) and its most significant work was to elect Cuthbert as Bishop of Lindisfarne. With Shilbottle ‘just up the hill’, it would be surprising if by this time, there was a gathering place for worship there, with perhaps a wooden building available to battle the winds, snows and rain …….. but for this we have no evidence!
Things became more organised when S. Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury (669AD). The country was split into dioceses, often vast territories under the authority of a bishop. Sometimes they were sub-divided, with a ‘minster’ church run by a member of the Bishop’s familia or staff, who went out to baptize, teach and visit in the remoter districts. Over the next couple of hundred years, further development rested with local landlords whose territories often became parish boundaries and who perhaps appointed and supported a resident priest with ‘glebe’ (land set aside from the farming of which the priest got his livelihood). The priest was a ‘freeman’ and not a serf. He would till the glebe himself and in addition receive tithes, the right to collect one tenth of all produce of land and beasts. He was also entitled to certain fees, linked largely with the agricultural round. This was to be a pattern that survived until the end of the nineteenth century.
As the same time as the parochial system was developing, monasticism grew in importance. Augustine, Paulinus and their immediate successors were Benedictine monks and created monasteries, the earliest of which became Canterbury Cathedral. The Celtic Church represented in the north by Columba and Aidan originated in Ireland, and soon the two intermingled with Benedict Biscop who having been abbot of Canterbury but came north and founded the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (in which Bede lived and worked) in 674 and 685. They boasted one of the finest libraries north of the Alps. For a time men and women lived together in community, as at Whitby under the Northumbrian princess/abbess Hilda, who died in 680 . It was here that in a Synod presided over by King Oswy, some of the Roman traditions about the dating of Easter, the style of tonsure etc were accepted. This led to a withdrawal back to Iona of some of the Irish monks, whilst others like Chad and Cedd just moved on and continued their mission that was to take them to the Midlands and to Essex. Monastery schools were established, that helped to provide suitably educated leaders for the next generation. The strength and vibrancy of the Church at this time is witnessed to by the art and architecture that was created, in the illuminated manuscripts (of which the finest is the Lindisfarne Gospels) and in some of the exquisitely carved crosses across the north of England and the Scottish lowlands, as at Bewcastle and Ruthwell. A few 7th century church buildings have survived – Escomb in County Durham, Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, Brixworth in Northamptonshire and Bradford-upon-Avon in Somerset, not to mention the remains at Wearmouth and Jarrow. Religious poetry also flourished like Caedmon’s Song from Whitby and the Dream of the Rood. From the time of the Synod of Whitby (680), the church in the English kingdoms was one with the church in the rest of Europe – the Catholic Church, under the ultimate jurisdiction of the Pope in Rome.
The Viking Raids
On June 8th 793, a Viking raiding party landed on Lindisfarne and attacked and slaughtered many. For seventy years such attacks continued until 866 when an army of Danes landed in East Anglia and some turned their attention northwards. York was sacked and Egbert, a puppet King, installed. The extent of Danish influence over Yorkshire is demonstrated in the number of place names ending in ‘-by’. In 875 Tynemouth and Hexham were sacked but the Danes seemed to move through rather than settle, leaving the Angles in control of Bamburgh and Chester-le-Street, places that became a significant part of the Diocese of Durham.
The relics and remains of St Cuthbert had been removed from Lindisfarne as the raids began and over a seventy year period, the accompanying monks moved them to Norham, Cumbria and Chester-le-Street.
By 934 Athelstan, King of Wessex had accumulated enough power to attempt the restoration of the great Christian heritage of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. He had some success and handed his authority to the Bishop. But this was constantly threatened and for a time, a power vacuum was filled by Invasions by King Malcolm of Scotland as far south as the Tees. The territorial disputes created then lie behind much of the border aggression over the next few hundred years. In 993 Bamburgh again came under threat from a group of Danish raiders, provoking the guardian monks of the Cuthbert relics to move further southwards to Ripon for a few months, before turning northwards again and settling at Dunholm or Durham, where on the peninsula created by a fold in the river, they built a ‘White Church’, first in wood and later in stone to house these holy relics.
Land ownership in Shilbottle
But what of Shilbottle? We do not know and can only surmise that during the early 11th century, they shared in the gradual settling of Northumbria, with those who had invaded and stayed being gradually absorbed into the populus. The barony of Alnwick, which stretched over a large area of Northumberland, was created by Henry I in the early 12th century and before that no Normans had settled here. In his return to King Henry II, William de Vesci stated that William Tison held land from him in return for knight’s service. This land included Shilbottle.
For knowledge of our earliest known landowners we rely on the account given in John Crawford Hodgson in ‘A History of Northumberland’ Volume V, published in 1899. There is quoted a survey of the earl of Northumberand’s estates made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1:
The manner of Shilbottell is parcel of the said barronye (Alnwick)…..and was sometyme parcell of the possessions of William, Baron Hilton in the right of Bona, daughter and heyre of Jermayne Tyson, the lord of the same, together with the churche of Guysance, alias Braineshaughe, Haysand, Neuton, Renyngton, Fallowdon and Broxfield, as by guyft of Gisbrightus Tyson, sometime lord of Alnewicke made to Richard his sonne ….. And afterward reduced to the barony againe by his lordship’s ancestors for the manners of Bolton Percye, Carnabye, and others, and so have contynued tyll this present.
Gisbright or Gilbert Tison held the distinguished post of standard-bearer In William the Conqueror’s army and so shared in the spoils, being given lands in Yorkshire and of the barony of Alnwick which he later handed to his younger son Richard by giving him the lordship of Shilbottle, including the vills of Guyzance, Hazon and Newton, with Rennington and Broxfield from the parish of Embleton. In turn, Richard was succeeded by his son William, and he by his son German. German’s heiress was his daughter Beneta or Bona who carried the property through marriage to William Hilton of Hilton, a baron of the bishopric of Durham. Their son Alexander was a minor when his father died in 1208. There are records of further land transactions recorded by Hodgson (p418) including mention of a 1267 survey, in which it is recorded that Sir Ralph, the vicar farmed 12 acres. As the Elizabethan survey records above, Shilbottle was still in the hands of the Hilton family until it was exchanged with Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland for lands in Yorkshire: Bolton Percy, Carnaby and Wharam Percy. The first Earl got into a spot of bother with the King and had to surrender his estates and castles to the king . Henry IV granted them to his son John, created Duke of Bedford (noted in 1415 as owner of the Shilbottle Tower), and after John’s death passed to Henry VI (1435) and later handed to Robert, Lord Ogle but reacquired (by means unknown) by the Percys before 1472 when the grieve of Shilbottle accounted with the Earl of Northumberland’s receiver at Michaelmas.
The building of a stone church
Land owners were often the ones who provided church buildings and supplied a priest to minister to the people’s spiritual needs. We haven’t been able to say with certainty what sort of church presence there was in Shilbottle before the Norman Conquest, but with the arrival of the Tisons we begin to have architectural evidence for the building of a stone church. In about 1880, the Archdeaconry Architect Frederick R. Wilson was invited to inspect the then building and make his recommendations for repair. He itemised the Norman remains:
All the external ashlar faces of the walls of the Nave and Chancel, the chancel arch, a narrow Norman window, deeply sloped on the interior (and of 7″ width), on the north side of the Nave, a similar one wholly blocked on the south side of the nave, and a third on the south side of the chancel. You have also the original Norman South doorway of Entrance, with its detached columns and cushioned capitals and the peculiar depressed semi-circular arch, and moreover the original font.
Pevsner describes these features (mostly preserved in the rebuilt church of 1884) as C12, but cast doubt on the origins of the font , describing it as ‘a piece of free imitation Norman’.
What of a priest? This part of the story is caught up in the history of Alnwick Abbey which was founded by Eustace fitz John in 1147 as a daughter house to Newhouse Abbey in Lincolnhire – a Premonstratensian monastery of canons, following the rule of St Augustine and incorporating Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion. Many of the monastic houses in Europe were Benedictine (including Durham Cathedral), but their monopoly was challenged by Cistercians (who are of a ‘reformed’ and more austere type of Benedictine observance) but also by those who looked back further than St. Benedict to St. Augustine of Hippo, certainly an influential theologian even to the present day, but not then widely regarded as a mentor for the religious life. To a group of religious women in his Epistle 211, he advocated a form of life grounded in the teaching of the New Testament:
• to have all things in common
• to pray together at appointed times
• to dress without distinction
• to obey a superior
Here was advice that was scriptural, sensible and sufficiently non-prescriptive to allow each community to shape their own rule and pattern for a common life. Some ended up a little more ‘severe’ and others more broad. Alnwick Abbey’s mother house at Prémontré, led by St Norbert, was of the stricter sort, with rules of abstinence, silence, manual labour and regular praying of the Psalms. Pope Urban II (1088-1099) wrote helpfully about the distinctiveness between monks and canons:
In the monastic life men abandoned earthly things and gave themselves up to contemplation. In the canonical life, they made use of earthly things and redeemed with tears and almsgiving the daily sins inseparable from the world. Monks therefore play the role of Mary, the canons that of Martha in the church. The canons’ role seems humbler, but both are necessary.
Urban believed that the canons had revived a neglected primitive tradition, in which practical service had a dominant place. So the role of the canons’ work was to “pick up broken pieces in an already settled world. They rebuilt churches, restored religious life in broken-down or half-formed communities; they provided a framework of life for diffused religious impulses; they gathered together misappropriated ecclesiastical tithes and applied them for religious purposes, for the relief of the poor, the sick, the infirm, and for the endowment of a modest religious life.” Perhaps we can say that Shilbottle was fortunate in being open to such influence and generosity!
Alnwick Abbey was dedicated to St James and the Blessed Virgin. After 1066, William the Conqueror exerted as strong a hand over the church as he did the rest of the country. He made sure that the English Church was absorbed into the mainstream of continental Christianity under the direction of the Norman bishops who were beholden to him. “For their part, the bishops insisted on maintaining the rules and regulations, one of which was that the taking of human life had to be paid for by a penance of continuing prayer for the soul of the departed and his forebears. At the same time the perpetrator of the crime could look after his own soul and also his own family, past present and future. Barons were allowed to employ people to perform the required penances on their behalf, and they built what were in effect chantry chapels in which the priest could decently carry out their duty. At the same time, these priests were required to minister to the people of the parish.” Eustace de Vesci endowed his foundation with the church at Lesbury and the chapels of Alnwick and Alnmouth and Houghton. At the same time, Richard Tison, lord of Shilbottle added an endowment of the church of Guyzance (and by implication the church of Shilbottle) to the Abbey. According to Hodgson , Shilbottle was served by secular priests appointed by the abbey, until the middle of the 14th century when the Abbot petitioned Lewis Beaumont, Bishop of Durham, who ruled on July 31st 1331 that the canons might present one of themselves to the benefice. This certainly suited the Abbey, for they could appoint one of their own number, so benefitting from the income of the parish in every way! But the Bishop made sure that those installed had to be accountable, not only to their Abbot but also to him!
Our only knowledge of names and of their background come from a variety of ancient documents, court records, diocesan records and leases etc. Hodgson, expanded from another source , records these names (an incomplete list) as follows:
1228circa Richard, chaplain of Siplibotle – one of the witneses examined in a suit respecting Cornhill and Ancroft chapels.
1267 c Sir Ralph the vicar, rented 12 acres of land from Robert de Hilton.
1296c Thomas the vicar, was assessed on £2 8s. for the subsidy of 1296.
1312c William Bernardi. 1312/13 21st March , Bishop Kellawe issued a mandate to his official to relax the suspension of William Bernardi, perpetual vicar of Shypbotill.
(What had he done?)
1372c John de Morpeth.
1437 John de Bedlington, after the death of John de Morpeth.
1437c John Bamburgh; Vicar of Chatton 1437-1456.
1437 William de Alnewicke, on the resignation of Bamburgh
1475 Henry Rutherford
1488 George Bewyke/Berwike/Berwick (three spellings) and later vicar of Chatton
1497 Robert Clark, canon of Alnwick, instituted on 17th October on the resignation of Bewyke. He appeared at the archbishop’s visitation, held at Alnwick in 1501.
1538 George Wilkinson, instituted 15th February after the death of Clark; Vicar of Alnham, 1534-1538
The Abbey’s last years were chequered. In 1535 it was dissolved, refounded in 1536 but finally suppressed in 1539. At its dissolution, its income was valued at £1,891 15s. by Dugdale. At this stage there were 13 canons. King Edward VI granted the site to Ralph Sadler and Laurence Winnington, moving later into the possession of the Brandling family of Newcastle and then the Doubledays and ultimately the Percys. The only part of the building remaining is the fine gatehouse. Other nearby abbeys belonging to this order were at Blanchland and Dryburgh in Scotland.
Our ‘White Canons’ were a community founded by St Norbert who preferred the colour of white for their habits. They lived life according to the monastic Rule of St Augustine of Hippo which dated from about 400. They put great emphasis on simplicity and love for God and neighbour. Whilst life was to be lived in community on a daily basis, many of their priests also acted as parish priests nearby. Their day and night was structured around regular gatherings for prayer, perhaps 6 or 7 times in each 24 hours, and also a daily Mass in the abbey church. Their routines would also include practical work, study, a daily meeting of the community and silence for personal prayer and meditation.
As required, Shilbottle’s priest would ride out from Alnwick Abbey to meet his parishioners and each Sunday there would be a Mass in the Church of St James and he would baptize the newly born, marry couples and bury the dead as requested. No doubt he looked forward as much as anyone, to the Annual Feast observed near St James’ day (July 25th), usually the last Monday in July. He would take seriously his responsibility to pray for his parishioners and to care for them in need. The Abbey would receive the Shilbottle tithes and fees. As a celibate monk who lived in community, he had no need for a Vicarage house in Shilbottle. One of those had to be provided once the Abbey was dissolved. The Abbot’s responsibility of appointment passed with the abbey’s assets, to the Crown and appointments of Shilbottle’s vicars were made by the Monarch until 1892, when Queen Victoria and the Duke of Northumberland ‘swapped’ some advowsons .
You can read articles about daily life in the Middle Ages in villages like Shilbottle on the internet: eg. http://www.localhistories.org/middle.html
But what else was going on round about?
In this chapter, we’re covering a period of nearly 400 years – from the building of the church to the time of the Reformation and the closure of Alnwick Abbey. A lot went on – but we just don’t really know much about it! What have survived in the way of records are mainly legal documents about ownership of land. Apart from the ‘Chronicle of Alnwick Abbey’, once the property of King’s College Cambridge but ‘lost’ since before 1697 and extant only in short extracts, we don’t have much recorded about them either. But lots happened nationally too, and some of this affected land ownership in Shilbottle. The Pele Tower that later became part of the Vicarage was probably built between 1272 and 1377, and perhaps provided much needed security during a factious time of Alnwick Abbey Gatehouse: Tate
border raids. It changed hands several times. Some properties that
exist today like Hazon House, a cottage in Newton and Newton Hall have bits of them that could have been the work of medieval builders. The Church itself seems to have been given a ‘makeover’ round about the time that Alnwick Castle was re-modelled for the first Percy lord of Northumberland – perhaps at the same time as the construction of the Pele Tower. Larger windows were inserted into the chancel and perhaps the nave, to allow more light to enter. FR Wilson saw evidence for this in his survey of the building about 1880. So let’s have an overview and set Shilbottle within a national context:
Date Clergy Events in the Parish Other local events National events
1096 Oxford Univ begins
Circa 1168 Death of Richard Tison, ownership of Shilbottle and environs. His son was William, and William’s son German Tison, lord of Shilbottle. Alive in 1213. German’s daughter Beneta m. William Hilton a baron of the bishopric. Their son Sir Alexander de Hilton was a minor at the time of William’s death in 1208. H.417 After Conquest, the Tison family held Alnwick and environs incl Newton 1100: Henry I
1135 Stephen I
1154 Henry II
Work begins on building York Minster
1170 Murder of Thomas a Becket
1189 Richard I
1190 Third Crusade
Siplibotel 1209 Cambridge Univ begins
1215 Civil War followed by Magna Carta
1216 Henry III
1235 At assizes in Newcastle, Thomas de Schippelingbotle is granted 30 acres of land in Shilbottle, formerly held by Alexander, son of Milisand
1240 Agreement between Sir Alexander de Hilton with abbot and convent of Newminster respecting his boundaries of lands in Shilbottle and Guyzance and their manor of Sturton Grange.
1241 Sir Alexander de Hilton goes to the Holy Land – is dead before 1243. He and his wife Agnes are written into the Liber Vitae on the high Altar at Durham. His son Robert de Hilton holds (Testa de Nevill) Shilbottle, Newton on the Moor, Hazon, Guyzance and Rennington of the barony of Vesci. H. p418
1256 Newton o M, land exchanged with Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, becoming part of the Duchy of Lancaster by 1276. H.p444 Changed hands regularly after that….
c1267 Sir Ralph 1267 10 August audit of lands formerly held by Robert de Hilton – see list on H. p418. 1272 Edward I
1290 All Jews expelled from England
1288 Sir Robert de Hilton grants certain privileges in Hazon to the prior and convent of Brinkburn
c1296 Thomas Subsidy Roll, led by Robert de Hilton and including name of Vicar Thomas Shilbottle Pele Tower built around this time. 1296 Edward I invades Scotland: unrest until after Wm Wallace defeated in 1305.
1306 Robert the Bruce crowned
1307 Edward II
1312 William Bernardi
de Siplibotel 1312/3 21st March: Bishop Kellawe issued a mandate to his official to relax the suspension of William Bernardi perpetual vicar of Shypbotill’ H. p 434
1314-15 Robert de Hilton still alive 1314 Robert the Bruce defeat the English at Bannockburn
1321 Civil War in England
1327 Edward II murdered and Edward III crowned
1334 Alexander de Hilton retains Shilbottle and other lands but gives Broxfield to Abbot and convent of Alnwick. Alexander still alive in 1352/2 but died before 1368.. 1337 – 1453 100 Years War with France
1348 – 1349 Black Death
1368 Robert de Hilton now in possession of Shilbottle etc., but exchanged by him with Henry Percy (1st Earl of Northumberland) for manors in Yorkshire H. p 420
1372 John de Morpeth
John de Bedlington John de Bedlington followed, on the death of John de Morpeth John of Gaunt rules on behalf of his child nephew Richard II 1377 Richard II
1381 June 15 Peasants Revolt.
Concession promised but reprisals followed. 1387 Chaucer begins ‘The Canterbury Tales
1399 Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt)
1403 Earl Percy has to surrender his Northumberland lands and castles to the King
1405 King Henry IV grants Shlbottle with the castle and barony of Alnwick and many other estates forfeited by the earl of Northumberland to the King’s son John, created Duke of Bedford. 1413 Henry V
1415 Battle of Agincourt
1422 Henry V die suddenly an infant Henry VI succeeds. In France the king’s uncle, John, Duke of Bedford gradually extends English control and Henry VI is crowned King of France in Paris in 1431
1435 At the death of Duke of Bedford, these lands were inherited by his nephew Henry VI and remained crown property until 1461/2, when granted with Rennington, Guyzance and Middleton and £8pa from Beanly to Robert, Lord Ogle.
c1437 John Bamburgh who became Vicar of Chatton 1437-1456
1437 William de Alnewicke On the resignation of John Bamburgh
1455 War of the Roses begins – until 1485
1461 Edward IV
1470 Henry VI (again)
1471 Edward IV (again)
By 1472 Shilbottle re-acquired by unknown means by the Percys. H.p421
1475 Henry Rutherford 1477 Caxton prints his first book
1483 April: Edward V
1483 July Richard III
1485: Henry VII
c1497 George Bewyke John Cabot sails from Bristol and ‘discovers’ North America
1497 Robert Clark Canon of Alnwick, instituted on 17th October after the resignation of Bewyke who became vicar of Chatton. He appeared at the Archbishop’s visitation held at Alnwick 1501.
1498 List of ‘Shilbottle Customary Tenants’. H. p 422 1509 Henry VIII
1513 Sept 9 James IV of Scotland killed at Flodden Field
1524 Alan, a servant of the vicar of Shilbottle, and John Cowy of Hasand (Hazon) were found guilty of an affray with one another in which blood had been shed. H.p463
1526 Info from William Paliser, the Grieve’s accounts H p422
1532 Riever troubles at Whittle reported to Henry VIII 22 Oct. 6th Earl of Northumberland threatened by Mark Ker that he would ‘within five days after he wolde burne a toune of mine within thre myle of my poore house of Werkwourthe where I lye, and give me light to put on my clothes at mydnyght’. Ker sent 30 light horsemen to Whittle on Shilbottle Moor, but had travelled with no flint or tinder. They attacked a heavily pregnant woman and gave her three mortal wounds on the head. In response the Earl made a raid to Dunglas near Dunbar, ‘the like of which has not been seen for two centuries’. H. p55 1534 Nov: ‘Act of Supremacy’ passed, making Henry Supreme Head of the English Church….English Reformation begins
1536 Act of Union joins England & Wales
1536: First Bible in English authorised
1538 George Wilkinson Instituted 15 Feb 1537/8 after the death of Clark; Wilkinson was vicar of Alnham 1534 – 1538 1547 Edward VI
1549: the first Book of Common Prayer in English is imposed
So – mixed fortunes for Shilbottle inhabitants, and more to come as under Henry VIII and his children, the links with the Pope and the Catholic Church of the west were reformed and the monarch became ‘Supreme Head (later Governor) of the Church of England’ …… except for a few years when Queen Mary turned the pages back. But before we get to that, let’s try to describe what it was like to come to Church in St James’ Shilbottle on a Sunday in – say – 1400AD:
Sunday Church and godly living
At the start of the 15th century, you believed in God and hoped for Heaven and to avoid Hell! Everyone accepted this and lived accordingly, but if you didn’t and thought you could take Sunday off and not come to Church, the Churchwardens could bring you before a Bishop’s court and have you fined. So God-fearing Shilbottle folk brought themselves and their families to worship on Sundays and major feast days. For those living on the edges of the parish, at Hazon, Hartlaw and Newton, that could be quite a trek, especially on wet or icy days. The church was smaller than our present one, and perhaps lighter than once it was, but would be without heating or anywhere to sit. A candle, or candles would be lit at the altar. People stood or knelt in the nave during the service. The Sunday Mass probably began at 9am and Mattins would have been said by the priest before hand, but only the specially devout would attend. Coming to church was a social as well a religious occasion and there was probably more chat and noise than the clergy would have liked (some things don’t change)! There was probably no music, but maybe at Christmas there would be some of the early carols that people would know. Before the Mass began there was a Bidding Prayer in English, outlining the concerns and names of people to be prayed about locally and nationally. Then the Mass would begin (the priest vesting at the altar, wearing the same sorts of vestments that priests at St James’ wear now) but the service would be in Latin. Everyone would have been taught what the shape of the Mass was and what was going on and perhaps also taught some rhyming couplets to say (easier to remember) at certain parts of the service. The sermon would be in English and clergy were instructed to teach the Creed, 10 Commandments, the ‘Our Father’ and the sermon would explain and retell the Gospel story for the day. I doubt if Shilbottle had any wall paintings or stained glass windows, but if there were, then these would be used as ‘visual aids’. Clergy were also instructed to preach about the ‘7s’ – deadly sins, principal virtues, works of mercy, sacraments etc. As our vicars were canons, they would be better educated than some and would have had access to books with opportunities for study. Their sermons might have been quite good!
The priest was now at the altar and the solemn time of the consecration was drawing near. The ‘sanctus’ bell would ring, and all would go silent and kneel. One manual of devotion suggested that people should pray the following:
Sweet Jesu grant me now this
That I may come to thy bliss,
There with angels for to sing,
The sweet song of thy loving,
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
God grant that it be thus.
Although everyone was expected to be present when Mass was offered, most people only received Communion once a year, at Eastertide, after having made their confession and received absolution, when the priest would also test their knowledge and understanding. From about 1200, the tradition had grown for only the priest to receive the consecrated wine, whilst lay people received just the host. (This remained the main tradition in the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65).
At the end of Mass, people would spill out into the churchyard to meet and greet their extended families and neighbours. On special occasions, Church Ales might have been brewed for celebration, and of course for raising funds! The children might stay on for catechism and I doubt if the content of their teaching differs much from what eventually found its way into the English Book of Common Prayer. The Vicar would be busy. Maybe there would be children to baptize. He would be gathering information about the sick and infirm for visiting them – and especially if they were thought to be close to death and in need of anointing. Then the evening office of Vespers would be said at about 3pm. Weddings and Funerals probably took place on other days. For a wedding, the vows would be made at the church door (a public event for all to witness) and then completed at the altar with the blessing and a Nuptial Mass. After any feast the priest would then accompany the couple to their bed and bless them there too! There would be many weeks in the year when the churchyard was in use for its primary purpose. The body of a dead person or baby would be carried to church and after the service or Mass, would be buried in the ground, wrapped usually in cerecloth (waxed, making it waterproof). Only the rich had coffins and they might be buried under the church floor (you can see ledger stones before the altar, recording the burials of members of the Lisle family there). The rest of us would take our places, starting from one end of the churchyard and filling up to the other, then starting again. One of the reasons why our church building was found to be in such bad condition in 1880 was because of the frequent burials, which had raised the levels of the ground outside to above floor level, riddling the stonework and plaster with damp and decay.
Whilst Bibles were not available (except to the very rich) and few could have read them anyway, that didn’t mean that bible stories weren’t well known and perhaps even acted out in ways that were stylised in the great cycles of Mystery and Morality plays. People would also offer their own devotions at home. They all lived close to the soil and the cycles of the year – ploughing, reaping, harvest all had their attendant traditions in which the church and clergy took part. They all lived close too, to new life and death and to seek the mercies of God and of his redemption for our sins through the Passion of Christ came as second nature to them. Some of the earliest prose poems we have in the English language speak meaningfully of these things: Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’ and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. We can see in them how the mysteries of their religion touched every aspect of their lives, even when they were distracted from the things of God! Let’s hope that most of our early parish priests were cast in the mould of Chaucer’s ‘Povre Persoun’ as described in the Prologue to the ‘Canterbury Tales’:
“A bettre preest, I trowe that nowher noon is.
He wayted after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spyced conscience,
But Christes lore,and his apostles twelve,
He taughte, and first he folwed it himselve.”
FR Wilson’s drawing of Church and Pele Tower
and groundplan of church before the rebuilding of 1884