One of the best-known features of the little church of St Milburga in the scattered hamlet of Wixford near Alcester, is the enormous yew tree outside the south porch. In 1669 this tree became the focus of a prolonged conflict between the ‘puritan’ rector, Timothy Kirke, and his parishioners, many of whom were Catholics. For the previous hundred years, and for many years afterwards, Catholics were persecuted; they were forbidden to practise their own faith and were fined or excommunicated for not attending Church of England services.
Legacy of the English civil war
Timothy Kirke, the rector of Wixford and Exhall, was born about 1605 in Catthorpe on the Leicestershire/Warwickshire borders where he was well-connected with Parliamentary ‘puritans’ before, during and after the Civil Wars. He probably arrived in Exhall and Wixford in the late 1650s, and once the church courts were revived after the Restoration of Charles II he started prosecuting his mainly Catholic parishioners for being irregularly married, probably in private Catholic services, and for not coming to church. When they did attend, he verbally abused them and accused them of indulging in ‘popish’ behaviour.
The battle over the yew tree
In 1669 Kirke allegedly tried to fell the churchyard yew tree when parishioners began to cut greenery for what he saw as ungodly, ‘festive’ uses. They complained to the Bishop and physically attacked Kirke in the churchyard, while he threatened to take them to the church courts. This was the beginning of four more years of acrimonious dispute in which Kirke was accused of drunkenness, neglecting his pastoral duties, failing to observe Church of England services properly, and sexually assaulting his maidservants. Kirke, on the other hand, accused his parishioners of openly attending Catholic mass, leaving Wixford church almost empty during his own church services. Even the Wixford parish register reflects this conflict in its mutilated pages and insertions by Wixford Catholic families.
The horse house and mass dials
Although St Milburga’s is locked the yew tree and an unusual ‘horse house’, where the rector from Exhall stabled his horse when delivering church services, as well as some ancient ‘mass dials’ on the church’s exterior walls, are worth a visit.
The roots of this dispute in the Civil Wars, and the re-telling of the yew-tree story in the next hundred years and in persistent local legends up to the present day, are explained in an article by Dr Maureen Harris entitled ‘The “Captain of Oliver’s Army” and the Wixford Catholics: Clerical/Lay Conflict in South Warwickshire, 1640-1674’, in the journal Warwickshire History, Vol. XVI, No. 4, Winter 2015/16.1