'Usurped Authority' in Civil War Rowington

The Parish Register of St Lawrence, Rowington

St Lawrence, Rowington
Rachael Marsay

For me, it is the seemingly incidental comments captured in records that really bring history to life. Most of the history of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth in England as we learn at school is concerned with the great and the good – King Charles and the Royalists against Cromwell and his Parliamentarians. But what did this really mean for the average person going about his or her daily business? As so much of the war was fought for religious reasons, how did the changes brought about by the conflict affect the three most important religious events of people’s lives – baptism, marriage and burial?

Parish registers

Most valuable to family historians, the formalised keeping of a register recording baptisms, marriages and burials was brought into force under law by Thomas Cromwell in 1538. Early registers tended to record all three in one volume, commonly called ‘composite’ registers (only later were baptisms, marriages and baptisms separated into the three distinct registers we know today). Such registers usually simply recorded the names and dates involved in the different ceremonies with no additional information or comments.1

The parish of St Lawrence, Rowington

John Wiseman was appointed Vicar of Rowington on 21st July 1640 at the Bishop of Worcester’s Palace upon the resignation of Robert Cademan. As he was obliged, Wiseman dutifully recorded the baptisms, marriages and burials of his parishioners in the register, marking the milestones in their lives – including his own, recording the burial of his wife Frances in August 1652 and his marriage to Christian Martin in May 1654.

However, in 1656, John Wiseman suddenly stopped recording the baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish. After recording that ‘Sarah the daughter of Tho: Sanders and Elizabeth his wife was baptized March 10th’, the entries suddenly stop. In his next entry in the register, Wiseman writes: ‘By usurped Authority these many yeares wrested wrongfully out of my Living’. After his comment, Wiseman begins to record baptisms, marriages and burials again, starting with the marriage of Edward Eales and Joane Sly in October 1662. After the baptism of ‘Elizabeth ye daughter of Edw. King’ on 14th March 1663, he wrote the additional comment marking his return to his post six months ago: ‘Thus farr for halfe a yeare upon my returning to my place againe wrote by me John Wiseman Vicar of Rowington’.2

So what happened between March 1656 and October 1662?

Parish clergy during the Commonwealth

In 1644-45, parliament began issuing commissions at a county level to eject ‘scandalous’ or ‘malignant’ clergy from their posts. However, it seems that whether the commissions were actually carried out depended largely on the attitude of the parishioners (particularly if there were personal grievances involved). Did someone therefore have a grievance against John Wiseman? Or had he simply refused to conform with the changes imposed by the Commonwealth? He certainly believed he had been ‘wrested wrongfully’ from his living.3

Interestingly, at that time many of the parishioners in Rowington were Catholic (which might suggest a few more of them had Catholic leanings): in 1648 twenty-two Rowington men and women were accused of recusancy (refusing to attend services in the Church of England) in the Epiphany Quarter Sessions.4

An Act of the Barebones Parliament was passed in 1653 that decreed that the custody of the registers should be taken away from the village priest and given to the justices: the performance of marriage ceremonies was to be taken instead by a secular official called (confusingly) the Parish Register. Consequently, many parish registers therefore have gaps which are sometimes explained by the ejected priest sometime after the return of the monarchy in 1660, though in John Wiseman’s case we see he kept the registers for a few years after the Act was passed – presumably right up until he was ejected from his post. The fact that the dates don’t quite match up suggests that the reforms were only very slowly taken on board (if at all) by parishes in England.5

Refusing the oath

In 1655 (the year before the entries stopped), forty-seven Rowington parishioners refused to take the Oath of Abjuration (renouncing the Catholic church) – was the priest one of these I wonder? This might explain why, in the end, Wiseman was ‘wrested’ from his living when he was.6

What happened to the register when Wiseman was ejected? Did he hide the volume so that anyone who replaced him did not have the record to continue and so, in a symbolic sense, kept the parish memory ‘safe’ from his usurpers’ hands? Or was the register taken and kept – as decreed – by the local justices? We will never know, though as the register seems to re-appear with the return of Wiseman, I suspect the former is more likely.

Shortly after the return of the monarchy, Wiseman was returned to his post and to his register, recording the reason for the gap in the entries to be preserved in the parish register for posterity. As a footnote to the story, four years later in 1666, it is recorded in the same register that ‘Mr. John Wisman vicar’ died and ‘was buryed Aprill the one & twentieth day’.7

1 Tate, ‘The Parish Chest’, p.44-45.

2 Parish of St Lawrence, Rowington: Register of baptisms, marriages and burials (1638-1731), Warwickshire County Record Office, N5/1.

3 Green, ‘Parish Clergy during the English Civil War’, p.516-522.

4 Woodall, ‘Recusant Rowington’, p.9.

5 Tate, ‘The Parish Chest’, p.46-47.

6 Woodall, ‘Recusant Rowington’, p.9.

Parish of St Lawrence, Rowington: Register of baptisms, marriages and burials (1638-1731), Warwickshire County Record Office, N5/1.


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