Vol. 97: Chichester Archdeaconry Depositions 1603-1608


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Editor: Peter M. Wilkinson
Volume: Volume 97
Published 2017
ISBN: 978 0 85445 079 4



“The value to historians of church court depositions has been recognised for more than a century but, due to the poor condition and relative inaccessibility of such documents, it is only since the 1970s that historians have begun to mine their content. Indeed, this collection demonstrates that depositions are rich sources for local and social history: cases brought before the bishop’s instance court mainly concerned defamation, marriage (mostly breach of promise), tithes (withholding payment for various reasons) and testamentary matters (frequently unpaid legacies).

The introduction summarises the workings of all of the bishop’s courts and then concentrates on the instance court, where cases were brought ‘at the instance (and expense) of parties’ and so were roughly equivalent to modern civil suits between individuals. Such cases are richly documented because the parties were usually absent, as were witnesses, who were normally examined elsewhere, court business being conducted by proctors on behalf of the plaintiff and defendant. Thus the process focused on written material. This volume publishes the depositions ‘within the framework of the cases that produced them’; witness statements are therefore set in the context of other related documents and, where known, the outcome is noted. The court’s Act Books did not set out the final ‘sentence’ (i.e. verdict), which might be recorded in a separate agreement between the parties; but by no means all of the cases achieved ‘sentence’, some simply lapsed or agreement was reached out of court. Furthermore, many cases initially brought before the court never reached the stage where the depositions were ‘published’: Wilkinson has calculated that of 63 cases in progress between 25 March and 31 December 1603, only 13 produced depositions.

While it is true that many of the depositions, particularly in the tithe cases, are repetitious, not to say tedious, there are hidden gems in nearly all of them. For example, in his account of the perambulation of Harting parish, Richard Turner explained how memories of the boundary were instilled in the next generation: at Heydowneland end, having said a gospel and certain prayers, the vicar of Harting ‘laid his book upon some boys’ heads and the clerk pulled some of them by the ears and bid them remember the bounds of the parish’. And the reader is drawn into the sick room of William Gradell, vicar of Binsted, who asked David Prichard, schoolmaster of Yapton, to write out his will but, as Gradell did not have enough white paper, Prichard had to return home to get more. Minutiae of daily life in early seventeenth century West Sussex are laid bare by deponents: debtors who had absconded or died; sleeping arrangements of female servants; a ‘marriage’ contracted in a private house.

This is an exemplary volume: the editor has provided not only a lucid and detailed account of the workings of church courts and the documents that they generated, but also a careful edition of those documents, together with one full transcript demonstrating his methodology. Hopefully other record societies will follow his lead.”

extract from: review by Heather Falvey, secretary of the Hertfordshire Record Society
The Local Historian Volume 49 Number 3 July 2019


“Peter Wilkinson’s splendid edition of the Chichester Archdeaconry depositions for 1603 to 1608 is a model of how to approach this large and complex task. First, it sets out to tame the terrors of the Latin by emphasizing that it is invariably formulaic… By either omitting it or translating it into a modern English summary he hugely simplifies the text without losing anything at all in terms of content, implication or feel… The second great strength is the outstandingly good introductory essay, which clearly and coherently sets out the background… The hope is that this book will provide the model — and the inspiration — for others to follow and make more of these fascinating, rewarding and deeply human documents available for researchers in the future. It is painstaking and time-consuming work — Peter Wilkinson spent four years on the project — but the results fully justify the efforts taken.”

extract from: Alan G Crosby, autumn 2018 issue of Archives, the journal of the British Records Association (not available online)

Volume description

In April 1604, Robert Johnson, rector of West Chiltington, had a difficult Sunday. His brother Henry’s wife, ‘having a child in her arms’ dumped it near the rector’s seat while her husband shouted, ‘Here is your child; take it, for it is none of mine’ – and left. Robert’s response was to bring an action for defamation, and members of the congregation were called to testify. Their eye-witness accounts of the event are recorded in the deposition books of the bishop of Chichester’s consistory court along with those from hundreds of other cases heard in the 16th and 17th centuries. The depositions of such courts provide a unique record in describing such incidents which figure nowhere else in local or national archives. The consistory court proceedings rarely involved major events of the great or even the good: they focused on disputes between individuals over relatively mundane matters, principally matrimonial disagreements, the making of wills and the collecting of tithes – and of course defamation. But by their faithful recording of the witnesses’ statements they have preserved a rich legacy of minor but often unique incidents which paint a picture of everyday life (and often its seamier side) in rural Sussex.

The stories they tell can be unexpected, often entertaining, and sometimes puzzling. Is there some recorded naval history behind the case of Agnes Daniell of Selsey, accused of bearing ‘barters’ by her profligacy with ‘men of war’? Elsewhere they can tell of social tensions – evidenced by the road rage spat between James Pellett, vicar of Madehurst, and Richard Hobbes, one of the local gentry, who demanded: ‘God’s blood or God’s wounds, will thou not give way: I am a better man than thou’ – to which the vicar retorted that Hobbes ‘not long before was but a capmaker.’ Many of the cases reveal the serious impact of local gossip, particularly that involving the reputation of women. Agnes Nashe of Middleton understandably contested rumours that after a dubious sojourn in London she had ‘burned’ local Sussex men with venereal disease.

Thomas Herold of Pulborough reacted to a different kind of gossip when a neighbour asserted that ‘he was a witch and did bewitch her husband’s cattle’.

These nuggets of local material can also provide serious contributions in major historical areas – particularly in documenting farming activities. A dispute about tithe in Kirdford furnishes one of the earliest accounts of ‘devonshiring’ by which Wealden heathland was burnt and grubbed to produce improved agricultural land. Another tithe dispute in Oving describes how sluices were built to prevent tidal overflow from ruining the hay on the marshland.

While records of this period in other archives reflect the activities of the rich and owners of property – or the misdeeds of the seriously criminal – those of the church courts depict something much closer to the everyday life of the lower classes. Although their stories have survived in the archives of many English dioceses, they have not yet been fully exploited by historians: the secretary hand of the clerks does not make for easy reading and the patches of formulaic Latin can seem forbidding. But the difficulties can be overcome; the stories that emerge can be moving and entertaining; and above all they help us to hear the words of ordinary people and to see life through their eyes four centuries later. This book enables us to share the range of their experiences by publishing all the depositions from a register that covers the years 1603 to 1608. Perhaps these accounts of everyday life in rural Sussex may encourage others to mine such records in this county and beyond.

Peter Wilkinson was the archivist at the West Sussex Record Office with responsibility for the Chichester diocesan archives. He was honorary secretary of the Sussex Record Society for 29 years and has seen 25 of its volumes through the press.

Cover illustration: detail from the painting in Chichester Cathedral south transept by Lambert Barnard (c. 1485-1567) showing Henry VIII confirming the grant of the See to Bishop Sherburne. Photograph © Tony Hughes, ARPS.

Additional information

Weight 0.894 kg