Vol. 97: Chichester Archdeaconry Depositions 1603-1608

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Author: Peter M. Wilkinson
Volume: Volume 97
ISBN: 978 0 85445 079 4

CHICHESTER ARCHDEACONRY DEPOSITIONS

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.

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