This interesting series by Dr. Robin Studd is in four parts and is set around the formation of the Christian Church in Britain.  


By Dr. Robin Studd

Part one

‘Begin at the beginning...’said the King in Alice in Wonderland, so we shall.

Christianity was an urban religion in the Roman world where the oldest Christian administrative unit was the ‘parish’. This comes from the Latin, parochia, but was originally from  the Greek  for the area of Christian community living together.

At this early date, the chief clergyman of the parish was neither a rector nor a vicar, but the bishop. It was the bishop who presided over the parochia and the parish was coterminous with the bishopric. This explains why in the Italian peninsula, and in much of Mediterranean France, virtually every small town to this day is the seat of a bishop. In Italy, for example there were over 400 places in the peninsula laying claim to cathedral status, starkly contrasting with the seventeen cathedrals founded in England in the middle ages.

In the early church all Christian services were centralised in the parish over which the bishop presided. Only the bishop could baptise, confirm, celebrate mass, preach, grant absolution or ordain. With this potentially heavy responsibility he was, however, helped by his assistant clergy (clerici), comprised not only of ordained priests but of deacons and others in minor orders, such as acolytes, exorcists, and doorkeepers who between them made up the bulk of clerical numbers. Usually the clerks lived communal lives alongside the bishop’s chief deacon in the earliest years of the organised church.  As ‘archdeacon’ he dealt with matters of discipline and oversaw the administration of the church, although he was not yet seen as the general guardian of standards of observance and supervisor of the fabric of the churches that he became from the twelfth century; and as he is, to a certain extent today.

As the church grew in this period, secondary churches began to be founded within the parochia, but it was the bishop alone who could give his approval for them. The bishop’s permission was always needed for a new church to be set up, and a clerk, who was asked by his bishop to establish a new church had to seek special authority, by means of letters commendatory from the bishop in order to do so. In the same way  if  the new clerk happened to be transferring from another parochia he had to present letters dimissory from the bishop of his former parochia assenting to his move before he could be instituted to his new benefice.

This system operated in England after the mission of St Augustine began the Conversion of the English, so that when Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus (668-690) set about organising the Kingdom of Mercia after its conversion in the 660s he  divided the huge see of Lichfield, which the Mercians had put together from their earlier military conquests, by naming individual and separate parochia for Lindsey (Lincoln),  Worcester, Hereford, Leicester and Dorchester on Thames, each being given its own bishop.  All the new bishoprics were based on the separate tribal units which the Mercians had annexed; each was centred on the principal cities in those areas, and each was therefore created as a single administrative parochia subject to its bishop. Christianity in England was still being organised as the urban religion it had been on the continent in its infancy.  But this situation no longer reflected reality.

From the fourth century, Christianity had become established in country districts as well as in towns, so that for practical reasons the term ‘parish’ now began to be applied to rural communities of Christians and to all rural churches licensed by a bishop. Another designation consequently came to be needed for a bishopric, resulting in the introduction of the term ‘diocese’,  referring to the territory subject to a city and adopted  directly from the Roman imperial administration, as an alternative. For a while in the sixth and seventh centuries three terms meaning approximately the same- parochia, bishopric and diocese were in use.

By the later sixth and early seventh century, across western Europe, but especially in  Merovingian Francia, it became possible to distinguish , first, urban churches in cathedral cities, second, country churches with a permanent staff of clerks and, third, oratories- churches on the private estates of lords, as varieties of Christian communities.

By this date, country churches had acquired for themselves, subject to the bishop’s consent, all the authority which had previously been for the exclusive use of the bishop in baptising, preaching and celebrating mass. At this point the parish church as we would recognize it had appeared. But parish churches were still few and far between.

Dr. Robin Studd


Part Two



Part 2

Parish Churches in northern Mercia

Most parish churches in this part of the world began as mission churches when the community would meet, often in a field, frequently at the site of a cross erected for the purpose of worship. Field churches, as they were called, were a common feature of the post Conversion period in England before even the most modest of church structures could be erected, and especially hereabouts.   The wooden crosses  of these mission churches were in time replaced, quite often, by stone crosses. In addition to the rare survival of a wooden cross at St. Bertolin’s, Stafford ,a number of these stone crosses survive in Staffordshire and the adjacent areas and date from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Surviving examples may still be seen at Alstonefield, Chebsey, Checkley, Ilam, Leek, Rolleston and Stoke, in this county and at Eyam in Derbyshire and Sandbach in Cheshire. Only when the local Christian community grew wealthy enough was a conventional church put up alongside, marking the physical creation of a new parish church.

This was a crucial step forward for the local community for the most essential function of these early churches was baptism- the ceremony of admission of new members to the Christian community. Possession of a font therefore came to indicate , even define, a parish church. The large churches associated with early parochia, often had separate structures , called baptisteries  within their grounds, which acted as the location for baptism for a wide local area. This can still be seen at Poitiers in western France and at Pisa, in Italy. Baptisteries of this kind were supported by a substantial staff of clerks, the chief of whom was sometimes called an archpriest, and with increased frequency, rector.  A rector therefore, in his original role, commonly oversaw a group of clerks- the priests who acted as his vicar. In England groups of vicars living communally often constituted the clergy of a monasterium, or minster. Local examples may be found at St Mary’s, Stafford, St Michael’s, Penkridge,  and St Laurence’s, Gnosall, and all can be traced back to the mid-Saxon period. All of these minsters were retained in the ownership of the king in the middle ages, as royal peculiars and, although the evidence is much less substantial, it is likely that St Peter’s, Stoke, with its very extensive parish area was also an early example of such a church.

In England, however, where the minster system operated, the term archpriest and the arrangements associated with it barely took root. Archpriests, much commoner in Francia, did occur in England, but rarely so. Here the duties of the office, supervising discipline in groups of parishes was eventually assumed by the rural dean acting on behalf of the archdeacon.

The Mercian minsters mentioned above were the private possession of the Mercian, and later, of the West Saxon kings of England.  Wealthy landlords, in this early period behaved in a similar fashion throughout Europe, and often founded churches on their own private estates. This practice clearly presented a challenge to the supremacy of bishops in their district, and was also a considerable challenge to the authority of the pope. This situation was faced head on by Pope Gregory VII, a late eleventh-century pope, the contemporary of William the Conqueror, who introduced a root and branch revision of canon law, the law of the Church. This revision of canon law sought to wrest control of the church at large, and of the parishes, in particular, away from private lords, and to restore the bishops’ authority. This was a triumph for rectors who very much came into their own at this point.

Dr. Robin Studd


Part Three



Part 3

Rectors, Vicars and Advowsons.


The new canon law of the later eleventh and early twelfth century required that every parish church should have someone in charge called a rector, whose primary duty was now defined, not as head of a group of clerks, but, as St Gregory had seen the role, as the governor of souls exercising cura animarum (cure of souls) in his parish. The rector now had a duty to live in his parish in person- although provision was made that if he was unable to do so, he must appoint an agent (vicar) to deputise for him and to act in his place. The rector, or his vicar, now had to act as confessor, seeing that his flock made at least one annual confession, and had a duty also to give spiritual advice. In this capacity the rector became the holder of a benefice, which usually gave him the right to enjoy a lifelong tenancy and annual income from tithes, in particular, as well as the temporary profits from the emoluments of his office.


But, even so, many rectors found ways of not residing in their parishes even after the papal reforms of the twelfth century. Many rectories found themselves appropriated, meaning that, their tithes were taken over by monasteries, or cathedrals and collegiate churches, for instance, by institutions, which, because they were corporations, could not exercise the cure of souls in person.


This situation was met by the creation of the perpetual vicar, who resided permanently in the living and carried out all the functions of the rector in his absence. It seems that Pope Alexander III (1159-81) was principally responsible for this development.  For instance, in the case of the appropriated rectory at Salford in Warwickshire which had passed to the Augustinian canons of Kenilworth who were in dispute with the bishop of Worcester over it, it was Pope Alexander who decreed :


‘We wish that a perpetual vicarage be created in this church’.


It was in his reign that the relationship between the bishop and the rector was clearly defined with the rector having the right to choose the vicar and the bishop having authority to grant cure of souls to the vicar and to institute the vicar to his office, thus making the vicar directly answerable to his bishop rather than to the rector. A part of the church’s income was accordingly set aside to create a vicarage. This was held independently of the rector, who was now not permitted to dismiss the vicar and was unable from this time to say the services or assume the pastoral care of parishioners. These rights and duties were exercised exclusively by the vicar as parish priest from this date on.


In England vicarages began to be formed after 1150, often as the result of the appropriation of churches, so that by the early sixteenth century one third of all parishes were vicarages. There were , of course, exceptions.


Keele was founded by the military order of Knights Templar in the last decades of the twelfth century and run as a small agricultural outpost of the order.  The Templars were an exempt order which meant that they were answerable directly to the pope and that the bishop had no authority within the order’s jurisdiction. The Keele preceptory was a modest institution run by a sergeant rather than a knight of the order and, ecclesiastically, it was a peculiar.  It had a chapel which served the preceptor and a parish guild dedicated, as were all Templar churches, to the Virgin Mary with two parish reeves, the equivalent of church wardens, to serve the village community, but no parish priest as such. The guild’s income   was raised by way of an annual levy of fourpence on each house in the village, as well as from endowments and some fines from the manor court. But Keele was fairly exceptional in these regards because it did not become a parish before the reformation when, in 1544, William  Sneyd, patron of Wolstanton ,bought up the manor and the advowson.


By 1563 Keele was being described as a ‘chapel of ease in the parish of Wolstanton’. Yet, as Dr Harrison has argued, Keele continued to keep its own parish registers after the dissolution of the order of Knights Hospitaller, the successors of the Knights Templar, in 1540, and  that suggests ‘that there was a de facto creation of a parish following the dissolution of the Hospitallers’.


The Sneyds as lords of the manor and possessors of the advowson of Keele have remained its patrons ever since. Patrons were often owners of churches on their estates in the early days of the church but, once again, the revision of church law in the twelfth century changed their position. Patrons of churches from this time were now seen as advocates on behalf of the church, but owners of the advowson, with the consequent right to present to a vacancy in the living.


By a papal sleight of hand, Pope Alexander III (1159-81) was able to shift the emphasis of the role of patron and to restore the lost authority of the diocesan bishop.  No longer could a patron appoint a clerk of his choosing because the bishop’s consent was now required for any appointment of an incumbent and canon law prescribed a process to be followed when a vicar or rector was appointed. In this way the bishop wrested control of churches in the diocese away from the patron.


Dr. Robin Studd


Part Four



Part 4

Rectors, Vicars and Advowsons

Patrons and appointing a new incumbent


The process set out by Alexander III provided, in the first instance, for the patron to present the name of the clerk to the bishop asking him to admit him to the church. The patron had six months from the vacancy arising, then as now, to make his nomination and. if he failed to do so, for whatever reason, the patronage lapsed to the bishop.


Second, having secured the bishop’s nominal assent, the bishop himself was required to examine the qualifications of the applicant clerk to determine whether there might be any impediment to his appointment. A very basic standard of literacy and religious practice was required, but if no obstacle stood in the applicant’s way the bishop would proceed to admit  the clerk, as requested. The clerk was now given letters of admission signifying his elevation and was sometimes invested with a symbol of his office, such as a ring, although this practice has now been discontinued.  When the church was in the bishop’s sole gift and no external patron was involved, the process was known as collation.


The third stage in Alexander III’s process was induction, which followed hard upon the bishop instructing the archdeacon or other diocesan official to introduce the new incumbent into his church This was a ceremonial occasion which was intended to put the new man in corporal possession of the church, in person and at the church itself and made him responsible for all services and, specifically, the upkeep of the chancel.


That meant, therefore that the parish community was responsible for the nave and explains why both that so many chancels are the oldest surviving part of so many parish churches, and why the nave is almost always the most recent addition. Congregations were first made responsible for maintaining the nave in the first quarter of the thirteenth century in statutes issued by  King Henry III  between 1222 and 1228. We know that church congregations in Bristol were made responsible for their naves in 1261 and that from 1267 churchwardens, first recorded in Exeter diocese, were enjoined to maintain the naves in their churches..


These changes had a profound effect upon the architecture of English parish churches. While chancels so often  remained untouched, naves, the public part of a church, serving many different purposes in the middle ages, as meeting halls, covered markets and many other roles as well as having a liturgical purpose, were frequently remodelled at parish expense, often in an attempt to keep up with the latest architectural fashion.  Many patrons were effectively excluded from their parish churches by the post twelfth century movements for religious change,  and only in exceptional circumstances played an active role. Only the wealthiest patrons could afford to take a direct hand but  they were, in turn, often responsible for the most architecturally significant  of English parish churches.


St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol is often cited as an outstanding example of a single minded patron’s architectural triumph made possible by the successes of Bristol’s overseas trade with Gascon wine merchants, but there were many others, even in this region. An early instance is Melbourne parish church in Derbyshire which was a principal foundation of the bishops of Carlisle, while, in Staffordshire, Eccleshall parish church was the result of the patronage of the bishops of Lichfield/Coventry and Lichfield, whose castle stood close by. Acton Burnell in Shropshire was the work of its most famous son, Robert Burnell, Edward I’s chancellor, who became bishop of Bath and Wells and also contributed to the building of another impressive  late thirteenth-century parish church at Nantwich in Cheshire. The availability of sudden wealth- especially as a result of successful campaigns in the Hundred Years War accounted for several fourteenth-century masterpieces hereabouts. Clifton Campville near Tamworth was built by Richard de Stafford, brother of the first earl of Stafford, as a single unified conception. Like his brother, he was a very successful war captain, pouring his wealth into the construction of his parish church, while Bunbury in Cheshire was rebuilt as a chantry chapel and personal glorification of Hugh Calverley, another Hundred Years war captain who made his fortune at the expense of the inhabitants of Armagnac and whose magnificent alabaster tomb still graces the chancel there.


Patrons could therefore exercise a considerable measure of control through their wealth and social standing well into recent times, particularly if they were resident in the parish, as many of the Sneyds of Keele were, but only to the extent that they complied with Pope Alexander’s twelfth-century decrees. Absentee patrons forfeited their rights to the bishop.


[Note: at the recent appointment of a new incumbent to Keele (2011) the diocesan bishop acted in the absence of a patron. The last patron, Howard Sneyd died in 2010 and no successor patron was nominated before the vacant living came to be filled. Sneyd left three possible claimants to the patronage, and late in 2011 the family nominated John Howard-Sneyd  of Connecticut as the new patron of the living. Mr Henry Howard-Sneyd visited St John's on 29 January 2012].

Dr. Robin Studd

Rectors, Vicars, Patrons  and Parishes

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