This interesting series by Dr. Robin Studd is in four parts and is set around the
formation of the Christian Church in Britain.
RECTORS, VICARS, PATRONS AND PARISHES
By Dr. Robin Studd
‘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
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
Dr. Robin Studd
RECTORS, VICARS, PATRONS AND PARISHES
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 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
RECTORS, VICARS, PATRONS AND PARISHES
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
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
RECTORS, VICARS, PATRONS AND PARISHES
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
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