Research: for me, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process. The premise of Gooseberry’s next outing, The Case of the Quibbling Cleric, is that a church’s whole congregation detests the rector—enough for someone to do away with him when appeals to have him removed through regular channels are denied. Which begs the obvious question: if he’s so obnoxious, why was he appointed in the first place? Knowing nothing about the Church of England (or any other Church, come to that), I enquired of some Roman Catholic friends (who just happened to be on hand) how C of E rectors and vicars were appointed. Surely, since they were religious, they ought to know? “By the local parish council?” came their tentative reply. It seemed like a reasonable guess, and it certainly gave me a starting point.
It turns out that parish councils are a fairly recent phenomenon, having been around for just shy of a hundred years. They superseded committees called Vestries (so named because members would meet in the church’s vestry). And while they may have had the power to propose a candidate for the post, if modern practice is anything to go by, in theory any interested person or persons might have done so. In all instances, however, their proposal would have been trumped by someone who may indeed have been a total stranger to the parish, but who held a certain ancient legal right known as an advowson.
Advowson. There’s a word you don’t see every day. In manorial, medieval England, it was down to the lord of the biggest manor in the parish to build the parish church and provide a living (in the form of tithes—taxes—and glebes—parcels of land) for the incoming priest. After so much expense, he naturally wished to appoint his own preferred candidate to the post. This right, which became known as an advowson, could—just like real estate—be passed down through the family, sold off if circumstances demanded it, or even given away.
In that early medieval period, the advowson—like the manor—generally passed down through the family, so the right to appoint the priest remained within the immediate community. By the 1500s, however, much of the land (and the advowsons it entailed) had been transferred to the monasteries. Quite why this happened eludes me. One example, though, is the Manor of Tolentone (modern day Tollington in the London suburb of Holloway), which the owner Alice de Barowe gave to the Clerkenwell Mother House of the Knights Hospitaller in 1271 on the condition that seven marks per year be paid to the nuns of the convent of St Mary, Clerkenwell, opposite the priory, for Alice and her heirs to be remembered in their masses in perpetuity. By this point the right to appoint the priest had gone to strangers, even though the various monasteries in question were generally local ones.
But when Henry VIII pulled away from Rome and began dissolving the monasteries in the mid-1530s, the monastic lands and all they entailed went to the Crown. Henry’s supporters were granted various estates, often only for their lifetime—which, under Henry, could be a perilously short one. I found one mention of Thomas Cromwell, for instance, being granted—amongst other properties—the Manor of Tolentone (now renamed Highbury Manor…but more on that next month) when the Priory of St John was dissolved in 1540. If this is true, he can have only enjoyed it for a paltry few weeks until his beheading the same year. As with all the former properties of the monasteries, the right to appoint the priest now lay with the Crown, or to whomever it had been temporarily assigned.
There followed a period of great religious instability under successive rulers. In 1605, when things had settled somewhat, a law was passed requiring the advowsons belonging to any recusants (people who remained faithful to the Catholic Church) to be transferred to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, who could then pass them on to a third party for a fee. By the time of Charles II, it was common for the Crown to settle advowsons on its creditors as a means of repaying its debts. Suddenly there was a huge proliferation of people—often with no connection to the parish concerned—who were able to appoint its priest. By the early 1600s, more than a third of all advowsons belonged to people who were termed “impropriators”.
Why, you may ask, would they want such a power? In large, rich families, it was the eldest son who could expect to inherit his father’s estate along with any hereditary titles. The question then arose: what to do with the second and third sons? Two obvious choices were to buy them a commission in the army, or to purchase an advowson and present their son with “a living” that would provide him with a house, a wage, and further income from the glebe for his lifetime.
Surely there was some kind of check in place on such randomly-made appointments? Well, yes and no. In theory the appointment required the approval of the local bishop; in practice the bishop was usually unwilling to challenge it, for, even by the late 1300s, Henry II had ruled that cases involving advowsons should be tried in a secular court, not an ecclesiastical one over which bishops might hold sway.
Advowsons have almost enitrely gone now—or at least they’ve been nullified, having generally been bought up by the churches themselves. So have the Vestries. But in Gooseberry’s day, such an arrangement would help to explain why a parish might end up with a rector who was totally unwanted by them. When I was researching my last novel, I came across the intriguing story of the Reverend Allatson Burgh, so hated by his flock that they petitioned Queen Victoria to have him removed. Their petition failed. The reason for their hatred? He changed the liturgy, the services prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer. But why was he not removed, I wondered? Could his appointment have been made through an advowson, an appointment that held good throughout his lifetime?
Oh, and the difference between a vicar and a rector? A vicar lives vicariously off tithes or taxes alone that are raised by the parish whereas a rector also has the land rights to the glebe that’s entailed in his “living”. There! Now you know!