Knowing Your Place (in Church) in Early Modern England

A seating plan from Shepton Mallet, 1617

A seating plan from Shepton Mallet, 1617. Where you sat was a big marker of your social status.

In the seventeenth century, where you sat in church was a big marker of your status: did you sit with the wealthy elite near the front of church, with the multitude near the back, or in a block of pews with fellow magistrates, children, women, or paupers? Were you afforded a premium pew by right of your surname or property, or did you sit wherever there happened to be space on the day? A case heard in the bishops’ court of Bath and Wells, from the parish church of Wells St Cuthbert, highlights this perfectly – and also goes to show that, whenever changes were afoot, appeals to custom were powerful weapons for the otherwise dispossessed.

A bit of background to the dispute. In the 1630s, the Bishop of Bath and Wells was William Piers. A lot’s been said about him, much of which is doubtful, but it is certainly true that he was a supporter and ally of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud: for want of a better phrase, he was a high-churchman. Part of the ‘Laudian’ agenda entailed tidying up the awful mess (as they saw it) that decades of compromise and laxity had made of English parish churches. Key was ensuring that communion tables were placed in the same position in all churches, specifically, in the east-end (the chancel area), rather than in the centre of the nave. There would be no messy Elizabethan fudges entailing moveable tables – they would now be railed in, and communicants would be expected to always receive the sacrament at the rails, in a kneeling position. The aim for the parishes was uniformity according to cathedral best practice.

Piers was pretty successful at seeing it implemented, and most parish churches in his diocese swiftly complied. The trouble he encountered was more one of the logistical consequences. Before the Reformation, the laity had congregated in the nave and had been largely free to wander around as they pleased. The single biggest change to the fabric of parish churches at the Reformation was the introduction of fixed seating, and with it, carefully ordered seating arrangements. Put simply, close to the action was good and further away was bad. For parishes which collected pew rates, seats near the minister and communion table attracted a high premium, while those in the distant reaches of the church went cheaply, or even freely.

The policy was enacted in St Cuthberts swiftly and without a hitch: evidence from the deposition books of the Consistory Court (the Bishop’ court in Wells Cathedral) suggests that an agreement to move the table has been made ‘by generall consent’ of the parishioners, a decision that Piers ‘approved thereof and commanded itt to be done’ in 1634. The difficulties came when five well-to-do men of the parish realised that the changes had inadvertently resulted in their relegation to a less desirable area of the church: their pews in the centre of the nave (where the table had previously been positioned during performance of the sacrament) now seemed far-removed from the communion table and the centre of the action. They proposed that their seats be turned into womens’ pews, and that they should move to the pews in the east-end, currently occupied by those women. Where once this had seemed a suitable place to park their wives and daughters, it had now become one of the most desirable places in the church to sit!

The women of Wells did not go down without a fight. They took the case to the bishops’ court across the road in 1637, and made a strong appeal to custom in their depositions. One witness, Mary Kelwaie, thought that the mens’ seat was perfectly ‘cleane’ and ‘thorough’ (in other words, what are they moaning about?). For ‘all the time of this deponents remembrance’, she claimed, ‘which hath bene neere fiftie years’, the seat had never been used by women. So why should things change now? There are a number of reasons why the women of Wells may have decided to appeal the decision. Maybe they found their now-premium seating agreeable, or perhaps they just didn’t like being pushed around. More likely, this was just the way that things have always been. This was a particularly powerful argument in early-modern England and had been deployed against the Laudian agenda more broadly, or against certain policies of Charles I (Ship Money, for instance). The strength of their case rested firmly upon an attack on unnecessary and destabilising innovations.

The source comes from the Deposition Books (Somerset Heritage Centre, D\D/cd/83, 1636)  – records of witness statements made in the consistory court. The most obvious means of determining whether Kelwaie was successful in her appeal would be to cross-reference with the churchwardens’ accounts of St Cuthberts, to see if any action was taken in response to the court case. Sadly, the wardens’ accounts no longer exist for the 1630s. I’m hopeful that I can find something in the diocesan Act Books, so another trip to the Somerset Heritage Centre in due course. For now, though, I think its instructive to reflect on what we already know (and what is most important). Seating arrangements in early-modern churches were carefully planned and broadly reflective of social hierarchies; they were disrupted by changes to parish interiors during the 1630s. Furthermore, those who we assume found themselves at the bottom of the parochial pecking order were quite capable of (even effective at) developing their own critiques of the way things were done – and quite prepared to make their cases in front of the highest authority.


One thought on “Knowing Your Place (in Church) in Early Modern England

  1. Pingback: Historians and the Fourth Dimension | wartsandbrawls

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