In the 1300 years since missionaries from Rome first brought christianity to East Anglia there have been many dramatic changes in religious organisation. The story of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 1509, his break with Rome in 1534, his assumption of the position of head of the English Church, and the transformation of local churchgoers from Roman Catholics to Protestants, is well known. The experience of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Wenhaston reveals some of the consequences not only for the fabric of the church but also its ministers.
Some priests felt unable to change their religion. William Smith had been appointed vicar in 1497, and was replaced by Thomas Griggs on 8th March 1535. Following Henry VIII's order that all idolatrous figures connected with the Church of Rome should be destroyed, it was in his son Edward VI’s reign that the Doom, placed on the screen and filling the chancel arch, had its Rood destroyed and the painting whitewashed over – to prove a blessing in disguise.
The crowning in 1553 of the ardent Catholic, Mary, precipitated another local change and on 16th January 1554 William Clark was appointed Wenhaston priest. Elizabeth followed Mary in 1558 and, surprise, surprise, on 11th November 1559 there was another new priest, Thomas Conyers.
The next upset loomed during the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. In 1643 Dowsing’s men entered the church and broke the pictures in the windows and removed the top of the font and the organ. They also disfigured the pulpit and the font, destroyed the altar and removed the carved angels from the roof. The Doom remained undisturbed beneath its coat of whitewash.
The Puritans held very strict views on church services and Parliament produced Articles that ministers signed, instructing them of the form of service to be followed. Action was taken against those who did not comply. They were arraigned before the Suffolk Committee for Scandalous Ministers to face charges brought against them by various members of their congregation. Thomas Ambler, who had been appointed to Wenhaston in 1639, fell foul of these Articles. He was accused on nine counts and one accuser, John Poynting, featured in six of them. Ambler had continued, for example, to deliver the sacrament at the altar rails, to preach that forgiveness of sins did not belong to God but he himself could perform the deed, and, politically naive, at least, he prayed for the King's health and made critical speeches against Parliament. His activities outside church were also criticised. He was accused of frequenting the Halesworth ale-house of one Edmund Browne, and allowed the men of the village to ‘campe’ on the vicarage lawn on Sundays – that is, play a vigorous form of medieval football, so rough that some years later it was banned as people were getting killed. He was ejected from his living, worth £25 a year, and his wife Frances, with four children, was left with a pension of £5 a year.
William Raymond, vicar of Blyford, also attracted attention for his extra–mural activities. The Halesworth ale-house featured again (carousing with Thomas Ambler?) and once he was so drunk on his way home that he called at a house in Holton and terrified a servant girl. On another occasion he was so drunk at a baptism that he could not pronounce the words of the service; imbibing at an ale–house when the press gang arrived he took the side of a man facing impressment and drew a constable’s blood in a fight. He swore a great deal and one hostess counted eighteen blasphemies during one meal. All this, and playing cards, dice and bowls, was too much for the Committee. William Raymond nevertheless had many friends in the parish - apart from his conviviality they liked his services – and they arranged for him to conduct informal services at their homes, inviting friends along to form a congregation.
Priests today also face pressures, not least those resulting from the rearrangement of parishes into groups, but they are happily of a different kind from those endured by their predecessors.
Clive Holmes, The Suffolk Committee for Scandalous Ministers, 1644-46, Suffolk Records Society, 13 (1970).
Keith Johnceline, Wenhaston, March 2000.
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