Holy Trinity Church, Penn, in the Middle Ages


Internal appearance

Inside the church, there would have been no pews or pulpit in the nave until the 15th C when they were a result of the growing popularity of sermons and readings. Earlier, there may have been a few benches around the walls for the aged and infirm. The earliest floor may have been beaten earth strewn with rushes, but when Penn started to make floor tiles in the 14th C or earlier, it seems highly probable that they would have been laid in the church. There may have had some sort of heating, braziers perhaps, to keep out the winter cold. Payments for “fyre” are found in other churchwarden’s accounts, although none survive for Penn for this period..
The late medieval church would have been full of colour, with painted glass in the windows, the 12 consecration crosses all round the walls marking a major13th C expansion, interspersed with coloured drawings of biblical scenes of which traces were found all over the church when the walls were steam-cleaned in 1950. Curtained niches in the walls would have held carved and painted images of various saints.

Much parish business was conducted “before the quyre door”, ie in front of the door in the Rood screen between the nave and the chancel. Bargains were concluded, contracts signed and debts paid. Parishioners were prone to linger in the nave long after the service.

The font
The font, with its lid, which had, by law, to be locked to prevent theft of the hallowed water, very probably stood on the west side of the south door. We know that it was there in the 19th C and remained there until moved by the Rev. Oscar Muspratt in the 1950s. It would have been much more prominent across the largely open space of the church. Baptism was a sacrament of fundamental importance to medieval man who believed, quite literally, that no soul could be saved without it. For this reason, a medieval font was nearly always placed close to the principal door as a symbolic reminder of the sacrament that made possible entry to the kingdom of heaven.

The main door
For several centuries, we have preferred to use the north door because the main part of the village lies on that side, but this would be unusual in a medieval church where the north side of the church yard was avoided as belonging to the devil. Only the unbaptised and disgraced were buried there. If there was a north door, it was opened during baptism so that the devil could escape out of the child and fly away through it. The discovery by The Rev. Oscar Muspratt of two graves lined with 14th C Penn tiles immediately outside the north porch and now covered with flagstones, suggests that if there was a north door, the porch must have been a good deal smaller than now.

On the other hand, there is good practical evidence of the south door’s importance. The nearby font, as noted above, is a useful clue since there is no record of its moving at any time. The question is settled by the marks of a gable roof high up in the centre of the south wall of the nave. This tells us that there was a large south porch before the south aisle was added in the mid 1300s. (There is no corresponding gable on the north wall). An early south door and porch is also suggested by the track and footpath, which still lead directly up from Penbury Farm to the south side of the church, crossing Pauls Hill by the old Parish Room. Penbury Farm was the seat of the Penn family, the lords of the principal manor, until they moved to their present location shortly, probably soon after a statute of 1285 allowed them to enclose the former common heath on which Penn House now stands.. The old Parish Room is likely to have been the medieval church ale house, an extremely important building, where all the parish social and fund raising functions were held.

Rood screen and rood loft
A carved and painted wooden rood screen separated the people’s nave from the priest’s chancel. It would have been about 7 foot high, probably wainscoted on its bottom half, but with open tracery and columns at the top to allow a view of what the priest was doing in the chancel. There would have been a central “quire door”. Above it, the heavy wooden rood loft provided a place for the choir to sing the new plain song of the 15th C, with access up a ladder in the south aisle, through the narrow rectangular hole made nearly 15ft up in the wall of the nave and down another ladder some 7ft onto the loft platform .

The rood loft was so called because immediately above it, either hanging from the tie beam or supported by the rood loft itself, was the carved wooden figure of the Rood, Christ on the cross, with the Virgin Mary on one side and John the Baptist on the other. This Rood group, often almost life size and painted and gilded, dominated the nave and was a central focus of worship. Two sockets in the tie beam which housed the top of two successive roods can still be seen, as can four hooks from which basins once hung containing the tapered candles which were kept burning continuously beside the Rood.

The Doom painting
Early in the 15th C, the rood group was removed and replaced by a painted Doom.

The 8 ft high Doom fitted neatly into the top of the chancel arch, which was much the same width as today but with a pointed rather than a rounded arch. There was a gap of some 5ft between the rood loft platform and the bottom of the Doom so that the choir could see the priest in the chancel and so know when to sing. Devotional banners may have hung from the side railings of the rood loft.

The chancel
The late medieval chancel, like the nave today, had no ceiling and was open to the rafters. It was about 8ft shorter than now. At some stage in the Middle Ages, it was widened by some 2 ft and had a window on each side. The east window would have been stained glass. On either side of the stone high altar, as required by Canon Law, were the principal statue of the Virgin and the patronal image of the Trinity (represented in another church by the images of an old man, a crucifix and a dove), each in their curtained niches known as tabernacles. There were great brass candlesticks, probably three, each weighing over 13lbs, standing on the altar, with the silver box for containing the Host, called a pyx, hanging above.

One of the most important events in the Roman Catholic calendar was the symbolic burial of Christ in the Easter sepulchre in the chancel. In a modest country parish church like Penn, the sepulchre would have been made of a moveable timber frame in the shape of a hearse, with carved or painted panels. It was placed on the north side of the chancel and covered with a richly embroidered cloth. On Good Friday, the priest, barefoot and without his customary vestments except for his surplice, wrapped a crucifix and a silver pyx containing the consecrated Host in linen cloths and laid them in the sepulchre.

Candles were lit on stands around the sepulchre, and a continuous watch was then kept until Easter Sunday morning, Then a procession was formed to the sepulchre and the crucifix was solemnly raised and carried triumphantly around the church with all the bells ringing and the choir singing Cristus resurgens, Christ is risen. Throughout the week, the empty sepulchre remained an object of devotion. One of the commonest bequests, all over England, was for maintaining the sepulchre lights and for Penn we find Thomas Alday, in 1505, bequeathing to the lumini sepulture de Penn, an examen de apibus, a swarm of bees, which would provide the wax for the lights.

The Lady Chapel
Requiem Masses for the dead, and probably the daily weekday masses, were celebrated in the side chapel where there must have been another figure of Our Lady, perhaps as Our Lady of Pity, showing Mary weeping over the body of her dead son. William Grove left 2d to “our lady chapell” in a will of 1513; Nicholas Asshwell left 1d “to the light of Our Lady” in 1521; and Roger Playter, who died in about 1548, left 4d for the priest to say “masse in the chapell ( NB He was no longer allowed to call it a “Lady” chapel) for my soule at a tyme convenient”. The chapel would have been much more private than it is now with only an arch into the chancel and a carved wooden screen separating it from the south aisle.

Saints and lights
Around the walls of the main body of the church there would have been half a dozen other niched and tabernacled images, which unlike those already mentioned, would have represented the particular devotional choices of the people. We have no record of who they were for Penn, but Morebath in Devon, a parish and church very like Penn, had saints such as St Loy, patron saint of smiths and carters, usually portrayed holding a hammer either with a horseshoe or holding a horse’s leg; St Anthony, who was popular as the healer of men and farm animals, usually shown with two or more pigs; and St Anne, who according to legend, was a barren woman made miraculously fecund to become the grandmother of Jesus and six of the twelve apostles, and who therefore represented women’s particular concerns of childbirth and family.

These images and tabernacles were painted and gilded, with offerings of flowers, rosaries, kerchiefs and rings placed on and around them. Most had lights burning in front of them maintained by various “stores” or devotional funds provided in various ways – by the return on wool from small flocks of sheep which were literally earmarked for that purpose, as well as from ales, devotional gatherings, gifts and bequests such as money, sheep and bees to provide the wax for the lights. Each store was maintained by a different group of parishioners who accounted for them every year in detail. It was “the adorning of them, kissing their feet or offering candles unto them” that Protestants particularly detested.

We know from the only three pre-Reformation wills that have survived for Penn, that our arrangements must have been very similar. Thomas Alday’s will, in 1505, is in Latin. He was from Nattetok (Knotty Green) and makes the earliest recorded reference to Holy Trinity. In addition to the swarm of bees for the light of the sepulchre, which we noted above, he left 4d to the mother church of St Mary’s at Lincoln (Lincoln Cathedral), 2d to the high altar of Penn and 2d to “every light in the church”. The importance of sheep, as in Morebath, is confirmed by his only bequest to each of his five older children, of a sheep, with a lamb to his youngest daughter. He also left 6/8d for the repair of roads in the parish.

William Grove, in 1513, also left “to the moder churche of Lincoln of seynt Mary ij d. (2d), unto the rode lyght of Penne 1 shepe, to the trinite 1 shepe, to every lyght within the churche of Penn 1j d. (2d), to our lady chapell 1j d”. He also left his best hood to the “ordinary”, ie to the bishop. Nicholas Asshwell, in 1521, left 2d. to Lincoln and 1d. to “the light of Our Lady”. He left no sheep to the church but two sheep and a bullock were his only bequests to both his son and daughter and he left a sheep to three other beneficiaries.

All these three men were prosperous parishioners and the name of the vicar or curate of the time headed the recorded witnesses of the will. In 1505, it was “Master” Thomas Bally (Vicar of Penn 1500-27), in 1513, “sir Wyllam Alt my gostely fader”, and in 1521, “sir Thomas Pott”. The two curates were not, of course, knights. Non-graduate priests were conventionally given the honorific “Sir” or, in Latin, “Dominus”.

Parochial organisation

Comparison with the parish of Morebath
Penn has no surviving churchwardens’ accounts for the period, whereas those for the parish of Morebath in Devon are not only complete, but full of the personality, opinions and prejudices of their long-serving Vicar, Sir Christopher Trychay (1520-74). Whilst no two parishes will be exactly the same, Penn and Morebath were remarkably similar (see Annex) and where evidence from Penn is available, eg from the several references to two churchwardens, from wills and from the 1552 Inventory of church goods, it matches that from Morebath. It therefore provides a useful insight into how Penn was organised. In Morebath, there were eight different stores.

Two Church Wardens, known as High Wardens were elected annually. They had to account for the central funds of the parish, including the surplus from other stores and expenditure on purchases, repairs and projects. They also accounted for two stores of the side chapel. They were elected together and served for just one year with election travelling in a rota round the farms and cottages of the parish. The head of every household was expected to serve in their turn, the poor as well as the prosperous, even if a widow. On a few occasions, both wardens were women. The junior of the two was responsible for the High Warden’s parish ale, the most important fund raising event of the year.

The store of Our Lady was the most important in the parish and owned the largest flock of sheep, up to two dozen, each with a distinctive mark cut in its ear. It was managed.by its own two wardens and existed to maintain a light in front of the principal image of the Virgin, by the high altar in the chancel, with profits going to other needs of the church. The wool from these sheep, which were all looked after and accounted for, by individual parishioners, produced 30/- to 40/- every year.

The Maiden store was run by all the unmarried women of over 12 or so, who elected two of their number as wardens every year with fathers occasionally serving in their place if they were too young or inexperienced. They maintained “a taper be fore our Lady and a nother a fore the hye crosse” ( ie the Rood) and a local female saint. They had no sheep and raised a few shillings from an annual gathering.

The Young Men’s store, consisting of all the bachelors of about fourteen years and above, maintained a taper (candle) before the patronal image of St George (for Penn, it would have been the Trinity) and two more before the Rood. They too elected two wardens every year, with fathers or mothers standing in if necessary, and they raised most of their money, several pounds a year, from an annual “ale”. There were also four smaller stores for the remaining images.

The Five Men were a small group of the more senior and most prosperous parishioners, the number varied from three to six. They were elected for as long as they were willing to serve, to act, in effect, as bankers for the parish. They held any surplus money from the church stores and provided financial continuity and stability. They met extraordinary demands for money imposed by the manorial or Hundred Courts, setting parish tax levies afterwards to recoup their outlay. Together with the Vicar and occasionally under the chairmanship of the Lord of the Manor or his Steward, they helped resolve parish disputes. They also appeared at Visitations by the Bishop or by royal Commissioners

Thus, the whole parish was directly and actively involved in the life of the church. In any one year, in Morebath, twelve parishioners held office of some kind, in addition to the “Five Men” and including teenagers and women. Two thirds or more of the households had at least one of the church sheep, a parochial obligation that if refused, and it seldom was, resulted in a fine of 3d or 4d. One family looked after the church bees. It was an unexpectedly democratic society. Decisions were reached by consensus rather than by majority and great efforts were made to overcome objections even by the poorer parishioners. We can reasonably assume that it was much the same in Penn.

The Six Men of Penn
We catch a glimpse of the “Six Men” of Penn in the inventory of church goods drawn up in 1552 in which it notes that “there is solde by the consentes of Richard Bovington, John Grove, John Bovington, John Balam, Thomas Robertes, Richard Wright and the churche wardens, iij great candelstikes with other brasse to the value of xiiijs iiijd (14/4d) the which money is bestowed emonges the poore, and the reparations of highe wayes”. Contemporary tax returns show that the first four named were the most prosperous in the parish after the gentry families of the Pennes and Puttenhams. The Groves of Stonehouse and the Bovingtons of Glory Farm were prominent in the parish for centuries.

The Reformation

We know from Morebath’s detailed churchwardens’ accounts, that the parishioners were strongly Catholic and did everything possible to resist the Protestant tide. They even went to the extent of financing five of their young men to take part in the Western rebellion, when a peasant army, mainly driven by religious grievances, surrounded Exeter in 1549, and was brutally put down by the Government with considerable loss of life. Right up to the Protestant tidal wave following Edward’s accession, in 1547, which swept away all remaining traces of Catholic observance, they were working on expensive improvements to their church and when required to hand over their Catholic accoutrements they twice hid the most important of them with parishioners. They eventually handed over only a token two copes, two tunicles, a silver pax and a small patten. This conservatism was typical of the West Country as a whole.

Lollardry in Penn
No such detailed evidence survives for Penn, but we do have some significant clues. First, in contrast with the west country, this part of the Chilterns was a hotbed of Lollardry, a heavily persecuted religious movement started at the end of the 14th C under the leadership of John Wycliffe from Oxford, whose beliefs were eventually to triumph in Protestantism. In the 15th C, the names of men from Amersham, Wycombe and Little Missenden, mostly tradesmen, figure largely in the records. Some were burned, others branded on the cheek, some were required to wear an embroidered faggot on their for the rest of their lives. By the early 16th C, the heretics in the county were reported to be very numerous.

In 1521, five men and a woman were burned to death at ??? and the names of suspected Lollards at the time, such as Dean, Frier, Grove, Harding, Herne, Hill, Saunders and Littlepage, are ones which occur frequently in contemporary records of the parish. John Frier was stated to have been a servant of the Penn family and his offence was that he had taught the commandments in English to a William Littlepage. Littlepage had been forced to bear a faggot at the burning of William Tylsworth at Amersham in 1506 and had afterwards been branded on the cheek. Thomas Harding of Chesham, was burned on Amersham Hill in 1532.??, and persecution continued throughout Henry’s reign, even after the break with Rome in 1535.

Vicar in gaol
In September 1538, the most radical of Henry VIII’s royal injunctions were issued by Thomas Cromwell, which ferociously opposed the cult of images and required all parish priests to publicly recant, acknowledging that there was no grounds for it in scripture. They were instructed to preach every quarter against pilgrimages and the veneration and offering of lights and gifts to images of saints. This was a time when dissent was equated with treason and careless talk cost lives. In 1538, a man was executed at Aylesbury for words spoken against the King and in the same year, a priest was accused of “knavish sayings” and “lewd living”.

On 30 August 1539, Thomas Cromwell was sent a letter from Edmund Peckham and Sir Robert Drury at Chesham. It is not clear what official position they held, but both were from important county families that intermarried with the Penn family. They reported to Cromwell that since their last letters, “a relation has been made to them of opprobrious words spoken by one Sir William Egleston, vicar of Pen, Bucks; as appears by the sayings of Thomas Grove and William Culverhouse, his accusers, with his own confession enclosed. We have committed the vicar to gaol in Aylesbury.”

Both the vicar’s accusers were from well-established Penn families and may well have been the two churchwardens. It was an extraordinary event and allows us just a glimpse of the conflict and turmoil that the process of reformation had stirred up in a country parish. One wonders how the confession had been encouraged. It suggests that at least some of his parishioners supported the changes whilst their Vicar did not. However, like most of his fellow clergy, he accepted the inevitable and the following year was reported to be back in the parish though suffering from smallpox. He may have married later since a John Egleton was a churchwarden in 1585. He died in office in 1553.

Surrender of Catholic church goods
The second significant piece of evidence is the comparative completeness of the inventory of church goods, which was drawn up by the churchwardens and the Six Men in July 1552, knowing that it would be the basis of what was shortly to be confiscated by the government. Unlike Catholic Morebath, Penn’s list, like most of her neighbours, was surprisingly complete, as if they had little reservation about their prospective loss.

Patrons and lords of the manors
It would seem therefore that there was a Protestant bias amongst a good many of the parishioners, but what about the major landowners who might well have had some influence on their tenants? David Penne succeeded his father as lord of the principal manor, in 1537, but neither he nor his forbears were the proprietors of the church nor patrons of the living. He was to benefit enormously from the dissolution of the monasteries and this must have encouraged his tacit consent if not his active support as the 20 year process of reformation developed.

David Penne’s wife, Sybil, was the sister-in-law of Sir William Sydney, the Chamberlain and Steward of Prince Edward’s household. He was both a hero of the victory over the Scots at Flodden (the last great victory gained by the longbow, in 1513), and a first cousin of the Duke of Suffolk, so was a man of great consequence. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell recommending “the good hability of my wife’s sister for the room of my lord the Prince’s good grace’s dry norrice”, and extolling her “demeanour, hableness, honesty and truth,  diligence, and good will”.

In October 1538, Henry VIII appointed her as nurse and foster mother to the sickly infant Prince Edward, then nearly a year old, the heir for whom he had divorced his first wife and broken with Rome. She was what ‘among meaner personages is called a dry nurse; for from the time he left sucking, she continually lay in bed with him, so long as he remained in women’s government. It was a position of enormous prestige and responsibility, correspondingly well rewarded. After a few months, in 1539, “David Penne and Sibilla, his wife” were granted “an annuity of £40 during the life of the latter, in consideration of her services as nurse to Prince Edward, the heir apparent”. This was a very considerable sum indeed (sufficient to define a man’s obligation to assume the status and duties of knighthood).

Later the same year, Missenden Abbey, which Sybil Penne’s own family had helped to establish in the 12th C, was dissolved and Sybil Penne wrote to Thomas Cromwell, “Where you promised, if I could find anything wherein ye might do me good, I should not fail of it: I beg your favour to get me a lease of the monastery of Missindyne, Bucks, at the value by the surveyors assessed”. Cromwell’s reply has not survived but we know that whilst she was not successful in her bid she was soon to receive a still more generous gift.

Chacombe Priory, which had appointed the vicar and enjoyed the income from Penn’s rectory lands for the previous 300 years, was dissolved in 1535 and appropriated by the King. There is no record of to whom he granted the church but it seems likely to have been Elizabeth Rok whose name is commemorated on the earliest surviving brass in the church. She died in August 1540 and the English rather than the Latin of the accompanying beautiful prayer, is a consequence of the Protestant reforms of only four years earlier. She may well have been a member of the royal household, like John Tytley who was granted the Priory of Mynchyn in Marlow with all its lands, which included a few acres in Penn.

In March 1541, only months after Elizabeth Rok died, Henry VIII granted, “Sibilla Penne, wife of David Penne, in consideration of her services in the nurture and education of Prince Edward”, not only all the former rights and property of Chacombe Priory in Penn, including the right to appoint the vicar, but also all those of the monasteries of Godstow, Burnham and Bicester in Little Missenden parish. An annual rent of 17/4d was to be paid, but only after her death.This almost trebled the Penn family’s landholding and added a further £25 pa to their income. She continued to receive gifts from the reigning monarch, whether the ambivalent but still essentially Catholic Henry, the fiercely Protestant Edward, the equally strong Catholic Mary or the more moderate Protestant Elizabeth, so clearly religious differences were not a defining influence for her.

However, her private sympathies may well have been more Catholic than Protestant since her son and heir, John (born in 1534) and his wife, both remained convinced Catholics and were listed as absentees from the church and fined in 1584 and 1585. Despite this, Queen Elizabeth had appointed John Penne as her Escheator for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1574. This was a position of some importance and profit since he would have been responsible for collecting what was due to the Queen from property which had reverted to her for lack of an heir or by forfeiture. The Queen was only a few months older than John and is likely to have known him when they were both children with his mother. The royal nursery was at Ashridge near Berkhamstead, conveniently close to Penn.

The Catholic loyalties continued into the next generation. The wife of John’s son and heir, William (born 1567), remained a loyal Catholic until she died in 1535, a full century after the Reformation. John Gardiner, the lord of Penn’s second manor of Segraves, also evidenced this Catholic conservatism. He was imprisoned in 1587, for aiding and sheltering priests and may even have been executed.

Copyright: Miles Green

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