12.01.08, Middleton-Stewart, Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall

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Katherine French

The Medieval Review 12.01.08

Middleton-Stewart, Judith. Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall: Collections, 1446-1454 and Accounts, 1503-1553. Suffolk Records Society. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 243. ISBN: 9780851155784.

Reviewed by:
Katherine French
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

The posthumous publication of Judith Middleton-Stewart's edition of the churchwardens' records Mildenhall, Suffolk is a welcome addition to the parish scholarship. The records that Middleton-Stewart so carefully edited were financial records produced by churchwardens on behalf of their parish. Broadly speaking they fall into the category of churchwardens' accounts, although this is a general category of document that hides a variety of formats, parish administrations, and information, and indeed the Mildenhall records suggest that lay administration of this parish produced a variety of financial records. Canon law required the laity to maintain their naves, including providing liturgical items, vestments, books, and candles. These requirements were over and above tithes. The clergy had to take care of the chancel. This division often explains the architectural and age differences between the two parts of a parish church. Churchwardens' accounts grew out of the laity's responsibility, and generally record money raised and spent in an effort to maintain the nave and its contents. Accounts from before the Reformation are less common than those from afterwards, with only about 200 sets surviving in a variety of local record offices.

Located on the Lark River, not far from Bury St. Edmunds, Mildenhall was a prosperous market town, with an economy largely dependent on the Fens. The Lark River forms part of the boundary between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. In 1043 Edward the Confessor granted Mildenhall to the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, and according to the Domesday Book it contained twelve carucates of land, twenty acres of meadow, a church, a mill, and three fisheries. The manor changed hands several times, until Abbot Samson of the Bury St. Edmunds redeemed it during the time of King Richard I. Mildenhall then remained through the Middle Ages, Bury St. Edmunds' most valuable Suffolk manor. By the fifteenth century, when the parish records begin to survive, the town's economic fortunes had declined despite various attempts to revive them. The church of St. Mary's Mildenhall is largely a fifteenth-century building, with a chancel built in the thirteenth century and a thirteenth-century north chapel. Most of the medieval adornment inside is long-since gone, but there is architectural and documentary evidence for an elaborate rood screen and loft, and the font is fifteenth century, the gift of Sir Henry Barton, who became Lord Mayor of London.

The Mildenhall accounts are a mixed bag. The first set of records start in 1446 and continue with some breaks up to 1454. They only record the money raised by parish collections held throughout the year. Different sections of the town contributed independently of each other, with young men and women of the town hosting a one-off church ale in 1446 to augment the funds. In many instances, the money raised at the collections came from church ales. The regularity of collections demonstrates a consistent level of parochial commitment and administrations. Also included in this first set of accounts are occasional donations for the souls of the recently deceased, but these are not frequent enough to build up a profile of individual parish participants. As these records do not include expenditures, it is likely they were only a portion of the records kept by the parish, the rest of the records are now long since lost. The second set of documents is more fulsome, and Middleton-Stewart calls them churchwardens' accounts. They run from 1503 to 1553, which many gaps in between. They show that the custom of collections and ales continued, but that there are now other sources of income, including the more regular listing of bequests at the death of named parishioners, donations for specific projects, and payments for parish-wide indulgences. By the early sixteenth century, some of the ales were termed "May Ales" or "May Games," which probably included any number of festive activities to encourage donations. In 1528 the Lords of Misrule also made an appearance. The expenditure portion of the accounts records the salaries of parish employees such as the clerk, sexton, and laundress, and illustrates the work done on installing a new rood loft, the continued maintenance on the bells and the parish clock, as well as repairs to the church fabric and the liturgical books. Both the fund-raising and the expenditures were overseen by four churchwardens elected or chosen from the different parts of the parish. They served for a year and there was not a great deal of repetition of office holding, suggesting that the parish shared its administration among a broad group of men. The custom of the record keepers was not to include the names of every person working for the parish, so it is only sometimes possible to trace the careers of individuals, as they lived their lives out in this parish.

Of particular note are the expenditures that record the progression of religious reforms from the end of the reign of Henry VIII (1545) up to the reign of Edward VI. In these accounts, we see the parish dismantling the rood screen and loft they had erected just thirty years earlier, whitewashing the walls presumably to cover its wall paintings, and removing its images, altars, and other trapping of the old liturgy. The accounts also record the purchase of a desk for the new English Bible, and the purchase of a communion table and the Paraphrases of Erasmus. Regardless of which side a parish was on in these tumultuous years, the maintenance of churchwardens' accounts was difficult and many parish accounts simply cease during these years, or they no longer survive. Thus the survival of Mildenhall's records is a fortunate record of how this one parish moved through these changes.

Also included in Middleton-Stewart's edition are extracts of accounts from the reign of Queen Mary. These were originally published in the nineteenth century, and the originals have vanished. The original compiler did not publish them in chronological order, so Middleton- Stewart's restoration is only approximate, and they are not the entire accounts. More valuable to scholars is Middleton-Stewart's decision to include fifty-five wills from Mildenhall parishioners. They span the years 1433-585 and come from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the Norfolk Consistory Court, and the Court of the Archdeacon of Sudbury. Many of the wills are from the churchwardens and parish supporters mentioned in the churchwardens' accounts. The wills complement the accounts adding family and devotional information not included in the churchwardens' records.

The volume also includes a translated extract from William Lyndwood's Provinciale that outlines the obligations of the laity to the parish church, a list of church festivals and holy days, a glossary, and an index of individuals, includes the prosopographical analysis of the wills and the accounts. Taken together it is a thorough and useful edition.

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Author Biography

Katherine French

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor