Be careful where you tread

John Hunter
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Most of us coming into church for a service or visiting need take no thought of what lies below us as we tread. There is likely to be nothing more mysterious than heating ducts, electricity cables or even - in older buildings - gas pipes. Such will be our normal experience, as nearly all Free Church or RC buildings, as well as most parish churches in England have been built since the seventeenth century and are modern.

However, for those buildings that are older there is no knowing of what lies below. The ancient parish church of St Peter, Bradford, now Bradford Cathedral, some sixty years ago engaged in a major building development. The stone flags of the floor of the Cathedral were lifted and to the surprise of the builders they revealed a tangled mass of skeletons below. The clergy and congregation of the church were equally surprised knowing nothing of their origins, but from other sources we can ascertain that from the time of James I some parishes had started disposing of their dead within the holy space of the church building.

King James had brought a number of things with him down from Scotland which were to benefit the English. Besides peace and the cessation of the raids of the Border Reivers and the promise of a new translation of the Bible, there was also the custom of the night funeral which freed the rich and aristocracy from the iron grip of the Elizabethan Herald’s office. In addition, although we do not know why, his accession coincided with a renewed interest in intra-church burial.

The custom of burial within the church, rather than in the churchyard, was not altogether novel as in medieval times the rich and famous had been able to use their wealth and influence to erect their tombs within churches. This was not so much from social aspiration as a prudential religious precaution. Fear of death prior to modern times was endemic in humankind and has not altogether vanished today. However in medieval times there was a great fear of death, indeed terror of the after-life based on the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Thus many medieval tomb inscriptions bore the legend ‘Of your mercy, pray for the soul’ and the tomb effigy lay on its back, hands clasped pleading with succeeding generations to pray for the deceased so as to shorten his time in the cleansing torture of purgatory. For the same reason medieval liturgies were bespattered with pleadings for mercy for the after-life, reintroduced to the C of E today in the modern liturgy of Common Worship. Thus the powerful of medieval times in both church and state longed to be buried near to the altar where at the holy sacrifice of the mass, the body and blood of God himself in Jesus was present. On the Day of Resurrection such a burial location, it was believed, would stand the deceased in good stead and perhaps contribute to his eternal salvation.

Following the Reformation, however, belief in Purgatory fell away and the custom of intra-church burial appears largely to have died out. In place of the petitionary inscription requesting mercy, mortuary inscriptions were now often couched in terms of hope and an assurance of Heaven based on the blood of Jesus and this again was reflected in the Reformation liturgies.

However, in early modern times grave stones laid in the floor of churches provide evidence of a revival in intra-church burial. It is unclear why this revival took place but most of these monuments confirm an intra-church burial with the inscription ‘Here lies the body. . .’ Such grave slabs represent only a minority of burials, i.e. those who could afford such a monument and those who were able to secure permission from the churchwardens, as could the local church authorities. Most graves of the period remain both unmarked and in the churchyard.

However, evidence for intra-church burial is also sometimes provided not only by cultural artefacts such as monuments but by literary sources such as parish registers. Registers, although recording burials of parishioners, are generally silent concerning monuments to the deceased or the location of their burial site; they primarily record the personal details of those buried. There are however, exceptions - parishes whose registers do contain information, either as to the place of burial, or of the fees that were paid, and sometimes of both. On occasion there are also the churchwarden’s accounts which can cast light on intra-church burials if they record fees paid. Where the incumbent or churchwardens of the Stuart period wrote up the fees charged for burial inside the church in the registers, then we have a picture of this revival for the parish in question.

So far as Craven is concerned, the registers of St Oswald’s, Thornton-in-Lonsdale therefore are important. For a particular period (1614-1800), the registers of Thornton-in-Lonsdale provide a record of fees paid as the incumbent, or his clerk, has indicated alongside the burial entry where a fee has been paid for a burial within the church. This custom of recording the fees paid for burial in church was introduced in the registers of Thornton during the vicariate of Thomas Bateson, vicar from 1615 for 20 years. It was early in Bateson’s incumbency that the figures 2s. and 4d. begin to appear in the burial register, attached by hyphen to the burial entry (1). On occasion we are also informed that a pauper had been buried and the parish had borne the cost and this suggests that normally a churchyard mortuary fee was also applicable. In 1636 Bateson was followed by John Wargent who had the misfortune to lose his son John within months of his arrival in Thornton. Wargent’s then dramatic vicariate spanned part of the reign of Charles I, then the period of the Commonwealth, followed by the Restoration of Charles II. Thus Wargent and his parishioners experienced, besides the vicissitudes and sufferings of a civil war, the violent swings in English church leadership and government between the Catholicism of Laud backed by the King and the Puritanism of Cromwell backed by Parliament. Eventually, and following the issue of the revised Book of Common Prayer, Wargent himself disappears from the scene in 1663.

Now after 36 years of recorded intra-church burial, in 1665 the fees were also revised and in some cases they were almost doubled. After one or two variations they settled down in 1666, when the 2s. rate (2) had been increased to iijs. 4d. (The custom of recording in Arabic numerals had reverted in 1664 to lower case Roman, perhaps a conceit of the new incumbent John Aikridg who was instituted in 1663). Aikridg makes it clear that he writes up the registers himself ‘written by John Aikridg, Mr of Arts and Vicar’. Meanwhile, the 4d. fee had been increased to 6d (3).

In England the early seventeenth century had been a period of high inflation, as with the discovery of the New World and its treasure flooding into Europe the money supply had significantly expanded, so pushing up prices. The old burial fees therefore reflected an earlier age.

This revision of fees, however, may not have proved popular with all parishioners as the registers then begin to record not only the fee charged, but also if the fee had been paid (4) and on occasion when the fee had remained unpaid (5). Some support for the new regime’s fee increase is apparent when Edmund Foxcrofte of Hallsteads (one of the leading families of the parish) paid double fees for his daughter Margarett’s burial in church (6). In 1670 the new vicar, Aykrigg, appears to be cleared of any blame for this increase in fees by a new style of entry in the registers which now state, concerning the fees: ’All paid to the churchwardens for burials in church.’ (7)

Earlier the democratically elected churchwardens had merely been recorded as having ‘cleared’ the burials (8). However this entry in the burial register establishes both to whom the fees were paid and also the purpose for which the payment was made.

In 1672 there is added to the churchwarden’s note, the phrase ‘at the rate of iijs. 4d. a burial’ which now enables us to fix the number of iijs 4d burials in church in Thornton (9). Further in July 1705 an entry against the burial of a minor has the figure 6d., suggesting that the 6d. applies to a child buried in church leaving the iijs. 4d. being the fee for adult burials (10).

Although we know from the recorded burial fee attached to the name of the deceased who was buried in church, generally speaking there is no indication of where in the church the burial took place. On a few occasions the position of the grave is indicated, i.e. ‘in the n.aisle’ (11), or ‘in the porch’ (12), but most entries give no indication as to the precise site. The intra-church burials were generally all of laity, so perhaps of some significance; examination of the registers reveal that burials of the clergy were in general treated differently. Burials in the chancel or sanctuary had been regarded as the most holy or the most socially desirable place, and these were now mainly, not wholly, availed by the clergy or their dependents. Thus the registers witness that in 1697 the vicar’s wife died, and Mrs Akrigg (13) was buried in the choir. In 1708 the incumbent, Aykrigg himself, followed her, being buried in the chancel. The registers, incidentally, treat us to a variety of spellings for parson Aykrigg. In 1713 the Revd. John Cock, who succeeded Aykrigg as vicar, buried his wife Elin in the sanctuary, ‘at the north end of the Holy Table’ and in 1725 Josias, the son of the incumbent, is recorded in the registers as having been buried in the chancel. John Cock himself was a somewhat unusual appointment as the Dean and Chapter of Worcester, who held the Thornton advowson, normally presented Oxford or Cambridge men to be vicars of Thornton. On this occasion Cock, who was a graduate of Glasgow, was presented, perhaps because he had been assistant curate to Akyrigg and had cared for Burton at the time a chapelry of Thornton.

The earliest recorded burial in church in Thornton (there may have been unrecorded burials) (14) was that of ‘Ja: son of Leonard Craven’ in 1614, for which the fee of 4d is paid. The registers also record clergy burials in the chancel starting with Roger Bradley who died ‘at the parsonage house’ in 1618. The register records that he was buried in the ‘channcell’ and that he was ‘a friend of the incumbent’ but not that he was a minister (15). One of the final burials to take place in church was that of Robert Hodgson, the minister, who was laid to rest in 1799 ‘within the Altar rails on the south side’. Curiously both vicar Hodgson’s wife and daughter had been earlier buried in the churchyard, so it may well have been that Hodgson and his wife were among those who believed in churchyard burial, but after his death, conservative parishioners accorded him the same respect as his predecessors. If they then erected a monument to him, then it along with the rest of Thornton’s interior monuments perished at the hands of the later Victorian modernisers when the church was restored in the nineteenth century. One curious note is that although it was customary in the later period to record the names of all who were buried in church, only one layperson apart from clergy families (16) is recorded as having being buried in the chancel. The rest of the laity, running into hundreds, were buried in the nave.

The fact that a number of clergy and their dependents decided to be buried, not only in church but close to the holy table, may suggest a continuing sense of status attached to intra-church burial and perhaps a desire to be buried in the holiest part of the church. The established Christian tradition in earlier times to be buried close to the martyr or the altar, might indicate that a residue of this belief in the efficacy of a burial situation still lingered. However, in so far as no fee is attached to clergy burials, despite being within the church, this may indicate rather that the Dean and Chapter of Worcester, the holders of the advowson, allowed clergy burial in the chancel as one of the ‘rights, members and appurtenances’ of their presentation. The Dean and Chapter not only collected the tithes from Thornton, but were also responsible for the upkeep of the chancel of the church and also the appointment of the clergy; they therefore controlled burial within the chancel. This fact may explain how their clergy were given free burial in church, if within the chancel, a ‘perk’ of office.

So far as the number of parishioners actually buried in church is concerned, as opposed to those in the churchyard, Thornton parish registers show that to start with intra-church burials were spasmodic. Moreover, it appears that it was the children of those with local high status that were first accorded intra-church burial. However the fee charged was apparently not onerous and within twenty years or so about half the Thornton parishioners were opting for burial in church (17). By mid-century, surprisingly, this proportion had grown to the extent that it amounted to the total number of burials for the year 1642 when all fifteen burials paid the intra-church burial fee. However, this may therefore have marked a high point for Church of England piety in Thornton and was not to last as after 1653 intra-church burial abruptly stopped. The period marked the victory of Parliament in the Civil War between King and Parliament and with it the triumph of Puritanism.

Then followed in Thornton during the Commonwealth a five year hiatus in church burials (1654-58) when no burials were recorded in church, although the registers continue to record burials in the yard. In one year, 1656, there was only one burial recorded for the whole Thornton parish, which might be a reflection of a strong Puritan presence among the people generally, or at least among its leadership.

Calvinistic Puritans, who formed an important segment of the Parliamentary party, held that our eternal destiny had been decided by God before birth, thus funerals were of little importance. The Directory for Public Worship had been issued by Parliament which was thoroughly Calvinistic in theology. Moreover, the local traditional church leadership had been removed. The Lord of the Manor, Sir John Redmayne, a loyal churchman with his own private chapel in the hall, had been killed fighting for King Charles, his widow and family had been been expelled from Thornton and a parliamentary supporter installed in Thornton Hall. Masongill Hall had also been bombarded by the Parliamentary army and destroyed. This left the way clear for the strict Puritan doctrines to become part of Thornton’s ecclesiology. However, as has been noted, despite this violent swing in doctrinal orthodoxy (18) the incumbent vicar, Thomas Wargent, remained in post throughout the period, apparently accommodating himself to serving God and his people within the contemporary theological climate. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the C of E episcopate was also restored and the pendulum swung back in Thornton. The custom of intra-church burial immediately regained popularity with all burials in 1660 taking place within the church. This was led by the high profile family, the Tathams, two of whom requested intra-church burial in 1659. But numbers soon fell away to a quarter of the annual tally of burials, and in the early years of the eighteenth century the number was further reduced as leading families began to request burial in the churchyard (19). By mid-eighteenth century, burials in church had become a spasmodic if not an occasional choice, indeed in the final half century, out of a total of over eight hundred burials in Thornton parish only eight, one in a hundred, were entered into the parish register as having paid the intra-mural burial fee.

Looking back over the whole period from the sixteenth century through to the end of the eighteenth century, there had been a period following the Reformation when Calvinistic theology was in the ascendant. This culture not only proved antipathetic to funerals but provided an indifference to many aspects of death which would be regarded as surprising today. Care of churchyards and respect for the dead and their graves were treated with indifference; this was particularly reflected in literary sources and might well explain the reduction of intra-church burials in the period following the Reformation (20). However, by the seventeenth century, as in the case of Thornton, old anxieties about death, fear of hell and hopes for the future after-life were perhaps beginning to re-surface and so a demand for intra-church burial began to develop. Those parishioners with the financial resources or the influence to request burial within the sacred space emerged, to be followed by those whose social aspirations led them also to wish to be seen to be as significant members of the community having their final resting place within the walls of the parish church, thus the sudden surge in intra-church burials in the 1620s.

However, historians have noted that apart from the sudden seventeenth century demand for church burial the felt need to be buried close to the holiest place in the church began to decay from as early as the fifteenth century (21). Thus where intra-church burial survived testators instead began to request burial close, not to the altar, but to other members of their family or perhaps to the pew where they habitually worshipped. This process was clearly evident locally in Thornton as apart from clergy families there appeared to be little or no demand for burial in the chancel or sanctuary. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only was there a reduced demand for burial within the chancel but total numbers of intra-church burials then fell away (22) as parishioners demanded churchyard burial, so providing parallel evidential data.

A number of factors might have influenced the movement of burials to the churchyard during this period of which humility was one, prompting the idealist (23), hygiene was another (24), and of course cost was always a consideration. But for some executors the fading of the idea of the importance of Heaven for the deceased (and the avoidance of Hell) may also have reduced the urgency of an intra-church burial (25). The same process of a move away from concerns for the afterlife of the deceased might be seen in the parallel secularisation of the epitaph, the secularisation of wills and of the development of scientific secularism in the national culture. The fact that it was the clergy who opted for burial, not only in church but in the sanctuary, might suggest a conservative theological outlook no longer shared by the laity, had it not been for the evidence of a ‘perk’.

Thus with the growing secularism during the eighteenth-century culture the practice of intra-church burial gradually faded away. By the nineteenth century it was rare and following some scandalous chapel burials in London and concerns about hygiene it was prohibited by Parliamentary statute in 1848. This put an end to intra-church burial for good. All that now reminds us of the practice are the monuments in the floor of an ancient church or the possibility of what remains might still lie beneath our tread as we enter a venerable building.

References and Notes

  1. Chippindall, W.H., 1931. The Parish Registers of Thornton-in-Lonsdale, p.146. Publ. John Whitehead and Son, Leeds.
  2. Balderstone, Thomas, 1664 Ibid. ij s
  3. Foxcroft, Anne, Ibid, p.146.
  4. Cumminge, Jane, Ibid, p.146.
  5. Balderstone, Agnes, Ibid, p.147.
  6. Ibid, 1668, April 27, p. 147.
  7. Ibid, 1670, p.148.
  8. Ibid, p.145.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. Margaret a child of John Balderstone of Westhouse, p.164.
  11. Remmington, J., 1721. Ibid, p.171.
  12. Thornton, Jane, 1693. Ibid, p.158. No fee - a curious year when funerals had trebled, maybe due to plague. Perhaps she was someone without means but dear to the people of the parish.
  13. The spelling of the incumbent’s name varies during the long incumbency.
  14. At the rear of the church are two Norman grave-slabs, both anonymous, also in the Redmayne chapel a cross slab of an anonymous knight.
  15. Chippindall, W.H., 1931, The Parish Registers, p.147.
  16. Ibid, p.133. Roger Bradley (1618) designated a friend of the vicar, was buried in the chancel.
  17. This matches the evidence of Chester over this period. ‘The proportion of burials in church rose to over half during this period. 1598-1633.’ See Coster, W. and Spicer, A. (eds.), 2005. Sacred space in Early Modern Europe, Publ. CUP, Cambridge, p.140.
  18. A Directory for the Public Worship of God had been issued by Parliament in 1644.
  19. Thomas Tatham was buried in 1721. The more enlightened parishioners by this time were putting questions of hygiene before privilege. ‘Buried here by his own order’.
  20. Aries, P.,1981. The Hour of our Death. Publ. Alan Lane, London, p.27.
  21. Ibid, p.75
  22. See Fig. 1.
  23. Aries, P., 1981. The Hour of our Death, p.82.
  24. Ibid, p.348.
  25. Coster, W. and Spicer, A., 2005. Sacred space in Early Modern Europe, p. 143. Coster comments on the complexity of intra-church burial motivation in this period.

Thornton-in-Lonsdale, St Oswald’s Church
Figure 1. Shows the growth and demise of intra-church burial(lower line) set against total burial numbers (upper line) in the parish of Thornton-in-Lonsdale.
St Oswald’s Churchyard

Thornton-in-Lonsdale, St Oswald’s Church

Figure 1. Shows the growth and demise of intra-church burial(lower line) set against total burial numbers (upper line) in the parish of Thornton-in-Lonsdale.

St Oswald’s Churchyard