Thursday, 17 March 2016

How did the parish of Mildenhall in Suffolk care for its poor parishioners in the first half of the 16th century?

One of the large carved figures of angels with outstretched wings which decorate the 15th-century roof of St Mary's church, Mildenhall, Suffolk.

In answering this question the main printed primary source will be Judith Middleton-Stewart’s book containing the churchwardens’ accounts for Mildenhall for the first half of the 16th century.

Judith Middleton-Stewart, ed., ‘Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall: Collections, 1446-1454, Accounts, 1503-1553’ (Suffolk Records Society, vol. 54, 2011)

Middleton-Stewart was mainly concerned to highlight changes in ecclesiastical practices within the parish culminating with the effects of government directives on the church during the reign of Edward VI. However, the concern here will be to squeeze the source material as far as possible for evidence of how the Mildenhall parishioners maintained their poor rather than how they maintained the fabric of their church.  In doing so, much use will be made of Marjorie McIntosh’s recent study of the period in her book, “Poor Relief in England 1350-1600”. The essay will begin by outlining the function of churchwardens and their accounts followed by a discussion of pre-Edwardian almshouses in Mildenhall and the role played by the local poor in pre-Reformation commemorative practices. Then the focus will move to the watershed years of 1547 to 1553 with a description of the sale of the church plate and the stores of candle wax and the relevance of this sale to the relief of the poor.  The consequences of the installation of the church poor box during this period will also be discussed. Finally, there will be some exploration of the way Mildenhall wills reveal testators’ attitudes to the poor, concluding with some general discussion of how practices changed as the local community developed more protestant sympathies.

Churchwardens’ accounts form the heart of any parish’s written history, as they are not only an account of ecclesiastical expenses, but also of much of the community’s civic life.  They were once regarded as the dreary preserve of parochial antiquarians but are now increasingly quarried for information about the social relations of parish life.

Who served as churchwardens in Mildenhall? At the beginning of the 16th century there were two churchwardens (but occasionally four) who usually served for three years.  They were chosen from among the ‘substantial men’ of the parish - well-established and respected local tradesmen and craftsmen, who possessed some wealth and standing in the community.  As the century progressed they were to develop more and more responsibility for the maintenance of the parish poor.  However, prior to the 1540s there is little evidence in the churchwardens’ accounts that they did much more than make occasional distributions of money to the poor from their general fund.  This is typical of the country as a whole where “churchwardens seem to have made little effort prior to 1547 to raise funds expressly for poor parishioners.”  In the Mildenhall accounts there is a single reference in 1505:

Item taken owte of the churche for the pore 10s

Similarly, there is a single reference in the same year to the maintenance of the local almshouse:

payd for a hundred bryckes for the almes houses chymney 1s 4d

We do not know precisely when the Mildenhall almshouse was built, though it must have been medieval in origin, but we do know that at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century the founding of almshouses was increasing, especially in the south-east and in East Anglia, with some testators leaving property in their will as accommodation for the deserving poor.  However, the next reference in Mildenhall to local almshouses is not until 1552 with the following entries

Item for crotchets [metal hooks] and rafte for pooer almses howse 1s  4d
Item for medynge of the pooer menes chymnes 7s  0d
Item thankeng [thatching] of an almes howse 6d

The second item suggests that at least one of the Mildenhall almshouses was for men only.  Entrants to the almshouses would need to fulfil certain requirements.  We have no records for Mildenhall but in Hadleigh those admitted to the Pykenham workhouse, set up in 1497, had to be “of good and honest conversation and living and by fortune fall[en] to extreme poverty.” No doubt, the Mildenhall almshouses provided an important contribution to the maintenance of the poor, but they are unlikely to have provided support to more than a few of the bedridden, disabled and elderly poor that existed in the parish.  The occasional disbursement of alms at the church porch would arguably have had more impact on the lives of the majority of the poor and needy.  On the other hand, providing lodgings for the alms people ensured that they had somewhere to live; and as almshouses usually provided a small pension as well, these people would not be a ‘burden’ on the parish funds.

In Catholic theology, people who provided help for the poor gained spiritual benefits for themselves and this is where the role of the poor in remembering the dead was significant.  In her discussion of funerals and obits prior to the changes brought about by the Reformation, Middleton-Murray points out that:

“Commemorative practices were diverse and catered for every section of society except for the very poor, but even this impoverished class had a part to play, for the prayers of the deserving poor were considered to be of greater significance than the prayers of the well-heeled laity.  The almost obligatory attendance of the poor at funerals was rewarded with a dole, often accompanied by… refreshment….”

Thus, we find in the accounts for 1529 the following entry where monetary returns on land left by Sherd supported his anniversary and that of his wives:

Item payd to the prystes and clerkes and poore pepyll up on the anniverser of Thomas Scherd, Anabyl and Alys, his wyefys 4s  0d

It is unclear exactly how much the “poore pepyll” received but this entry is indicative of the quality of aid in pre-Reformation England which was often infrequent, unpredictable and of low value (for example, a loaf of bread or a penny), and was not intended to provide regular relief.  By 1547, the theology of paying the poor to remember the dead was largely redundant and wills and churchwardens’ accounts witnessed the replacement of terminology such as ‘quethword’ (prayers for the soul) with the more acceptable term ‘legacy’.  From now on several such legacies would include amounts of money to be given to the poor man’s box.

The installation of a poor man’s box in Mildenhall church was the result of a government injunction of 1547.  It signified a move from the medieval practice of giving alms or occasional doles of money with something approaching a more sustained and systematic approach to dealing with the needs of the poor.  Now, under Protestant Edward VI, “money formerly bequeathed for ‘blind devotions’, or collected by gilds and fraternities, was to be diverted into poor-relief.” 

Mention of the poor man’s box makes a prompt appearance in the Mildenhall accounts in 1547:

Memorandum payde to John Lane for one lok and 2 keyes for the hutche for the pore and the hutche for the regestre 1s 2d

This hutch with one lock and two separate keys contained alms for the poor.  McIntosh points out that “the box was supposed to solicit as well as store contributions: it was to be set up ‘near the high altar, to the intent the parishioners should put into it their oblation and alms for their poor neighbours.’” The royal injunction of 1547 specifically ordered the parish clergy to “call upon, exhort, and move their neighbours to confer and give as well they may spare to the said chest.”  There was an expectation also that parishioners would take note of this royal order when writing their wills.  Certainly, the location of the box indicates that money given to the poor was seen as a replacement for the common provision in Catholic wills of a token amount to the high altar for payments forgotten etc.

With the installation of the poor box and the new requirement that collections for the poor were to be made at church services, parishes such as Mildenhall suddenly began to assume a more pro-active role in poor relief.  McIntosh points out that “for recipients, it was of great benefit that money could now be reserved and awarded gradually, either on a regular basis or in response to their particular needs, rather than be handed out on the spot as soon as it was donated.” However, the amounts paid out could still vary enormously as they depended on the generosity and capability of parishioners.

The sale of Mildenhall church’s plate took place at around this time but it is unclear whether the proceeds were used to relieve the poor.  Large sums of money were raised during 1547: £60 0 0 and £12 15 0. And in 1548 the sale of “sylver plate” realised £23 10 0.  In Boxford, interest from the lending of ‘plate money’ was specifically earmarked for the use of the poor and something similar may have occurred in Mildenhall.

The sale of stocks of candle wax also provided a boost to church income.  At Mildenhall in 1548, receipts from this sale were spent on the poor with the consent of the ‘hole pariche’ which suggests some sort of open meeting of all ‘substantial parishioners’:

Memorandum that there dothe remayne the 6 day of Auguste In the second yere of the reyne of Kynge Edwarde the VI £2 4s 8d of the stoke of waxe and thys day gatheryd to the use of the pore wherof ys dystrybuted the same daye to thes persons folowynge by the assente and consente of all the hole pariche 2s 7d

Item to Johane Clement and to Wylliam Clement and to Pantelles wyffe for to kepe them 1s
Item to Mother Worde 6d Margerey Conyers and to Alys Barker 8d
Item to the pore boye 5d

Item payde out of the mony before specyfyd, whyche ys £2 4s 8d, 12s save 2d layde oout to the pore pepll at tyme whan they dyd call for yt.
Item layd out of the sayd mony for one payer off shooes for the chylde 6d
Item payd for one moneth for the chylde 14 days before Chrystmes 1s 8d
Item payd for the chyldes coote and for the makynge to Thomas Cootes 2s 8d”

The latter part of the entry highlights that there is a “chylde” in the churchwardens’ care who received a pair of shoes and a coat from the sale of the redundant wax as well as his keep over the Christmas period.  This part of the Mildenhall accounts [folio 36r] is notable in that it deals specifically with monies paid out to the poor resulting from the ban of the use of candles in church services.  McIntosh points out that “with their newly enlarged revenues for the poor, augmented in some cases by the sale of goods before the anticipated royal appropriations of parish property, many Edwardian churchwardens expanded their activities on behalf of the needy.”

As an appendix to her book Judith Middleton-Stewart has included a selection of the Wills made by Mildenhall parishioners between 1433 and 1585.  We have already noted that the poor received doles of money at times of ‘prayers for the dead’ but specific bequests to the poor are rare in the printed wills before 1547.  The first mention of ‘poor people’ in the 16th century wills appears in 1516.

Will of Sir Simon Etton [chantry priest of the charnel]:

My bullocks, 12 coombs of malt and my sheep to be sold to the best value and disposed among the poor people within the town of Mildenhall to the value of 30s…

There are also monies left poor people in wills for 1530 (3s 4d) and 1535 (4 marks). In 1537 we have the Will of John Halsted of Westrowe (who, in 1524, was worth £18 in moveables):

… I will there be bestowed at my burying day and at my 30 day 4 marks, equally to be divided, i.e. at every of the said 2 days 26s. 8d, among priests, clerks and poor people.
I will that at every of the said days there be killed and disposed in deeds of charity a young bullock or steer over and besides the said 4 marks toward the relief of the poor people…

It would be interesting to know whether the beef was sold off and the proceeds given to the poor, or whether it was part of the general feasting at the ‘wake’? 

Ten years later in December 1547 Richard Cole, whose occupation was ‘tanner’ and who must have been a relatively wealthy parishioner because he left 40s for the ‘reparation of the church’, makes a substantial contribution towards the maintenance of the parish poor:

… To the poor people of Mildenhall parish, £10 in money, to be distributed 10 years immediately after my decease, that is every 20s to be distributed and dealt at 2 several times in the year, that is at Christmas 10s. and Our Lady day the Annunciation, the other 10s. and so from year to year…

With his legacy stretching over ten years, Richard Cole seems to have understood and accepted the Edwardian requirement that charitable contributions to the relief of the poor should be substantial and regular.  Over the next two decades the selected wills of the ‘substantial men’ (and one widow) of the parish reveal a steady outflow of funds to the poor and they are summarised here:

1549 widow of a dyer
20s. and 20s
1551 yeoman
1553 weaver
1558 organ player and clerk
£10 and 10s
1559 thatcher
10s and 10s

Without access to all the Wills for the second half of the 16th century [only 10 are printed compared with 45 for the first half] it is difficult to estimate what percentage of Mildenhall testators left money to the poor.  However, there is evidence from studies elsewhere that calls for generosity by the ‘powers that be’ did indeed have an effect upon the extent of almsgiving.  For example, in Colchester, bequests to the poor increased from 15 percent of all testators between 1528 and 1537 to 38 percent between 1548 and 1553.

The willingness of testators and churchwardens to implement royal orders on behalf of the poor suggests that some of them were thinking about their Christian and community responsibilities in new ways commensurate with those reforming protestant ideas that were becoming current throughout the kingdom.  These ideas were characterised by a reinvigorated civic humanism and a belief in the well-ordered Christian state often referred to as the ‘commonwealth’.  A society which neglected the incapacitated poor could not be regarded as a just commonwealth.  Jordan conducted some important quantitative research in the 1950s: “Between 1480 and 1540, 53% of all charitable donations went to specifically religious causes (mainly prayers, church repairs or buildings, and maintenance of the clergy), while only 13% was given to poor relief.  Between 1540 and 1560, however, just 15% of the total went to religious causes, but 27% to poor relief; between 1561 and 1600, the figures reached 7% for religion and 39% to the poor…”  At the same time more diverse forms of aid became the norm.  In the 1570s purchases for clothing, shoes, food, coal or wood became more frequent; probably to ensure that the cash equivalent was used to benefit the recipient, whereas actual money may have been spent on other things. Additionally, by the 1590s documents suggest that more parishes were paying for shrouds, winding sheets and burials of poor parishioners.  Care for poor children also became much more common.  It would be interesting to explore how far Mildenhall in the second half of the 16th century shared those aspects of poor assistance explored by McIntosh in her exemplary study of Hadleigh.

Craig has presented evidence from the Mildenhall churchwardens’ accounts of the last two decades of the 16th century that suggests a growing puritanism among parishioners.  He cites, in particular, the sale of the parish organ in 1582 and the purchase of a ‘Geneva Bible’ in 1585.  Marjorie McIntosh has suggested that government directives accompanied by religious teaching of a ‘puritan nature’ led to an increase in ‘human compassion’ and a perception that the harmony and security of a community like Mildenhall could not survive when desperate poverty could be witnessed on a daily basis.  There was also an understanding that well-managed poor relief programmes would reap dividends in the longer term.  Self-interest also played a part: not only did charitable service promote a donor’s social standing within the community but the names and generosity of donors would remain after death because bequests would be listed in the church records, perhaps as a plaque on the church wall. Prayers for the dead may well have been ‘outlawed’ but the names of worthy parishioners could live on in a different guise.


Botelho, L. A., ed., ‘Churchwardens’ Accounts of Cratfield, 1640-1660’ (Suffolk Records Society, vol. 42, 1999)
Craig, J., ‘Co-operation and initiatives: Elizabethan churchwardens and the parish accounts of Mildenhall’, (Social History, 18, 1993), pp.357-80
Craig, J.,’ Reformation, Politics and Polemics: the growth of Protestantism in East Anglian market towns, 1500-1600’, (Ashgate, 2001)
Duffy, E., ‘The Voices of Morebath: reformation and rebellion in an English village’, (Yale 2001)
Dymond D., ed., ‘The Churchwardens’ Book of Bassingbourn’, Cambridgeshire, 1496-c.1540 (Cambridgeshire Records Society, vol. 17, 2004)
Dymond, D., & Paine, C., ‘Five Centuries of an English Parish Church: ‘The State of Melford Church’, Suffolk’ (3rd edn. Cambridge, 2012)
McIntosh, M., ‘Poor Relief in England 1350-1600’ (CUP 2012)
McIntosh, M., ‘Poor Relief and Community in Hadleigh, Suffolk 1547-1600’, (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2013)
Middleton-Stewart, J., ed., ‘Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall: Collections, 1446-1454, Accounts, 1503-1553’ (Suffolk Records Society, vol. 54, 2011)
Northeast, P., ed., ‘Boxford Churchwardens’ Accounts 1530-1561’, (Suffolk Records Society, 23 1982)


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