Times Remembered – 17th Century
By the 17th Century many changes had taken place in the village since the long departed medieval period. The d’Oddingselles, Lindseys, Picquinys and the monks who once held the manors of Pirton had been replaced by the Docwras, Eton College, and the Denny family, which held Rectory Manor. All were leaseholders to the Crown however.
Some of the Highdown land had been sold by the Docwras, possibly to finance the enlarging of the original house and Pirton Grange had been bought from the Ayton family by Matthew Handscombe of Holwell. Sales of land were made by “Peter Copcot, gent.”, and by Ayton who sold “land on the east side of Godren Lane”. Also “land was gifted by Hamond and Ansell in Mawnfield”.
People in the 17th Century were more conscious of their “rank” than we are today. The word “gentry”, usually abbreviated to “gent” or “esq”, would have been applied to land holders like Docrwra, and Copcot. Then came the “middle classes”; yeomen and husbandmen (smallholders). Both were farmers but the latter held their land in tenure as opposed to freehold. Such people, having land worth more than ten pounds in Pirton, included James Hansdscombe, Michael Ansell, William Sam and Robert Primett. They lived in better houses than the “cottagers”, often building extra rooms to add to the original “hall” and “chamber”, which were the basic cottage rooms.
Yeomen worked hard and lived well and their wives worked hard also, making cheese, preserves etc. and entertaining lavishly. From this class was drawn the churchwardens (Primett’s name appears on the 2nd bell in the church tower) constables and overseers, who represented local government.
The majority of the village population bore titles far removed from today’s business consultants, electronics engineers and therapists. Entries in registers, had they been made, would have included labourer, shepherd, swineherd, weaver, etc.
Life was hard for the labouring class. A typical day for many would start between 4 and 5 am preparing the master’s farm horses for the day’s work. Leaving home, breakfastless except for a mug of ale, a day’s ploughing might follow, involving a lot of muscle, skill and exercise. Some farmers would provide a small midday meal and at dusk the labourer would return to an equally frugal meal of bean broth and a little bread. If he was lucky enough to have a piece of ground he would grow beans and barley. Green vegetables were rarely grown or eaten. He also might have a few hens. His wife probably had no midday meal and was more under-nourished than her husband.
The labourer’s only recreation was a visit to the ale-house for a drink and a gossip before going home to bed in the smokey, over-crowded “chamber”, with all the children. Most cottages had no chimney and smoke found its way out through a hole in the roof.
Life was gradually improving for the labouring class however. To alleviate their lot a law was passed that no new cottage could be built unless four acres of land went with it. Compare that with the way that houses are crammed into a single acre today. This law was not always kept however. In 1641 Periam Docwra appeared at the quarter Sessions charged with the offence that “he did sett up a cottage newly at Offley, without laying to it four acres of freehold land.”
Sunday was a relief day from six days hard labour. After church there were various “lawful sports” like shooting at the butts and dancing. Several “unlawful sports” also took place like football (a very violent game which the constables tried to suppress) and cock-fighting. Later in the century the Puritans suppressed most recreations.
Another sign that things were improving for the labouring class is reflected in an examination of some of the Wills of that time. One is struck first of all by the preamble that preceded the bequests in Wills of that period. For instance John Hurst, labourer, bequeathes “my soul to Almighty God, desire my heavenly Father of his mercie to forgive my offences and to commit my soule to rest with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the blessed Kingdom and my bodie to be buried in Pirton churchyard ….”. This was the customary sort of introduction to Wills in a more God-fearing age. The Will goes on to leave £20 to one son, a ewe and a lamb to another; to John Hall £22, to Mary Hanson £6 plus other bequests and finally “unto the poor of Pirton £22 to be shared where most neede”. Clearly not all labourers were poor.
Thomas Copcot in his Will leaves his house and £5 to his son John, £5 and some sheep to his son Richard and a bed to John and Richard between them plus two pairs of used sheets.. £5 to son William; £3 to son Benjamin; £3-6s-8d to daughter Agnes to be paid on her marriage day; ditto to daughter Mary; ditto to daughter Rose, “if God will restore her to her senses”. To his son Peter he bequeathes a piece of land called Duffoise (Dovehouse) and to his son Thomas he gives £5 to be paid by Peter “ when a Mr Fall makes a good offer for some land.”
It is hard to imagine a humble curate in Pirton gaining the reputation of a fire-eating evangelist whose name was known throughout the land but that is exactly what happened between 1641 and 1661.
Henry Denne was born of Welsh parentage in Ickham, Kent in 1607 and was admitted to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in May 1621, as a sizar (a tern used for an order of students at Cambridge and Dublin from the allowance of victuals made to them by the college buttery). Sidney Sussex had a strong Protestant tradition. Henry matriculated in 1621, was awarded his B.A. in 1624/5 and his M.A. in 1628. He was ordained by the Bishop of St Davids in 1630 and came to Pirton in 1631, firmly attached to the Established Church.
The livings of Pirton and Ickleford were still joined, as they had been since 1215, but as the Vicarage at Pirton had been burned down in 1535 the vicar resided at Ickleford. He was Thomas Attwood Rotherham, a strong, outspoken, traditional Anglican who had been inducted as vicar in 1629. No doubt he was happy to leave the cure of souls in Pirton to Denne, riding over from Ickleford infrequently to receive a report. At that time there were 140 communicant members of the church and no recusants (non-conformists).
During his ten years at Pirton as Rotherham’s curate Denne’s evangelical instincts seem to have strengthened and he was often absent from his charge in pursuit of these tendencies. In 1641 he preached a controversial sermon at Baldock, fifty four pages long detailing the sins of pride, covetousness, plurality and non residence attributable to the clergy which so aroused the anger of his vicar that he felt compelled to reply with a sermon of equal length and strength. In the same year Denne broke with the Anglican Church and was received into the Baptist congregation. A year later Civil War broke out and Hitchin, which fought on the side of the Parliamentarians, was full of Puritans and Non-Conformist ministers. Denne became one of the ‘fifteen orthodox divines’ appointed to preach in Hitchin every market day. There is no doubt that it was his preaching that roused the people of Pirton and Ickleford to join up with volunteers from other villages to muster in Hitchin and fight against the army of the King. Being of Catholic persuasion Thomas Rotherham was ejected from his living and a year later wrote a tract against Denne and his companions entitled “A Den of Thieves Confuted”. He was succeeded as Vicar of Pirton by John Walker, who was evidently less vociferous, for he retained the living for eight years under Puritan rule until replaced by Thomas Mould, a Puritan minister, in 1650.
In 1644 Denne was imprisoned in London for his evangelising activities and only released as a result of Cromwell’s intervention. Cromwell was also at Sidney Sussex College. Both Cromwell and Denne had their greatest popular support in the Fens of East Anglia but Denne also came to preach in London at Lambs Church in Bell Alley.
Between 1646 and 1649 Denne became one of the Levellers (a group who wanted all men to be equal) and firstly led and then betrayed the Leveller Mutiny at Burford in May 1649. Having reneged publicly on his comrades, three of whom were shot, he only escaped execution through the intervention of Cromwell once again. After that he was known in radical circles as Judas. Nothing daunted he led a Leveller uprising of some 300 armed men against the Commissioner of Excise in Stourbridge in September 1649. By 1653 he had returned to his evangelising in Cambridgeshire and in 1655 to his native Kent. He died just after The Restoration in 1661.
Ten of Denne’s sermons and treaties were published between 1641 and his death. He was possessed of the silver-tongued rhetoric of his race and deemed by some, at the time, to be the ablest man in England for prayer, expounding and preaching. Strange to think that this notorious and controversial character first exercised his ministry in Pirton.