Times Remembered – The 16th Century – Tudor Pirton
King Henry VIII was dying. Beside his bed stood Sir Anthony Denny, Chief Gentleman of the Bedchamber, to whom, ten years earlier, Henry had conveyed Rectory Manor, Pirton. Denny was a Hertfordshire man who, we are told, “occupied his whole time with religion, learning and affairs of state.” He was trembling because the King did not believe he was dying and it was treason, punishable by death, for a subject to tell him so. Denny did not shirk his duty. Gently he warned the King that he had not long to live and the King sent him to fetch Archbishop Cranmer who heard his confession and administered the last Sacraments. Shortly afterwards Henry died.
So what was life like in the Pirton of which Denny owned a part, under the Tudors? Who were the people who lived here? Well, there were names such as Arnold, Godfres, Golylin, Faber and Somer. The d’Odingselles were lords of the manor and included in their family such colourful figures as Baldwin, son of Baldwin the Fleming and John le Boeuf (“the ox”) who later anglicised his name to Bove. When Sir John d’Odingselles let the manor to Sir Edward du Kindale for five years the rent was a white rose, payable each year on the feast of John the Baptist . Imagine anyone doing that today! Gerald d’Odingselles sold his part of the manor to Eton College. A little later Letters Patent from Henry VIII to the Sheriff of Hertford orders him “to distrain Roger Lupton, the Provost of Eton, who has failed to pay homage to the King for the manor of Pirton which he holds in chief for the King.” Eton College retained that part of Pirton until 1800.
The majority of the villagers still worked in the fields, clothes were woven on domestic looms and food still eaten with wooden spoons and fingers. However, in spite of rising food prices, caused mainly by a population explosion and rising rents people were better off than they had ever been. Almost everyone doubled their living space and had more furniture. Chimneys which previously had been the prerogative of the rich were now built in every house and cooking and heating became easier. Child mortality remained a problem. More than half the population were under twenty-five and few over sixty.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries the monks no longer came from Hertford Priory to collect the tithes from the barn in Shillington Road. The Pope’s name might have been erased from the Bible but the majority of England’s population, including Henry VIII still remained loyal to the Catholic religion. Shocks were not far off however.
Edward VI, aged 9, who succeeded Henry found himself in the hands of a Protector, the Duke of Somerset, a staunch Protestant and mayhem followed for the Church. One day in 1549 the parishioners found that the Vicar was celebrating, not the Mass, but the “Supper of the Lord and Holy Communion”, in English. The priest still wore the same vestments – for a time. Before long he was standing, not before a stone altar, but a wooden table and wearing a white surplice. The tabernacle given by Thomas Pyrton, had been banished, along with wall paintings which were painted over and statues which were smashed up by the reformers.
The “Parish”, the area served by one church became the unit of state administration. People had to go to church on Sundays by law and were fined if they stayed away. This meant that the parson became almost as powerful as the squire. Some years later when a book of sermons to be used in church was issued it taught that rebellion against the Crown was a sin against God.
By the time Edward died at the age of fifteen Protestantism had become identified with greed and corruption and the accession of Mary, the Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon, was greeted with popular enthusiasm. Back came the Mass, the tabernacles and statues and churches began once more to accumulate the rich trappings of ritual. However, Mary’s insistence that England should return to the Church of Rome only increased Protestant protests; popular enthusiasm evaporated and after a short and bloody reign, during which 300 heretics were consigned to the flames, Mary died, childless and despised.
Elizabeth the First came to the throne with no strong sectarian views and the common sense compromise religion she imposed proved acceptable to all but die-hard Catholics and Protestants. When she succeeded Mary most of the population was anti-clerical rather than anti-Catholic and by the time she died, 40 years later, the majority of the English regarded themselves as Protestants. In Tudor times the Church, of course, played a much larger part in most people’s lives than it does today and the comings and goings during the sixteenth century must have made their heads spin.
Changes in the ownership of land and the building of big houses in Pirton was also taking place. Rectory Manor, Pirton Grange, Highdown and most of Hammonds Farm were all built during this great period of domestic architecture. The squire and smaller country gentry acquired a new importance under the Tudors; not only because many of them had purchased ex-monastic lands cheaply, but because the barons and abbots who had lorded it over them for so long had been humbled.
Thus the medieval way of life passed away, not by design or the whim of kings but on account of the profound changes in the habits of the English people. The Black Death encouraged the emancipation of the villeins and the spread of sheep farming. This gave rise to the cloth making industry in a big way and produced the entrepreneur and the yeoman farmer. The invention of the printing press undermined the clergy’s monopoly of learning. The discovery of ocean trade routes increased the opportunities for wealth, not only for the rich and powerful but also for those lower down the scale. All these changes, material and spiritual, combined to dissolve the fabric of medieval society and change the face of Britain.