The Parish Clerk by Peter Hampson Ditchfield

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  • 1907
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M.A., F.S.A.


_First Published in 1907_.




























THE PARISH CLERK. By Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. _Frontispiece_ _From the original in the National Gallery_


THE VILLAGE CHOIR. By Thomas Webster 8 _From the original in the Victoria and Albert Museum_


_From old engravings_

THE OLD CHURCH-HOUSES AT HURST AND UFFINGTON, BERKS 42 _By permission of Messrs. G.J. Palmer and Sons_


OLD BECKENHAM CHURCH. By David Cox 60 _From the drawing at the Tate Gallery_

OLD SCARLETT 98 _From_ “_The Book of Days_”
_By permission of Messrs. W. and R. Chambers, Ltd_.












A MYSTERY PLAY AT CHESTER 132 _From a print after a painting by T. Uwins_

THE DESCENT INTO HELL 136 _From William Hone’s “Ancient Mysteries_”

THE SLEEPING CONGREGATION. By W. Hogarth 182 _From an engraving at the British Museum_


THE DUTIES OF A CLERK AT A DEATH AND FUNERAL 198 _By permission of the S.P.C.K._

THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD. By W. P. Frith 199 _From a photograph by Messrs. W.A. Mansell and Co_.


THE CHURCH OF ST. MARGARET, WESTMINSTER 210 _After an engraving from a photograph by Messrs. W.A. Mansell and Co_.

WILLIAM HINTON, A WILTSHIRE WORTHY. Drawn by the Rev. Julian Charles Young 239 _By permission of Messrs. Macmillan and Co_.

SUNDAY MORNING. By John Absolon 270 _From a photograph by Messrs. W.A. Mansell and Co_.

THE PARISH CLERK OF QUEDGELEY 280 _By permission of Miss Isabel Barnett_



The race of parish clerks is gradually becoming extinct. Before the recollection of their quaint ways, their curious manners and customs, has quite passed away, it has been thought advisable to collect all that can be gathered together concerning them. Much light has in recent years been thrown upon the history of the office. The learned notes appended to Dr. Wickham Legg’s edition of _The Parish Clerk’s Book_, published by the Henry Bradshaw Society, Dr. Atchley’s _Parish Clerk and his Right to Read the Liturgical Epistle_ (Alcuin Club Tracts), and other works, give much information with regard to the antiquity of the office, and to the duties of the clerk of mediaeval times; and from these books I have derived much information. By the kindness of many friends and of many correspondents who are personally unknown to me, I have been enabled to collect a large number of anecdotes, recollections, facts, and biographical sketches of many clerks in different parts of England, and I am greatly indebted to those who have so kindly supplied me with so much valuable information. Many of the writers are far advanced in years, when the labour of putting pen to paper is a sore burden. I am deeply grateful to them for the trouble which they kindly took in recording their recollections of the scenes of their youth. I have been much amused by the humorous stories of old clerkly ways, by the _facetiae_ which have been sent to me, and I have been much impressed by the records of faithful service and devotion to duty shown by many holders of the office who won the esteem and affectionate regard of both priest and people. It is impossible for me to publish the names of all those who have kindly written to me, but I wish especially to thank the Rev. Canon Venables, who first suggested the idea of this work, and to whom it owes its conception and initiation[1]; to the Rev. B.D. Blyn-Stoyle, to Mr. F.W. Hackwood, the Rev. W.V. Vickers, the Rev. W. Selwyn, the Rev. E.H. L. Reeve, the Rev. W.H. Langhorne, Mr. E.J. Lupson, Mr. Charles Wise, and many others, who have taken a kindly interest in the writing of this book. I have also to express my thanks to the editors of the _Treasury_ and of _Pearson’s Magazine_ for permission to reproduce portions of some of the articles which I contributed to their periodicals, to the editor of _Chambers’s Journal_ for the use of an article on some north-country clerics and their clerks by a writer whose name is unknown to me, and to the Rev. J. Gaskell Exton for sending to me an account of a Yorkshire clerk which, by the kindness of the editor of the _Yorkshire Weekly Post_, I am enabled to reproduce.

[Footnote 1: Since the above was written, and while this book has been passing through the press, the venerable clergyman, Canon Venables, has been called away from earth. A zealous parish priest, a voluminous writer, a true friend, he will be much missed by all who knew him. Some months ago he sent me some recollections of his early days, of the clerks he had known, and his reflections on his long ministry, and these have been recorded in this book, and will now have a pathetic interest for his many friends and for all who admired his noble, earnest, and strenuous life.]




A remarkable feature in the conduct of our modern ecclesiastical services is the disappearance and painless extinction of the old parish clerk who figured so prominently in the old-fashioned ritual dear to the hearts of our forefathers. The Oxford Movement has much to answer for! People who have scarcely passed the rubicon of middle life can recall the curious scene which greeted their eyes each Sunday morning when life was young, and perhaps retain a tenderness for old abuses, and, like George Eliot, have a lingering liking for nasal clerks and top-booted clerics, and sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors.

Then and now–the contrast is great. Then the hideous Georgian “three-decker” reared its monstrous form, blocking out the sight of the sanctuary; immense pews like cattle-pens filled the nave. The woodwork was high and panelled, sometimes richly carved, as at Whalley Church, Lancashire, where some pews have posts at the corners like an old-fashioned four-posted bed. Sometimes two feet above the top of the woodwork there were brass rods on which slender curtains ran, and were usually drawn during sermon time in order that the attention of the occupants of the pew might not be distracted from devout meditations on the preacher’s discourse–or was it to woo slumber? A Berkshire dame rather admired these old-fashioned pews, wherein, as she naively expressed it, “a body might sleep comfortable without all the parish knowin’ on it.”

It was of such pews that Swift wrote in his _Baucis and Philemon_:

“A bedstead of the antique mode,
Compact of timber many a load,
Such as our ancestors did use
Was metamorphosed into pews;
Which still their ancient nature keep By lodging folks disposed to sleep.”

The squire’s pew was a wondrous structure, with its own special fire-place, the fire in which the old gentleman used to poke vigorously when the parson was too long in preaching. It was amply furnished, this squire’s pew, with arm-chairs and comfortable seats and stools and books. Such a pew all furnished and adorned did a worthy clerk point out to the witty Bishop of Oxford, Bishop Wilberforce, with much pride and satisfaction. “If there be ought your lordship can mention to mak’ it better, I’m sure Squire will no mind gettin’ on it.”

The bishop, with a merry twinkle in his eye, turned round to the vicar, who was standing near, and maliciously whispered:

“A card table!”

Such comfortable squires’ pews still exist in some churches, but “restoration” has paid scanty regard to old-fashioned notions and ideas, and the squire and his family usually sit nowadays on benches similar to those used by the rest of the congregation.

Then the choir sat in the west gallery and made strange noises and sang curious tunes, the echoes of which we shall try to catch. No organ then pealed forth its reverent tones and awaked the church with dulcet harmonies: a pitch-pipe often the sole instrument. And then–what terrible hymns were sung! Well did Campbell say of Sternhold and Hopkins, the co-translators of the Psalms of David into English metre, “mistaking vulgarity for simplicity, they turned into bathos what they found sublime.” And Tate and Brady’s version, the “Dry Psalter” of “Samuel Oxon’s” witticism, was little better. Think of the poetical beauties of the following lines, sung with vigour by a bald-headed clerk:

“My hairs are numerous, but few
Compared to th’ enemies that me pursue.”

It was of such a clerk and of such psalmody that John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the seventeenth century wrote his celebrated epigram:

“Sternhold and Hopkins had great qualms When they translated David’s Psalms,
To make the heart more glad;
But had it been poor David’s fate To hear thee sing and them translate, By Jove, ‘twould have drove him mad.”

When the time for singing the metrical Psalm arrived, the clerk gave out the number in stentorian tones, using the usual formula, “Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the one hundred and fourth Psalm, first, second, seving (seven), and eleving verses with the Doxology.” Then, pulling out his pitch-pipe from the dusty cushions of his seat, he would strut pompously down the church, ascend the stairs leading to the west gallery, blow his pipe, and give the basses, tenors, and soprano voices their notes, which they hung on to in a low tone until the clerk returned to his place in the lowest tier of the “three-decker” and started the choir-folk vigorously. Those Doxologies at the end! What a trouble they were! You could find them if you knew where to look for them at the end of the Prayer Book after Tate and Brady’s metrical renderings of the Psalms of David. There they were, but the right one was hard to find. Some had two syllables too much to suit the tune, and some had two syllables too little. But it did not matter very greatly, and we were accustomed to add a word here, or leave out one there; it was all in a day’s work, and we went home with the comfortable reflection that we had done our best.

But a pitch-pipe was not usually the sole instrument. Many village churches had their band, composed of fiddles, flutes, clarionets, and sometimes bassoons and a drum. “Let’s go and hear the baboons,” said a clerk mentioned by the Rev. John Eagles in his Essays. In order to preserve strict historical accuracy, I may add that this invitation was recorded in the year 1837, and therefore could have no reference to evolutionary theories and the Descent of Man. This clerk, who invariably read “Cheberims and Sepherims,” and was always “a lion to my mother’s children,” looking not unlike one with his shaggy hair and beard, was not inviting a neighbour to a Sunday afternoon at the Zoo, but only to hear the bassoons.

When the clerk gave out the hymn or Psalm, or on rare occasions the anthem, there was a strange sound of tuning up the instruments, and then the instruments wailed forth discordant melody. The clerk conducted the choir, composed of village lads and maidens, with a few stalwart basses and tenors. It was often a curious performance. Everybody sang as loud as he could bawl; cheeks and elbows were at their utmost efforts, the bassoon vying with the clarionet, the goose-stop of the clarionet with the bassoon–it was Babel with the addition of the beasts. And they were all so proud of their performance. It was the only part of the service during which no one could sleep, said one of them with pride–and he was right. No one could sleep through the terrible din. They were the most important officials in the church, for did not the Psalms make it clear, “The singers go before, and the minstrels” (which they understood to mean ministers) “follow after”? And then–those anthems! They were terrible inflictions. Every bumpkin had his favourite solo, and oh! the murder, the profanation! “Some put their trust in charrots and some in ‘orses,” but they didn’t “quite pat off the stephany,” as one of the singers remarked, meaning symphony. It was all very strange and curious.

Then followed the era of barrel-organs, the clerk’s duty being to turn the handle and start the singing. He was the only person who understood its mechanism and how to change the barrels. Sometimes accidents happened, as at Aston Church, Yorkshire, some time in the thirties. One Sunday morning during the singing of a hymn the music came to a sudden stop. There was a solemn pause, and then the clerk was seen to make his way to the front of the singing gallery, and was heard addressing the vicar in a loud tone, saying, “Please, sor, an-ell ‘as coom off.” The handle had come off the instrument. At another church, in Huntingdonshire, the organ was hidden from view by drawn curtains, behind which the clerk used to retire when he had given out the Psalm. On one occasion, however, no sound of music issued from behind the curtains; at last, after a solemn pause, the clerk’s quizzical face appeared, and his harsh voice shouted out, “Dang it, she ‘on’t speak!” The “grinstun organ,” as David Diggs, the hero of Hewett’s _Parish Clerk_ calls it, was not always to be depended on. Every one knows the Lancashire dialect story of the “Barrel Organ” which refused to stop, and had to be carried out of church and sat upon, and yet still continued to pour forth its dirge-like melody.

David Diggs may not have been a strictly historical character, but the sketch of him was doubtless founded upon fact, and the account of the introduction of the barrel-organ into the church of “Seatown” on the coast of Sussex is evidently drawn from life. A vestry meeting was held to consider about having a _quire_ in church, and buying a barrel-organ with half a dozen simple Psalm tunes upon it, which Davy was to turn while the parson put his gown on, and the children taught to sing to. The clerk was ordered to write to the squire and ask him for a liberal subscription. This was his letter:

“Mr Squir, sur,

“Me & Farmer Field & the rest of the genelmen In vestri sembled Thinks the parson want parish Relif in shape of A Grindstun orgin betwin Survisses–i am to grind him & the sundy skool kildren is to sing to him wile he Gos out of is sete.

“We liv It to yuresef wart to giv as we dont wont to limit yur malevolens

“Your obedunt servunt


Of course this worthy scribe taught the children in the school, though writing was happily considered a superfluous accomplishment. He taught little beyond the Church Catechism and the Psalms, which he knew from frequent repetition, though he often wanted to imbue the infant minds entrusted to his charge with the Christening, Marriage, and Burial Services, and the Churching of Women, because he “know’d um by heart himself.”

The barrel-organ was scarcely a great improvement upon the “cornet, flute, sackbut, psaltery”–I mean the violins, ‘cellos, clarionets, and bassoons which it supplanted. The music of the village musicians in the west gallery was certainly not of the highest order. The instruments were often out of tune, and the fiddle-player and the flutist were often at logger-heads; but it was a sad pity when their labours were brought to an end, and the mechanical organ took their place. The very fact that all these players took a keen interest in the conduct of Divine service was in itself an advantage.

The barrel-organ killed the old musical life of the village. England was once the most musical nation in Europe. Puritanism tried to kill music. Organs were broken everywhere in the cathedrals and colleges, choirs dispersed and musical publications ceased. The professional players on violins, lutes, and flutes who had performed in the theatres or at Court wandered away into the villages, taught the rustics how to play on their beloved instruments in the taverns and ale-houses, and bequeathed their fiddles and clarionets to their rustic friends. Thus the rural orchestra had its birth, and right heartily did they perform not only in church, but at village feasts and harvest homes, wakes and weddings. The parish clerk was usually their leader, and was a welcome visitor in farm or cottage or at the manor when he conducted his companions to sing the Christmas carols.

The barrel-organ sealed the fate of the village orchestra. The old fiddles were wanted no more, and were hung up in the cottages as relics of the “good old times.” For a time the clerk preserved his dignity and continued to take his part in the music, turning the handle of the organ.

Then the harmonium came, played by the school-mistress or some other village performer. No wonder the clerk was indignant. His musical autocracy had been overthrown. At one church–Swanscombe, Kent–when, in 1854, the change had taken place, and a kind lady, Miss F—-, had consented to play the new harmonium, the clerk, village cobbler and leader of parish orchestra, gave out the hymn in his accustomed fashion, and then, with consummate scorn, bellowed out, “Now, then, Miss F—-, strike up!”

It would have been a far wiser policy to have reformed the old village orchestra, to have taught the rustic musicians to play better, than to have silenced them for ever and substituted the “grinstun” instrument.

[Illustration: THE VILLAGE CHOIR]

Archbishop Tait once said that there is no one who does not look back with a kind of shame to the sort of sermons which were preached, the sort of clergymen who preached them, the sort of building in which they preached them, and the sort of psalmody with which the service was ushered in. The late Mr. Beresford Hope thus describes the kind of service that went on in the time of George IV in a market town of Surrey not far from London. It was a handsome Gothic church, the chancel being cut off from the nave by a solid partition covered with verses and strange paintings, among which Moses and Aaron show in peculiar uncouthness. The aisles were filled with family pews or private boxes, raised aloft, and approached by private doors and staircases. These were owned by the magnates of the place, who were wont to bow their recognitions across the nave. There was a decrepit west gallery for the band, and the ground floor was crammed with cranky pews of every shape. A Carolean pulpit stood against a pillar, with reading-desk and clerk’s box underneath. The ante-Communion Service was read from the desk, separated from the liturgy and sermon by such renderings of Tate and Brady as the unruly gang of volunteers with fiddles and wind instruments in the gallery pleased to contribute. The clerk, a wizened old fellow in a brown wig, repeated the responses in a nasal twang, and with a substitution of _w_ for _v_ so constant as not even to spare the Beliefs; while the local rendering of briefs, citations, and excommunications included announcements by this worthy, after the Nicene Creed, of meetings at the town inn of the executors of a deceased duke. Two hopeful cubs of the clerk sprawled behind him in the desk, and the back-handers occasionally intended to reduce them to order were apt to resound against the impassive boards. During the sermon this zealous servant of the sanctuary would take up his broom and sweep out the middle alley, in order to save himself the fatigue of a weekday visit. Soon, however, the clerk and his broom followed Moses and Aaron, the fiddles and the bassoons into the land of shadows.

No sketch of bygone times, in which the clerk flourished in all his glory, would be complete without some reference to the important person who occupied the second tier in the “three-decker,” and decked in gown and bands delivered somnolent sermons from its upper storey. Curious stories are often told of the careless parsons of former days, of their irreverence, their love of sport, their neglect of their parishes, their quaint and irreverent manners; but such characters, about whom these stories were told, were exceptional. By far the greater number lived well and did their duty and passed away, and left no memories behind except in the tender recollections of a few simple-minded folk. There were few local newspapers in those days to tell their virtues, to print their sermons or their speeches at the opening of bazaars or flower-shows. They did their duty and passed away and were forgotten; while the parsons, like the wretch Chowne of the _Maid of Sker_, live on in anecdote, and grave folk shake their heads and think that the times must have been very bad, and the clergy a disgrace to their cloth. As with the clerk, so with his master; the evil that men do lives after them, the good is forgotten. There has been a vast amount of exaggeration in the accounts that have come down to us of the faithlessness, sluggishness, idleness, and base conduct of the clergy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and perhaps a little too much boasting about the progress which our age has witnessed.

It would be an easy task to record the lives of many worthy country clergymen of the much-abused Hanoverian period, who were exemplary parish priests, pious, laborious, and beloved. In recording the eccentricities and lack of reverence of many clerics and their faithful servitors, it is well to remember the many bright lights that shone like lamps in a dark place.

It would be a difficult task to write a history of our parish priesthood, for reasons which have already been stated, and such a labour is beyond our present purpose. But it may be well to record a few of the observations which contemporary writers have made upon the parsons of their day in order to show that they were by no means a set of careless, disreputable, and unworthy men.

During the greater part of the eighteenth century there lived at Seathwaite, Lancashire, as curate, the famous Robert Walker, styled “the Wonderful,” “a man singular for his temperance, industry, and integrity,” as the parish register records.

Wordsworth alludes to him in his eighteenth sonnet on Durdon as a worthy compeer of the country parson of Chaucer, and in the seventh book of the _Excursion_ an abstract of his character is given:

“A priest abides before whose lips such doubts Fall to the ground, as in those days
When this low pile a gospel preacher knew Whose good works formed an endless retinue; A pastor such as Chaucer’s verse portrays, Such as the heaven-taught skill of Herbert drew, And tender Goldsmith crown’d with deathless praise.”

The poet also gives a short memoir of the Wonderful Walker. In this occurs the following extract from a letter dated 1775:

“By his frugality and good management he keeps the wolf from the door, as we say; and if he advances a little in the world it is owing more to his own care than to anything else he has to rely upon. I don’t find his inclination in running after further preferment. He is settled among the people that are happy among themselves, and lives in the greatest unanimity and friendship with them; and, I believe, the minister and people are exceedingly satisfied with each other: and indeed, how should they be dissatisfied, when they have a person of so much worth and probity for their pastor? A man who for his candour and meekness, his sober, chaste, and virtuous conversation, his soundness in principle and practice, is an ornament to his profession and an honour to the country he is in; and bear with me if I say, the plainness of his dress, the sanctity of his manners, the simplicity of his doctrine, and the vehemence of his expression, have a sort of resemblance to the pure practice of primitive Christianity.”

The income of his chapelry was the munificent sum of L17 10 s. He reared and educated a numerous family of twelve children. Every Sunday he entertained those members of his congregation who came from a distance, taught the village school, acted as scrivener and lawyer for the district, farmed, and helped his neighbours in haymaking and sheep-shearing, spun cloth, studied natural history, and, in spite of all this, was throughout a devoted and earnest parish priest. He was certainly entitled to his epithet “the Wonderful.”

Goldsmith has given us a charming picture of an old-world parson in his _Vicar of Wakefield_, and Fielding sketches a no less worthy cleric in his portrait of the Rev. Abraham Adams in _his Joseph Andrews_. As a companion picture he drew the character of the pig-keeping Parson Trulliber, no scandalous cleric, though he cared more for his cows and pigs than he did for his parishioners.

“Hawks should not peck out hawks’ e’en,” and parsons should not scoff at their fellows; yet Crabbe was a little unkind in his description of country parsons, though he could say little against the character of his vicar.

“Our Priest was cheerful and in season gay; His frequent visits seldom fail’d to please; Easy himself, he sought his neighbour’s ease.

* * * * *

Simple he was, and loved the simple truth, Yet had some useful cunning from his youth; A cunning never to dishonour lent,
And rather for defence than conquest meant; ‘Twas fear of power, with some desire to rise, But not enough to make him enemies;
He ever aim’d to please; and to offend Was ever cautious; for he sought a friend. Fiddling and fishing were his arts, at times He alter’d sermons, and he aimed at rhymes; And his fair friends, not yet intent on cards, Oft he amused with riddles and charades, Mild were his doctrines, and not one discourse But gained in softness what it lost in force; Kind his opinions; he would not receive An ill report, nor evil act believe.

* * * * *

Now rests our vicar. They who knew him best Proclaim his life t’ have been entirely–rest. The rich approved–of them in awe he stood; The poor admired–they all believed him good; The old and serious of his habits spoke; The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke; Mothers approved a safe contented guest, And daughters one who backed each small request; In him his flock found nothing to condemn; Him sectaries liked–he never troubled them; No trifles failed his yielding mind to please, And all his passions sunk in early ease; Nor one so old has left this world of sin More like the being that he entered in.”

A somewhat caustic and sarcastic sketch, and perhaps a little ill-natured, of a somewhat amiable cleric. Dr. Syntax is a good example of an old-world parson, whose biographer thus describes his laborious life:

“Of Church preferment he had none; Nay, all his hope of that was gone;
He felt that he content must be
With drudging-in a curacy.
Indeed, on ev’ry Sabbath-day,
Through eight long miles he took his way, To preach, to grumble, and to pray;
To cheer the good, to warn the sinner, And if he got it,–eat a dinner:
To bury these, to christen those, And marry such fond folks as chose
To change the tenor of their life, And risk the matrimonial strife.
Thus were his weekly journeys made, ‘Neath summer suns and wintry shade;
And all his gains, it did appear, Were only thirty pounds a-year.”

And when the last event of his hard-working life was over–

“The village wept, the hamlets round Crowded the consecrated ground;
And waited there to see the end
Of Pastor, Teacher, Father, Friend.”

Who could write a better epitaph?

Doubtless the crying evil of what is called “the dead period” of the Church’s history was pluralism. It was no uncommon thing for a clergyman to hold half a dozen benefices, in one of which he would reside, and appoint curates with slender stipends to the rest, only showing himself “when tithing time draws near.”

When Bishop Stanley became Bishop of Norwich in 1837 there were six hundred non-resident incumbents, a state of things which he did a vast amount of work to remedy. Mr. Clitherow tells me of a friend who was going to be married and who requested a neighbour to take his two services for him during his brief honeymoon. The neighbour at first hesitated, but at last consented, having six other services to take on the one Sunday.

An old clergyman named Field lived at Cambridge and served three country parishes–Hauxton, Newton, and Barnington. On Sunday morning he used to ride to Hauxton, which he could see from the high road to Newton. If there was a congregation, the clerk used to waggle his hat on the top of a long pole kept in the church porch, and Field had to turn down the road and take the service. If there was no congregation he went on straight to Newton, where there was always a congregation, as two old ladies were always present. Field used to turn his pony loose in the churchyard, and as he entered the church began the Exhortation, so that by the time he was robed he had progressed well through the service. My informant, the Rev. M.J. Bacon, was curate at Newton, and remembers well the old surplice turned up and shortened at the bottom, where the old parson’s spurs had frayed it.

It was this pluralism that led to much abuse, much neglect, and much carelessness. However, enough has been said about the shepherd, and we must return to his helper, the clerk, with whose biography and history we are mainly concerned.



The office of parish clerk can claim considerable antiquity, and dates back to the times of Augustine and King Ethelbert. Pope Gregory the Great, in writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury with regard to the order and constitution of the Church in new lands and under new circumstances, laid down sundry regulations with regard to the clerk’s marriage and mode of life. King Ethelbert, by the advice of his Witenagemote, introduced certain judicial decrees, which set down what satisfaction should be given by those who stole anything belonging to the church. The purloiner of a clerk’s property was ordered to restore threefold[2]. The canons of King Edgar, which may be attributed to the wise counsel of St. Dunstan, ordered every clergyman to attend the synod yearly and to bring his clerk with him.

[Footnote 2: Bede’s _Hist. Eccles_., ii. v.]

Thus from early Saxon times the history of the office can be traced.

His name is merely the English form of the Latin _clericus_, a word which signified any one who took part in the services of the Church, whether he was in major or minor orders. A clergyman is still a “clerk in Holy Orders,” and a parish clerk signified one who belonged to the rank of minor orders and assisted the parish priest in the services of the parish church. We find traces of him abroad in early days. In the seventh century, the canons of the Ninth Council of Toledo and of the Council of Merida tell of his services in the worship of the sanctuary, and in the ninth century he has risen to prominence in the Gallican Church, as we gather from the inquiries instituted by Archbishop Hincmar, of Rheims, who demanded of the rural deans whether each presbyter had a clerk who could keep school, or read the epistle, or was able to sing.

In the decretals of Gregory IX there is a reference to the clerk’s office, and his duties obtain the sanction of canon law. Every incumbent is ordered to have a clerk who shall sing with him the service, read the epistle and lesson, teach in the school, and admonish the parishioners to send their children to the church to be instructed in the faith. It was thus in ancient days that the Church provided for the education of children, a duty which she has always endeavoured to perform. Her officers were the schoolmasters. The weird cry of the abolition of tests for teachers was then happily unknown.

The strenuous Bishop Grosseteste (1235-53), for the better ordering of his diocese of Lincoln, laid down the injunction that “in every church of sufficient means there shall be a deacon or sub-deacon; but in the rest a fitting and honest clerk to serve the priest in a comely habit.” The clerk’s office was also discussed in the same century at a synod at Exeter in 1289, when it was decided that where there was a school within ten miles of any parish some scholar should be chosen for the office of parish clerk. This rule provided for poor scholars who intended to proceed to the priesthood, and also secured suitable teachers for the children of the parishes.

It appears that an attempt was made to enforce celibacy on the holders of minor orders, an experiment which was not crowned with success. William Lyndewoode, Official Principal of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1429, speaks thus of the married clerk:–

“He is a clerk, not therefore a layman; but if twice married he must be counted among laymen, because such an one is deprived of all clerical privilege. If, however, he were married, albeit not twice, yet so long as he wears the clerical habit and tonsure he shall be held a clerk in two respects, to wit, that he may enjoy the clerical privilege in his person, and that he may not be brought before the secular judges. But in all other respects he shall be considered as a layman.”

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the parish clerks became important officials. We shall see presently how they were incorporated into fraternities or guilds, and how they played a prominent part in civic functions, in state funerals, and in ecclesiastical matters. The Reformation rather added to than diminished the importance of the office and the dignity of the holder of it.



The continuity of the office is worthy of record. From the days of Augustine to the present time it has never ceased to exist. The clerk is the last representative of the minor orders which the ecclesiastical changes wrought in the sixteenth century have left us. Prior to the Reformation there were sub-deacons who wore alb and maniple, acolytes, the tokens of whose office were a taper staff and small pitcher, ostiaries or doorkeepers corresponding to our verger or clerk, readers, exorcists, _rectores chori_, etc. This full staff would, of course, be not available for every country church, and for such parishes a clerk and a boy acolyte doubtless sufficed, though in large churches there were representatives of all these various officials. They disappeared in the Reformation; only the clerk remained, incorporating in his own person the offices of reader, acolyte, sub-deacon.

Indeed, if in these enlightened days any proof were needed of the historical continuity of the English Church, it would be found in the permanence of the clerk’s office. Just as in many instances the same individual rector or vicar continued to hold his living during the whole period of the Reformation era, witnessing the spoliation of his church by the greedy Commissioners of Henry VIII and Edward VI, the introduction of the First Prayer Book of Edward VI, the revival of the “old religion” under Queen Mary, the triumph of Reformation principles under Queen Elizabeth; so did the parish clerk continue to hold office also. The Reformation changed many of his functions and duties, but the office remained. The old churchwardens’ account books bear witness to this fact. Previous to the Reformation he received certain wages and many “perquisites” from the inhabitants of the parish for distributing the holy loaf and the holy water. At St. Giles’s, Reading, in the year 1518-19, appears the item:

EXPENS. In p’mis paid for the dekays of the Clark’s wages vis.

In the following year we notice:

WAGE. Paid to Harry Water Clerk for his wage for a yere ended at thannacon of our lady a deg. xi deg. … xxvi s. viii d.

In 1545-6, Whitborne, the clerk, received 12 s. towards his wages, and he “to be bound to teche ij children free for the quere.”

After the Reformation, in the same town we find the same clerk continuing in office. He no longer went round the parish bearing holy water, but the collecting of money for the holy loaf continued, the proceeds being devoted to the necessary expenses of the church. Thus in the Injunctions given by the King’s Majesty’s visitors to the clergy and laity resident in the Deanery of Doncaster in the second year of the reign of King Edward VI, appears the following:

“_Item_. The churchwardens of every Parish-Church shall, some one _Sunday_, or other Festival day, every month, go about the Church, and make request to every of the Parish for their charitable Contribution to the Poor; and the sum so collected shall be put in the Chest of Alms for that purpose provided. And for as much as the Parish-Clerk shall not hereafter go about the Parish with his Holy Water as hath been accustomed, he shall, instead of that labour, accompany the said Church-Wardens, and in a Book Register the name and Sum of every man that giveth any thing to the Poor, and the same shall intable; and against the next day of Collection, shall hang up somewhere in the Church in open place, to the intent the Poor having knowledge thereby, by whose Charity and Alms they be relieved, may pray for the increase and prosperity of the same[3].”

[Footnote 3: _The Clerk’s Book of 1549_, edited by J. Wickham Legg, Appendix IX, p. 95.]

This is only one instance out of many which might be quoted to prove that the clerk’s office by no means ceased to exist after the Reformation changes. I shall refer later on to the survival of the collection of money for the holy loaf and to its transference to other uses.

The clerk, therefore, appears to have continued to hold his office shorn of some of his former duties. He witnessed all the changes of that changeful time, the spoliation of his church, the selling of numerous altar cloths, vestments, banners, plate, and other costly furniture, and, moreover, took his part in the destruction of altars and the desecration of the sanctuary. In the accounts for the year 1559 of the Church of St. Lawrence, Reading, appear the items:

“Itm–for taking-downe the awlters and laying the stones, vs.

“To Loryman (the clerk) for carrying out the rubbish x d[4].”

[Footnote 4: Rev. C. Kerry’s _History of S. Lawrence’s Church, Reading_, p. 25.]

Indeed, the clerk can claim a more perfect continuity of office than the rector or vicar. There was a time when the incumbents were forced to leave their cure and give place to an intruding minister appointed by the Cromwellian Parliament. But the clerk remained on to chant his “Amen” to the long-winded prayers of some black-gowned Puritan. That is a very realistic scene sketched by Sir Walter Besant when he describes the old clerk, an ancient man and rheumatic, hobbling slowly through the village, key in hand, to the church door. It was towards the end of the Puritan regime. After ringing the bell and preparing the church for the service, he goes into the vestry, where stood an ancient black oak coffer, the sides curiously graven, and a great rusty key in the lock. The clerk (Sir Walter calls him the sexton, but it is evidently the clerk who is referred to) turns the key with difficulty, throws open the lid, and looks in.

“Ay,” he says, chuckling, “the old surplice and the old Book of Common Prayer. Ye have had a long rest; ’tis time for you both to come out again. When the surplice is out, the book will stay no longer locked up.” He draws forth an old and yellow roll. It was the surplice which had once been white. “Here you be,” he says; “put you away for a matter of twelve year and more, and you bide your time; you know you will come back again; you are not in any hurry. Even the clerk dies; but you die not, you bide your time. Everything comes again. The old woman shall give you a taste o’ the suds and the hot iron. Thus we go up and thus we go down.” Then he takes up the old book, musty and damp after twelve years’ imprisonment. “Fie,” he says, “thy leather is parting from thy boards, and thy leaves they do stick together. Shalt have a pot of paste, and then lie in the sun before thou goest back to the desk. Whether ’tis Mass or Common Prayer, whether ’tis Independent or Presbyterian, folk mun still die and be buried–ay, and married and born–whatever they do say. Parson goes and Preacher comes; Preacher goes and Parson comes; but Sexton stays.” He chuckles again, puts back the surplice and the book, and locks the coffer[5].

[Footnote 5: _For Faith and Freedom_, by Sir Walter Besant, chap. 1.]

Like many of his brethren, he had seen the Church of England displaced by the Presbyterians, and the Presbyterians by the Independents, and the restoration of the Church. His father, who had been clerk before him, had seen the worship of the “old religion” in Queen Mary’s time, and all the time the village life had been going on, and the clerk’s work had continued; his office remained. In village churches the duties of clerk and sexton are usually performed by the same person. Not long ago a gentleman was visiting a village church, and was much struck by the remarks of an old man who seemed to know each stone and tomb and legend. The stranger asking him what his occupation was, he replied:

“I hardly know what I be. First vicar he called me clerk; then another came, and he called me virgin; the last vicar said I were the Christian, and now I be clerk again.”

The “virgin” was naturally a slight confusion for verger, and the “christian” was a corrupt form of sacristan or sexton. All the duties of these various callings were combined in the one individual.

That story reminds one of another concerning the diligent clerk of R—-, who, in addition to the ordinary duties of his office, kept the registers and acted as groom, gardener, and footman at the rectory. A rather pompous rector’s wife used to like to refer at intervals during a dinner-party to “our coachman says,” “our gardener always does this,” “our footman is …,” leaving the impression of a somewhat large establishment. The dear old rector used to disturb the vision of a large retinue by saying, “They are all one–old Corby, the clerk.”

One of the chief characteristics of old parish clerks, whether in ancient or modern times, is their faithfulness to their church and to their clergyman. We notice this again and again in the biographies of many of these worthy men which it has been a privilege to study. The motto of the city of Exeter, _Semper fidelis_, might with truth have been recorded as the legend of their class. This fidelity must have been sorely tried in the sad days of the Commonwealth period, when the sufferings of the clergy began, and the poor clerk had to bid farewell to his beloved pastor and welcome and “sit under” some hard-visaged Presbyterian or Puritan preacher.

Isaac Walton tells the pathetic story of the faithful clerk of the parish of Borne, near Canterbury, where the “Judicious” Hooker was incumbent. The vicar and clerk were on terms of great affection, and Hooker was of “so mild and humble a nature that his poor clerk and he did never talk but with both their hats on, or both off, at the same time.”

This same clerk lived on in the quiet village until the third or fourth year of the Long Parliament. Hooker died and was buried at Borne, and many people used to visit his monument, and the clerk had many rewards for showing his grave-place, and often heard his praises sung by the visitors, and used to add his own recollections of his holiness and humility. But evil days came; the parson of Borne was sequestered, and a Genevan minister put into his good living. The old clerk, seeing so many clergymen driven from their homes and churches, used to say, “They have sequestered so many good men, that I doubt if my good Master Hooker had lived till now, they would have sequestered him too.”

Walton then describes the conversion of the church into a Genevan conventicle. He wrote: “It was not long before this intruding minister had made a party in and about the said parish that was desirous to receive the sacrament as at Geneva: to which end, the day was appointed for a select company, and forms and stools set about the altar or communion table for them to sit and eat and drink; but when they went about this work, there was a want of some joint-stools which the minister sent the clerk to fetch, and then to fetch cushions. When the clerk saw them begin to sit down, he began to wonder; but the minister bade him cease wondering and lock the church door: to whom he replied, ‘Pray take you the keys, and lock me out: I will never more come into this church; for men will say my Master Hooker was a good man and a great scholar; and I am sure it was not used to be thus in his days’: and report says this old man went presently home and died; I do not say died immediately, but within a few days after. But let us leave this grateful clerk in his quiet grave.”

Another faithful clerk was William Hobbes, who served in the church and parish of St. Andrew, Plymouth. Walker, in his _Sufferings of the Clergy_, records the sad story of his death. During the troubles of the Civil War period, when presumably there was no clergyman to perform the last rites of the Church on the body of a parishioner, the good clerk himself undertook the office, and buried a corpse, using the service for the Burial of the Dead contained in the Book of Common Prayer. The Puritans were enraged, and threatened to throw him into the same grave if he came there again with his “Mass-book” to bury any body: which “worked so much upon his Spirits, that partly with Fear and partly with Grief, he Died soon after.” He died in 1643, and the accounts of the church show that the balance of his salary was paid to his widow.

Many such faithful clerks have devoted their years of active life to the service of God in His sanctuary, both in ancient and modern times; and it will be our pleasurable duty to record some of the biographies of these earnest servants of the Church, whose services are too often disregarded.

I have mentioned the continuity of the clerk’s office, unbroken by either Reformation changes or by the confusion of the Puritan regime. We will now endeavour to sketch the appearance of the mediaeval clerk, and the numerous duties which fell to his lot.

Chaucer’s gallery of ancient portraits contains a very life-like presentment of a mediaeval clerk in the person of “Jolly Absolon,” a somewhat frivolous specimen of his class, who figures largely in _The Miller’s Tale_.

“Now was ther of that churche a parish clerk The which that was y-cleped[6] Absolon. Curl’d was his hair, and as the gold it shone, And strutted[7] as a fanne large and broad; Full straight and even lay his folly shode.[8] His rode[9] was red, his eyen grey as goose, With Paule’s windows carven on his shoes.[10] In hosen red he went full febishly.[11] Y-clad he was full small and properly, All in a kirtle of a light waget;[12] Full fair and thicke be the pointes set. And thereupon he had a gay surplice,
As white as is the blossom on the rise.[13] A merry child he was, so God me save; Well could he letten blood, and clip, and shave, And make a charter of land and a quittance. In twenty manners could he trip and dance, After the school of Oxenforde tho’,[14] And with his legges caste to and fro; And playen songes or a small ribible;[15] Thereto he sung sometimes a loud quinible.[16] And as well could he play on a gitern.[17] In all the town was brewhouse nor tavern That he not visited with his solas,[18] There as that any gaillard tapstere[19] was. This Absolon, that jolly was and gay Went with a censor on the holy day,
Censing the wives of the parish fast: And many a lovely look he on them cast,

* * * * *

Sometimes to show his lightness and mast’ry He playeth Herod on a scaffold high.”

[Footnote 6: Called.]

[Footnote 7: Stretched.]

[Footnote 8: Head of hair.]

[Footnote 9: Complexion.]

[Footnote 10: His shoes were decked with an ornament like a rose-window in old St. Paul’s.]

[Footnote 11: Daintily.]

[Footnote 12: A kind of cloth.]

[Footnote 13: A bush.]

[Footnote 14: The Oxford school of dancing is satirised by the poet.]

[Footnote 15: A kind of fiddle.]

[Footnote 16: Treble.]

[Footnote 17: Guitar.]

[Footnote 18: Sport, mirth.]

[Footnote 19: Tavern-wench.]

I fear me Master Absolon was a somewhat frivolous clerk, or his memory has been traduced by the poet’s pen, which lacked not satire and a caustic but good-humoured wit. Here was a parish clerk who could sing well, though he did not confine his melodies to “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” He wore a surplice; he was an accomplished scrivener, and therefore a man of some education; he could perform the offices of the barber-surgeon, and one of his duties was to cense the people in their houses. He was an actor of no mean repute, and took a leading part in the mysteries or miracle-plays, concerning which we shall have more to tell. He even could undertake the prominent part of Herod, which doubtless was an object of competition among the amateurs of the period. Such is the picture which Chaucer draws of the frivolous clerk, a sketch which is accurate enough as far as it goes, and one that we will endeavour to fill in with sundry details culled from medieval sources.

Chaucer tells us that Jolly Absolon used to go to the houses of the parishioners on holy days with his censer. His more usual duty was to bear to them the holy water, and hence he acquired the title of _aquaebajalus_. This holy water consisted of water into which, after exorcism, blest salt had been placed, and then duly sanctified with the sign of the cross and sacerdotal benediction. We can see the clerk clad in his surplice setting out in the morning of Sunday on his rounds. He is carrying a holy-water vat, made of brass or wood, containing the blest water, and in his hand is an _aspergillum_ or sprinkler. This consists of a round brush of horse-hair with a short handle. When the clerk arrives at the great house of the village he first enters the kitchen, and seeing the cook engaged on her household duties, he dips the sprinkler into the holy-water vessel and shakes it towards her, as in the accompanying illustration. Then he visits the lord and lady of the manor, who are sitting at meat in their solar, and asperges them in like manner. For his pains he receives from every householder some gift, and goes on his way rejoicing. Bishop Alexander, of Coventry, however, in his constitutions drawn up in the year 1237, ordered that no clerk who serves in a church may live from the fees derived from this source, and the penalty of suspension was to be inflicted on any one who should transgress this rule. The constitutions of the parish clerks at Trinity Church, Coventry, made in 1462, are a most valuable source of information with regard to the clerk’s duties.

The following items refer to the orders relating to the holy water:

“Item, the dekyn shall bring a woly water stoke with water for hys preste every Sonday for the preste to make woly water.

“Item, the said dekyn shall every Sonday beyr woly water of hys chyldern to euery howse in hys warde, and he to have hys duty off euery man affter hys degre quarterly.”

At the church of St. Nicholas, Bristol, in 1481, it was ordered that the “Clerke to ordeynn spryngals[20] for the church, and for him that visiteth the Sondays and dewly to bere his holy water to euery howse Abyding soo convenient a space that every man may receive hys Holy water under payne of iiii d. tociens quociens.”

[Footnote 20: Bunches of twigs for sprinkling holy water.]



At Faversham a set of parish clerk’s duties of the years 1506, 1548, and 1593 is preserved. In the rules ordained for his guidance in the first-mentioned year he with his assistant clerk is ordered to bear holy water to every man’s house, as of old time hath been accustomed; in case of default he shall forfeit 8 d.; but if he shall be very much occupied on account of a principal feast falling on a Sunday or with any pressing parochial business, he is to be excused.

A mighty dissension disturbed the equanimity of the little parish of Morebath in the year 1531 and continued for several years. The quarrel arose concerning the dues to be paid to the parish clerk, a small number of persons refusing to pay the just demands. After much disputing they finally came to an agreement, and one of the items was that the clerk should go about the parish with his holy water once a year, when men had shorn their sheep to gather some wool to make him a coat to go in the parish in his livery. There are many other items in the agreement to which we shall have occasion again to refer. Let us hope that the good people of Morebath settled down amicably after this great “storm in a tea-cup”; but this godly union and concord could not have lasted very long, as mighty changes were in progress, and much upsetting of old-established custom and practice.

The clerk continued in many parishes to make his accustomed round of the houses, and collected money which was used for the defraying of the expenses of public worship; but he left behind him his sprinkler and holy-water vat, which accorded not with the principles and tenets, the practice and ceremonies of the reformed Church of England.

This was, however, one of the minor duties of the mediaeval clerk, and the custom of giving offerings to him seems to have started with a charitable intent. The constitutions of Archbishop Boniface of Canterbury issued in 1260 state:

“We have often heard from our elders that the benefices of holy water were originally instituted from a motive of charity, in order that one of their proper poor clerks might have exhibitions to the schools, and so advance in learning, that they might be fit for higher preferment.”

He had many other and more important duties to perform, duties requiring a degree of education far superior to that which we are accustomed to associate with the holders of his office. We will endeavour to obtain a truer sketch of him than even that drawn by Chaucer, and to realise the multitudinous duties which fell to his lot, and the great services he rendered to God and to his Church.



At the present time loud complaints are frequently heard of a lack of clergy. Rectors and vicars are sighing for assistant curates, the vast populations of our great cities require additional ministration, and the mission field is crying out for more labourers to reap the harvests of the world. It might be well in this emergency to inquire into the methods of the mediaeval Church, and observe how the clergy in those days faced the problem, and gained for themselves tried and trusty helpers.

One method of great utility was to appoint poor scholars to the office of parish clerk, by a due discharge of the duties of which they were trained to serve in church and in the parish, and might ultimately hope to attain to the ministry. This is borne out by the evidence of wills wherein some good incumbent, grateful for the faithful services of his clerk, bequeaths either books or money to him, in order to enable him to prepare himself for higher preferment. Thus in 1389 the rector of Marum, one Robert de Weston, bequeaths to “John Penne, my clerk, a missal of the New Use of Sarum, if he wishes to be a priest, otherwise I give him 20 s.” In 1337 Giles de Gadlesmere leaves “to William Ockam, clerk, two shillings, unless he be promoted before my death.” Evidently it was no unusual practice in early times for the clerk to be raised to Holy Orders, his office being regarded as a stepping-stone to higher preferment. The status of the clerk was then of no servile character.

A canon of Newburgh asked for Sir William Plumpton’s influence that his brother might have a clerkship[21]. Even the sons of kings and lords did not consider it beneath the dignity of their position to perform the duties of a clerk, and John of Athon considered the office of so much importance that he gave the following advice to any one who held it:

[Footnote 21: _Plumpton Correspondence_, Camden Society, 1839, P. 66, _temp_. Henry VII.]

“Whoever you may be, although the son of king, do not blush to go up to the book in church, and read and sing; but if you know nothing of yourself, follow those who do know.”

It is recorded in the chronicle of Ralph de Coggeshall that Richard I used to take great delight in divine service on the principal festivals; going hither and thither in the choir, encouraging the singers by voice and hand to sing louder. In the _Life of Sir Thomas More_, written by William Roper, we find an account of that charming incident in the career of the great and worthy Lord Chancellor, when he was discovered by the Duke of Norfolk, who had come to Chelsea to dine with him, singing in the choir and wearing a surplice during the service of the Mass. After the conclusion of the service host and guest walked arm in arm to the house of Sir Thomas More.

“God’s body, my Lord Chancellor, what turned Parish Clerk? You dishonour the King and his office very much,” said the Duke.

“Nay,” replied Sir Thomas, smiling, “your grace may not think that the King, your master and mine, will be offended with me for serving his Master, or thereby account his service any way dishonoured.”

We will endeavour to sketch the daily and Sunday duties of a parish clerk, follow in his footsteps, and observe his manners and customs, as they are set forth in mediaeval documents.

He lived in a house near the church which was specially assigned to him, and often called the clerk’s house. He had a garden and glebe. In the churchwardens’ accounts of St. Giles’s Church, Reading, there is an item in 1542-3:–“Paid for a latice to the clerkes hous ii s. x d.” There was a clerk’s house in St. Mary’s parish, in the same town, which is frequently mentioned in the accounts (A.D. 1558-9).

“RESOLUTES for the guyet Rent of the Clerkes Howse xii d. 1559-60.

“RENTES to farme and at will. Of the tenement at Cornyshe Crosse called the clerkes howse by the yere vi s. viii d.”

It appears that the house was let, and the sum received for rent was part of the clerk’s stipend. This is borne out by the following entry:–

“Md’ that yt ys aggreed that the clerke most have for the office of the sexten But xx s. That ys for Ringing of the Bell vs for the quarter and the clerkes wayges by the howse[22].”

[Footnote 22: _Churchwardens’ Accounts of St. Mary’s, Reading_, by F.N.A. and A.G. Garry, p. 42.]

Doubtless there still remain many such houses attached to the clerkship, as in the Act of 7 & 8 Victoria, c. 59, sect. 6, it is expressly stated that any clerk dismissed from his office shall give up any house, building, land, or premises held or occupied by virtue or in respect of such office, and that if he fail to do so the bishop can take steps for his ejection therefrom. Mr. Wickham Legg has collected several other instances of the existence of clerks’ houses. At St. Michael’s Worcester, there was one, as in 1590 a sum was paid for mending it. At St. Edmund’s, Salisbury, the clerk had a house and garden in 1653. At Barton Turf, Norfolk, three acres are known as “dog-whipper’s land,” the task of whipping dogs out of churches being part of the clerk’s duties, as we shall notice more particularly later on. The rent of this land was given to the clerk. At Saltwood, Kent, the clerk had a house and garden, which have recently been sold[23].

[Footnote 23: _The Clerk’s Book of 1549_, edited by J. Wickham Legg, lvi.]

Archbishop Sancroft, at Fressingfield, caused a comfortable cottage to be built for the parish clerk, and also a kind of hostelry for the shelter and accommodation of persons who came from a distant part of that large scattered parish to attend the church, so that they might bring their cold provisions there, and take their luncheon in the interval between the morning and the afternoon service.

There was a clerk’s house at Ringmer. In the account of the beating of the bounds of the parish in Rogation week, 1683, it is recorded that at the close of the third day the procession arrived at the Crab Tree, when the people sang a psalm, and “our minister read the epistle and gospel, to request and supplicate the blessing of God upon the fruits of the earth. Then did Mr. Richard Gunn invite all the company to _the clerk’s house_, where he expended at his own charge a barrell of beer, besides a plentiful supply of provisions: and so ended our third and last day’s perambulation[24].”

[Footnote 24: _Social Life as told by Parish Registers_, by T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, p. 197.]

In his little house the clerk lived and tended his garden when he was not engaged upon his ecclesiastical duties. He was often a married man, although those who were intending to proceed to the higher orders in the Church would naturally be celibate. Pope Gregory, in writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, offered no objections to the marriage of clerks. Lyndewoode shows a preference for the unmarried clerk, but if such could not be found, a married clerk might perform his duties. Numerous wills are in existence which show that very frequently the clerk was blest with a wife, inasmuch as he left his goods to her; and in one instance, at Hull, John Huyk, in 1514, expresses his wish to be buried beside his wife in the wedding porch of the church[25].

[Footnote 25: Injunction by John Bishop of Norwich (1561), B. i b., quoted by Mr. Legg in _The Parish Clerk’s Book_, p. xlii.]

One courageous clerk’s wife did good service to her husband, who had dared to speak insultingly of the high and mighty John of Gaunt. He held office in the church of St. Peter-the-Less, in the City of London, in 1378. His wife was so persevering in her behests and so constant in her appeals for justice, that she won her suit and obtained her husband’s release[26].

[Footnote 26: Riley’s _Memorials of London_, 1868, p. 425.]

We have the picture, then, of the mediaeval clerk in his little house nigh the church surrounded by his wife and children, or as a bachelor intent upon preferment poring over his Missal, if he did not sometimes emulate the frivolous feats of Chaucer’s “Jolly Absolon.”

At early dawn he sallied forth to perform his earliest duty of opening the church doors and ringing the day-bell. The ringing of bells seems to have been a fairly constant employment of the clerk, though in some churches this duty was mainly performed by the sexton, but the aid of the clerk was demanded whenever it was needed. According to the constitution of the parish clerks at Trinity Church, Coventry, made in 1462, he was ordered every day to open the church doors at 6 a.m., and deliver to the priest who sang the Trinity Mass a book and a chalice and vestment, and when Mass was finished to see that these goods of the church be deposited in safety in the vestry. He had to ring all the people in to Matins, together with his fellow-clerk, at every commemoration and feast of IX lessons, and see that the books were ready for the priest. Again for High Mass he rang and sang in the choir. At 3 p.m. he rang for Evensong, and sang the service in the south side of the choir, his assistant occupying the north side. On weekdays they sang the Psalms and responses antiphonally, and on Sundays and holy-days acted as _rectores chori_, each one beginning the verses of the Psalms for his own side. He had to be very careful that the books were all securely locked up in the vestry, and the church locked at a convenient hour, having searched the building to see lest any one was lying in any seat or corner. On Sundays and holidays he had to provide a clerk or “dekyn” to read the gospel at High Mass. The sweeping of the floor of the church, the cleaning of the leaden roofs, and sweeping away the snow from the gutters “leste they be stoppyd,” also came under his care. The bells he also kept in order, examining the clappers and bawdricks and ropes, and reporting to the churchwardens if they required mending. His assistant had to grease the bells when necessary, and find the materials. He had to tend the lamp and to fetch oil and rychys (rushes), and fix banners on holidays, fold up the albs and vestments. On Saturdays and on the eve of saints’ days he had to ring the noon-tide bell, and to ring the sanctus bell every Sunday and holy-day, and during processions.

Special seasons brought their special duties, and directions are minutely given with regard to every point to be observed. On Palm Sunday he was ordered to set a form at the priory door for the stations of the Cross, so that a crucifix or rood should be set there for the priest to sing _Ave rex_. He had to provide palms for that Sunday, watch the Easter sepulchre “till the resurrecion be don,” and then take down the “lenten clothys” about the altar and the rood. In Easter week, when a procession was made, he bore the chrismatory. At the beginning of Lent he was ordered to help the churchwardens to cover the altar and rood with “lentyn clothys” and to hang the vail in the choir. The pulley which worked this vail is still to be seen in some churches, as at Uffington, Berks. For this labour the churchwardens were to give money to the clerk for drink. The great bell had to be rung for compline every Saturday in Lent. At Easter and Whit-Sunday the clerk was required to hang a towel about the font, and see that three “copys” (copes) be brought down to the font for the priests to sing _Rex sanctorum_.

It was evidently considered the duty of the churchwardens to deck the high altar for great festivals, but they were to have the assistance of the clerk at the third peel of the first Evensong “to aray the hye awter with clothys necessary for it.” Perhaps this duty of the churchwardens might with advantage be revived.

Sheer Thursday or Maundy Thursday was a special day for cleansing the altars and font, which was done by a priest; but the clerk was required to provide a birch broom and also a barrel in order that water might be placed in it for this purpose. On Easter Eve and the eve of Whit-Sunday the ceremony of cleaning the altar and font was repeated. Flagellation was not obsolete as a penance, and the clerk was expected to find three discipline rods.

In mediaeval times it was a common practice for rich men to leave money or property to a church with the condition that Masses should be said for the repose of their souls on certain days. The first Latin word of a verse in the funeral psalm was _dirige_ (“direct my steps,” etc.), and this verse was used as an antiphon to those psalms in the old English service for the dead. Hence the service was called a _dirige_, and we find mention of “Master Meynley’s dirige,” or as it is spelt often “derege,” the origin of the word “dirge.” Those who attended were often regaled with refreshments–bread and ale–and the clerk’s duty was to serve them with these things.

We have already referred to his obligations as regards his bearing of holy water to the parishioners, a duty which brought him into close relationship with them. Another custom which has long since passed away was that of blessing a loaf of bread by the priest, and distributing portions of it to the parishioners. Sometimes this distribution took place in church, as at Coventry, where one of the clerks, having seen the loaf duly cut, gave portions of it to the assembled worshippers in the south aisle, and the other clerk performed a like duty in the north aisle. The clerk received some small fee for this service, usually a halfpenny. Berkshire has several evidences of the existence of the holy loaf.

In the accounts of St. Lawrence’s Church, Reading, in 1551, occurs the following notice:

“At this day it was concluded and agreed that from henceforth every inhabitant of the parish shall bear and pay every Sunday in the year 5 d. for every tenement as of old time the Holy Loaf was used to be paid and be received by the parish clerk weekly, the said clerk to have every Sunday for his pains 1 d. And 4 d. residue to be paid and delivered every Sunday to the churchwardens to be employed for bread and wine for the communion. And if any overplus thereof shall be of such money so received, to be to the use of the church; and if any shall lack, to be borne and paid by the said churchwardens: provided always, that all such persons as are poor and not able to pay the whole, be to have aid of such others as shall be thought good by the discretion of the churchwardens.”

With the advent of Queen Mary the old custom was reverted to, as the following item for the year 1555 plainly shows:

“Rec. of money gathered for the holy lofe ix s. iiij d.”

At St. Mary’s Church there is a constant allusion to this practice from the year 1566-7 to 1617-18, after which date the payment for the “holilofe” seems to have been merged in the charge for seats. In 1567-8 the following resolution was passed:

“It is agreed that the clerk shall hereafter gather the Holy Loaf money, or else to have nothing of that money, and to gather all, or else to inform the parish of them that will not pay.”

There seems to have been some difficulty in collecting this money; so it was agreed in 1579-80 that “John Marshall shall every month in the year during the time that he shall be clerk, gather the holy loaf and thereof yield an account to the churchwardens.”

* * * * *

Subsequently we constantly meet with such records as the following:

“It’m for the holy loffe xiii s. vi d.”

Ultimately, however, this mode of collecting money for the providing of the sacred elements and defraying other expenses of the church was, as we have said, abandoned in favour of pew-rents. The clerk had long ceased to obtain any benefit from the custom of collecting this curious form of subscription to the parochial expenses.

An interesting document exists in the parish of Stanford-in-the-Vale, Berkshire, relating to the holy loaf. It was evidently written during the reign of Queen Mary, and runs as follows:–

“Here following is the order of the giving of the loaves to make holy bread with videlicit of when it beginneth and endeth, what the whole value is, in what portions it is divided, and to whom the portions be due, and though it be written in the fifth part of the division of the book before in the beginning with these words (how money shall be paid towards the charges of the communion) ye shall understand that in the time of the Schism when this Realm was divided from the Catholic Church, the which was in the year of our Lord God in 1547, in the second year of King Edward the Sixth, all godly ceremonies and good uses were taken out of the church within this Realm, and then the money that was bestowed on the holy bread was turned to the use of finding bread and wine for the communion, and then the old order being brought unto his [its] pristine state before this book was written causeth me to write with this term[27].”

[Footnote 27: The spelling of the words I have ventured to modernise.]

The order of the giving of the loaves is then set forth, beginning at a piece of ground called Ganders and continuing throughout the parish, together with names of the parishioners. The collecting of this sum must have been an arduous part of the clerk’s duty. “And thus I make an end of this matter,” as the worthy clergyman at Stanford-in-the-Vale wrote at the conclusion of his carefully drawn up document[28].

[Footnote 28: A relic of this custom existed in a small town in Dorset fifty years ago. At Easter the clerk used to leave at the house of each pew-holder a packet of Easter cakes–thin wafery biscuits, not unlike Jewish Pass-over cakes. The packet varied according to the size of the family and the depth of the master’s purse. When the fussy little clerk called for his Easter offering, at one house he found 5 s. waiting for him, as a kind of payment for five cakes. The shilling’s were quickly transferred to the clerk’s pocket, who remarked, “Five shilling’s is handsome for the clerk, sir; but the vicar only takes gold.”

The custom of the clerk carrying round the parish Easter cakes prevailed also at Milverton, Somerset, and at Langport in the same county.]

In addition to his regular wages and to the dues received for delivering holy water and in connection with the holy loaf, the clerk enjoyed sundry other perquisites. At Christmas he received a loaf from every house, a certain number of eggs at Easter, and some sheaves when the harvest was gathered in. Among the documents in the parish chest at Morebath there is a very curious manuscript relating to a prolonged quarrel with regard to the dues to be paid to the clerk. This took place in the year 1531 and lasted until 1536. This document throws much light on the customary fees and gifts paid to the holder of this office. After endless wrangling the parishioners decided that the clerk should have “a steche of clene corn” from every household, if there should be any corn; if not, a “steche of wotis” (oats), or 3 d. in lieu of corn. Also 1 d. a quarter from every household; at every wedding and funeral 2 d.; at shearing time enough wool for a coat. Moreover, it was agreed that he should have a clerk’s ale in the church house. It is well known that church ales were very common in medieval times, when the churchwardens bought, and received presents of, a large quantity of malt which they brewed into beer. The village folk collected other provisions, and assembled in the church house, where there were spits and crocks and other utensils for dressing a feast. Old and young gathered together; the churchwardens’ ale was sold freely. The young folk danced, or played at bowls or practised archery, the old people looking gravely on and enjoying the merry-making. Such were the old church ales, the proceeds of which were devoted to the maintenance of the poor or some other worthy object. An arbour of boughs was erected in the churchyard called Robin Hood’s Bower, where the maidens collected money for the “ales.” The clerk in some parishes, as at Morebath, had “an ale” at Easter, and it was agreed that “the parish should help to drink him a cost of ale in the church house,” which duty doubtless the village folk carried out with much willingness and regularity.



Puritanism gradually killed these “ales.” Sabbatarianism lifted up its voice against them. The gatherings waxed merry, sometimes too merry, so the stern Puritan thought, and the ballad-singer sang profane songs, and the maidens danced with light-footed step, and it was all very wrong because they were breaking the Sabbath; and the ale was strong, and sometimes people drank too much, so the critics said. But all reasonable and sober-minded folk were not opposed to them, and in reply to some inquiries instituted by Archbishop Laud, the Bishop of Bath and Wells made the following report:

“Touching clerke-ales (which are lesser church-ales) for the better maintenance of Parish-clerks they have been used (until of late) in divers places, and there was great reason for them; for in poor country parishes, where the wages of the clerk is very small, the people thinking it unfit that the clerk should duly attend at church and lose by his office, were wont to send in Provisions, and then feast with him, and give him more liberality than their quarterly payments would amount unto in many years. And since these have been put down, some ministers have complained unto me, that they are afraid they shall have no parish clerks for want of maintenance for them.”

Mr. Wickham Legg has investigated the subsequent history of this good Bishop Pierce, and shows how the Puritans when they were in power used this reply as a means of accusation against him, whereby they attempted to prove that “he profanely opposed the sanctification of the Lord’s Day by approving and allowing of profane wakes and revels on that day,” and was “a desperately profane, impious, and turbulent Pilate.”

It is well known that the incomes of the clergy were severely taxed by the Pope, who demanded annates or first-fruits of one year’s value on all benefices and sundry other exactions. The poor clerk’s salary did not always escape from the rapacity of the Pope’s collectors, as the story told by Matthew Paris clearly sets forth:

“It happened that an agent of the Pope met a petty clerk carrying water in a little vessel, with a sprinkler and some bits of bread given him for having sprinkled some holy water, and to him the deceitful Roman thus addressed himself:

“‘How much does the profits yielded to you by this church amount to in a year?’ To which the clerk, ignorant of the Roman’s cunning, replied:

“‘To twenty shillings, I think.’

“Whereupon the agent demanded the percentage the Pope had just demanded on all ecclesiastical benefices. And to pay that sum this poor man was compelled to hold school for many days, and by selling his books in the precincts, to drag on a half-starved life.”

This story discloses another duty which fell to the lot of the mediaeval clerk. He was the parish schoolmaster–at least in some cases. The decretals of Gregory IX require that he should have enough learning in order to enable him to keep a school, and that the parishioners should send their children to him to be taught in the church. There is not much evidence of the carrying out of this rule, but here and there we find allusions to this part of a clerk’s duties. Inasmuch as this may have been regarded as an occupation somewhat separate from his ordinary duties as regards the church, perhaps we should not expect to find constant allusion to it. However, Archbishop Peckham ordered, in 1280, that in the church of Bakewell and the chapels annexed to it there should be _duos clericos scholasticos_ carefully chosen by the parishioners, from whose alms they would have to live, who should carry holy water round in the parish and chapels on Lord’s Days and festivals, and minister _in divinis officiis_, and on weekdays should keep school[29]. It is said that Alexander, Bishop of Coventry, in 1237, directed that there should be in country villages parish clerks who should be schoolmasters.

[Footnote 29: If that is the correct translation of _profestis diebus disciplinis scolasticis indulgentes_. Dr. Legg thinks that it may refer to their own education.]

It is certain–for the churchwarden accounts bear witness to the fact–that in several parishes the clerks performed this duty of teaching. Thus in the accounts of the church of St. Giles, Reading, occurs the following:

Pay’d to Whitborne the clerk towards his wages and he to be bound to teach ij children for the choir … xij s.

At Faversham, in 1506, it was ordered that “the clerks or one of them, as much as in them is, shall endeavour themselves to teach children to read and sing in the choir, and to do service in the church as of old time hath been accustomed, they taking for their teaching as belongeth thereto”; and at the church of St. Nicholas, Bristol, in 1481, this duty of teaching is implied in the order that the clerk ought not to take any book out of the choir for children to learn in without licence of the procurators. We may conclude, therefore, that the task of teaching the children of the parish not unusually devolved upon the clerk, and that some knowledge of Latin formed part of the instruction given, which would be essential for those who took part in the services of the church.

Nor were his labours yet finished. In John Myrc’s _Instructions to Parish Priests_, a poem written not later than 1450, a treatise containing good sound morality, and a good sight of the ecclesiastical customs of the Middle Ages, we find the following lines:

“When thou shalt to seke[30] _gon_ Hye thee fast and _go_ a-non;
For if thou tarry thou dost amiss, Thou shalt guyte[31] that soul I wys. When thou shalt to seke gon,
A clene surples caste thee on;
Take thy stole with thee ry’t,[32] And put thy hod ouer thy sy’t[33]
Bere thyne ost[34] a-nout thy breste In a box that is honeste;
Make thy clerk before thee synge, To bere light and belle ringe.”

[Footnote 30: Sick.]

[Footnote 31: Quiet.]

[Footnote 32: Right.]

[Footnote 33: Sight.]

[Footnote 34: Host.]

It was customary, therefore, for the clerk to accompany the priest to the house of the sick person, when the clergyman went to administer the Last Sacrament or to visit the suffering. The clerk was required to carry a lighted candle and ring a bell, and an ancient MS. of the fourteenth century represents him marching before the priest bearing his light and his bell. In some town parishes he was ordered always to be at hand ready to accompany the priest on his errands of mercy. It was a grievous offence for a clerk to be absent from this duty. In the parish of St. Stephen’s, Coleman Street, the clerks were not allowed “to go or ride out of the town without special licence had of the vicar and churchwardens, and at no time were they to be out of the way, but one of them had always to be ready to minister sacraments and sacramentals, and to wait upon the Curate and to give him warning.” This custom of the clerk accompanying the priest when visiting the sick was not abolished at the Reformation. _The Parish Clerk’s Guide_, published by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks in 1731, the history of which it will be our privilege to investigate, states that the holders of the office “are always conversant in Holy Places and Holy Things, such as are the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; yea and in the most serious Things too, such as the Visitation of the Sick, when we do often attend, and at the Burial of the Dead.”



Occupied with these numerous duties, engaged in a service which delighted him, his time could never have hung heavy on his hands. Faithful in his dutiful services to his rector, beloved by the parishioners, a welcome guest in cot and hall, and serving God with all his heart, according to his lights, he could doubtless exclaim with David, _Laetus sorte mea_.



The clerk’s highest privilege in pre-Reformation times was to take his part in the great services of the church. His functions were very important, and required considerable learning and skill. When the songs of praise echoed through the vaulted aisles of the great church, his voice was heard loud and clear leading the choirmen and chanting the opening words of the Psalm. As early as the time of St. Gregory this duty was required of him. In giving directions to St. Augustine of Canterbury the Pope ordered that clerks should be diligent in singing the Psalms. In the ninth century Pope Leo IV directed that the clerks should read the Psalms in divine service, and in 878 Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims issued some articles of inquiry to his Rural Deans, asking, among other questions, “Whether the presbyter has a clerk who can keep school, or read the epistle, or is able to sing as far as may seem needful to him?”

A canon of the Council of Nantes, embodied in the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX, settled definitely that every presbyter who has charge of a parish should have a clerk, who should sing with him and read the epistle and lesson, and who should be able to keep school and admonish the parishioners to send their children to church to learn the faith[35]. This ordinance was binding upon the Church in this country as in other parts of Western Christendom, and William Lyndewoode, Official Principal of the Archbishop of Canterbury, when laying down the law with regard to the marriage of clerks, states that the clerk has “to wait on the priest at the altar, to sing with him, and to read the epistle.” A notable quarrel between two clerks, which is recorded by John of Athon writing in the years 1333-1348, gives much information upon various points of ecclesiastical usage and custom. The account says:

[Footnote 35: Decr. Greg. IX. Lib. III. tit. i. cap. iii., quoted by Dr. Cuthbert Atchley in _Alcuin Club Tracts_, IV.]

“Lately, when two clerks were contending about the carrying of holy water, the clerk appointed by the parishioners against the command of the priest, wrenched the book from the hands of the clerk who had been appointed by the rector, and who had been ordered to read the epistle by the priest, and hurled him violently to the ground, drawing blood[36].”

[Footnote 36: John of Athon, _Constit. Dom. Othoboni_, tit. _De residentia archipreb. et episc._: cap. _Pastor bonus_: verb _sanctae obedientiae_.]

A very unseemly disturbance truly! Two clerks righting for the book in the midst of the sanctuary during the Eucharistic service! Still their quarrel teaches us something about the appointment and election of clerks in the Middle Ages, and of the duty of the parish clerk with regard to the reading of the epistle.

In 1411 the vicar of Elmstead was enjoined by Clifford, Bishop of London, to find a clerk to help him at private Masses on weekdays, and on holy days to read the epistle.

In the rules laid down for the guidance of clerks at the various churches we find many references to the duties of reading and singing. At Coventry he is required to sing in the choir at the Mass, and to sing Evensong on the south side of the choir; on feast days the first clerk was ordered to be _rector chori_ on the south side, while his fellow performed a like duty on the north side. On every Sunday and holy day the latter had to read the epistle. At Faversham the clerk was required to sing at every Mass by note the Grail at the upper desk in the body of the choir, and also the epistle, and to be diligent to sing all the office of the Mass by note, and at all other services. Very careful instructions were laid down for the proper musical arrangements in this church. The clerk was ordered “to set the choir not after his own brest (= voice) but as every man being a singer may sing conveniently his part, and when plain song faileth one of the clerks shall leave faburdon[37] and keep plain song unto the time the choir be set again.” A fine of 2 d. was levied on all clerks as well as priests at St. Michael’s, Cornhill, who should be absent from the church, and not take their places in the choir in their surplices, singing there from the beginning of Matins, Mass and Evensong unto the end of the services. At St. Nicholas, Bristol, the clerk was ordered “to sing in reading the epistle daily under pain of ii d.”

[Footnote 37: _Faburdon_ = faux-bourdon, a simple kind of counterpoint to the church plain song-, much used in England in the fifteenth century. Grove’s _Dictionary of Music_.]

These various rules and regulations, drawn up with consummate care, together with the occasional glimpses of the mediaeval clerk and his duties, which old writers afford, enable us to picture to ourselves what kind of person he was, and to see him engaged in his manifold occupations within the same walls which we know so well. When the daylight is dying, musing within the dim mysterious aisle, we can see him folding up the vestments, bearing the books into their place of safe keeping in the vestry, singing softly to himself:

“_Et introibo ad altare Dei; ad Deum qui loetificat juventutem meam_.”

The scene changes. The days of sweeping reform set in. The Church of England regained her ancient independence and was delivered from a foreign yoke. Her children obtained an open Bible, and a liturgy in their own mother-tongue. But she was distressed and despoiled by the rapacity of the commissioners of the Crown, by such wretches as Protector Somerset, Dudley and the rest, private peculation eclipsing the greediness of royal officials. Froude draws a sad picture of the halls of country houses hung with altar cloths, tables and beds quilted with copes, and knights and squires drinking their claret out of chalices and watering their horses in marble coffins. No wonder there was discontent among the people. No wonder they disliked the despoiling of their heritage for the enrichment of the Dudleys and the _nouveaux riches_ who fattened on the spoils of the monasteries, and left the church bare of brass and ornament, chalice and vestment, the accumulation of years of the pious offerings of the faithful. No wonder there were risings and riots, quelled only by the stern and powerful hand of a Tudor despot.

But in spite of all the changes that were wrought in that tumultuous time, the parish clerk remained, and continued to discharge many of the functions which had fallen to his lot before the Reformation had begun. As I have already stated, his duties with regard to bearing holy water and the holy loaf were discontinued, although the collecting of money from the parishioners was conducted in much the same way as before, and the “holy loaf” corrupted into various forms–such as “holy looff,” “holie loffe,” “holy cake,” etc.–appears in churchwardens’ account books as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century.

As regards his main duties of reading and singing we find that they were by no means discontinued. From a study of the First Prayer Book of Edward VI, it is evident that his voice was still to be heard reading in reverent tones the sacred words of Holy Scripture, and chanting the Psalms in his mother-tongue instead of in that of the Vulgate. The rubric in the communion service immediately before the epistle directs that “the collectes ended, the priest, or he that is appointed, shall read the epistle, in a place assigned for the purpose.” Who is the person signified by the phrase “he that is appointed”? That question is decided for us by _The Clerk’s Book_ recently edited by Dr. J. Wickham Legg, wherein it is stated that “the priest or clerk” shall read the epistle. The injunctions of 1547 interpret for us the meaning of “the place assigned for the purpose” as being “the pulpit or such convenient place as people may hear.” Ability to read the epistle was still therefore considered part of the functions of a parish clerk, and the whole lesson derived from a study of _The Clerk’s Book_ is the very important part which he took in the services. As the title of the book shows, it contains “All that appertein to the clerkes to say or syng at the Ministracion of the Communion, and when there is no Communion. At Confirmacion. At Matrimonie. The Visitacion of the Sicke. The Buriall of the Dedde. At the Purification of Women. And the first daie of Lent.”

He began the service of Holy Communion by singing the Psalm appointed for the introit. In the book only the first words of the part taken by the priest are given, whereas all the clerk’s part is printed in full. He leads the responses in the Lesser Litany, the _Gloria in excelsis_, the Nicene Creed. He reads the offertory sentences and says the _Ter Sanctus_, sings or says the _Agnus Dei_, besides the responses. In the Marriage Service he said or sang the Psalm with the priest, and responded diligently. As in pre-Reformation times he accompanied the priest in the visitation of the sick, and besides making the responses sang the anthems, “Remember not, Lord, our iniquities,” etc., and “O Saviour of the world, save us, which by thy crosse and precious blood hast redeemed us, help us, we beseech thee, O God.” In the Communion of the Sick the epistle is written out in full, showing that it was the clerk’s privilege to read it. A great part of the service for the Burial of the Dead was ordered to be said or sung by the “priest or clerk,” and “at the communion when there was a burial” he apparently sang the introit and read the epistle. In the Communion Service the clerk with the priest said the fifty-first Psalm and the anthem, “Turn thou us, O good Lord,” etc. In Matins and Evensong the clerk sang the Psalms and canticles and made responses, and from other sources we gather that he used to read either one or both of the lessons. In some churches he was called the dekyn or deacon, and at Ludlow, in 1551, he received 3 s. 4 d. for reading the first lesson.

In the accounts of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, there is an item in the year 1553 for the repair of the pulpit where, it is stated, “the curate and the clark did read the chapters at service time.”

Archbishop Grindal, in 1571, laid down the following injunction for his province of York: “That no parish clerk be appointed against the goodwill or without the consent of the parson, vicar, or curate of any parish, and that he be obedient to the parson, vicar, and curate, specially in the time of celebration of divine service or of sacraments, or in any preparation thereunto; and that he be able also to read the first lesson, the Epistle, and the Psalms, with answers to the suffrages as is used, and also that he endeavour himself to teach young children to read, if he be able so to do.” When this archbishop was translated to Canterbury he issued very similar injunctions in the southern province. Other bishops followed his example, and issued questions in their dioceses relating to clerkly duties, and these injunctions show that to read the first lesson and the epistle and to sing the Psalms constituted the principal functions of a parish clerk.

Evidences of the continuance of this practice are not wanting[38]. Indeed, within the memory of living men at one church at least the custom was observed. At Keighley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, some thirty or forty years ago the parish clerk wore a black gown and bands. He read the first lesson and the epistle. To read the latter he left his seat below the pulpit and went up to the altar and took down the book: after reading the epistle within the altar rails he replaced the book and returned to his place. At Wimborne Minster the clerk used to read the Lessons.

[Footnote 38: cf. _The Parish Clerk’s Book_, edited by Dr. J. Wickham Legg, F.S.A., and _The Parish Clerk and his right to read the Liturgical Epistle_, by Cuthbert Atchley, L.R.C.P., M.R.C.S. _(Alcuin Club Tracts_, IV).]

Although it is evident that at the present time the clerk has a right to read the epistle and one of the lessons, as well as the Psalms and responses when they are not sung, it was perhaps necessary that his efforts in this direction should have been curtailed. When we remember the extraordinary blunders made by many holders of the office in the last century, their lack of education, and strange pronunciation, we should hardly care to hear the mutilation of Holy Scripture which must have followed the continuance of the practice. Would it not be possible to find men qualified to hold the office of parish clerk by education and powers of elocution who could revive the ancient practice with advantage to the church both to the clergyman and the people?

Complaints about the eccentricities and defective reading and singing of clerks have come down to us from Jacobean times. There was one Thomas Milborne, clerk of Eastham, who was guilty of several enormities; amongst others, “for that he singeth the psalms in the church with such a jesticulous tone and altisonant voice, viz: squeaking like a gelded pig, which doth not only interrupt the other voices, but is altogether dissonant and disagreeing unto any musical harmony, and he hath been requested by the minister to leave it, but he doth obstinately persist and continue therein.” Verily Master Milborne must have been a sore trial to his vicar, almost as great as the clerk of Buxted, Sussex, was to his rector, who records in the parish register with a sigh of relief his death, “whose melody warbled forth as if he had been thumped on the back with a stone.”

The Puritan regime was not conducive to this improvement of the status or education of the clerk or the cultivation of his musical abilities. The Protectorate was a period of musical darkness. The organs of the cathedrals and colleges were taken down; the choirs were dispersed, musical publications ceased, and the gradual twilight of the art, which commenced with the accession of the Stuarts, faded into darkness. Many clerks, especially in the City of London, deserve the highest honour for having endeavoured to preserve the true taste for musical services in a dark age. Notable amongst these was John Playford, clerk of the Temple Church in 1652. Benjamin Payne, clerk of St. Anne’s, Blackfriars, in 1685, the author of _The Parish Clerk’s Guide_, wrote of Playford as “one to whose memory all parish clerks owe perpetual thanks for their furtherance in the knowledge of psalmody.” The _History of Music_, by Hawkins, describes him as “an honest and friendly man, a good judge of music, with some skill in composition. He contributed not a little to the art of printing music from letterpress types. He is looked upon as the father of modern psalmody, and it does not appear that the practice has much improved.” The account which Playford gives of the clerks of his day is not very satisfactory, and their sorry condition is attributed to “the late wars” and the confusion of the times. He says:

“In and about this great city, in above a hundred parishes there are but few parish clerks to be found that have either ear or understanding to set one of these tunes musically, as it ought to be, it having been a custom during the late wars, and since, to chuse men into such places more for their poverty than skill and ability, whereby that part of God’s service hath been so ridiculously performed in most places, that it is now brought into scorn and derision by many people.” He goes on to tell us that “the ancient practice of singing the psalms in church was for the clerk to repeat each line, probably because, at the first introduction of psalms into our service great numbers of the common people were unable to read.” The author of _The Parish Clerk’s Guide_ states that “since faction prevailed in the Church, and troubles in the State, Church music has laboured under inevitable prejudices, more especially by its being decried by some misguided and peevish sectaries as popery and anti-Christ, and so the minds of the common people are alienated from Church music, although performed by men of the greatest skill and judgment, under whom was wont to be trained up abundance of youth in the respective cathedrals, that did stock the whole kingdom at one time with good and able songsters.” The Company of Parish Clerks of London [to the history and records of which we shall have occasion frequently to refer] did good service in promoting the musical training of the members and in upholding the dignity of their important office. In the edition of _The Parish Clerk’s Guide_ for 1731, the writer laments over the diminished status of his order, and states that “the clerk is oftentimes chosen rather for his poverty, to prevent a charge to the parish, than either for his virtue or skill; or else for some by-end or purpose, more than for the immediate Honour and Service of Almighty God and His Church.”

If that was the case in rich and populous London parishes, how much more was it true in poor village churches? Hence arose the race of country clerks who stumbled over and miscalled the hard words as they occurred in the Psalms, who sang in a strange and weird fashion, and brought discredit on their office. Indeed, the clergy were not always above suspicion in the matter of reading, and even now they have their detractors, who assert that it is often impossible to hear what they say, that they read in a strained unnatural voice, and are generally unintelligible. At any rate, modern clergy are not so deficient in education as they were in the early years of Queen Elizabeth, when, as Fuller states in his _Triple Reconciler_, they were commanded “to read the chapters over once or twice by themselves that so they might be the better enabled to read them distinctly to the congregation.” If the clergy were not infallible in the matter of the pronunciation of difficult words, it is not surprising that the clerk often puzzled or amused his hearers, and mangled or skipped the proper names, after the fashion of the mistress of a dame-school, who was wont to say when a