The Middling Sort – Part Four

Given the potential pitfalls, it is unsurprising that the office of jurat was not universally sought after. Once a man had paid to become a freeman, and been sworn in as a jurat, he was expected to devote time to meetings, tax gathering, overseeing works and acting as a J.P., all to the detriment of  earning his livelihood, and was often  required to undertake  work such as mending the sea wall or to lend money to an impecunious corporation.

Sometimes it all got too much. The cutting, or re-cutting of the haven was a recurring expense, as it silted up over and over again. In 1656, in what was almost their last attempt to save it, the corporation ordered that cutting work should start again, and valiantly offered their own money to kick start the project. The offers were generous, from Mr Weller’s five pounds to John Browning’s five shillings, but we are indebted to the town chamberlain of the moment, John Handfield, for writing a note in the margin of the minutes:  ‘Of these sums there was never a penny ever paid’.  Instead, later in the year, the mayor went cap in hand to the townsfolk to ask for voluntary contributions. It was not enough. The workmen who had done the work had not been paid and the corporation were bailed out by two of the senior jurats, both also successful businessmen, the Bassett brothers, Elias and Ferdinando.

The possibility of financial penalty for maladministration even if it was involuntary, was always there. Michael Sprott, a former mayor who had also acted as chamberlain, was fined because when in the latter position he had bought, on behalf of the corporation, match for the militia’s muskets which turned out to be useless. He could not pay the fine, so the corporation seized his goods, in the form of two silver salts and two silver spoons.  One wonders how Mrs Sprott received the news.

Then there was the saga of the escaped prisoner (yes, another one).

In 1618 Edward Harward escaped from the prison. He had been put there at the suit of Lawrence Baker of Old Romney, to whom he owed a considerable sum, over ninety-two pounds. After his escape, Harward sensibly disappeared. The corporation blamed the negligence of Michael Prowde, the town gaoler.  Baker then sued the corporation instead for his money. The corporation refused to pay and Baker took his case to the Court of Chancery.  They said the escape was not the fault of the gaoler, but had been caused by the negligence of the mayor at the time, William Knight, and that he should pay the debt owing to Baker. He refused to pay up, too. At this point in the story, Edward Harward reappeared and said he only escaped to avoid starvation, and asked that the cause be settled by arbitration.

It was not to be.  In 1622, William Knight died and, as the corporation minutes devoutly put it ‘it has pleased God to free Mr. Knight from payment’. The debt, they opined, was personal and had perished along with Mr Knight.  Unfortunately they were wrong, and later that year, four years after the escape, they reluctantly stumped up a reduced amount of thirty-seven pounds.

Occasionally, and understandably, men sometimes refused to take civic office. In 1625 John Hall was called to be freeman but said he would rather leave the town than serve. John Knight said if the town wanted to be rid of his company they only had to make him a freeman. In 1654 Richard Grenland applied for his freedom, and after some debate was asked to pay ten shillings, half the usual fee, but he said it was too much ‘and went away saying if he must pay so much he would go away a good deal freer than he came’.  Some who were rich enough paid not to be freemen:  William Deedes paid ten pounds in 1633, but was later persuaded to accept the honour and seven years later was mayor.

John Gately, a blacksmith, found another way. In May 1614 the Corporation appointed him guardian of Alice Hempsted, a six-year-old orphan who had inherited lands and money. He would have the profits of renting out the land and the interest on the money until she was of age, and would be exempt from payment of local taxes, to the corporation and the church, and from serving as an officer of the town. Of course, he paid for this an undisclosed sum, but he it would seem that for him it was a fair bargain.

 The other public service required of the middling sort was the office of churchwarden. This, like the office of jurat, was not necessarily eagerly sought after. It involved attending the bishop’s annual visitation to present the parish registers, maintaining charitable bequests, keeping church accounts and keeping the church in good repair. Churchwardens also had to keep records of those who did not attend church, collect non-attendance fines, and denounce those who were frequenting ale-houses during the time of divine service.

Attending an Anglican church every Sunday was not an option, or a matter of individupooal conscience, it was a legal requirement. If you did not go, and had no reasonable excuse, such as ill health, you would be reported by the churchwarden to the ecclesiastical courts, presented there and fined a shilling for each non-attendance. Thomas Stroghill, Hythe’s churchwarden in 1602, had no hesitation in denouncing his own servant, John, to the court.

Churchwardens also presented wrong-doers to the church courts for other offences, either drawn from personal knowledge or from information provided by parishioners. These could include slander, adultery or fornication before marriage.  The accused was summoned to the court in Canterbury to answer the charge.  He or she had to attend or be excommunicated. If found guilty, he would be liable to a penance or fine. If this was not fulfilled, he would be excommunicated – not the great punishment of the Middle Ages, but a lesser excommunication which meant he could not enter a church. This was a distinct disadvantage if a man or woman wanted to marry, and the church served up a double whammy by fining the excommunicant for non-attendance as well.

The penance, if imposed, would be arranged by the churchwarden. In 1675, Frances Bridgeman, daughter of a chimneysweep, who had been made pregnant by Abbott Terry, a jurat and gentleman, came to the church of St Leonard’s clothed in a white sheet and carrying a white wand in her hand. She stood before the congregation for the whole of Morning Prayer and then repented her sin.

 Whereas I Frances Bridgeman by the temptation of Satan and frailty of mind have highly offended almighty God and scandalised and given evil example to good people by committing the terrible sin of fornication with Abbott Terry late of Hythe aforesaid, gentleman, I do now penitently acknowledge and confess my hearty and unfeigned sorrow for the same, heartily begging pardon thereof from almighty God and of you.  

The words ‘late of Hythe’ are apposite. Abbott Terry, ‘gentleman’ so-called, had left Hythe in a hurry. Frances defiantly named her son after him.

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