Easter in the Parish Registers

on Saturday, 04 April 2015. Posted in Archives

In 2013 my colleague used the blog to explore the pagan roots of Easter and the customs associated with it in Wiltshire, but I thought this year I would focus on our churches’ customs and traditions for this season, since Easter is also an important Christian festival, celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some of these customs have fallen into disuse but recall a time when the parish church was at the centre of village or town life in Wiltshire, and church customs and traditions formed an important part of everyday life. I am indebted to my colleague Steve Hobbs’s book: ‘Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers’, Wiltshire Record Society Volume 63, for the examples in this blog.

Most of us will be familiar with the tradition of giving up treats (such as chocolate or alcohol) for Lent. However, I wonder how many people know that it used to be necessary to have a licence to eat meat during Lent? The Roman Catholic Church had a long tradition of abstaining from meat during Lent and on Fridays, but after the Reformation this practice was zealously promoted, in an attempt to boost the fishing industry. In 1562/3 an Act of Parliament (5 Elizabeth 1 c.5) ruled that meat could not be eaten during Lent, and on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Ember Days. Anyone caught eating meat was subject to a penalty of £3 or three months’ imprisonment, but it was possible to obtain a licence or dispensation from the Bishop or local clergy.

Wiltshire’s parish registers contain numerous references to licences granted by the clergy, to parishioners who were deemed to need meat as well as fish, usually because of age or poor health. For example, one of Alderbury’s parish registers (1966/1) states: “1 Mar 1619 licence granted to Mr Richard Goulstone and Mrs Jane Tooker to eat flesh during Lent, because of their… great age.” The Salisbury St Edmund register for 1559-1653 is more eloquent: “William Fawconer the elder … and Katherine his wife are now both sick and diseased, upon their instance and request for the better preservation of their strength and recovery of their health, [I, Peter Thacher] do … license them to eat such kind of flesh as the laws of this realm do allow, during the time of their sickness and no longer…” (1901/1 - 1633)

Modern knowledge of nutrition might make us scoff at this emphasis on eating meat. We now know that it is perfectly possible to be vegetarian or vegan without problems – but of course our ancestors did not have access to iron tablets to supplement any deficiency!

Easter has also long been associated with charitable giving – from the continuing Maundy Thursday tradition of the Queen’s alms-giving, to local traditions of churches giving money to the poor on Good Friday. For example the parish register of Malmesbury (1589/1) records in 1612 that income from interest on a bequest of £40 by Thomas Cox of Purton “every Good Friday shall be distributed to the poor of the town by the overseers of the poor…” It would seem the church porch was often the location for this giving. (eg Malmesbury St Paul, 1614) Likewise at Alderbury every Easter, money arising from the rent of a property donated by the minister was donated to the poor “according to the discretion of the vicar with the advice of the churchwardens, overseers and chief inhabitants…” (1966/2 – 1708)

It is important to remember these gifts were over and above the regular payments of poor relief, and often the aim was to help people become more self-sufficient, and less reliant on the poor rates. Something to contemplate while munching your ‘Fair Trade’ chocolate Easter egg…

Returning to 2015 the idea of giving to charity at Easter seems to me a good counterbalance to the self-indulgence traditionally associated with chocolate Easter eggs. However I personally subscribe to the biblical idea of ‘everything in moderation’ which seems a good excuse to embrace both charity and chocolate!

Whatever your beliefs, I wish you a very Happy Easter!

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist      


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