The Joy of Faculties

on Thursday, 07 July 2022. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Wiltshire Places

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Design for a stained-glass window at the Church of the Holy Cross, Seend, 1904 (reference D1/61/40/7)

The History Centre is home to the archive of the Diocese of Salisbury – a vast and fascinating collection which continues to grow with new additions of modern diocesan papers. One of its most useful and revealing series is the diocesan faculties.

What is a Faculty?

Faculties concern building alteration projects on parish churches, churchyards and other church-owned properties. Church buildings, their contents and grounds are protected by the Faculty Jurisdiction. Under this legislation any significant alterations, repairs or additions needed to gain official diocesan consent before they could be carried out. As such a faculty acts as a sort of ecclesiastical planning permission.

It is worth noting here that the geographical extent of a diocese is different to that of a county. The northern swathe of Wiltshire (including Chippenham, Cricklade, Malmesbury, Swindon and their surroundings) are covered by the Diocese of Bristol, so faculties for these areas are held elsewhere. The Diocese of Salisbury also covers a large portion of Dorset and a slice of Berkshire. To further muddy the waters, some parishes have changed from one diocese to another over the centuries.

The earliest faculty in the collection dates from 1633 (this distinction goes to the village of Wingfield) though it is likely that many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century faculties have not survived. Indeed, it is not until the nineteenth century that the records could be thought of as near complete. During this period extensive changes to parish churches became common and record keeping was more comprehensive.

The earliest faculties were often nothing more than a handwritten request on a single sheet of paper. Over time this changed to include a whole bundle of documents. From the twentieth century onwards faculties typically include an official printed petition outlining the details of the requested work, plus correspondence which often provides the researcher with background details as to the local context. Many also contain plans or designs of the proposed work, and occasionally information as to how the building looked pre-project. Recent faculties may also include photographs, details of contractors and even samples of the materials to be used.

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Plan showing proposed extension of St Mary Chittoe to erect a new north transept, 1870 (D1/61/22/9)

Plethora of Projects and Evidence

Faculties provide the evidence behind the creation of church features which can still be seen today, such as seating galleries, stained glass windows and church organs. Frequently they provide information on costs, the condition of the church and the names of those holding church offices. Faculties concerning seating arrangements may give us the size of the congregation at the time. One such example is the faculty to extend the parish church of St Mary Chittoe (D1/61/22/9) in 1870. At the time, we’re told, the parish church could seat 185 for a parish which amounted to around 600 people. This is also an unusual example in that whereas most faculties are created by the parish vicar or churchwarden, this is more of a private enterprise albeit one with the blessing of the vestry. John William Gooch Spicer of Spye Park describes himself as a patron of the church, and puts forward a petition to extend the church by creating a new north transept, plus a new porch and organ chamber. All this was to be paid for by the patron himself. Some faculties pertain to even more ambitious projects. D1/61/1/16a details plans in 1687 to take down the church at Farley, it “being very much in decay” and create a new one opposite the then newly erected almshouses. These still stand today on what became known as Church Road.

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Plan for proposed extension of St Michael & All Angels, Melksham, 1844 (reference D1/61/6/10)

Population increases in the nineteenth century led many parishes to petition to extend their church. These include St Thomas’ at Box (1831, reference D1/61/5/41) and St Michael & All Angels, Melksham (1844, reference D1/61/6/10). In the latter example, the then vicar George Hume gives us approximate figures – a parish church capable of seating 550 for parishioners totally around 4,500 people.

Faculties can also provide evidence of specific incidents in the parish. A 1924 faculty for Poulshot tells us that the church was damaged by fire on the night of the 2nd February 1916 which caused considerable damage to the roof and the nave (D1/61/64/61). The delay between the fire and the faculty is perhaps explained by the fact that the fee of £750 was partly raised through donations from parishioners.

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A troublesome cowshed at Trowbridge, 1918 (D1/61/55/12)

Other wealthy patrons can be found elsewhere in the collection. An 1815 petition (D1/61/5/21) to take down and rebuild the rectory at Garsdon was submitted by Paul Cobb Methuen of Corsham Court, who had previously served as MP for Great Bedwyn and High Sheriff of Wiltshire. Similarly D1/61/5/32 is an 1815 faculty for Bishopstone (South Wilts), again to take down and rebuild the rectory. This example was written by George Augusts, Earl of Pembroke as the “true and undoubted” patron of the rectory and vicarage of Bishopstone. D1/61/55/12 on the other hand is a much more earthy project; a 1918 request by the rector of Trowbridge to remove a cowshed on glebe land. Though this was traditionally pastureland it was now considered more beneficial as allotments.

Changes to churchyards are also recorded in faculties. D1/61/5/4 is an 1816 petition at St Edmund’s Salisbury whereby Samuel Whitchurch wishes to use part of the churchyard to create a family vault. He explains in his petition that he will pay for a vault of 20 feet by 9 feet, opposite the west end of the church with nine steps leading into it. He wishes it to be arched shape and surrounded by iron rails. He asks that it to be used not only by his family in the future, but also for those already buried elsewhere in the churchyard.

The faculties collection is a fantastic resource for local historians, and not just for those interested in their local parish church. The collection goes beyond the fabric of the building, to provide evidence of local events, landowners and families. The collection continues to grow and will remain vital to researchers for centuries to come.

David Plant, Archivist


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