Summer of 1549 and it’s market day in Chipping Norton. There’s the usual hubbub as the crowds jostle to see what the traders have to offer and the pedlars shout their wares. There are sacks of grain, bales of wool, carts piled high with fruit and vegetables, and crates of live chickens, alongside stalls selling planks and nails and other ironmongery.
The babble of conversation as people catch up with news and gossip competes with the clatter of carts and horses’ hooves, and the incessant cacophony of complaint from the livestock. Sheep predominate in this wool town, and they protest loudly as they’re herded into makeshift pens down the middle of the street. The air’s heavy with dust and the pungent smell of animal dung. The inns are doing a brisk trade and no doubt the pick-pockets are too. But this is no ordinary market day. There’s an undercurrent of anticipation on this particular Wednesday in August. Soldiers are in town and the tension is palpable. The word on the street and in the taverns is that there’s to be a public hanging.
1549 was a turbulent year throughout the land. The old ways were changing. Henry VIII had broken with the church in Rome and had dissolved the monasteries. He also abolished chantry chapels, which were areas set aside in a church where souls of the dead were prayed for – for a fee. These chapels were a good source of income for the churches.
When Henry died in 1547, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to the nine year old Edward VI, made further radical changes to church order. In June of 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was introduced and it was mandatory to use it on pain of imprisonment. It was in English. Hitherto all services had been conducted in Latin, which wouldn’t be understood by the majority of the congregation. Much of the mystique of the religious ritual was wiped out at a stroke and many of the clergy didn’t like it.
Clergy and yeomanry rebelled in different areas of the country, but it was the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Rising that had an impact in the Four Shires. The ringleader was James Webbe, vicar of Barford St Michael. Other local vicars involved were John Wade of Bloxham and Henry Joyes of Chipping Norton. They refused to adopt the Book of Common Prayer, but they stood no chance. Fifteen hundred mercenary soldiers were drafted in with orders to execute the rebels and to put their heads on pikes for all to see. Market day was chosen to ensure maximum exposure for their punishment.
James Webbe suffered the most. He was taken to Aylesbury, hanged until almost dead then disembowelled. Finally he was decapitated and his body hacked into ‘quarters’ that were passed round the assembled crowd to make sure they got the message. John Wade of Bloxham, who had been condemned to be hanged from his own church steeple, was apparently reprieved but Henry Joyes of Chipping Norton was not so lucky. He was hauled up by the neck in chains to the top of the church tower in Chipping Norton and left there to die – or so we are led to believe.
Almost a hundred years later another Four Shires clergyman died for his misplaced allegiance. William Oldys was vicar of Adderbury from 1642 until his violent death in 1645 during the height of the English Civil War. Oldys was a staunch Royalist, whereas most of his parishioners were Non-Conformist Parliamentarians, which led to much ill feeling towards the vicar from his congregation. Sunday sermons must have been difficult.
There’s a fanciful tale that’s become an established part of Adderbury’s folk history, which adds an almost comical twist to the vicar’s destiny. It is said that he intended to accompany his wife to take their son to school in Oxford, but that on that fateful day there were Parliamentary soldiers in the village on the lookout to catch themselves a Royalist. One of his neighbours informed on him. The story goes that as he fled on horseback he cast money on the ground behind him to try to throw off his pursuers, but that his horse let him down. The route he chose involved passing the vicarage, and after a four hour chase his steed had had enough and, recognising home, it pulled up short and the vicar was caught and shot.
It’s impossible to verify this account, and whether he was slain by a neighbour or by a soldier isn’t clear. Another report has him run through with a sword rather than shot. The only thing that seems certain is that he was chased by Parliamentarian soldiers and killed. With a little imagination, relatively dull facts can be elaborated into a memorable folk tale.
Joyes and Oldys suffered because of their strong religious or political beliefs. There were other clergy who were punished because of their own erratic behaviour. One such was David Griffiths Davies, who in the early part of the nineteenth century was a curate in the parishes of Charlbury and Ascott-under-Wychwood. He ran a school from his home in Chadlington. In 1814, 17 year old Samuel Beale joined the household to be tutored prior to going up to Oxford, and spent two years as a guest of the Davies’s.
Beale graduated and moved back in with the curate and his wife, Ann. On what given pretext is uncertain, but according to the servants, Ann and Samuel slept together on a regular basis. Reportedly she left her nightgown in Beale’s room more often than in her own. It was clearly not a clandestine affair because the curate was known to chat with the pair of them whilst they were in bed together. One wonders what the topics of conversation were. It’s hard to imagine a deep religious discussion being held in those circumstances or even mundane comments about the weather being exchanged.
Griffiths Davies drank, and that was the undoing of him. One of the servants, Sarah Clements, was often sent to the then Sandys Arms in Chadlington to fetch the curate home. She’d have to help him off with his boots as well, because he was so inebriated that he couldn’t unlace them himself. Another of the curate’s favourite haunts that was described as “one of the lowest, darkest places in the county,” was the original Churchill Arms in Ascott, which is also now a private house.
Complaints about the Griffiths Davies’ behaviour had been made to the vicar of Charlbury in 1818, but no action taken, because a character witness had described him as “a good-natured man, generous and forgiving and ready to assist at any time.” His generosity and forgiveness apparently extended to his extraordinary marital situation.
Was his drunkenness because of his wife’s brazen infidelity or was it the reason she abandoned his bed? Whatever the case, inevitably his work suffered. His time-keeping was erratic; he mumbled and slurred his way through services, and on one occasion made an obscene remark to the Parish Clerk in public.
This was a step too far, and in the Michaelmas term of 1822 he appeared before the Ecclesiastical Court, where his various misdemeanors, including his unusual domestic arrangements, were aired and testified to by his staff. He was banned for three years from all functions of clerical office and his salary was suspended. After that it would need a certificate signed by three local clergy before he could be re-instated. The eventual outcome is unknown.
We do, however, know the fate of Henry Joyes the unfortunate vicar of Chipping Norton involved in the dispute about the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549 – don’t we? Well, maybe. According to folk history he died in chains hanging from his church tower.
If you consult ecclesiastical records, though, one Henricus Joyes was appointed as perpetual vicar on 7th August 1546 and a man by the name of Henry Joys – the same man surely – vacated the post due to violent death on 31st August 1549, the day the mercenaries came to town. That’s that then. However, Henricus Joyes was still listed as vicar until his “natural death” on 7th December 1549 when a new vicar succeeded him. Did Joyes die suspended from his church tower one August market day in 1549, or was he hauled down alive, to remain vicar for another four months?
Chipping Norton still has its Wednesday market, which is a very sedate affair compared with its 16th century counterpart. No soldiers, no livestock and hopefully no pickpockets, and if you wander down the hill to gaze at the church tower, even that may not look the same as it did when Henry Joyes was vicar, because it was rebuilt in the 19th century. Uncertainty surrounds the fate of all three Four Shires clergymen, Joyes, Oldys and Griffiths Davies, but an unsolved mystery with added drama always makes a good folk tale.