Archivists at the NRO have, among other projects, spent some time over the lockdown months of summer, indexing the contents of a representative sample of witness deposition books from Norwich Diocese, dating from the 16th-18th centuries (our reference, DN/DEP). Very little indexing work had previously been expended on this core record series from the bishop’s consistory court, but, as our recent work has shown, the stories that emerge cover many aspects of ordinary life in Norfolk and Suffolk (for the ancient Diocese of Norwich covered both counties).
Most medieval and 16th-century church records are written in forbiddingly abbreviated Latin, but the deposition series is an exception to this rule. The series survives from 1499 onwards, with all the texts initially written in Latin. However, from the 1540s onwards, you’ll find direct speech quoted in English, and increasingly throughout the mid-16th century onwards, the depositions’ narratives are written almost entirely in English. They are, therefore, uniquely accessible to those of us whose Latin is either non-existent or weak at best.
Until the Parliamentary reforms of the 19th Century, the Church exercised a long-established legal process with its own courts which had the power to try causes (as ecclesiastical court cases are called) regulating both public and private morality, and relating to such issues as matrimony, divorce, sexual offences and slander or defamation. Other major instances of church court action were the evasion of tithe-payments (the taxes that all had to pay to the Church of England, regardless of religious affiliation), the control of the process of inheritance by proving wills, and the detection and admonition of heresy.
As a cynic might expect, there survive many depositions concerning sex and money, with details of loose or ‘incontinent’ personal behaviour and of tithe evasion all figuring highly. With the former, you find actual speech recorded, including contemporary terms of disparagement or abuse (‘jade’, ‘whore’, ‘whoremaster’ and even ‘punk’ were common insults, often embellished with aggravating words) along with more general phrases (examples include, ‘up and down a house’, meaning, at the house frequently, or someone being ‘nought’, or ‘great’ with another, meaning that they had committed fornication or adultery together). In addition, familial and servant/master relationships are revealed, often with other facts such as dates of marriage, death and of movement of folk from one parish to another. Tithe evasion depositions often give details of crops grown or livestock reared on affected estates, with the then-current, local market prices for such produce. Additionally, cross-examination (interrogatories) can also reveal whether or not deponents (witnesses) and the subjects of these causes were attenders or communicant-members of the Church and what their annual income or ‘worth’ was.
Complaints of clerical (bad) behaviour and accounts of the (usually poor) state of their parsonage houses, outbuildings and the chancels of parish churches were also common, sometimes with meticulous estimates of the likely costs of repair. In the 18th century particularly, you will discover long-standing disputes about family pews in parish churches, often naming generations of those with supposedly exclusive rights to particular pews. Other incidental details revealed may be the names of parish officials, and of local public houses where people met, incidents occurred or in which local courts were held. The prevalence of boarding or lodging, not just of live-in servants, but also of other, usually single, men and women is uncovered, along with many other minor but revealing aspects of every-day life in the times covered by the depositions.
Given all this uniquely-preserved information, the value of these depositions to our understanding of past Norfolk life seems obvious, but perhaps their worth isn’t just, or even, mainly, to be found in the salient facts presented, but in the ‘flavour’ of life revealed in the phraseology used to describe both the issues at question, and in the actual words quoted as spoken in their everyday settings. No other series of records reveals how closely the church and its courts were once woven into the fabric of local life in England, before the encroachment of the secular state in more modern times unpicked the church’s connection with us all.
Written by Tom Townsend, Archivist at NRO