Dickleburgh Churchwardens’ Accounts Present an Unresolved Conundrum

Norfolk Archives and Heritage Development Foundation (NORAH) trustee David Stannard discusses the acquisition by the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) of a single manuscript folio, which must have been removed from a set of 16th century churchwardens’ accounts of the parish of Dickleburgh, Norfolk. Initially this manuscript presented queries concerning the origin and date of the document as a result of a poor transcription in the 19th – early 20th century. However, resolving these anomalies only led to a more fundamental, as yet unresolved conundrum. 

Introduction

A manuscript offered on an American online auction site in the summer of 2020 claimed that the document originated from Depybrough Abbey and was dated as 1567. Unfortunately, research from historical and on-line sources for Depybrough Abbey could not confirm the existence of any such institution.

A close examination of the document by Professor Carole Rawcliffe of the University of East Anglia revealed that the manuscript comprised a single page which must have been removed from a set of churchwardens’ accounts of All Saints’ church in Dickleburgh, Norfolk. The parish name is rendered as ‘Dekylburghe’ in the original manuscript.  Professor Rawcliffe’s transcription also confirmed the date of the start of the document as March 1545, and on this basis the trustees of the NORAH approved a grant for the NRO to successfully purchase the document in September 2020.

The back of the document had a small strip of paper added, probably at some time in the 19th – early 20th century on which is printed the words, ‘Depybrough, Abbey. Two pages from the record of. Dated 1567. Folio’ and a further written inscription which reads ‘1567 Dated’ with a line pointing to a date in the original text. However, this date has been mistranscribed, the original reads, ‘the last of July Ao xxxvij Rex H viij’. This is the Regnal form of the date in Roman numerals which transcribes as ‘the last day of July in the 37th year of the reign of King Henry VIII’, and translates as July 31st in the Calendar year 1546.[1]   

The later, incorrect inscriptions added to the reverse of the folio.

The front of the document comprises a list of receipts and expenses commencing with the sale of church plate in London in March 1545 which raised the sum of £16:8s:7d. The back of the document makes it clear that this money was principally used to pay for repairs to the church roof, and includes a list of people who have ‘given and bought’  trees and timber for this purpose.

The document also lists a number of other payments made by the churchwardens including 16d paid to a lawyer for advice on how to deal with a Mr Foster for refusing to be a churchwarden, an indication that in those early years of the English Reformation there were clearly dissenters to the new religion, even in rural Norfolk. Other payments include 6s to repair the church clock and dial, payments to John Hannour for services rendered and various payments of taxes to the village constables, including £2 to assist in sending soldiers to fight in France. However, by far the largest payment of one hundred shillings [£5] was, ‘delivered to the handes of John Underwood the iij [3rd] of July’ 1545; but herein lies an anomaly!

John Underwood was the former Prior of Bromholm Abbey which had been dissolved in the 1530s. He was also suffragan [assistant] to the Bishop of Norwich, titular Bishop of Chalcedon [2] and Rector of the parishes of North Creake and Eccles next the Sea. Titular Bishop of Chalcedon was an ‘honorary’ title dating from the earliest years of the Christian church, but undoubtedly would have come with a healthy stipend, as did the Rectories of North Creake and Eccles.

Underwood has been described by William Cooke of Stalham, quoting eminent Norfolk historian Walter Rye, [1843-1929] as ‘a furious papist and grasping pluralist’.[3] It seems in the early chaos of the English Reformation he persecuted those who favoured the Reformed faith, playing off Catholics and Protestants against each other with the firm intention of lining his own pocket.

So, given his reputation the £5 paid to him by the Dickleburgh churchwardens for an unspecified purpose may have been some sort of ‘backhander’ allowing them to sell off their church plate for roof repairs. But if this is true it raises a problem, since Bishop John Underwood died on 18 May 1541 and was buried in St. Andrew’s Church, Norwich.

Visit the church today and you will find a large ledger slab in the nave which was originally lavishly adorned with brass memorials, although many of these have now been lost. Nevertheless, the remaining indents show the figure of John Underwood kneeling at prayer under a large cross, with a scroll issuing from his mouth. At the base of the cross was an inscription which once read, ‘Pray for the soul of John Underwood Doctor of Devynyte Byschope of Calsedony and Suffragan to the Byschope of Norwich the whiche decessid this worlde the XVIIIth [18th] day of Maye in the yeare of our Lorde God a thousand CCCCC Forty one. [1541] On whose soule Jesu have mercy-Amen.’ [4] 

Part of a shield also remains today bearing John Underwood’s arms on the sinister side impaled with those of the Bishop of Chalcedon on the dexter, [5] although this shield is now partly obscured by the woodwork of later added pews

Walter Rye is also quoted as saying of John Underwood, ‘His brass is stolen, his Church is gone, [6] his memory stinks.’ For by the 1580s John’s memorial with its lavish brasses had been desecrated with some suggestion that his body was removed from the tomb and replaced by another. Undoubtedly this was because by then St. Andrew’s church had become the epicentre for Puritanism in Norwich, [7] and those determined folks would have no regard for a ‘grasping pluralist’ like John Underwood.

But there still remains the problem of how could Bishop John Underwood have received ‘in his hands’ the £5 from the Dickleburgh churchwardens in 1545 if he had been dead and buried for some four years?. Perhaps it was a different John Underwood who received the money. The surname Underwood appears on the back of the document as one of the people who gave a tree for timber to help repair the roof, and probate records in the Norfolk Record Office catalogue note the family name in Dickleburgh. [8]

Professor Carole Rawcliffe believes that there is ‘no possibility whatsoever’ that the entry in the accounts concerns the Bishop of Chalcedon. She explains, ‘Nobody in this period would refer to a suffragan bishop by his surname and Christian name alone’, the accountants would have referred to him by his clerical title or style of address, especially in an ecclesiastical document.  

So for the moment there is no satisfactory answer to who actually received the £5 and for what purpose. It seems suspicious that this single page had been removed from the 16th century accounts, only to end up in the 21st century somewhere in the United States of America. Perhaps we will never know the answer, but we do know that the document is now safely held by Norfolk Record Office and freely available for someone, one day, to hopefully find the answer.

David Stannard, January 2021                                           


[1] Henry ascended the throne on April 21st 1509, so the 37th year of his reign commenced on April 21st 1546

[2] Chalcedon is in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

[3] Eccles next the Sea and the Erosion of the East Coast Notes Collected by WHC 1912

[4] Blomefield’s History of Norfolk Vol iv. 306

[5] Dr. John Alban pers comm

[6] In reference to the church of Eccles St. Mary next the Sea, largely destroyed by coast erosion in the late 16th century.

[7] See NRO blog ‘Religion in Norfolk at the Time of the Mayflower by Ashley Armstrong  September 2020

[8] For instance: Katherine Underwood, widow of Dickleburgh 1577 ANF Will Register Liber 25 (Braunche) fo. 417

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