These words relate to having sex outside of marriage. They were written in a letter of support, dated 3 May 1760, for a James Lacey of Scarning. The letter is just one of several thousand documents which form the archive, held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), of the Norwich Consistory Court. Before the mid-nineteenth century, church courts were responsible for many aspects of human activity, such as matrimony (including sex outside of marriage), probate, church taxes, and defamation. The records produced by the Court, provide a fascinating insight, often salacious, into day-to-day life of ordinary people. The language used in them is seldom found in any other archival document. The records offer a treasure trove for family, local and social historians.
Where was the letter found?
The letter was found in a box of documents related to the punishment given out by the Norwich Consistory Court. The documents are mainly schedules of penance for those found ‘guilty’ of fornication. They confirm where and when the punishment took place, usually a public confession in the local church. Accompanying the schedules, are other records which add to our understanding of how the church courts impacted people’s lives. The letter is one such document.
What does the letter say?
The letter is not a long one and is worthy of a full quotation.
The young man the bearer of this, has it seems, trespassed against the ecclesiastical laws in an instance too common amongst young people; but in other cases is of good dispositions. He takes this method at my desire; neither he nor the woman are in any circumstances, so hope you will be as favourable to him in regard to charges, as the case will admit, which will very much oblige.
Norfolk Record Office, DN/CON 86/3/8
At the bottom of the letter is a note written in a different hand, most likely by someone working for the church court. It is here where we find out James’ ‘crime‘ and the name of the woman involved.
James Lacey of Scarning for ante nuptial fornication with Mary Howlett, his now wife. What commutation money ought to be taken in this case?
Norfolk Record Office, DN/CON 86/3/8
The marriage is confirmed by an entry, dated 14 April 1760, in the parish registers of Wendling (Norfolk Record Office, PD 717/5), which is where Mary Howlett was from. By marrying, James may have expected a more favourable outcome from the courts; a reduced fine and hopefully, no public shaming.
Rather intriguingly, the marriage was by licence, rather than banns. Licences cost money and were usually a status symbol. They were also used if the marriage had to take place quickly and out of the public gaze.
Who wrote the letter?
An entry in the baptism register for Wendling (Norfolk Record Office, PD, 717/2) indicates there is more to the story! It records the baptism of a James Lacey, also on the 14 April 1760. And yes, the parents are the recently married couple James and Mary. The fact that 14 April 1760 was a Monday, also suggests the limelight was being avoided.
H. Topping of West Bradenham, was the letter’s author. This was very probably Henry Topping, who was born in Northamptonshire about 1698, and who became the vicar at West Bradenham in 1764, having become rector at Cockley Cley in 1736. Cockley Cley, Scarning, Wendling and West Bradenham are not far from each other. Furthermore, writing a letter to a church court in support of a young member of society would not be unexpected of a member of the clergy.
Sex out of wedlock was not viewed kindly by the church courts. The letter, and the events it relates to, provide an amazing glimpse of what life was like in the mid-eighteenth century for the ordinary person. This letter was catalogued by staff and volunteers at the Norfolk Record Office as part of a project funded by the Norfolk Archives and Heritage Development Foundation (NORAH) to conserve, digitise and catalogue a box of penance related documents. They are supporting the NRO to unlock the vast number of stories contained in the archive of the Norwich Consistory Court. If you would like to support this work, donations can be made at norah-df.org/donations.