Museum archives: Steyning, Half a Millennium Ago

Steyning, Half a Millennium Ago.

Exactly 500 years ago, in 1519, the Vicar of Steyning bought and began to make entries in what became known as the “Church Book.” Very properly the first entry was a reminder of what monies were owed to the Church. He called it “The Rentall of Lands perteynyng to the Church.” He listed them carefully:

This brief record of the money owed to the Church hides a surprising amount of information about Steyning’s past. 

Although we don’t know exactly where the ‘shoppes’ and houses listed on the rental were, we do know about Peter Farnfold and the “four acres of pasture land and two acres of arable land” he rented. The pasture land, 150 years ago, was bringing the Church a rental of £4 a year. Today it is Steyning Town’s football ground. The “two acres of arable land” was in one of Steyning’s open field’s, now the Penlands estate, and was called “Perratt’s Furlong”. 

We have also discovered that Peter Farnfold, who rented these acres from the Church, first appears in the parish records as a 12 year old, when he swore an oath of frankpledge (as all 12 year old boys were required to do) to uphold the rights and duties of the tithing in which he lived. By 1519 he was in his late sixties and a major landowner in the town: a tax raised in 1524, to defray some of the expenses of Henry VIII’s French wars, reveals that he owned a substantial amount of land and taxable goods at both Wykeham and Gatewick. He also rented the watermill at Gatewick from the Abbey of Syon.

Syon Abbey features in the record because, in 1519 – not many years before the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries – they owned the Manor and Borough of Steyning.  Our parish records always personalise things by referring to the abbess as “The Lady of Sion,” so the payment of 13s 4d for the upkeep of the Church is in her name. She was not being generous: Syon’s income from the Manor was probably some 50 times more than their contribution to the Church.

The 6s 8d income derived from the “Lampe Lands,” which were located in West Grinstead, would have helped defray the cost of candles (the lamps) in the Church.  But it was not enough. The Church had to fund raise to cover its costs. During the 12 months from early 1519 to 1520 donations were made for “lyghts” for “Sent Crystofer” and for the “the salutacyon of our lady” and money was taken during the, no doubt eagerly awaited, annual “Kyng play” (a traditional enactment, perhaps of the Lord of Misrule) and the “Kyng Ale” (a particularly strong ale brewed for the feast of the Epiphany).  During those twelve months the Church made over £9 in this way. It is not too surprising that, following the reformation when old catholic traditions were abandoned and most of this income disappeared, the Church “fell soddenly into great ruyne and decay”.

We know much less about the other named individuals on this 500 year old rental, though we can deduce that the shopkeepers would have been people of standing in the town. Thomas Parsons, for example, had been the beadle (a town or church official, elected annually by his peers, who had various civil and ceremonial duties) and William Pellet was involved with the Abbey’s accounts: he was paid 2 pence for riding to Syon (in Middlesex) one December “for the audit.”

During the incumbency of a further 22 Steyning vicars, entries continued to be made in the Church Book before it was finally closed in the 1870’s. Not all of the entries open quite such an interesting window onto Steyning’s past as the first (unnamed) vicar did half a millennium ago but, if you delve behind the prosaic records, there are other stories to be told.  
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