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The Parson and the Squire

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God, church, priests, prayer, faith – they all started off strong in my life but few kept up. Prayer and priests fell away first. I had been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church but some years on my father rather bravely stopped being Catholic. I, all of 8 and with no better reason than that he had, stopped too. At boarding school I allowed myself to be confirmed C of E. I caught teenage religious ardour, and at Cambridge was stretched by the contrary pulls of King’s College Chapel music and intellectual doubt. Very little religious has happened in the forty years since, but – probably because of all this – churches have hung on. In fact, I have something like an addiction.

The more you see of churches the more you can read the signs of what went on in, around, despite or because of them. The history of the Church of England is 500 years of English society biffing itself, and then biffing itself back, with every conceivable feature of human behaviour and emotion displayed. Most books that cover this sort of thing tend towards the weighty, the fusty, the pompous and the pietistic. But once in a while, in real-life testimonies like those of Parson Woodforde, Sydney Smith, George Herbert and William Cowper, and in several fictional lives – Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Collins, Parson Adams, the Vicar of Wakefield – you find something that shows an aspect of the ecclesiastical past as it was, with living people and heaven a long way off.

Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I a

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God, church, priests, prayer, faith – they all started off strong in my life but few kept up. Prayer and priests fell away first. I had been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church but some years on my father rather bravely stopped being Catholic. I, all of 8 and with no better reason than that he had, stopped too. At boarding school I allowed myself to be confirmed C of E. I caught teenage religious ardour, and at Cambridge was stretched by the contrary pulls of King’s College Chapel music and intellectual doubt. Very little religious has happened in the forty years since, but – probably because of all this – churches have hung on. In fact, I have something like an addiction.

The more you see of churches the more you can read the signs of what went on in, around, despite or because of them. The history of the Church of England is 500 years of English society biffing itself, and then biffing itself back, with every conceivable feature of human behaviour and emotion displayed. Most books that cover this sort of thing tend towards the weighty, the fusty, the pompous and the pietistic. But once in a while, in real-life testimonies like those of Parson Woodforde, Sydney Smith, George Herbert and William Cowper, and in several fictional lives – Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Collins, Parson Adams, the Vicar of Wakefield – you find something that shows an aspect of the ecclesiastical past as it was, with living people and heaven a long way off. Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I am talking about. In the parish of Ketteringham in Norfolk, the eighteenth century chugged to a belated close during the 1830s. The old vicar lived miles away, was used to empty pews and was not greatly bothered by the robbery during his tenure of a large fifteenth-century standing tomb from the church’s east end. The Bishop of nearby Norwich, ‘a diocese noted for its neglect of souls’, was an antique Whig who spent his evenings at whist with lady-friends. The owner of Ketteringham Hall, having sunk most of her fortune in vain attempts to rescue the French royal family from revolutionaries, was eking out the remainder in Parisian squalor. Within the decade all three – vicar, bishop and landowner – were dead and replaced. The new bishop was progressive and energetic. The new vicar, William Wayte Andrew, arrived with evangelical zest in 1835, closely followed in 1836 by a new squire, Sir John Boileau. Andrew, born in 1805, had as an Oxford student fallen from his horse and seen the divine light. Thereafter, whenever a choice faced him – not least that of a wife – he tapped into God’s preferences. He despised games, drink, dancing and Catholics, and his frowning arrival could cause a frolicsome village dance to falter and finish. He and his wife never went out to dinner, though they sometimes succumbed to invitations to tea. Parson Andrew always carried a bag from which he freely distributed evangelical literature. Muscular, principled, tireless, interfering, he was a man of his time. He had had a chance to impose himself on the parish before the arrival of the new squire. Sir John Boileau had a nice relaxed way about him. Very much aware of his descent from French crusaders and English nabobs, he was educated, rich, well connected, dutiful, courteous and tolerant. Like Andrew, he was satisfactorily married. (Had she, his wife asked her diary, had she that day listened to what her ‘dear husband’ said to her ‘with a desire to understand his meaning, with a readiness to enter his views, to agree with his opinions’?) Again like the parson, Sir John was deeply religious, though his piety was paternalistic where Andrew’s was proselytizing, and it permitted pleasures where Andrew’s suppressed them. Squire and parson had something else in common. Each kept a full diary, and both diaries have survived. The scholar Owen Chadwick took a break from his normal, weightier brand of theological history to produce this lightly written, easily read study of these two characters and their contrasting viewpoints during the thirty-one years they both remained in the village. The material, full of distinctions in matters of class, intentions good and bad, kindness misinterpreted and motives misunderstood, would have suited a novelist. But Chadwick’s nicely apt learning lights up the curious story without garnish or invention. Things began to go wrong almost as soon as landlord and clergyman were installed in their homes. Andrew turned down, as he was bound to, Boileau’s invitation to dinner. Probably without intending it – his agent was in charge of such things – Boileau evicted the Andrews from their home (though they soon found another). Differences kept emerging. Sir John disliked outsiders coming to Ketteringham services and closed the footpaths across his park to them. Andrew encouraged them. Sir John gave a ball for his servants. Andrew loathed such levity. Appointed high sheriff of Norfolk, Boileau gave orders that the villagers should cheer him when he swept out of his gates in full ceremonial fig, in a carriage specially built for his new role. To the parson such things were vain and devilish. Andrew unmistakably got at Sir John in his hour-long sermons, which Sir John thought ‘worse than rubbish’. Sir John sent the Andrews shot partridges, and Mrs Andrew, who could be a trial to her husband, ungraciously complained they were rotten. Then, when relations already seemed beyond repair, Andrew bravely supervised the dowsing of a fire that threatened a local farm, earning general praise. His local stock rose still higher when he preached against the hanging in Norwich of a parishioner found guilty of murder. Sir John felt pushed into second place. To add to his chagrin, his daughters, young women now, found Andrew attractive. Worse, in 1853 Sir John’s wife was ill enough for him to think about her grave. He sent a carpenter down to check on the place he fancied: the central vault under the church chancel. It was full of coffins, the man called up from below, but the only inscription he could see was dated 1702. Sir John decided to move the existing coffins out to the churchyard and reserve the place for the Boileaus. To avoid upsetting his wife and daughters the whole thing had to be kept secret. The ghoulish work was carried out during the hours of darkness. Unfortunately it left an intolerable stench in the church, which should have alerted those concerned to the likelihood that the remains in the coffins were nothing like 150 years old. Some, it turned out, had been buried within living memory. The news spread, and before long relatives began to protest. Then the newspapers joined in. People talked about Sir John as a body-snatcher. There were to be more eruptions. As he follows Sir John and Andrew into decline and death, Chadwick does not label characters good or bad, hero or villain. Both left families whose fortunes were to be shaped in some measure by the events described. Ketteringham itself is still full of memorials – the big house, the other houses mentioned, the church, the park, the school, the places where real characters met and quarrelled and made love and snubbed each other – and a special aura that this book renews.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Brendan Lehane 2004


About the contributor

Brendan Lehane is writing a book on Dorset churches. He is the author of The Companion Guide to Ireland, Wild Ireland, Early Christian Ireland, The Power of Plants, The Compleat Flea and half a dozen other books.

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