Early Saint Nicholas Rectors

Which Language Was Spoken In Early St Nicholas Church?

By Alan Davies

A lot has been written about St Nicholas church in these archives including some fine articles by Ken Porter.

I have been reading of the vast redistribution of wealth (a popular phrase these days)  following the Norman Conquest of 1066. William effectively disinherited virtually all of the old Anglo Saxon nobility and gave their lands to his Norman barons and other continental supporters, who were essentially mercenaries expecting to reap their rewards for helping William to the throne. The entire ruling strata of England was replaced with a Norman and French speaking nouveau riche aristocracy. These monumental changes did not simply apply to the top layer of the nobility. Rather they echoed down to the lowest title and appointment. Almost every lowly supporter of William expected, and received, his reward. However humble it might be. The extent of this societal revolution can be glimpsed by looking at the list of rectors associated with the early St Nicholas church. Thanks to Reverend Telford, who wrote a short book on the history of the church in 1951, we know the names of most of the rectors.

St Nicholas, minus its later additions, was built in the thirteenth century. The first rector, according to Reverand Telford's research, was Richard De List in 1254. There is an obvious gap as the next rector, William de Braye, is given a date of 1315. Then comes Thomas de Isham in 1316, followed by Richard de Hotoft in 1325, and William de Syncale in 1326.

Thus for over 250 years after the Norman Conquest, the rectors of a tiny and unimportant church set in the rural Essex wasteland, worth very little in the Domesday Book, with peasants comprising a few penurious parishioners, commanded a Norman or French rector who probably spoke no English. (I think it is fair to assume the rectors were Norman or French from their names.) This shows how far down the chain the spoils system existed and for how long it continued.

Not until 1329 does the first English sounding name appear, that of Richard Martyn, followed by John Pipeman in 1334. Then we revert to the French/Norman names with William de Scoryton in 1337, John de Haddenham ??, and the final Norman/French name William de Say in 1345. From that point on all rectors have English sounding names.

So it would appear that from its founding in 1254, for over 250 years since the date of the Norman Conquest until the ascension of the first rector with an English name, every rector was Norman/French --- and probably spoke no English. Then we get a few years when Norman/French and English names went back and forth. Finally in 1360 Andrew Aleyn becomes rector in a constant and unbroken string of English names down to the present. It seems that Norman/French patronage, even down to such a modest posting, lasted from 1066 until 1360 with Andrew Aleyn --- a total of 304 years.

This would seem to be in line with the language used by the Norman and Plantagenet rulers. We know that William and his descendants spoke no English. It is a little imprecise but Edward III (1327-77) is thought to have been the first monarch to speak some English --- but not as a first language. The first king to take the oath of office in English and possibly to use English as his first language is thought to be Henry IV (1399-1413). So it seems reasonable to believe that, in a haphazard manner, English began to be universally used around this time. The change seems to have culminated with William Caxton's printing press in 1476. So we can imagine the changes in language, from royalty down to the meanest little rectory, varying from city to city, area to area, from urban to rural, but all moving toward a single language and a single nation.

It seems puzzling how, in the years of Norman/French rectors at St Nicholas, how the rector communicated with his parishioners. Presumably the rector knew no English. Only a few, for example Chaucer, knew foreign languages and people such as Chaucer commanded high government positions and did not languish in rural poverty. So how did the locals exist beside their rectors? The mass was in Latin which they could not understand anyway. Presumably the rector's sermon was in Norman/French which they also could not understand. In confession neither could understand the other. Perhaps the rector's forgiveness of a sin he never understood was enough. Particularly since the parishioner could not understand the penance demanded --- and hence happily never performed it!

This page was added by Alan Davies on 17/08/2017.