Manuscripts and Special Collections

Completion of Presentment Bills cataloguing project

January 19th, 2011 at 08:01

In the 17th and 18th centuries, getting on the wrong side of the churchwarden of your local parish church was not to be recommended. Churchwardens were obliged, twice a year, to write a report about the behaviour of the parishioners and to submit it to the Archdeacon’s court. Many reported ‘nothing to present’, but any offenders who were named in the bills would be summoned to court and could be excommunicated or asked to perform a humiliating public penance.

The churchwardens’ reports from the Archdeaconry of Nottingham, known as Presentment Bills, survive from 1587 to 1756 (with some gaps), and have been the subject of a series of cataloguing and indexing projects since 2002. All the bills which contain reports of offences have now been completed, allowing researchers the opportunity to browse and search descriptions of over 27,000 documents, and sift through more than 100,000 records of personal names.

You can browse or search descriptions of Presentment Bills on the Manuscripts Online Catalogue (type ‘AN/PB’ into the DocumentRef field, and any search term into the AnyText field). You can look for particular surnames, or choose one from the list of offences reported to the Archdeaconry court, by using the Archdeaconry Person Indexes search form.

Further information about the Archdeaconry of Nottingham, its court, and the Presentment Bills, is available on the Archdeaconry Resources web pages.

Until the mid-1680s, the bills are very informative and cover a wide range of behaviours deemed unacceptable by the church authorities. Later bills contain fewer presentments, and those which were reported were from a narrower range of possible offences, heavily focused on sexual misconduct and illegitimacy. They provide snapshots of stories, sadly fairly common, like that of Elizabeth Firkins of Stapleford, who was presented by the churchwardens in 1739 for having an illegitimate child (AN/PB 311/566). The father of the child, James Clifton, had subsequently died. We may never know whether they might have married if he had lived, or whether she had been abandoned by him. From the point of view of the church authorities, the fact that he had died meant that he could not be prosecuted for the ‘crime’. From the point of view of family historians, this piece of information about the father of Elizabeth’s child might be critical, as it would probably not have been entered into the parish register if or when the child was baptised.

There are occasional presentments which shine a light on more unusual parish events.  Two presentments from Newark tell the extraordinary tale of a brawl at a vestry meeting on 18 January 1753 (AN/PB 338/175 and AN/PB 338/177). The churchwardens each made separate presentments on the same day, but named many of the same people. Evidently the ringleaders William Tomlinson (or Thomlinson), George Tomlinson and Henry Gray, along the vicar himself, the Rev. Bernard Wilson, had hit the churchwarden Edward Graves and quarrelled violently with Edward Graves and some of the other parishioners. Intriguingly, Robert Curson, a breeches-maker, was also presented for ‘behaving in an unbecoming manner with a large pair of ram’s horns’ ! Rev. Wilson was at the centre of a number of clashes with churchwardens and parish officials in the 1740s and 1750s. Graves’ case against him was prosecuted at York as well as Nottingham, and Wilson was ultimately fined at Nottinghamshire Quarter Sessions for assault, and briefly excommunicated. More details of the case can be found in two items available for reference in our East Midlands Collection:

  • Brenda M. Pask, Newark Parish Church of St. Mary Magdalene (Newark-on-Trent : District Church Council of St. Mary Magdalene, c2000), pp. 89-93, King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Collection Oversize Not 307.M36 SMA
  • Sarah W. Willis, The Reverend Dr. Bernard Wilson : vicar of Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, from 1719 to 1772 : blackguard or benefactor (University of Nottingham M.A. Dissertation, 1995), King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Collection Oversize Not 5.N4 WIL.

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