Performing Anti-clericalism: Rioting in Church and against Clergymen in Late Medieval England

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 18 February 2022.

When William Beufo, vicar of (Winterborne) Whitechurch, a parish church in the county of Dorset, turned to the chancellor sometime in the period 1473-75 seeking assistance, his petition adopted a tone of utter desperation. As he tells the story, Beufo did nothing to provoke the violence against him. He was minding his own business, “in God’s peace and the king’s,” occupied with conducting the mass in his church on the Saturday before the feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude when one of his parishioners, a man by the name of John Tanner, barged into the church leading a crowd of armed men. As Beufo writes, one hundred men, all “evilly disposed” and “arrayed in manner and form of war,” that is wearing jakkes (quilted defensive tunics) and salettes (light bowl-shaped helmets), carrying bows, arrows, bills, glaives and other “horrible weapons,” entered the church precisely because they knew that Beufo would be there, and they intended to slay him. Moreover, Beufo tells us that that is exactly what they would have done, had he not had foreknowledge of their coming and fled the church to hide in his vicarage just moments before their grand entrance.

Tanner and his “riotous” men pursued Beufo and “besieged” the vicarage. Out of fear of attack, and under constant watch, Beufo was trapped in his residence, without meat and drink or divine service, from that Saturday until the next Monday morning, at which point “through the grace of God,” he leapt out of a chamber window on the backside of his vicarage while his enemies were watching the front. His escape took him all the way to London, where he remained at the time of the writing of his petition, too frightened to return to his benefice “for fear to be slain and murdered by the same John and other riotous persons of his affinity.” What is more, after Beufo’s extraordinary escape, John announced “openly” to the community that if Beufo had stayed in the vicarage until nine o’clock in the morning on that Monday, he had planned to demand that Beufo turn himself over to his captors on the threat of burning the vicarage down to the ground.

Feeling that he had nowhere else to turn, Beufo beseeched the chancellor – also the bishop of Durham, and thus presumably someone who understood well the difficulties of dealing with cantankerous and unruly parishioners – to attend to “the correction of this great heinous riot” and the fact that he “in no way” dared come near his vicarage. Specifically, he hoped the chancellor would grant a writ of subpoena directed to John Tanner, commanding him to appear before the king and his council to answer for this riot. His petition concludes with the usual statement that he makes this request in “reverence of God and in way of charity.”[1]

The reader of Beufo’s petition to the chancellor cannot help but wonder exactly what transpired before that Saturday when Tanner purportedly amassed a group of angry, armed men to knowingly disrupt divine service and potentially pollute their own parish church with violence. Surely, there is much more to the story than Beufo is telling us. More to the point, an attack of this nature would seem to suggest a total disregard for the sacred person of a priest, one of the major signposts of the impending Reformation.

What is perhaps most interesting about this petition is the allegation of riot (public disorder) by a lord’s affinity.  In fifteenth-century England, riot was intimately associated with bastard feudalism and the misbehaviors of the large retinues maintained by local noblemen.[2] Without a standing army, the king relied upon these private retinues to fight his wars; yet during peace times, all too often, noblemen called upon their retainers to resolve local disputes or disagreements with their rivals, sometimes in disreputable ways, leading to accusations of “riot,” “forcible entry,” “embracery,” and “conspiracy.” But sending in one’s retainers to harass the local vicar while he performed mass would seem to be an unusual approach to handling differences of opinion on matters relating to the church.

A survey of chancery petitions, however, demonstrates that riot enacted within the local parish church was a powerful weapon in late medieval England for performing anticlerical sentiment. Robert Norys, vicar of North Petherton in Somerset, claims to have been participating in the mass when he and his deacon were attacked by twenty-eight “riotous” and “maliciously disposed” persons under the leadership of Henry Grenewode. The two clergymen were threatened with physical violence and so they fled. Norys hoped for the chancellor’s assistance to eventually return safely to his parish.[3] Similarly, Edmund Luddelowe, clerk at the Church of Wistanstow in Shropshire, tells a harrowing tale of a riot of eight men, who broke down the doors of the church in their eagerness to assault him. They beat his servant, Walter Hatton, so badly that he died. They then stole goods from Luddelowe worth £40. Luddelowe, too, hoped the chancellor might help him recover possession of his church and offer him protection from his assailants.[4]

In most of these cases, like Beufo above, the petitioners offer no indication why they were targeted for attack. Nonetheless, the fact that they were attacked in church, while performing mass would seem to be significant: the spectacle of violence orchestrated by their attackers was aimed at a wide audience and with the intention of undermining their credibility as men of God.

Other petitioners did make an effort to clarify the issues that provoked their attack, although the usual tactic was to paint the riot as an unreasonable and unprovoked action. As R.N. Swanson has observed, tithes were “one of many potential flashpoints in the complex relations between clergy and laity” in late medieval England, producing much grumbling at visitations, as well as some withholding of payment altogether.[5] Chancery petitions indicate that the withholding of tithes walked hand-in-hand with riots as a means of expressing anger at one’s local clergyman. Indeed, in Maunsfeld v. Staute (1470-71, or 1485), the vicar explicitly blamed tithes for provoking the riot that left him hiding from his attackers. Thomas Maunsfeld, vicar of Barkway in Hertfordshire, explained that even though all of his predecessors from time immemorial had collected tithes of hay, wool, lamb, and other small tithes called “auterage,” suddenly his parishioners were rebelling against doing so. Specifically, on 28 June of that year, William Staute the elder, William Staute the younger, John Smyth and other twelve other “riotous persons … arrayed in manner of war,” much like those mentioned above by Beufo, lay in wait in the fields of Barkway, to murder their vicar while he was carting hay (presumably some of the tithes in question). Maunsfeld says that they assaulted him and his servants, threw down the hay, and “sore chased” Maunsfeld and his servants, and if they had not hidden from these “misdoers,” they would have certainly murdered the vicar and his servants. As a result, “for dread of death,” Maunsfeld did not “dare” go near Barkway and begged the chancellor for his assistance.[6]  

Why would parishioners take offense at paying small tithes, especially when they had always done so? Here, the answer lies in the nature of the tithes. Auterage (also called, alterage) was the collection of tithes intended to maintain an altar and a priest to say masses at it. Thus, in resisting payment of those particular tithes, parishioners were taking aim at Maunsfeld specifically and refusing to pay tithes that went directly into his pocket. Granted, canon law offered parishioners some support in this respect. When a cleric misspent church goods, Hostiensis encouraged them to refuse him tithes, and instead pay those tithes directly to the prelate (admittedly, the chancery bill gives us no indication that the Stautes were hoping simply to redirect where their tithes were paid).[7] More crucially, perhaps, John Wyclif urged the withholding of tithes from corrupt prelates, declaring that it was “against God’s law and man’s law and against his conscience rightfully grounded” to pay a clergyman more tithes than he needed to support himself in “simple livelihood and straight clothing.”[8] It seems likely that this is what the Stautes and their men saw themselves doing.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire.

At St Mary Magdalene Church in Newark-on-Trent (Notts.) in 1425, rioting was also the vehicle for parishioners to express their discontent with the vicar’s neglect. The church stood under the aegis of St Catherine Priory, a Gilbertine priory of canons regular located just outside the walls of Lincoln, and had been since 1160.[9] The position of vicar at St Mary Magdalene was typically filled by canons from the priory by appointment and institution of the prior. Nonetheless, the late medieval period was financially disastrous for the priory. The Victoria County History offers a rather sordid account, detailing “reckless speculation in lands and wool” and “unfortunate” choices of priors who were arrested for poaching and/or stealing from the church.[10] Efforts to curb spending resulted in economies resented by the numerous parishes for which it was responsible. Neglect seems to have been the most egregious outcome. While Brother Thomas Marsche had technically been vicar of St Mary Magdalene Church since 1423, by May of 1425, the parishioners complained to the dean and chapter of York (the archbishopric was currently vacant) that he had been “removed at the will of the patrons,” that is, “the prior and convent of St Katherine near Lincoln,” and that since that time, “the cure of souls there had been lamentably neglected.” The sede vacante register records the state of affairs as diplomatically as possible, referring to Brother Marsche as “a true shepherd,” and declaring emphatically that the archbishop was acting “[i]n response to their [the parishioners’] prayers for a remedy,” and not because they “desir[ed] to overturn the rights of the prior and convent.” Yet, because of this lapse in the duties of the prior, the dean and chapter stepped in and appointed Robert Crosseland as vicar, describing him “as a man of sufficient morals and conversation,” to take up this vacancy.[11]

What the sede vacante register does not tell us is the manner in which parishioners in fact “protested” their negligent vicar. On 25 March 1425 (a couple of months before the complaint to the dean and chapter of York), they carried out a massive riot intended to scare the vicar off so that they might institute their own vicar secular. In the prior of St Catherine’s petition to the chancellor, he presents John Martin, the local bailiff, and Robert Crosselande (not yet appointed as vicar, but clearly the parishioners’ candidate of choice), among the ringleaders of the group. Their resistance was enacted in stages. Initially, Marsche’s deficiencies as vicar led to “councils and congregations” held by parishioners, at which they decided to starve St Catherine’s of oblations. It was “ordained” that no “woman of the said town shall make oblation at the tomb of man nor woman nor child, at the day called seventh-day anniversary, nor at espousals, nor at purifications”; and “if any woman do to the contrary, she shall be quite extraordinarily reproached.” Financial sanctions were followed by violence. Two hundred men, with weapons and “arrayed in the manner of war” entered the chancel of the church where Thomas Marsche was holding mass. They told him to get out of the church on pain of death. Marsche was so terrified that he fled the church into the vestry where he was pursued by the rioters who tried to break down the door. The assault continued for three hours, at which point Marsche was permitted to leave. Since that time, he had suffered daily threats, and did not dare approach the church.

The prior placed the blame for the riot squarely on the dean and chapter of York for “excit[ing] and procur[ing]” the parishioners to make collation of the said Robert Crosseland “without any process of law.”[12] Given their readiness to side with the parishioners and appoint Robert Crosseland as vicar so soon after the riot, this may well be true. It certainly seems noteworthy that a three-hour riot of two-hundred armed men did not warrant mention in the sede vacante register – does that mean the parish was not even punished for its violent behavior conducted within the chancel, the most sacred space in the church? The dean and chapter may well have been exploiting parishioner discontent in their own battle for control over a lucrative wool-producing parish.

Regardless, when pressed by St Catherine’s, the dean and chapter backed down. Crosseland’s formal collation to the vicarage dates to 20 May 1425.[13]  By 19 Sept. of the same year, St Catharine’s priory had challenged Crosseland’s appointment; Crosseland, we are told, submitted his “unconditional resignation,” and the “dean and chapter [of York] were urged to accept” it.[14] The following day, St Catherine’s presented Nicholas Feriby, a priest, to the benefice; he was instituted in the position by 27 Sept. , a position in which he remained for the next twenty years.[15]

The parishioners’ performance, however, remains noteworthy, in large part because it was a highly localized form of anti-clericalism. Clearly, the parishioners of St Mary Magdalene in Newark-on-Trent were not angry at all priests, just this one. Indeed, the fact that they took the matter into their own hands and found a replacement for their errant vicar demonstrates that they were indeed keen on some priests. In the era leading up to the Reformation, it is all too easy to interpret attacks on clerics, especially those in churches, as Wycliffite anti-clericalism and a desire to initiate a “priesthood of all believers.” Yet, sometimes, parishioners were just trying to send a message to the church with the means available to them. Sometimes a riot was about building a better church, rather than tearing it down.


Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral. British Library: Harley MS 5102, f. 32. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. Picture taken by Roland Turner, 22 Feb. 2011. Creative Commons.

[1] The National Archives (TNA) C 1/48/551, Beufo v. Tanner (1473-75). The spelling in all quotations has been standardized for ease of reading.

[2] J.G. Bellamy, Bastard Feudalism and the Law (Portland, OR: Areopagitica Press, 1989), 4-5.

[3] TNA C 1/44/150, Norys v. Grenewode (1433-43, or 1467-72).

[4] TNA C 1/68/234, Luddelowe v. De Lodelowe (1386-1486).

[5] R.N. Swanson, “Payback Time? Tithes and Tithing in Late Medieval England,” in Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon, eds, “God’s Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World,” Studies in Church History 46 (2010): 133.

[6] TNA C 1/31/390, Maunsfeld v. Staute (1465-71, or 1480-83).

[7] Swanson, “Payback Time?,” 128.

[8] John Wyclif, “Of Clerks Possessioners,” in The English Works of Wyclif hitherto unprintede, ed. F.D. Matthew (Early English Text Society, 1880), 132.

[9] Cornelius Brown, A History of Newark-on-Trent, being the Life Story of an Ancient Town (Newark, 1094), vol. I, 298.

[10] “Houses of the Gilbertine Order: The priory of St Catherine outside Lincoln,” in A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1906), 188-191.

[11] Joan Kirby, ed., The York Sede Vacante Register, 1423-1426: A Calendar (Borthwick Texts and Studies, vol. 38, 2009), 63, no. 398.

[12] TNA C 1/6/166, The Prior of St Catherine near Lincoln v. Martyn (1425). This petition is in French; all translations to English are my own.

[13] Kirby, York Sede Vacante Register, 78, no. 502.

[14] Kirby, York Sede Vacante Register, 79, no. 504.

[15] Kirby, York Sede Vacante Register, 79, nos. 506-509.

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