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The Reformation in a Norfolk Parish.
LEONARD G. BOLING BROKE,
On the last Sunday in February, 1528, the churchwardens and parishioners of Great Witchingham assembled in their church of St. Mary, for the purpose of the "reckoning” or audit of the parish accounts, and for the choosing of churchwardens for the ensuing year, and there made an order that one of the church wardens then in office “ should hold still for another year, and he at his liberty to take to him any other of the said parishioners without any denyer of the said parishioner so taken, and at the yere ended he so last chosen to hold still another year, and to choose another at his liberty. And this order to continue from one to another for ever.”
Accordingly, Robert Beckles and Robert Lemman were chosen wardens for the year 1528, and like prudent men provided themselves with a smart new book in which to enter an account of all monies received and paid by them on behalf of the parish. For one hundred years or more, when at each yearly “reckoning” the balance in the hands of the old churchwardens was handed over to their successors, this “parish book of Witchingham ” (as it was called) was handed over too,
until being no longer smart and no longer new,
it was doubtless thrown aside as of no further use to anyone.
The faded writing of half a hundred hands still preserves, however, an interesting record of parochial work, in spite of some glaring improprieties in arithmetic, and some attempts at liability and asset accounts, which would sorely shock the susceptibilities of a nineteenth century auditor, We may laugh at the methods, but we must value the matter of these old accounts, and it is therefore proposed from their torn and mutilated pages, and from other sources, to trace some of the changes which the Reformation wrought in this remote Norfolk parish during the sixteenth century.
As we look around the church of Great Witchingham there is not, perhaps, much to remind us how rich and ornate it must then have been. The church itself, its walls, and roof, and tower, must have been much as they are now; but the rich frieze of the roof, the elaborate poppy-heads of some of the seats, and the mellowed colour still to be traced upon the beautiful font, alone reflect for us the wealth of carving, and gold, and colour, which must have been visible inside the building four centuries ago. A glance at the pages of Blomefield will show us how closely connected Great Witchingham was with important families, such as the Witchinghams, the Middletons, the Bretons, and the Berneys, many of whom were benefactors to the church, while others lie buried within its walls.
But apart from the munificence of the wealthier classes, there is ample evidence that Great Witchingham was very much alive ecclesiastically in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Again and again in the churchwardens' accounts and elsewhere we meet with small legacies bequeathed to the church, or to the lights and guilds connected with it. For example, by his will