Old Rectors

by Barendina Smedley

Our house is an old rectory, which means that for hundreds of years, the people living here were clergymen, their families, colleagues and servants.

Often I think of them, trying to imagine them living in what are now our rooms. First, perhaps, came tonsured priests, presented by a Praemonstratensian house in the Norfolk Broads. I know little of them except a few names, some of which raise questions. For instance, was Henry Curson (1395) the man who shows up elsewhere, as rector of another nearby village, taking the leading role in a local affray, heading up a gang of armed men? If so, he sounds distinctly un-meek. And was John Knyvington, alias Attehall (1414) related to a London art-dealer friend of ours, whose family still live in the neighbouring village? If so, I cannot help but picture him as kind, urbane and funny. Of such scraps and prejudices is pre-modern history here largely concocted.

By the late sixteenth century we are on firmer ground. I know a lot, for instance, about James Poynter (rector 1584-1621), although I should love to know more. Although he started out at Wymondham, where his father had been involved in the town guild (and as such, must have been on the front line in Kett’s Rebellion), his sojourn at Corpus Christi, Cambridge — he shared rooms with the glamorous, dangerous Christopher Marlowe — presumably widened his horizons in all sorts of ways. Still later he was chaplain to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, the ‘wizard earl’ whose circle of patronage included Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, John Dee and John Donne, and who spent quite a lot of his mature years in the Tower of London, having been caught up in the fringes of the Gunpower Plot.

 Back in East Anglia, Poynter made enemies — not only that tireless puritan activist, Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey, but his own parishioners as well, if we are to believe a badly-rhymed libel that ended up forwarded to the Privy Council. He also left an apparently blameless wife in Cambridge, got at least two local Norfolk girls pregnant — one of them in his parsonage – I wonder in which of our rooms? Less culpably, he cultivated saffron.

Poynter’s religion, however, remains opaque. We know from a probate inventory how he furnished his house — my house — although as is usual for probate inventories, his books do not appear, leaving the furniture of his mind a persistent puzzle. He comes across as intelligent, arrogant and earthy. He must have sat by our drawing room fire, by the big bressumer beam, when the east wind threw itself hard against the flint walls. What did he dream about then? What did he remember?

Poynter was by some distance the most cosmopolitan of our rectors, but by no means the only educated one. His successor, for instance — born in Lancashire; did Norfolk parishioners find his accent odd? — was a member of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, where he was a lecturer at various points in Greek and Hebrew. His career in our village seems to have spanned the Civil War, although there must have been interruptions.

We are always told that East Anglia was overwhelmingly on the side of Parliament, but the more I look at it, the more I wonder whether this was so, particularly as the war dragged on, taxes increased and ‘innovations’ flourished. A rich benefice, presided over by a rather grand rectory — flint-built, with showy if by then deeply old-fashioned beams, a high-roofed solar above, and a huge tithe barn standing alongside it —would have felt the changing currents of local opinion acutely.

After the usual post-war confusion, there followed two long incumbencies. Francis Wace (rector 1686-1721— 35 years), son of a Norfolk grocer and another Caius man, was a non-juror — a broad hint at the high churchmanship that seems to run in the chalky water here. Two more incumbents made brief appearances before the arrival of Henry Calthorpe (rector 1728-1780 — an amazing 52 years).

Calthorpe, educated at Clare College Cambridge, was the younger brother of James Calthorpe, who was lay patron of the relevant living, which had been in his family had been since soon after the reformation. Calthorpe, in other words, was a local gentleman, almost that cliched thing, a squarson. I suspect that some, if not all, of our eighteenth century improvements here were his work.

We know that Calthorpe created ‘offices’, drains, a cess-pool that is still in use. Did he also move the front door, create the terraced garden that still exist, and modernise the fenestration? A few notes of his that remain in the margins of his registers give make me think he was a relatively conscientious, level-headed, responsible incumbent. He lived and died a bachelor.

In the absence of more detailed information, human nature requires — however much historical training might discourage it — that Parson Woodforde’s mesmerising journal fills the many gaps. Thus we may all to easily imagine Calthorpe inviting his smarter neighbours round for enormous dinners, nursing a down-to-earth, confident if mild-mannered Anglican latitudinarian piety, and often feeling a bit bored. I wish a portrait of him survived. Perhaps it does. I worry about this point, actually, every time a Christie’s Interiors sale brings with it another small band of unnamed, mid-eighteenth century clergymen painted by indifferent local portraitists of obscure reputation.

After this there followed, in the best tradition of nineteenth century cliches, a string of Cambridge-educated men, all blessed with large families, related through blood or marriage or both, with consequent links to local society. To them we probably owe the Old Schoolroom, which started life as a dining room, before being demoted once the incumbent moved his study out of the end of the hall, near the front door, where he could easily be accosted by every passing parishioner, up to the slightly whimsical Arts-and-Crafts eyrie that is now my husband’s study. There is something poignant about the nature of new dining rooms — so obviously a sociable, convivial space, looking out over a broad lawn, far from the hot turmoil of the kitchen or the slightly damp intimacies of the servants’ hall. It makes me think the incumbents must have been friendly men who loved the company of their families, colleagues and at least some of their neighbours.

And after that, we come to the last rector and the first private owner, whose name I will redact as some of his relatives are still living. It was he who, in the years immediately after the Great War, first arranged for the rectory to be sold off as no longer suitable for clerical occupancy — and then promptly purchased it himself. The most interesting thing about him — his stratospherically-high Anglicanism, antiquarianism and fixation on William Morris wallpaper apart — is the fact that he seems to have given up his orders during the Second World War. I should love to know more about how and why this happened, if indeed it did.

After him, of course, the long line of incumbents was broken, and we find ourselves in the world of the family who bought the house in 1935, then later of developers, and, finally, ourselves.