Remembering Ralph Lowde

by Barendina Smedley

Between the years 1621 and 1639  the rector of Blakeney, a village on the north Norfolk coast, was a youngish yet very learned man named Ralph Lowde. As someone who now lives in the house once occupied by Ralph Lowde, I naturally wished to see what, if anything, four centuries on, I could discover about my predecessor. 

The most informative source for the early life of Ralph Lowde is the register of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. According to the register, Ralph was the son of Edmund Lowde, husbandman, of Aighton; he studied at Whalley School under Mr Browne; he matriculated at Emmanuel College in 1606 under Mr Walbanks, but migrated to Caius in October 1608 with William Branthwaite, Master. He took his BA in 1609/10, his MA in 1613, and the prestigious degree of BD in 1622. Finally, he served as a fellow of Caius from 1615 to 1622. 

What are we to make of this terse recitation of facts? 

Aighton is a hamlet in the parish of Mitton, five miles southwest of Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley. After the mid eighteenth century the area was to become notable as the location of the Jesuit foundation Stonyhurst College, but in the late sixteenth century it cannot have been more than a handful of modest buildings skirting the banks of a fast-flowing river.

To have started at Caius in 1608 at the age of 18, Ralph (sometimes Raphe or Radulphus) Lowde (sometimes Loud, Loude or Lowd) must have been born in about 1590. His father, Edmund, seems to have been a rather ordinary, middling sort of landowner. Dugdale’s Visitation of Lancashire (1664-5) would later record the family as being from Ridding, then Kirkham, and armigerous — the arms were argent, three bugle horns, sable, stringed, or — all of this presumably a play on the word ‘Loud’. But it was only during Ralph’s lifetime that the family entered the ranks of the gentry. 

Ralph spent four years studying at nearby Whalley Grammar School, a two-hour walk from his home. Before the reformation, the Cistercians at Whalley Abbey had offered educational opportunities for local boys. Afterwards, as early as the reign of Edward VI, a grammar school was founded — apparently in the upper room of a gatehouse formerly belonging to the abbey — to fill the gap. So when Ralph studied there, the school would have been at once rather old, yet also very obviously much changed over the previous generation or two. I have yet to find anything about ‘Mr Browne’, Loude’s schoolmaster. And if the school fit into the Whalley Abbey’s old gatehouse, it is hard to see how it could have educated more than a dozen or so pupils at any given time. But somehow in 1606, at the age of 16, Ralph was sent south to take up a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. 

The choice of Emmanuel College, at least, probably tells us something about Ralph’s education.

Emmanuel was, at the time, one of the newest Cambridge Colleges. It had been founded in 1584 on the site of a Dominican friary by Sir Walter Mildmay, chancellor of the exchequer to Elizabeth I, and a leading patron of moderate puritanism. The first master, Lawrence Chaderton, was, like Ralph, from Lancashire, near Oldham. It made sense that Chaderton was not only a learned man but also a popular preacher, as the purpose of the new college was to train preachers who would propagate a specific strand of Calvinsim, but who would also, like Chaderton, remain firmly within the bounds of the established church. 

In all sorts of ways, then, even to a young man recently arrived from the Ribble Valley, Emmanuel must have felt very different from other Cambridge colleges. To pick an apparently trivial example, the college chapel, rebuilt on the footprint of the Dominicans’ refectory, was oriented north-south, as if to show how little the traditional eastward-facing orientation mattered. No one bothered with surplices, viewing them as ‘things indifferent’. Communion was taken sitting down, rather than kneeling. In 1606, all of this behaviour would have seemed very radical, and for many in England, actually pretty shocking. 

Ralph’s background made have made him particularly alert to this, because he had grown up in a place where tension between old and new modes of worship was particularly acute. Back in 1536, — presumably his grandparents’ time — the Ribble Valley had been at the centre of the Pilgrimage of Grace and its popular resistance to the dissolution of the monasteries; the area was to retain a strong attachment to traditional Catholic practice up to and beyond the Civil War period, fostered by Catholic gentry families of the sort who would later grant the Jesuits land for Stonyhurst College. It’s inevitable that some of Ralph’s childhood neighbours must have been either Catholic recusants or sympathisers. 

In an area where parishes were large, the population widely distributed and clerical provision often frankly inadequate, it was very difficult to enforce basic conformity with the Church of England — let alone to make reformed religion genuinely popular. Hence the urgent need for a cadre of well-educated, highly-trained preachers, who could do battle against the old faith on one hand, while also remaining alert to the threat posed by radical, separatist strands of protestantism. Just as there were gentry families in Ralph’s area who encouraged Catholicism, there were also gentry patrons of moderate puritanism. Whatever else religion may have meant to young Ralph, it was contested and divisive. Part of loving one’s neighbour was, presumably, the project of freeing one’s neighbour from error. 

So perhaps it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine a bright local schoolboy being talent-spotted by his teacher, brought to the attention of some well-connected local puritan gentleman or woman, and then those connections being activated in order to send him off to Emmanuel College to be trained as a godly minister, with the idea that he would return to the Ribble Valley in due course. This, however, was not how it worked out. 

* * *

Ralph Lowde spent about a year and a half at Emmanuel College. Then in October 1608, he was admitted to another Cambridge college, Gonville & Caius. The reason for his migration must surely be tied up with the fortunes of another Cambridge figure, William Branthwaite. Branthwaite had been one of the founding fellows of Emmanuel College. In 1608, however, when the mastership of Caius fell vacant, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and chancellor of the university, decided to intervene and selected Branthwaite as the new master, explicitly because he was a sound and moderate puritan. So when Branthwaite changed colleges, young Ralph, now about 18 years old, followed his mentor to Caius. 

Perhaps this, too, in its own way tells us something about Ralph. Branthwaite, who in 1608 was about 45 years old, was a very learned man who seems to have devoted his entire life to his university work. Along with several Cambridge colleagues, he was a member of the team who translated the Apocrypha for the King James version of the Bible, published in 1611. Fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Branthwaite eventually left the great bulk of his formidable library of some 1,400 volumes to Caius — a collection of largely Continental scholarship that included not only Catholic and protestant religious books, Bibles and biblical commentaries, the writings of the early Christian fathers and works by his fellow translators, but also the Iliad, Aesop’s Fables, the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. As David Norton has pointed out, however, in his work on Branthwaite’s library, it only included one work in English — John Heywood’s notoriously boring 456-page rhyming pro-Marian political allegory, ‘The Spider and the Fly’. So there was narrowness in Branthwaite’s intellectual outlook, as well as depth and seriousness. Was the same true of Ralph, or did he read more widely than his teacher’s library would suggest? 

More to the point, though, why did Lowde follow Branthwaite to Caius? The reason Lord Salisbury imposed Branthwaite on Caius seems to have been the general suspicion, only two years after the failure of the Gunpower Plot, that Caius had become a hotbed of high churchmanship, verging on outright popery. As a college with strong strong historic ties to Norfolk, which had its own problems with recusant Catholicism, it was important that it wasn’t allowed to fall under the control of ‘church papists’ or those who facilitated them. Branthwaite may have asked Lowde, perhaps already an obviously promising student, to join him at Caius to help seed a new culture of moderate puritanism in place that sometimes must have seemed a very long way from those days of seated communion at Emmanuel. Or to put it another way, as some of the existing fellows of Caius clearly resented Branthwaite’s arrival, he may have needed all the allies he could get. So once again, perhaps, we sense that Ralph was entering a contested, contentious environment. Perhaps we can intuit from this that he did not shy away from a fight. 

Ralph took his BA in 1610, and his MA in 1613. In 1615, he became a junior fellow. In 1616 he was offering lectures at Caius in Greek, and during 1617-19, in Hebrew. These lectures suggest, surely, that Lowde was intellectually very capable, and further that — had he wished it — he could have followed on in Branthwaite’s footsteps as a translator, scholar and academic mentor. 

But from about 1616, there are signs of increasing tension within Caius College, as Branthwaite spent more and more time away from Cambridge, while his defeated rival for the mastership returned to the college, apparently waiting to take advantage of the situation. And then, at the beginning of 1619, Branthwaite died of tuberculosis. Ralph Lowde was, by that time, about 29 years old. Perhaps changes within the college — either the endless factional bickering, or perhaps a sense that his faction was no longer in the ascendent — convinced him that it was time to move on. 

Meanwhile in 1618, Ralph’s fifteen-year old brother Robert arrived at Caius. By that time Edmund, their father, was styling himself ‘gentleman’ rather than ‘husbandman’. While Ralph had studied at Whalley Grammar School, Robert’s education had taken place at Clitheroe and Bolton Percy, in Yorkshire. Robert took his BA in 1622/23 and his MA in 1626. By that time, however, Ralph was no longer in Cambridge. 

* * *

In 1621, at the age of about 31 years, Ralph Lowde became rector of Blakeney, at that time one of a group of small fishing villages clustered round the estuary of the Glaven River on the north Norfolk coast. A wealthy living with about 300 communicants, the rectory of Blakeney was in the gift of Christopher Calthorpe, a gentleman who family had been significant figures in the area for several generations. It may be important that Christopher Calthorpe’s eldest son and heir, James Calthorpe, was admitted to Caius in 1619/20, at the age of 15 years, at a time when Ralph was still a fellow there. In due course James Calthorpe would go on to make an advantageous marriage that would gain for him the manor of East Barsham, would apparently lose interest in Blakeney and hence would transfer the patronage of the living to his uncle, Sir Henry Calthorpe of Ampton in Suffolk. 

What did Ralph Lowde find when he arrived in his new parish in 1621? We actually know quite a bit about the state of his parsonage, if only because his immediate predecessor, the infinitely  controversial James Poynter, left a relatively detailed probate inventory, and because so much of the house still survives to the present day. 

Ralph would have moved into a long, narrow, two-storey structure of flint and local brick, almost certainly rendered over, comprising a large hall with an oak-beamed ceiling, a parlour with a big inglenook fireplace, a larder and pantry, kitchen, and chambers over all of the above. Adjoining the main house was a courtyard containing a well, a flint-built barn, and a stable. 

This complex was located immediately to the west of the main road leading up to the coast from the nearby market town of Holt and, indeed, Norwich and London. Across the road — Holgate Way — and up on even higher ground was the imposing church of St Nicholas, mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, again built in local flint. Just north of that was Blakeney’s market area. From there, two lanes, flanked by cottages and gardens, tumbled down to the quay. Around the rectory, to the north and south and west, stretched the lands of Cockfield’s manor which, along with another manor, Astley’s, were owned by Ralph’s patron, Christoper Calthorpe. Down the hill, in easy sight across the fields, lay the nearby village of Wiveton. And alongside Wiveton flowed the Glaven River, which at the time still carried significant if diminishing commercial traffic. 

When Ralph arrived, admittedly, his rectory, while large and solid, must have looked very old fashioned. The moulded oak beams of the hall ceiling, for instance, dated from about 1518 — more than a century earlier — so would perhaps have seemed as throughly out of fashion to Ralph as, say, a parsonage of the early 1920s might look to some of us today. 

As the late medieval room still survives in good order, however, and is today my hall, clearly Ralph managed to come to terms with it. But then there is quite a lot of the house that he’d still recognise today. 

For instance, the oak roof structure under which he slept each night is the one under which I now sleep. I suspect he made his bed in the room directly above the parlour, where again, the old oak floorboards on which he placed his feet on cold mornings are still very much in place. He would have known the moulded beams in what is now the kitchen, and the old oak screen that separated the hall from the service rooms. He would have known the timber roof of the old barn, and quite possibly trod the enigmatic earth bank behind the main house. His water was presumably drawn from the same well that still serves my house today. 

Four hundred years separate Ralph’s tenure here from my own, as well as a vast amount of cultural and theological distance, but it’s pleasing to think that even now, here and there, our worlds still intersect. 

* * *

And what did Ralph find in terms of his parish community? This question is harder to answer, but perhaps not entirely impossible. 

For one thing, we can be sure that for many years after Ralph arrived in Blakeney, his predecessor James Poynter continued to cast a long shadow.

Poynter, another bright product of a local grammar school and the recipient of a series of Cambridge degrees, appeared in Blakeney in 1584, and died in 1621. During his 37 long years as the incumbent, he made quite a startling number of enemies. First amongst these was the local puritan gentlemen Sir Nathaniel Bacon, who disliked Poynter intensely, repeatedly bringing his perceived shortcomings to the attention of the Privy Council. But Poynter didn’t get on with the Calthorpes, either. In 1610, James Calthorpe — the father of the man who presumably presented Ralph to the living — had forcibly broken into the courtyard of the rectory along with three associates, and proceeded to take away items, probably as a part of some sort of tithe dispute. 

In addition, however, Poynter did not always get on well with his parishioners. Part of the problem may have been his own doctrinal orientation. Was Poynter a puritan — but the wrong sort of puritan for Sir Nathaniel Bacon and his godly neighbours? On this topic, the known facts of Poynter’s career send mixed signals. It is true, for instance, that Poynter was presented on one occasion for failing to wear the surplice during divine service. On the other hand, failure to wear the surplice could mean any number of things. As one of the most visible remaining features of pre-reformation liturgical practice, the surplice had been retained, in part, explicitly to reassure more conservative-minded parishioners: as long as the outward semblance of continuity existed, perhaps one need not worry so much what was happening to the underlying doctrine. So while it was possible to reject the surplice due to principled puritanism — on the basis that it was a remnant of popish error — it was also possible to reject it out of laziness, arrogance or pure lack of interest in the feelings of the congregation. Mildmay’s comment about the lack of surplices at Emmanuel College — that the wearing of them was a ‘matter indifferent’ — could, after all, cut both ways. Without writing about him in detail — it would take a while — there is a lot in James Poynter’s story that makes laziness, arrogance and indifference sound more likely than excessive puritan zeal.

Anyone wanting to make the case for a puritan Poynter, or at least for Poynter’s lack of popularity with his flock, might also refer to a strange document, now in the Surrey county archives, catalogued as LM/COR/3/692. It is a page-long complaint — undated, unidentified in terms of location, signed only with initials — addressed to one ‘Dr Poynter’ written in doggerel verse by several members of his congregation. Although no one, as far as I am aware, has previously connected it with James Poynter of Blakeney, the connection seems entirely plausible to me. At any rate, if the subject of the poem is indeed ‘our’ Poynter, some of the grievances listed seem to nail Poynter as a puritan. For instance, Poynter is apparently ‘not altogether pleased with these pastimes: shove ha’penny, dancing, hunting and bowling’. His sermons, for reasons not clearly explained, fail to find favour, so much so that the complainants ask him to read from the Book of Homilies instead, created by the bishops for ‘prating priests that cannot preach’. This sounds like, at the very least, a plea for orthodoxy. 

Yet there is more to this complaint than a simple denunciation of puritanism, and this may be relevant to what Ralph Lowde found when he turned up in Blakeney. The poem keeps coming back to the issue of Poynter’s ‘pride’. Apparently, ‘Parson Poynter’ arrived in the parish in a ‘threadbare cloak’, but now wears a ‘fine gown’, symptomatic of a more serious problem — these days his mind is ‘so much to pride inclined’ that ‘[his] betters [he] does not know’. The reference to the Book of Homilies states that Poynter thinks he knows more than the bishops do. The verse concludes, rather chillingly: ‘Solomon sayeth pride will have a fall / take this for a warning you ministers all all all’. For Parson Poynter’s parishioners to sound so menacing — and in a normal Tudor parish it’s hard to believe that the perpetrators would not have been known — they must have felt they had both a serious grievance, but also that others in authority might back them up.

And then, finally, there was the issue of Poynter’s problematic sexual behaviour. Nathaniel Bacon, who obviously loathed his neighbour, was quick to bring Poynter’s failings to the attention of the Privy Council and others, so through Bacon’s surviving correspondence we know something that would be otherwise lost to us, i.e. that Poynter had been married to a respectable woman before she fled from Norfolk to Cambridge due to his unreasonable behaviour, which included begetting illegitimate children with no less than four local women. Poynter had also been tried on at least one unrelated charge of rape. The girl in question had, however, as it transpired, accepted a tiny sum of money from him after the assault, which was taken to imply some sort of consent, so Poynter was acquitted. 

Poynter died in his early 60s, in 1621. In the 1620s, let us remember, more or less everyone in the village would have spent several hours each Sunday in the parish church, listening to their parson. They would have paid him their tithes, with a greater or lesser degree of good grace. He would have christened them, married them, buried them. For these people, the quality of their parochial incumbent wasn’t some niche interest — he was someone about whom everyone would have a well-formed view. It is not hard, then, in this context, to imagine that the local community in Blakeney at once looked forward to the arrival of a new incumbent, but were also very prepared to find fault with him if he failed to live up to their expectations.

It is also perhaps worth adding that Blakeney, at the time, was a village made up of a number of relatively wealthy merchant or ship-owning families, alongside the skilled craftsmen and service providers so essential in any small port, middling landowners, agricultural workers, poor people, petty criminals, itinerants. While the Calthorpes were by some distance the most significant landowners in the parish, they were not primarily resident in Blakeney. For this reason social power was, presumably, dispersed amongst various of ‘the better sort’, few of whom would reliably be overawed by the authority of their new rector. 

* * *

There was another ongoing controversy that must have been the subject of plenty of conversation during Ralph’s time in Blakeney. As one of the Glaven ports, Blakeney, like its sister ports Wiveton and Cley-next-the Sea, sat at the mouth of the Glaven river, protected by a long spit of land called Blakeney Point. To the coastward side of the villages lay vast salt marshes. Flat and low, with a network of half-hidden creeks running through them like veins, they were filled with sea-lavender and samphire, shellfish and wildfowl. For centuries, indeed for millennia, these bleakly beautiful expanses had proved dangerous to outsiders, while providing local people with food and extra income. But as early as the 1520s, landowners began to experiment with embanking parts of the marshes in order to produce privatised grazing land, and by the 1620s it was clear that their efforts were, in some cases, also having the effect of silting up the Glaven’s outflow. 

Matters came to a head in 1537 when Sir Henry Calthorpe and his son Philip, assisted by a Dutch engineer named Van Hasedunck, actually built a bank across the mouth of the Glaven, with the flow of the river controlled by a small sluice-gate. Although this increased the fresh-water pastures available to the Calthorpes, it also meant that ships could no longer reach either Wiveton or the older part of Cley from the sea, effectively ruining them as ports. Local people tried to seek remedies at law, with no success whatsoever. It was only when a direct appeal was made the Privy Council in 1639, setting out the huge economic damage caused by the embanking, that an order was made for the bank to be removed — although it was effectively to be reinserted less than two centuries later. 

As some of the complaints in the petition make very clear, however, the maritime significance of the area was in some ways already very much in decline by the time the Calthorpes began their embanking programme. Already, the area’s most prosperous, self-confident period lay in the past — specifically, the later medieval period — with local people casting about for someone, anyone else to blame. On the other hand, without economic stagnation and the consequent lack of new development other than a bit of new investment in the coasting trade in the course of the eighteenth century, the villages of Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley would not have retained the scruffy, down-at-heel charm that enabled their renaissance, with the coming of the railways and the private motor-car, as a weekend and holiday destination. 

So did Ralph ever feel torn between his obligations to the Calthorpes, who were, after all, his ecclesiastical patrons, and the welfare of his flock of parishioners? There’s evidence that on at least one occasion, he was willing to speak up for local inhabitants. The State Papers for 1633 include a petition from Ralph Lowde to the Privy Council, basically asking them to speed up the response to an earlier petition by the inhabitants of Blakeney, asking for a grant to repair their quay and river channel — a project for which the Commissioners of Sewers had estimated the massive cost of £600. This was, in a sense, quite a neutral action on Ralph’s part — he was simply trying to achieve a swift outcome, rather than making any particular argument on his parishioners’ behalf — but it does at least show him engaging not only with what we might regard as spiritual matters, but with community affairs, too. 

What we cannot see clearly in any of this, though, is the way in which Ralph’s interactions with the people of Blakeney took place. He must have preached sermons — but when he did so, was his formidable academic learning on show, or had his time among skilled preachers taught him to couch his message in language his hearers would understand? Even harder to recover — did this Lancastrian who had also spent more than a decade in Cambridge find his north Norfolk flock’s accent and dialect difficult to decipher? In 1633 we can see from the records that he witnessed the will of Thomas Tydd, a ship’s master — so did this young man, who had grown up alongside the river Ribble, have quite a tough learning curve when it came to understanding the practicalities of a maritime community, where the logistics of voyages to Iceland and the Baltic, the language of ships and their construction, even knowledge of a change in the wind and what it meant could be matters of life and death? Did Norfolk ever feel like home to him, or was it always in some sense alien?

I imagine Ralph receiving all sorts of visitors in the hall — a neighbour’s servant summoning him to a deathbed, someone else bringing a gift of wildfowl, a dinner invitation from a local clergyman, yet another mendicant begging alms. I imagine him hearing traffic on the road outside his door and hoping that it might bring a letter for him from somewhere else, perhaps including donnish jokes in classical Greek or in Hebrew, or news of old Lancastrian friends. I imagine him sitting by the fire in the drawing room reading a book and dreaming of the sound the river Ribble used to make, or lying in bed simply listening to a sou’westerly tearing away at the shuddering windows. 

* * *

After only two years in Blakeney, Ralph Lowde was able to increase his responsibilities, and also his income, by acquiring an additional living. On 3 November 1623, he was granted a dispensation to hold the parish of Wiveton in plurality with that of Blakeney. His predecessor at Blakeney, James Poynter, had also ended up holding both livings together. At Wiveton, Poynter had been succeeded in 1621 by Christopher Reeve, a Norfolk-born man who had studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge, taking his MA in 1621. In 1623, however, Reeve was presented to the rectory of Alderton, in Suffolk, and it was at this point that Lowde was presented to Wiveton. He would hold both livings together for the rest of his clerical career.

The walk from Ralph’s rectory to the parish church in Wiveton takes ten minutes, fifteen at most, so it made perfect sense to combine the two livings. 

During his years as a fellow of Caius College, Ralph would not have been allowed to marry. Once he was secure in a good living, though, the situation changed. On 10 November 1625, at the age of 35 years, Ralph Lowde married Katherine Carew. (From the spelling in some documents it seems she pronounced this name ‘Carey’.) According to at least one source, her family came from Lincolnshire. I know nothing else about Katherine’s origins. 

The marriage, however, was a fruitful one. From November 1626 onward, the Blakeney parish register announces the regular arrival of new little Lowdes: Anna (1626), James (1628), William (1631), Kathrin [sic] (1633) and John (?) (1635). And although, at that date, the register rarely recorded the names of infants’ mothers, most of the Lowde children are listed as being the offspring both of Ralph and Katherine Lowde. For someone who had spent so many years in the other-worldly, more or less all-male environs of a Cambridge college, and then four years in Blakeney largely on his own, the presence of so many small children in his rectory must have been quite a shock to the system — I hope that for Ralph it was a happy one. 

* * *

For much of his time in Blakeney, Ralph Lowde signed the bottom of each page of the parish register, presumably to certify that all was in order. At the end of 1639, however, the page was signed off by William Sowerbutts, curate. Sadly, the reason for this becomes clear not from the Blakeney register, but from that of the adjoining parish, Wiveton. 

On 5 November 1639, an entry appears in the Wiveton parish register: ‘Radulphus Lowde rectoris de Blakeney et Wiveton sepult. apud Blakeney’. And there is an equivalent entry in the Blakeney parish register, ending in a spiky italic hand.

Ralph Lowde had died, aged only 49, leaving a widow and young family of five children, aged about 13 to 4 years. 

Katherine Lowde must have moved out of the rectory quite briskly in order to make way for the new incumbent, Edmund Day. I have no idea where she went after that, or how she managed. In January 1663 a woman named ‘Catherina Lowde’ was buried in the parish of St Martin in the Fields in London. She might not have been Ralph Lowde’s widow, but who knows? Lowde himself, presumably, was buried in the chancel of St Nicholas Blakeney, his church, although no monument to him now remains. 

We do, at least, know a little about what became of Ralph Lowde’s children. James ended up in Kirkham, in Lancashire, where he married and, in 1667, produced a son called James. Katherine, Lowde’s eldest daughter, was also in Lancashire, where she married Christopher Parker (c. 1625) of Bradkirk Hall, who became a justice of the peace for the county. One of Christopher and Katherine Parker’s sons, Anthony, served as MP for Clitheroe from 1689 until his death from alcoholism in 1693. Perhaps this concentration on Lancashire implies that at least some of Lowde’s children returned to the county of their father’s upbringing after he died. In contrast, William Lowde was apparently a merchant in London before his death in 1687 in St Leonard’s Shoreditch.

That was not, however, the end of the Lowde name in north Norfolk. 

* * *

As we have seen, Ralph Lowde had at least two younger brothers, Robert and Roger. 

On 9 April 1640 Robert Lowde, who had followed his brother from Lancashire to Cauis College Cambridge, was instituted as rector of Wiveton, his late brother’s parish. He died in Wiveton on 2 February 1671, only a year after the death of his wife Anna. As far as I can see, he remained in place as rector throughout these 31 years, which spanned the Civil War, interregnum and restoration of monarchical rule. 

We know little about Robert Lowde’s own faith, except for two possible hints, of which the first is more straightforward than the second. In 1666, at the Restoration, he subscribed £5 to the royal loan. Was this an expression of sustained royalist enthusiasm, or just the act of a guilty conscience? 

And then there is the strange matter of his tomb, which survives to this day in Wiveton church.

A surprising number of people assume that during the Civil Wars, more or less everyone in Norfolk was dedicated to the Parliamentary cause. This was, however, far from the case. In north Norfolk specifically, the conflict was local and immediate, played out between, among others, the Jermy family of Bayfield Hall, who were Roundheads, and the Hobarts of Holt, who were Royalists. 

As the distance between Bayfield and Holt is considerably less than a mile — and the distance between Wiveton and Bayfield less than two miles — these differences must have been impossible to ignore. Ditto the fact that Glandford was, at that point, joined together with Wiveton as a benefice — Glandford being even nearer to Bayfield and Holt. (Bayfield had once had a church itself, but this appears to have been derelict soon after 1603.) And this is on top of the fact that from at least 1633 onward, many clergy would have been struggling to reconcile the increasingly assertive Arminianism of Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, not only with their own convictions and preferences, but with those of their patrons and parishioners. Ralph Lowde had died before these conflicts became acute, but his brother Robert must have had to navigate them on a daily basis. 

How well did Robert Lowde get to know his neighbour Robert Jermy? 

Robert Jermy, born in 1600, had studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge and the Middle Temple, making a career for himself as a lawyer in London while his parents lived at Bayfield Hall, which they had purchased from the Yelverton family. When the Civil War began, Robert Jermy and his brother Francis were both quick to side with parliament. Robert Jermy became an early recruit to Cromwell’s forces, rising to the rank of colonel in the New Model Army, and served as an officer of mounted troops in Norfolk. In time he became a commissioner dealing with land confiscated from Royalists. He was also chairman of the committee examining clergy about their faith and their political views, with the power to eject them from their livings if they failed to conform to government policy. Robert Lowde, it would seem, conformed well enough. 

In the autumn of 1650, matters came to a head when Jermy claimed to have detected a Royalist plot in Norfolk, now known — on the rare occasions when anyone remembers it — as the ‘Winter Rising’. This was an abortive attempt to march on Norwich, but too few rebels showed up, and because informers had become involve in the plotting, the authorities in Norwich had been tipped off anyway. All the same, four thousand foot soldiers were immediately sent to the area, as well as three judges, which rather suggests that the Parliamentarians were by no means as sure that Norfolk was a bastion of secure Roundhead sentiment as people today often seem to be. An emergency ad hoc court was set up, which found about two dozen local men guilty, and let many others off with cautions. Most of those involved in the rising were artisans, tradesman, husbandmen — the local gentry seem to have steered clear of it, with a few notable exceptions, sadly including the Hobart family. 

It was Christmas time, which Robert Jermy celebrated that year by overseeing the execution of more than twenty of his neighbours. One of these was William Hobart, James Hobart’s son. Hobart’s other son, Edmund Hobart, went into hiding then escaped to London. When the situation had calmed down, he gave himself up to the authorities, paid a heavy fine, swore an oath of loyalty to the Commonweath, and then lived on, or so legend would have it, as a London shoemaker until the time of the Restoration. Jermy, for his part, vanished for a while to North America, but soon returned, and lived on at Bayfield — presenting to local livings including Bayfield and Letheringsett — until his death in 1677. For a while, scurrilous poems and pamphlets circulated concerning his deeds and character, but it’s quite striking that, for instance, Blomefield’s history of Norfolk makes no mention whatsoever of Robert Jermy’s parliamentarian activities, presumably out of kindness to his descendants, who were subscribers to Blomefield’s work. 

Edmund Hobart, in contrast, has a fine monument in Holt church that survives to this day. It makes explicit reference to his family’s troubles during the Civil Wars:

‘He died February 13, 1666, in the 52nd year of his age, after he had escaped the malice of the usurper, who for his loyalty to the blessed martyr King Charles I, sought after his life, and forced him from his paternal seat to live in obscurity, but his loyalty kept him stedfast thro’ the storms of that unnatural rebellion, and here at last he found rest, and expects a blessed immortality.’

Here, then, is an example of a tomb, erected as late as 1686, on which the legacy of the Civil War was still, at a symbolic level, being fought out in public. So with all of that as context, let us turn to Robert Lowde’s funeral monument in Wiveton church, which tells its own tale of conflict and reconciliation. 

Lowde’s tomb could hardly be placed in a more prominent position— at the end of the central aisle, just up the step into the chancel, literally front and centre. And even today, if you pull away the bit of carpet that usually covers it, the first thing to catch your eye will probably be the memorial brass at the top. The brass commemorates William Bisshop, who died in 1512. Bisshop was the first rector of the ‘new’, fifteenth century, indeed current version of Wiveton’s church. He was presented to the living of Wiveton in 1475 by Joan Brigge, wife of Thomas Brigge, who is buried nearby. He was the incumbent at Wiveton for 37 years. 

Bisshop’s brass is a rather unusual survival for several reasons. First, it depicts Bisshop as a late medieval priest. He is dressed in vestments (a chasuble, an amice and the apparel of the alb, but no stole or manciple), his hair styled with a clerical tonsure, holding the chalice and host, i.e. communion wafer. Below is an inscription in Latin. Translated, it reads: ‘Pray for the soul of Sir William Bisshop, clerk, who died the 5th day of May 1512, on whose soul may God have mercy’. 

The reason these features are so unusual is that, from the reign of Edward VI onward, the traditional Catholic vestments, the depiction of the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, and most of all the explicit request for prayers for the soul of this dead priest would all have been considered unacceptable — ‘superstitious’ and counter to everything the reformation was meant to achieve.

If you then look down past William Bisshop (the ‘sir’, by the way, was simply a late medieval honorific for a priest) there, on the rectangular grey stone slab, is another Latin inscription, rather more elegant this time, as one might expect from someone of Robert Lowde’s education. Translated, it reads as follows: ‘Here lie buried the bodies of Robert Lowde priest of the Anglican church [presbiteri eccle’iae Anglicanae] and recently rector of this parish, and also of Anna his wife. This Robert fell asleep on the 21st day of January and the aforesaid Anna on the 4th day of the following September, AD 1671′. 

At what point did this strange union between a tonsured, Catholic priest dressed in his mass vestments, and a ‘priest of the Anglican church’ who somehow remained in his living throughout the Civil War, take place? I suppose we cannot be entirely certain. But if it was done at Robert Lowde’s instigation, as seems likelyl then the gesture is a powerful one. Lowde’s decision to describe himself as a ‘priest of the Anglican church’ might have been either be statement of long-standing allegiance, or a peace-making gesture after an exhausting and traumatic period of civil conflict. Either way, though, it ends up reinforcing a very Anglican sense of continuity. 

And just to add to a final note to Robert Lowde’s story — in September 1667 Bridget Lowde, daughter of Robert and Anna Lowde, married Anthony Jermy, rector of the nearby parish of Saxlingham, just up the hill from Wiveton. Anthony Jermy was the son of Major Francis Jermy, who between 1642 and 1646, served on various Parliamentarian committees — and brother to Colonel Robert Jermy. So Robert Lowde’s daughter, which is to say Ralph Lowde’s niece, married Robert Jermy’s nephew. 

* * *

Before we say farewell to Ralph Lowde and the world he knew, there are a few more Lowde relations that ought to be mentioned in passing. 

First, let us consider Ralph and Robert Lowde’s brother Roger. Like them, Roger travelled from Lancashire to Cambridge and was eventually ordained as a priest, although in his case, the process was a remarkably swift one. Roger arrived at Caius College in 1613, at the age of 18 years. In 1619, aged only 24, he became rector of Ryther, a village near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. He died in 1654, leaving a will in favour of his wife Elizabeth, his daughters Katherine and Elizabeth, and his sons James and Roger, and made his brothers James and Robert executors of his will. I know nothing more about him than this.

Even more enigmatic is the person named Robert Lowde who was ordained in 1655, and who was presented to the rectory of Cley-next-the-Sea on 8 August 1660 by Henry Parr, gentleman. He was buried in Cley in 1690. It is difficult to avoid the impression that he must have been related in some way to Ralph Lowde, but the connection remains unclear. 

Finally, a record in Lambeth Palace Library shows that one Roger Lowde was presented to the living of Edingthorpe, Norfolk on 7 October 1658 (another source says 1660) on the resignation of Nathaniel Michell, and also mentions Robert Dillworth, gentleman, of Wiveton, in connection with the presentation. As Nathaniel Mitchel is mentioned elsewhere as a puritan who in 1662 was ejected from North Walsham, and who was overcome by melancholy as  result, perhaps we can assume from this that Roger Lowde was more of a conforming Anglican? Again, though, his connection with Ralph Lowde of Blakeney is not known.

* * *

We don’t know what killed Ralph Lowde, rector of Blakeney and Wiveton. There is, though, some reason to suppose he might have died from disease.

One possibility is bubonic plague. In 1636, a major outbreak of the plague had occurred in London and Westminster, and while it never reached the levels of mortality of the very worst epidemics, including those of 1625 and 1665, by 1637 it still killed more than 10,000 people in these two cities alone — more than seven percent of the population.

There is less information on how the outbreak affected Norfolk. Looking at the Blakeney parish registers, nothing seems out of the ordinary in 1636 to 1638 in terms of deaths. It is, however, very hard to avoid the impression that something happened there in the summer of 1639, particularly in July and August, that was relatively unusual. The parish wasn’t a particularly large one, with something like 300 adult communicants, but nine parishioners seem to have been buried in Blakeney in those two months alone. Then in November, four people were buried, including Ralph Lowde himself. This is a level of mortality that simply didn’t occur at any other point in the 1630s or 1640s in Blakeney.

For what it’s worth, here is a list of the number of burials in Blakeney for some of these years. (The register, as was typical at the time, counts the year from 25 March, i.e. Lady Day, rather than from 1 January, as we would do now.)

1635 – 9 burials

1636 – 12 burials

1637 – 11 burials

1638 – 14 burials

1639 – 23 burials

1640 – 7 burials

1641 – 16 burials

1642 – 4 burials

And so on, but this gives the general idea — 1639 was, in Blakeney, a year that saw a great deal of death, much of it in the summer and autumn. In early modern rural England, deaths in non-plague years tended to cluster in the late winter, whereas mortality spikes in late summer and the autumn are often assumed to be plague-related.

So is it possible that Blakeney experienced a localised outbreak of bubonic plague? There were, of course, plenty of other illnesses that could cause high rates of death in early modern England. One of these was typhus. Another that ought to be considered was an ague-type disease called the ‘New Disease,’ which affected England in 1638-1639. John Graunt, writing in the 1660s, mentions it as a ‘harvest ague’, ‘a malignant fever raging so fiercely about harvest that there appeared scarce hands enough to take in the corn’, but also as a winter disease.

In truth, we’ll never know what caused Ralph Lowde’s life to come to an end at such a relatively young age.

But having imagined him living in my house, with his growing family, his books and perhaps his memories of other far-distant places, it is now almost impossible for me to stop myself from imagining so much else: those early symptoms, whether he recognised them or tried to ignore them, this man who must have sat by so many deathbeds, the odd ache or stabbing pain, a lurching sense of recognition as his long fingers sought and finally found the tell-tale glandular swellings, or as a mere sense of discomfort flared into a searing fever — and then perhaps, as the end approached, some last delirium-inflected attempt to make sense, using all his theological training and experience, of why things were ending this way, what came next, what the point of it all can have been.

Lying in my bed at night, in the room I suspect was also Ralph Lowde’s room, I wonder about all of this.

* * *

Old rectories are odd places. Most houses of any age have connections with particular families spanning more than a generation or two, which gives their story a natural strand of continuity — they were occupied by a particular group of interrelated people who lived, bred and died in more or less the same place, before something happened to break that link. But with old rectories, the continuity operates in a different way — purely in terms of a shared vocation, exercised through a (mostly) unrelated set of individuals, often from very different places of origin, levels of educational attainment and social status — and for all those reasons, sometimes set at an awkward angle to the rest of their local comminity. 

Some incumbents alight only briefly, leaving hardly as much as an indistinct name on a register somewhere. Others make more of an impression, for good or for ill, if only because they stayed in one place for that much longer.

In the history of Blakeney’s Old Rectory, a few names stand out. There is, for example, John Cleyton (rector c. 1519-1541), pluralist and serial hanger-on to various powerful figures, who may have either built or rebuilt the house I now inhabit, and who was probably responsible for the hall screen and ceiling here. There is James Poynter (rector 1584-1621), who as we have seen managed to make himself memorable for all the wrong reasons. Later came Henry Calthorpe (rector 1743-1781), whose brother James was not only the major local landowner and patron of the living but also a politician and courtier, and who somehow managed to subvert all the usual Georgian ‘squarson’ clichés through his conscientious and dedicated 38 years as incumbent clergyman. And finally there was David Lee Elliott (rector 1906-1915, then again 1923-24), the civilised, faintly ill-starred Anglo-Catholic priest who in 1924 presided over the transformation of this house from a working rectory to a private house, before selling the house, giving up holy orders and eventually retiring to Switzerland. Rightly or wrongly, these people now feel familiar to me. They are part of this place. I cannot imagine it without them.

Ralph Lowde, on reflection, perhaps deserves to join this latter group. Of all the clergymen who lived in my house, he may well have been the best educated — he was certainly the only one who lectured in Greek and Hebrew, as opposed to simply learning them. If he lacked James Poynter’s flair for making enemies, he perhaps have also lacked John Cleyton’s compulsive need to advance himself far beyond the confines of parochial ministry. He raised a little family here, and despite his far-away origins and his early death, he seems to have left something approaching a clerical dynasty in his wake. I would love to know more about him, and when this pandemic ends and the record offices are once again open, this may become possible. The fact that his career, brief as it was, spanned both the fallout of the Tudor reformations and the first dark clouds of a catastrophic civil war, reminds us that our own times, divisive and eventful as they may seem to us, are by no means exceptional. And there is, I suppose, something comforting in that.