Monday 29 November 2021

Old Days of Eton Parish - The Beginnings of the Church in Eton A.D. 925 to 1212


BEFORE attempting to trace the first beginnings of the Church in Eton, it will be well to review very shortly the history of the Church in this country generally, and especially in that part of it with which we are concerned. 

There is no evidence to show that the British Church which existed in our island, from the second to the fourth century, had extended to the neighbourhood of Eton. At least with the expulsion of the Britons by the Saxons, all signs of Church settlements disappeared, and heathenism again reigned supreme. 

Nor are there any proofs that the mission of St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, reached as far as the north bank of the Thames. 

The first mission that penetrated Wessex, as this part of the country was then called, was led by Bishop Birinus, who was consecrated in Italy by the Archbishop of Milan. With a band of monks from Northern Italy, he landed on the Hampshire coast, and passing Winchester made his way gradually along the Thames valley; eventually he penetrated as far as Oxfordshire, and established his cathedral at Dorchester (1). There in 635 this Bishop of Wessex baptised Cynegils, the King of the West Saxons, and his eldest son. 

The growth of Christianity, in the country through which he passed, seems to have been surprisingly rapid and of a sturdy character. 

These Anglo-Saxons, like the Old British Christians, were free from all foreign interference, their Services were said in their native tongue, their Christianity was untainted by any of the later Roman developments. Though they were a rough people and sometimes given to violence, they were staunch believers, and nobly generous in their support of the ancient faith.

The first settlements of converts had probably to be content with the periodical visits of a monk or priest, who would hold an outdoor service, in their native language, at the foot of a Cross set up in their village ; and then a little later they would build a simple Church and perhaps support a resident priest. 

In Anglo-Saxon times, before the coming of the Normans, most of the Church buildings were small and poor. Here and there are found remains of Churches built of stone, but they were generally made of rough timber cut down from the oak forests, smeared with rough-cast, and thatched with reeds. They showed little beauty of architectural design; they were however the beginnings of better things. 

Although monks and monasteries had in later days an ill repute, and more or less deserved it, it must be borne in mind that many of the stories told against them were exaggerated by those who wanted an excuse for enriching themselves at their expense. At any rate, at the time with which we are concerned, they were doing a vast work towards the future of England. 

Besides Christianising the country, these colonies of monks were busy erecting mills and farm-houses, making roads and bridges, draining marshes, clearing forests, cultivating wastes, opening up communication both by land and water, and so laying foundations for the civilisation and prosperity of the people. In fact England owes them a debt, which, in spite of subsequent failures, should not be forgotten. But just when Christianity was gaining ground, there came a check, which seems to have been severely felt in most parts of the country, and to no small degree in the county of Bucks. 

Again and again in the ninth and tenth centuries, Wessex was ' harried' by the rough heathen Danes, and a general sense of unsettlement prevailed. These raids were specially directed against the monasteries, which they plundered of their wealth, often slaughtering the monks without mercy. In the north of England they quite swept away these centres of learning, and even in Wessex, when in later times King Alfred rescued it from their violence, he found it necessary to reconstruct the system of civilisation, and to revive the religious studies which had been brought to a standstill. 

Eventually the Danes, attracted by the appearance of the country, settled down amicably in Wessex among the Saxons, adopted their religion, their laws and customs, and intermarried with them. The county of Bucks largely recovered its normal prosperity under Earl Godwin in a peaceful forty years before the Norman Conquest. 

But there is another factor to be noticed, which besides monasticism had also far-reaching effects on the religious future of the country, and had already made itself widely felt. 

In 668, when most of England had become Christian, an Eastern monk Theodore, a native of Tarsus, St. Paul's birthplace, was chosen to fill the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ordained and consecrated in North Italy, and with wonderful energy, although he was sixty-six years of age, he travelled through the greater part of our island, organising fresh monasteries and schools, and set himself to unite in one Church the Christians con-verted by the various isolated missions, and to make it a compact society with a definite government and a general synod. He largely increased the number of Dioceses, appointing to each a Bishop with a settled sphere of work. He also is credited with originating the parochial system, under which every Diocese was divided into parishes, in each of which a definite person (persona ecclesiæ, or parson) was to be placed, and to whom was committed the care of all the souls within the parish boundaries. It naturally took some time to effect this arrangement, but it is important as marking the real beginning of the national Church of England.

So it was that, some time between A.D. 902 and 925, when Wessex (2) was included in this measure, Eton found itself constituted a parish, containing 786 acres (3) separated from its neighbours by well-defined landmarks, and for the present with the rest of the county under a Bishop whose seat was at Dorchester-on-Thames (4). 

There are as yet no Episcopal registers which will help us to determine what provision had been made for the spiritual needs of the people. It is not till we approach nearer the Norman Conquest that we have any certain information to guide us. 

There is, however, evidence of another kind which seems to indicate that some time before this the Church had established a firm hold on the parish. 

There appear, as we have already noticed, to have been two separate manors within the parish boundaries, the township of Eton and the Manor of Eton cum Stockdales and Colenorton as it is now called, and wherever such townships or Manors existed, it was an understood thing that the thegn or Lord of the Manor should make proper provision for the spiritual welfare of the people on his estate. In most cases the responsibility was accepted with astonishing generosity, and the thegn either voluntarily gave a tenth part of the produce of his land to some monastery willing to supply clergy, or constituted himself patron of the living by endowing it with this tithe, as a perpetual charge on his estate, and often in addition he surrendered certain fields, which henceforth became Church property. 

That some such provision was made in Eton may almost be taken for granted. 

It appears from the Domesday Survey that the previous holder of the Manor of Eton was Queen Eadgyth, the wife of Edward the Confessor and daughter of the famous Earl Godwin who was the leading nobleman in the Kingdom of Wessex. With her high character (5) and well-known piety and her devotion to good works, it is  hardly possible to conceive that she would have allowed her tenants in Eton to lack the spiritual care which was held so necessary a part of the Christian religion.

At the same time, no positive proof is forthcoming, till we learn that Walter, of the family of Other, who succeeded the Queen on the Manor, held the advowson or patronage of Eton and Ortone (Horton) as well as that of Burnham. 

At least, then, about this time there was a priest in charge of the parish, and in all probability there was a Parish Church of some sort and a parsonage house as well. 

Where the earliest Church stood, we can only roughly conjecture. There is a local tradition that it stood in King's Stable Street on ground occupied by a malthouse which was pulled down in the middle of the nineteenth century, and tradition further asserts that there was once a vicarage house on the site of 33 King's Stable Street, close to the river. Seeing that in those days nearly all the Churches were planted on the river bank as the most accessible highway, and that Edward the Confessor had himself chosen such a site for Old Windsor Church, these seem to be probable traditions. At the same time there are strong grounds for believing that, at least in later days, the position of the Church must have been changed and a new and more substantial building erected on a more convenient site. Professor Willis gives good reasons for supposing that the Parish Church, when the founding of the College was contemplated, was situated in the Churchyard to the south of the present College Chapel. 

The next available information as to the spiritual care of the parish is of later date. 

Among the religious orders introduced into this country after the Norman Conquest was the Order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine. They took their name from that Augustine who was Bishop of Hippo in 395; their order was founded in 1061. When they came into England in the next century, they met with a warm welcome, and soon had as many as 170 houses or centres of work. 

They were known as the Black Canons, from wearing long black cassocks and black hoods. Unlike the monks, who were close shaved, these Canons wore beards, and caps or birettas instead of cowls. One of their most famous houses was planted at Merton in Surrey and known as the Priory and Convent of Merton. This Priory for many years to come had much to do with the religious life of Eton. 

The Black Canons seem to have served the parish of Eton as well as the parishes of Hupeton (Upton), Taplow, Colnbrook, Wexham, Horton and Hitcham. Their services would generally, as mentioned above, be invited by the Lord of the Manor, or, to relieve himself of all responsibility, he would hand over to the Priory the advowson of the living, together with the tithes, the glebe, and offerings for the maintenance of the parish priest. This appears to have been the case at Eton. 

We learn from the Records of Merton Priory that the Prior had become possessed of a messuage in Burgagio (6) de Eaton' with an acre of land called Sudmed (South Meadow) and a croft called Chelvescroft (? Chalvey) near ‘ the ville of Eton.' This is mentioned in a lease (7) of this land made in 1198 to Robert son of Hugo de Boveney. It seems also that the Church in Eton, in addition to the tithes previously secured, was possessed of thirty acres of arable land and six acres of pasture land. These were rented in whole or in part by one Ralph Cajun and the rent was paid to the Prior of Merton. 

About the same time the Priory increased their property in Eton and acquired a field called Bullokeslok (Bullock's lock) with rights of fishery and four eyots appertaining, and land which now is known as the Playing Fields. 

In the Merton Records of June 11, 1212, mention is made of a Commission held at Wexham Church to assess the value of the Vicarage of Upton, and among those appointed to serve on the Commission are the priests of Eton, Wexham and Wyrardisbury (Wraysbury), and here occurs the first mention by name of the priest in charge of the parish. He is entered as Richard de Eton. No titles are given in this record, so that we are left in the dark, as to whether Richard was Vicar or only a priest removable at the will of the Prior. 

There are however certain side lights which may help us in a small degree, and at least are of interest. 

We learn that where patrons of Benefices had handed over advowsons and Church property to religious communities, the monks obtained licence to be perpetual Incumbents of these Churches, without applying to the Bishop for institution or induction. This accounts for the absence of any records of institutions to such parishes in the early Diocesan Registers. But it is also clear that by this period corruptions were creeping in, and monastic bodies were often in the habit of diverting the parish endowments they received to other purposes, and con-tented themselves with providing very scantily for the needs of the parish. Often they left the parish without a resident priest and kept up the services and other duties by the occasional visits of one of their brethren. Naturally parishes suffered, and the fabrics of the Churches too. It seems that the Black or Austin Canons were among the chief offenders in this way. 

Now it so happens that, just at this time with which we are concerned, there were three successive Bishops of Lincoln who set their faces firmly against this palpable abuse: William of Blois 1203, Hugh of Wells 1209, and Grosseteste 1236. All three were active in enforcing on these communities the settlement in all their parishes of a resident Vicar with a small but proportionate share of the parish endowments (8). The second of these Bishops established more than three hundred Vicarages in his Diocese. A list of them is still in existence (9), in which appear both the Chalfonts, Hedsor, Stoke Poges and Upton, and there is a mention of Eiton,' but it cannot be claimed as the Eton in which we are interested. It is most likely the place of the same name in Bedfordshire, which several topographers (10) have con-fused with Eton. Whether, under one or other of the above-named Bishops, Eton in those days was constituted a Vicarage, must remain an open question. We only know that after some few years, as we shall see presently (11), the patronage passed from the Priory into private hands, and the Incumbent is thenceforth designated Rector. 

OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text is has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.


1 Dorchester in Oxfordshire, the parent See of the Dioceses of Winchester, Lincoln and Oxford. 

2 See Bp. Stubbs, Constitutional History. 

3 In 1839 estimated at 783 acres 2 roods 11 perches. 

4 In consequence of the Danish occupation the Bishop of Lincoln removed his See to Dorchester for some years. In 1074 we find the Bishop again settled in Lincoln. 

5 The Queen was married in 1043 and died in 1075. A Latin verse of the day contrasts her with her rough father : " Sicut spina rosam, genuit Godwinus Egitham." 

(Like a thorn rose, Godwin begat Egitha.)

6 If a settlement was defined by a mound and a ditch instead of a 'tun' or quick-set hedge, it was called a 'burh,' whence come the forms borough, burgh and bury. Ransome, Hist. of England, P. 43

7 Heale's Merton, P. 54. 

8 The creation of Vicarages, as distinct from Rectories, seems to date from this period. 

9 Liber Antiquus, Lincoln Registry, translated by A. Gibbons. 

10 e.g. Lipscomb frequently in his valuable book on Buckinghamshire. The Eiton in Bedfordshire is now known as Eaton Socon. 

11 Chapter IV. 

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