St. Peter’s in the Past

Excerpts from a Lecture by the Rev. C. F. Farrar, M.A.

Reprinted from S. Peter de Merton, Bedford, Parish Magazine, Vol. XLIV, nos.1 Jan., 4
Apr., 8 Aug., 9 Sept., 10 Oct. and 11 Nov. 1927

In those days the interior of S. Peter’s Church must have had a very different aspect. In the mediaeval church the whole of the stone-work inside was painted in brilliant colours, depicting scenes in Scripture, more often than not a picture of the Day of Judgment, in which the wicked were having an exceedingly unhappy time, being conveyed to the lower regions by imps and devils, and the righteous were going up into the Kingdom of Heaven. Because there was no Bible for the people, and the priests were often ignorant of it, the congregations were taught very little except occasional stories from the Scriptures and legends of the saints, and the priest looked to the pictures and images in his church to put before the eye of his parishioners some simple facts from the Bible. When the Reformation came, the name of S. Peter De Merton was objected to as Romish, and was corrupted to S. Peter De Martyn; the Church was also called S. Peter-in-the-Fields, because it stood remote from the town. The Church was orientated, that is to say, if one stood in the centre aisle and looked up the chancel it looked to be leaning slightly to the right. Every ancient church had that leaning. The chancel was pointed to the exact spot on the horizon where the sun rose upon the Day of the patron saint of the Church. S. Peter’s Day fell on June 29th, but the chancel did not exactly point to the sunrise on that day; there was a slight deviation, which suggested that 700 years ago, before the chancel was built, the Saint’s Day was not kept on June 29th, but on some other day in that month.

Mr. Farrar said he had in his hand a list of the incumbents of S. Peter’s, numbering 58. They were not rectors until Reformation, but chaplains, or vicars. To him, it was a very interesting list, visioning the many experiences, some painful and dangerous, they must have passed through. He looked down the list and saw that in 1349 there were no less than three vicars appointed within a few months. That was perhaps the most terrible year in the history, not only of England, but of the whole of Europe. It was the year of the Black Death, a fearful plague, probably the bubonic cholera of the East. It swept across Europe, and at last reached England, and appeared to have tainted with its deadly miasma every corner of the country. The ploughman died at his plough, the housewife in her house, the tradesman at his counter, and the vicar in his church. It is supposed that nearly one-half of the people died from the plague. Walter Teye, of Felmersham, who became Vicar of S. Peter’s on Jan. 20, 1334, died in the year of the Black Death. He was succeeded by John de Gurmundecester, a sub-deacon, who was moved on by the Bishop of Lincoln within two months. Richard Mareshall de Salopsia, who followed, fled in fear from the plague-stricken town, and the living was taken by John de Hyndryngham. In that dread year there died in Bedford the Priors of Cauldwell and Newnham, the Master of S. Leonard’s Hospital, the Rectors of S. John’s, S. Mary’s, S. Cuthbert’s, S. Peter’s, the Prior of Bushmead, and the Vicars of Biddenham, Oakley, and Milton Ernest. The mortality was probably more deadly among the clergy than any other class, because they visited the sick and so were infected.

In 1374 John de Sibeston was instituted to S. Peter’s. This was the time when John Wycliffe was preaching against the tyranny of the bishops, the exactions of the Pope, the sale of indulgences, and the many other evils which were in the mediaeval Church. John de Sibeston must have wondered where the truth lay. He lived on to see a terrible day in 1381. When so many people died of the Black Death, there were scarce enough labourers left to till the fields, and famine broke out and the labourers clamoured to have their wages raised. A foolish Bill was passed called the Statute of Labourers, which enacted that no labourer should demand higher wages than he received before the Black Death. Dissatisfaction and rebellion smouldered on into a fierce blaze in 1381, when there broke out the Peasants’ Rising. Bands of peasants, armed with sickles, pikes, and pitchforks, roamed the country, breaking into houses and murdering the people. They surrounded London, they besieged the King in the Tower, they dragged the Archbishop from sanctuary in Westminster and beheaded him. In that time there was no standing army and no police, but when at last the authorities gathered together, they exacted a terrible vengeance, dragging the unhappy peasants from the villages and stabbing them by thousands.

He passed on to Robert Porter, who came to S. Peter’s living in 1533, a Reforming Minister of the Protestant Church. Between him and his successor, John Beard, what changes took place. The Reformation had come. Henry VIII. had done away with the headship of the Pope, over the Church of England, and had proclaimed himself Head of the Church. The Mass, as it had been performed for centuries, had been abolished. S. Peter’s Church underwent another change. Its painted walls were plastered and whitewashed, its pictures and images destroyed, the altar was moved into the centre of the church, and the Vicar was called upon no longer to celebrate at the East end, but to carry the Elements to the congregation in the pews. John Beard, who came to the Vicarage in 1550, must have had a very anxious time, because Queen Mary had come to the throne, determined to restore the Church to the authority of the Pope and to reinstate the Roman Catholic worship. There were 259 burnings of Protestant martyrs, John Beard must have been divided in his mind whether to maintain the Protestant worship or to return to the Mass as preached through medieval times. During that period was erected that old building, which some of his hearers could remember, and which stood at the West end of the Church in the present De Parys Avenue – that Elizabethan house which was the original Rectory. When the Church passed into the patronage of the Crown instead of the Abbey De Merton, the clergy were allowed to marry, so from that time the Rector of St. Peter’s became a family man, and that old house was his first home.

In 1626 Philip Collyer was instituted to St. Peter’s. These were the times when Archbishop Laud, who was what might be termed a Ritualist, attempted to introduce changes into the Church which many people thought showed a desire to return to the Church of Rome. The Parliament which met in 1640 consisted mainly of Puritans, and they disestablished the Church of England, and abolished the offices of archbishop, bishop, archdeacon and canon. They turned out of their livings 2,000 ministers who wished to maintain the worship of the Church of England, and placed in their stead what we should call Nonconformists. The congregation which John Bunyan joined occupied the Church and living of St. John’s. Philip Collyer lived to see the beginning of these days, but, happily for himself, died before he saw their end. He died on Feb. 14th 1643, just at the time the Church was being disestablished; and the cause of his death was probably one of the periodical plagues which came upon the town, because he and his daughter were both buried in the Churchyard on the same day. A year or two afterwards Robert Marshall was inducted to the living. The books at Lincoln added after his name “intruded by the Lords Commissioners.” These were five laymen appointed by the Government to supervise the whole organization of the Church and to perform the old duties of the Bishops. Robert Marshall would be ordered by Parliament to hold Presbyterian services in the church, and the congregation probably did not like it, for it was said that while the parson was giving forth the doctrine of John Knox, the people in low tone would be reciting what prayers and psalms of the Church they could remember, the Book of Common Prayer having been forbidden. In the tower of the church was a bell dated 1650, with the inscription “God save the King,” written backwards, and then turned over. It was an extraordinary thing that people of St. Peter’s should put that inscription upon their bell the very year that Oliver Cromwell became Protector. In 1663 Giles Thorne was Rector – a very High Churchman, strong for King Charles, and a bitter enemy of the Long Parliament and the various forms of worship introduced in the churches of Bedford. He was Rector of St. Mary’s – a man not at all discreet in his tongue, and when preaching one evening in 1642 in St. Cuthbert’s Church he was arrested by troopers of the Parliament and imprisoned in London for six years. But all things come to him who waits, and in 1660 Thorne returned in great pride to St. Mary’s, was promoted Archdeacon of Buckingham and Chaplain to Charles II. and also got the living of St. Peter’s.

In 1799 came in one Philip Hunt, a famous person, who spoiled St. Peter’s tower by putting a parapet along the top, and built the Vicarage which many present parishioners remembered. He resigned the living three times, and was apparently restored each time. He was chaplain and secretary to the Duke of Bedford. The Duke went to Constantinople, and with him went the Rector of St. Peter’s. He started to come home in 1801, when the war with Napoleon broke out, and as he came across France Mr. Philip Hunt was clapped into a French prison, and remained there for two years. One more name. In 1835 the Rev. Gustavus Burnaby (whom the lecturer, as a child, remembered) was instituted Rector of St. Peter’s. In that Rectory was born Colonel Fred Burnaby, of Abu Klea fame. “I saw Colonel Burnaby once,” remarked the lecturer parenthetically. “I sat near him at dinner, and he was the most huge man I ever saw in all my life. Never have I seen such a pair of shoulders.”

He (Mr. Farrar) had spent a good many hours in hunting through the Church Registers of Bedford, and he was impressed by the fact that very few children appeared to have survived. It might be wondered why the population of England had grown so slowly, except within the last 50 years. The reason was the appallingly unhealthy conditions in which our forefathers lived – miserable houses, filthy clothes, bad and insufficient diet, open ditches down their streets, in which they threw all their rubbish, which festered and stank through the summer and waited to be washed away by the floods in winter. There were few doctors, and those merely skilled in a few herbs and absolutely ignorant of surgery. Therefore, England was visited again and again by plague. Forty persons were laid in one grave in Bury Field, land west of S. Peter’s. In S. Paul’s Church there was a stone in the floor which recorded that there lay the body of Thomas Cawne and the bodies of his five children. There was also a tombstone there which recorded the death of Patience Johnson at the age of 38, the mother of 12 sons and 12 daughters. She died of her 25th child. He found in the register the burials of 21 out of the 25 children, most of them in infancy. Only four survived their mother. That was the ordinary rate of mortality among children in the old days, and it could not be wondered at. Tea and coffee were unknown. The poor people drank water out of ponds and insanitary wells, and if they could afford it they drank beer. They had no fodder for their cattle and sheep, so after the lambing and calving seasons they killed off a certain quantity (he was speaking of the well-to-do people here), and had fresh meat during the summer months; then, as they could not keep their flocks through the winter, they killed off the cattle and salted it. People lived on salt meat for nine months of the year. Present day mothers would find it difficult to rear their children if the water and beer were bad and the meat salted.

St. Peter’s Green was part of the old churchyard, and there were bones lying under every part of it. There were some interesting graves – those of Viscount De Vismes, one of a family of refugees from the horrors of the French Revolution; Monsieur Dupont the first Frenchman to teach French at Bedford Grammar School at the beginning of the last century; and Dr. Hook, for many years Head Master of the Grammar School, who died in 1811. In addition to his headmastership, he held two village livings, but he evidently was not a very good head master, for when he died he left four boys at the School. In S. Peter’s Churchyard was also buried Dr. Thackeray, whose name should be long remembered in Bedford history. No man ever had such a public funeral as his, in 1832. He was physician and surgeon of Bedford Infirmary, of which he was a great benefactor, and he died from attending people through a very violent outbreak of cholera. John Wesley preached underneath S. Peter’s Church tower, and the green recalled the riotous election scenes at the hustings.

Concluding, Mr. Farrar said that S. Peter’s parishioners enjoyed a great privilege in worshipping in a church which had such a great history. He did not think anyone appreciated our English churches so much as an American, because the latter came from a land which did not possess any ancient buildings. So, fitly, he might end by quoting these beautiful verses written in an English church by an American (Emerson):

What anxious hearts have pondered here
The mystery of life,
And prayed the Eternal Light to clear
Their doubts and aid their strife.

They live with God – their homes are dust –
et here their children pray,
And in this narrow lifetime seek
To find the narrow way.