Earls Colne, Parish Church of St Andrew, Essex

A fascinating repository of parish records for the village of Earls Colne has been put together by a team at the University of Cambridge. The project that created the database ran from 1972 until 2002.

The database contains the surviving records of Earls Colne over the period 1375 to 1854.

This work enables historians to examine the records and try to make sense of aspects of life during different periods. In this post I have selected an individual from the mid to late-16th century to get a flavour of local life. The parish and court records provide a glimpse of history.

Back in the 16th C the parish church was the centre of the village community. It was here that parishioners were commanded to go for divine service on Sunday. It was outside and inside the church that punishments would be placed on those parishioners who had been found guilty of committing moral transgressions by the Archdeaconry Court. The churchwardens ensured the details of punishments and fines were exacted. The parish church in the 21st century is peaceful and quaint, only with faint echoes of a different world.

The individual I selected to look at the records for was a man called William Martin (or Martyn), or his alias – William Jarvis. I have no affiliation to William, I just selected him to examine the records. William’s life was a colourful one where his moral slips did not go unnoticed.

The records for William don’t appear to state what he did, when he was born and when he died. They start with his marriage to Margaret Hudson in 1564 and end in 1614 when he was a witness for a neighbour. This is a period of 50 years. It appears he was a candidate for a long life, if he got married in his twenties.

He changed his name not long after his marriage as his surname starts to appear as ‘Martin’ rather than ‘Jarvis’ around 1568.

However, he seems to have lived his life in and out of the Archdeaconry Court accused mainly of being drunk, blaspheming, not going to church and impregnating various women. He was often at threat of excommunication and managed some of the time to serve his penances – at least eventually as he did try to deny the transgressions he was accused of.

The records show that his first-born son (William) died before his 2nd birthday and just over a year later a second son is christened (William). It is within a couple of years of this son’s birth than the records tell of his first dalliance with the ladies – he had ‘impregnated’ Edith Boreham.

The ‘carnal copulation’ took place at the house of John Knight on Good Friday when William was passing the house at night (it appears that the relations took place between 10 pm and 2 in the morning). He denied this transgression and the judge ‘ordered him to purge himself under the hands of seven of his honest neighbours’. He was also accused by the churchwardens of being a ‘scold and blasphemer’ and suspected of having a liaison (‘incontinency’) with the wife of William Carter.

However, he fails to be purged by his neighbours and is ordered to do public penance. This penance was initially to be on a Sunday in the marketplace at Coggeshall and then again on the following Sunday at Earls Colne. Like the Skimmington Ride at Montacute House in Somerset, the concept of public shaming is significant in punishment for moral transgressions.

The records continue to show:

In 1571 Edith Boreham’s newly born son, also named William, is christened. However, the son is buried in 1572.

In 1574 Elizabeth Carter denies she has been ‘incontinent’ with William Martin.

In 1575 Edith, the daughter of William Martin is christened.

In 1581 William is referred to the Manor Court – ‘William Martin is a common drunkard and swearer and vehemently suspected to be a daily whore master therefore we intreate of you that you would examine him’.

In 1587 William gets Elizabeth Burton pregnant.

At some point between around 1591 and 1608 William remarries. The records do not give his previous wife’s burial. However, he is accused of getting his new wife Helen pregnant before their marriage.

Ecclesiastical Law & Punishment

The population of England grew in Elizabeth I’s reign. Essex’s adult population went from 35,000 to 40,000 – a growth of 12.5%. At least 15,000 (37.5%) adults were arraigned for sexual offences. This was not just a peculiarity of Essex as the rest of the country were being summoned for such offences. (Mortimer, Time Travellers Guide to Elizabethan England, p. 314).

These offences come under ecclesiastical law which the Elizabethans did not take as seriously as common law. However, even the hint of scandal or malicious neighbours could mean an individual was summoned (Mortimer, p 314). Elizabethans lived under the scrutiny of their neighbours, relatives, servants, churchwardens and village elders.

A penance that William Martin may have had to endure was to stand at the door of Earls Colne parish church on a Sunday wearing a white sheet, carrying a white wand, and confessing his fault to his neighbours. During the church service he possibly would have had to stand at the front and read an appropriate homily. The punishment in the marketplace at Coggleshall may have been to kneel or stand bareheaded and barefooted wearing a paper hat with ‘adulterer’ or ‘blasphemer’ written on it. (Mortimer, pp. 314-315).

Figure 2: A Book of Homilies in the Church of St George and St Mary at Cockington, Devon. Under Elizabeth the parish was returned to the reformed religion of Edward VI’s time. By the 1580s Elizabethan churches had been renovated with the aim of no distractions (i.e. nothing that would sanction idolatry) (Craig, John, ‘Parish Religion’, The Elizabethan World, pp. 227-232). Parishioners were meant to concentrate on listening to sermons and homilies and not be influenced by images or statues.

If an individual was in breach of ecclesiastical law, it was the parish churchwardens who reported them to the Archdeaconry Court. Then the individual would be summoned to appear on a set date. If the individual was innocent, they needed to arrange for compurgators (upstanding neighbours) to be present. The number required to speak for the individual was set by the court – around 5 or 6 was the norm but it could be more if the court specified it. This could have been expensive for the individual who would have to pay the expenses of the compurgators. The compurgators also needed to all turn up and swear an oath on the bible. If the compurgators did not comply with these requirements, then the individual was automatically found guilty. (Mortimer, p. 314).

William Martin did not, it appears, concern himself with compurgators. This could be down to finances, the problem of getting a group of compurgators to testify for him, knowing a plea of innocence would fail or trying his luck in denial of the charges. This meant he faced having his reputation shamed and being excommunicated. During Elizabeth I’s reign some 4,000 adults in Essex take this route of not having back up from compurgators and effectively offered themselves as guilty (Mortimer, p. 315).

In 1585 William Martin does get excommunicated and is later absolved and restored through the Archdeaconry Court. The accusation was that ‘he cometh drunkard he cometh not to church and a common railer upon his neighbours etc’. The court records that:

he admits the charges to be true therefore he is ordered that upon Sunday next come into the parish church of Earls Colne in time of common prayer he shall openly confess all his said faults and ask god forgiveness and the congregation and there promise that he will never do the like hereafter and to certify at the next under the hands of the minister and the churchwardens of the same 18d.

Figure 3: The interior of Earls Colne where William Martin would have stood to confess his faults, ask forgiveness and promise not to repeat his behaviour.

However, he does continue his ways and gets excommunicated again and appears to be in this state for a number of years.

There are 2 forms of excommunication (Mortimer, p. 315):

  • Minor excommunication: Suspension from church services and exclusion from the sacraments of marriage and communion.
  • Major excommunication: This entails being excluded from being a member of a Christian society. This included losing the right to be buried in consecrated ground, entering a Christian household or having any help or support from your Christian neighbours.

The last entry in the records for William is for Monday, 1st August 1614 and cites him as a compurgator in the case of a Jas (James) Burton of Earls Colne. Jas stands accused of having ‘carnal knowledge of the body of the widow Sadd’. The compurgators take on oath that this was never the case and the Jas is dismissed with a warning to not frequent the company of the widow.

It seems that William had cleaned up his act and had been absolved from his excommunication to become an upstanding member of the parish. Although there is no record of his absolution from excommunication. This could be because he was living in another local parish when it was resolved.

The Church at Earls Colne

Having finished the tale of William Martin, I need to say a thing or two about the church at Earls Colne. Although the restoration of the main body of the church occurred after William’s time, it would have been recognisable to him. In the 14th C the church was either rebuilt or remodelled from an earlier one. The tower was added in circa 1460. Then in 1534 the tower was partly rebuilt by John de Vere, earl of Oxford. The brick on the eastern side of the tower is from this time. (British History Online, ‘Earls Colne: Church’, pp 99-102).

Figure 4: Earls Colne Church from the South East.


Figure 5: Crow-step crenellations with the stars (molet or mullet in heraldry) of John De Vere, Earl of Oxford. Flint has been used in the ornamentation. The tower was added circa 1460 and partly rebuilt in 1534 by John de Vere. The brick work on the church tower – see Figure 4 – dates from this latter period. (British History Online, pp 99-102). Brick was an early-Tudor favourite in Essex (see post on Layer Marney Tower).

The weather-vane comprising of a copper corona and cock are circa late 17th C/early 18th C. (Historic England, ‘Parish Church of St Andrew’).


Craig, John, ‘Parish Religion’, in The Elizabethan World (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

‘Earls Colne: Church’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10, Lexden Hundred (Part) Including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe, ed. Janet Cooper (London, 2001), pp. 99-102. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol10/pp99-102 [accessed 3 February 2020].

Mortimer, Ian, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England (London: The Bodley Head, 2012)

‘Name Index – Wm Martin also Jarvis (M223)’, Records of an English Village 1375-1854, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Library) <https://wwwe.lib.cam.ac.uk/earls_colne/names/M223.htm> [accessed 1 February 2020]

‘Parish Church of St Andrew’, Historic England List Entry 1182390, (1962), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1337907> [accessed 1 February 2020]