Pew-hopping in St. Margaret’s Church

Manuscripts of unusual shapes and sizes are always fun to investigate, and we recently had the opportunity to reevaluate a particularly large and interesting one, a ca. 1600 “pew plan” written on a piece of parchment (Folger MS X.d.395), in preparation for the current exhibition, Open City: London, 1500-1700.

Plan of pews

Plan of pews and pewholders for St. Margaret’s, Westminster, ca. 1600 (click image for zoomable high-res version)

Although the name of the church is not identified on the manuscript, we know that the pew plan is for St. Margaret’s church, Westminster, a large and doctrinally conservative parish near Whitehall and Parliament.  The names of the two chapels, “Our Lady Chappel” (on the left) and “Trinity Chappel” (on the right), match, as do the names of many of the parishioners, who appear in the churchwardens’ accounts and parish registers for St. Margaret’s. The location of the communion table against the east (top) wall is an example of the church’s traditionalism, as is the survival of the chancel screen.1

What immediately struck us as worthy of further investigation was the fact that almost every pew had names that had been scratched out (rather messily), and in many cases, replaced with new names, some of which were barely visible.

Pew Plan

Detail of pew plan showing erasure and overwriting of parishioners’ names

The pew plan was an evolving document, as pews were constantly changing hands or being customized. This is apparent in both the obliterated names in the pew plan itself and in references in the churchwardens’ accounts, and is not totally surprising: part-time churchgoers (including courtiers and MPs in this parish) had to surrender their pews if they did not go to church in a three-month period, as did parishioners who suddenly found themselves indigent. These rules were especially hard on widows. Upward mobility or moral standing could result in a pew closer to the altar. Churchwardens served two year terms, and along with burgesses and overseers of the poor, they sat in designated pews during their terms (the churchwardens’ pew was by the west door).2

We got a bit carried away tracking down some of these pew changes, discovering, for example, that in 1592/93, a payment was recorded in the churchwardens’ accounts for a lock and two keys for the pew of Mrs. Marmaduke and Mrs. Ireishe (Westlake, p. 209).3 In the pew plan, they appear together in the third aisle behind the screen along the south wall in Trinity Chapel (the lock is not visible!).

Mrs Irish and Mrs Marmaduke

Pew partners who upgraded their pew in 1592/93

And in 1595/96, one Jane Jones, a widow, was paid 2 shillings 6 pence “to leve & forsake” her pew, “beinge a very pore woman” (Westlake, p. 212). Could this be the “goodwife Jones” who appears all by herself, surrounded by empty pews, at the back of the church? If so, is that the pew she had to forsake? Or her reassignment?

Goodwife Jones, before she was paid to leave her pew?

Goodwife Jones is one of the ca. 158 “mistresses” and 50 “goodwives” listed on the plan. The women are all seated in pews towards the rear of the church, behind the ca. 119 men, almost all of whom are seated in the choir. This segregation by sex accords with one of the two general church seating arrangements that Margaret Aston described4

What about those names that seemed almost completely obliterated? Fortuitously, the manuscript was in the Conservation Lab being prepared for exhibition when members of the Lazarus project were at the Folger to demonstrate their multi-spectral imaging process by examining a possible Shakespeare signature in a Folger book. This team is responsible for work on many seriously compromised manuscripts, including the Archimedes palimpsest. Might such imaging reveal names of parishioners excised from our manuscript? To find out, they imaged the upper right-hand corner of the manuscript.

Indeed, by viewing the multi-spectral image in a range of contrasting “pseudocolors” we were able to decipher a few “hidden” names that are barely visible under normal light, including a Mr. Flecher (possibly John Fletcher, churchwarden 1604/05) and Henry Burnell (churchwarden 1618/19), whose name replaces that of a former pewholder named Thomas.

Obliterated names

Mr. Flecher (the excised third name in the top pew) and Henry Burnell written over Thomas (the first name in the lower pew)

The pew plan with Flecher’s and Burnell’s names slightly visible in pseudocolor

We were hoping to be able to date it more specifically than ca. 1600, or give it a precise date range, and thus were hopeful that one of the three references in the churchwardens’ accounts to expenses for the making of a new “plotte” or “mappe” of the pews (in 1570/71, 1609/10, 1615/16) might refer to the pew plan at the Folger. But at this point we can still only provide an educated guess.

A sampling of the 300+ names that appear on the plan, including “Mr. Thomas Knyvet Esquier,” who was probably knighted in May 1601, suggests that the document was begun before his knighthood, and possibly in the mid to late 1590s, when many of the men and women listed also appear in the churchwardens’ accounts, such as Thomas Gibbes, Mr. Billesby, William Carte, Richard Ferris, George Waites, Thomas Cole, Richard Ireland, Roger Darley, Samuel Haselwood, Christopher Rycroft, William Belton, William Mann, George Allen, Henry Weatherfield, William Goddard, Edmund Doubleday, Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Marmaduke, Mrs. Irish, and Jane Jones.

Other men and women in the plan, such as William Carter, Thomas Tickeridge, William Butcher, John Fletcher, William Stanlake, James Wheatley, John Sharpe, Henry Burnell, Thomas Gregory, Henry Lyde, Mrs. Lambert, and Mrs. Walker, show up in the accounts for the early seventeenth century (Mrs. Walker, Mrs. Lambert, and Mr. John Sharpe all moved to better pews in 1610-11 according to the churchwardens’ accounts, but appear in their original pews in this plan). Their presence in the plan could indicate that the plan itself was updated over an extended period of time between the 1590s and 1615/16, when a new “map” on parchment was made, or that there are other mentions of pew maps in the accounts that we haven’t yet found, or that more than one map was being used concurrently.

No members of the landed gentry appear in the plan, and the only person with any sort of distinction is the aforementioned Thomas Knyvet, esq. (later 1st Baron Knyvet of Escrick) (1545-1622), who sat in the first pew in Our Lady Chapel (on the left) and whose search of the vaults under the House of Lords on the night of 4 November 1605 with fellow parishioner Edmund Doubleday uncovered the Gunpowder Plot (a Mr. Doubleday is in a pew with Mr. Pickering, Mr. Marmaduke, and Mr. Lyde just behind the screen).

We hope you can view this item in the context of the exhibition, which runs through September, and would be happy to share our in-progress trancription if anyone is interested. Surely much more information could be gleaned from it when it is eventually viewed alongside the full run of churchwardens’ accounts at the Westminster Archive Centre. If anyone has any more information about the pewholders, can date it more precisely, or has any further insight into this extraordinary manuscript, please leave a comment below!

  1. See Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke in Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547-c 1700, Oxford, 2007). We are grateful that Professor Fincham brought the plot to our attention in conversations about the exhibition. []
  2. For discussion of pew regulations and their reflection of social order at St. Margaret’s in the 1590s, see J. F. Merritt, The Social History of Early Modern Westminster (Manchester, 2005, pp. 221-23). []
  3. These accounts are now at Westminster Archive Centre. We consulted H. F. Westlake’s excerpts from them, in St Margaret’s Westminster (London, 1914). []
  4. Margaret Aston, “Segregation in Church,” Studies in Church History 27 [1990]). On the social and moral dynamics that pew charts may represent, see also Christopher Marsh, “Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew,” Journal of British Studies 44 (2005), p. 3-26. []

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: carnivalesque 86 » Wynken de Worde

  2. Thank you for the scan. My husband’s ancestors, Thomas Whitney and John Bray, were members of St. Margaret’s during the time of this document. Have you been able to transcribe the names? I am not sure if I located them or not, but I am very grateful to see the document.

    John Bray, a taylor, was churchwarden of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, in 1554-1556. Margaret Haslonde Bray, wife of John Bray and mother of Mary Bray Whitney, was buried at St. Margaret’s, 28 March 1588. John Bray died in 1615. His daughter, Mary, married Thomas Whitney, gentleman of Lambeth Marsh, 10 May 1583, at St. Margaret’s. Their children were all baptized at St. Margaret’s. Two of their children were named after St. Margaret’s parishioners: Arneway and Nowell.

    These folks are the ancestors of the Whitney family in America. I have a lot of information, but this is an abbreviated narrative.

    I look forward to seeing more information being posted. Thanks again!

    • Thank you for this useful information! Indeed, the pew chart includes Mr. Bray, Mrs. Bray, Goodwife Bray, Mrs. Whitney, and Mr. Arneway. I didn’t see a Nowell, but it could very well be one of the names that has been scraped away. Mr. Bray and Mr. Arneway are both in Our Lady Chapel.

  3. I agree. It’s so helpful to have more names and more of a sense of the parishioners at St. Margaret’s. An identification of this chart with any one mentioned in the churchwardens’ accounts remains elusive.

    On another front, there are intriguing questions about the chart’s visual scheme. Are the arches an attempt to mix an elevation with the ground plan? Are they indicative of a chancel screen? There seems to have been one—taken down in 1640s.

    The communion table is set up as an altar at the top of the plan (though labeled a table). Can we take this to be a sign of ceremonialism? Or is this just the position of the piece of furniture at rest?

    Why no communion rail indicated, when according to Matthew Wren’s Parentalia St. Margaret’s had a reputation for having a communion rail “time out of mind.” (Merritt, 348).

    Lots of tantalizing leads, no clear answers.

  4. Re: Mr. Thomas Whitney, gentleman & Mary Bray,

    I am also a descendant of the above couple. I am seeking clarification of the image of the pews. In Our Lady Chapel there is a Mr. Whitney 2. Am I correct in assuming that the numeral 2 stands for how many places belong to Mr. Whitney?

    Thank you so much for making this wonderful image available on the internet.
    Best Regards,
    Ed Sinker in Herefordshire UK

  5. It seems right to us that the numeral 2 refers to the number of seats. Thanks for calling our attention to this family.

  6. Thomas Gassaway and his wife Ann Collinswood were parishioners of Saint Margaret’s around 1634 when they baptized their son Nicholas Gassaway. They are my ancesters. They were also married in this church in 1631. He was 31 and she was 16 at the date of their marriage. The lived in London Town. Are they on the pew list?

    Thank you

  7. I do not see those names on the chart, but remember, lots of names have been obliterated by being scraped away. 1631 as a point of reference may make mention of these people unlikely. We have not hazarded a specific date for this chart, but there are three references to expenses paid for a new “plotte” in the churchwarden’s accounts. As they range from 1570/1 to 1615/16, they would all predate the adulthood of the people you name. You might find some useful information in H. F. Westlake, St Margaret’s Westminster (London, 1914).

%d bloggers like this: