My ancestors’ lives illuminated by recent reading

I’ve just finished reading Adrian Tinniswood’s The Verneys: Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England. It’s an absorbing account of one family’s story, based on an unusually comprehensive archive of letters, and an illustration of how family history can bring political and social history to life. Every family historian must wish they had access to similar records for their own ancestors, rather than the sparse supply of parish records and occasional wills from which we have to piece together the bare bones of their biographies.

View of Clayton, Sussex

View of Clayton, Sussex

Although the Verneys were more socially elevated than my own ancestors (Sir Edmund Verney, with whom the story begins, was King Charles I’s standard bearer and fell at the battle of Edgehill), Tinniswood’s book helped me to understand a number of aspects of my maternal family’s history. I was interested to read, for example, about the newly-appointed rector of their Buckinghamshire parish, who was unable to take possession of the rectory because the former incumbent’s widow refused to move out. After protracted but unsuccessful negotiations, he solved the problem by marrying her.

This reminded me of the experience of my ancestor, Magnus Byne, the rector of Clayton-cum-Keymer in Sussex. When he took up his appointment on 24th July 1640, the parish rectory was occupied by Anne Chowne, formerly Bantnor, née Wane, daughter of one previous incumbent and the widow of two others, together with at least one child. Magnus married Anne just over a fortnight later, on 12th August: they were my 9 x great grandparents. To what extent was their marriage, or indeed either of Anne’s previous marriages, a matter of simple convenience? Perhaps, given the prevalence of arranged marriages (Tinniswood relates many examples of protracted marital negotiations in the Verney family in this period), the question is simply anachronistic. We know, from contemporary letters and wills, that genuine conjugal affection often followed marriages arranged for financial expedience, even if it did not precede it.

Lancelot Andrewes (via wikimedia)

Lancelot Andrewes (via wikimedia)

Having finished the Verney book, I’m now reading John Drury’s new biography of George Herbert, one of my favourite poets. Again, his detailed description of the seventeenth-century context is helping me to understand my own ancestors’ experience.  One of the figures who looms large in the book is Lancelot Andrewes, the renowned bishop and scholar who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible. Herbert studied under Andrewes, who would also be a major influence on a much later poet, T S Eliot.

I discovered recently that Andrewes was bishop of Chichester when Anne Wane’s father William (my 10 x great grandfather) was ordained deacon there on 28th May 1598, though the ordaining bishop was actually John Sterne of Colchester.  When William was ordained a priest a month later, the diocesan bishop was said to be Samuel Harsnett and the ordaining bishop was once again John Sterne. William Wane was appointed rector of ‘Clayton with chapel of Keymer’ on 1st April 1601, a position that he held until his death twenty-five years later.

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