Structure of the Church and Parish in Medieval England

How did the structure of the church in Medieval times shape the community of the people that it was meant to serve?

Winchester Cathedral

The study of family history in Britain involves the use of parish records as the mainstay of early research. The role of the religious community in the lives of our ancestors was fundamental to their whole existence but how did it come to have such significance and how did this play out in the lives of our ancestors and how might we use these records to reveal more about the lives they led? 

    •  The period of the Dark Ages, when the Roman Empire was collapsing,  saw the growth in the power of the Christian Church, which was then referred to as the Catholic religion.
    • In Britain Christianity started to make its presence felt by about 700 AD

The Catholic religion was seen as the true religion and  was divided geographically between the west (Rome) and the east (Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch).

    • With its own laws, lands and taxes, the Catholic church was a very powerful institution.
    • In addition to collecting taxes, the Church also accepted gifts of all kinds from individuals who wanted special favors or wanted to be certain of a place in heaven.
    • The power of the Catholic Church grew with its wealth. The Catholic Church was then able to influence the kings and rulers of Europe. Opposition to the Catholic Church would result in excommunication.

It was an international organisation, which even the King had to obey.

The Power of the Medieval Architecture.

It wielded the ultimate weapon, God’s judgement as to who would enter heaven or hell.

    • In 1054 there was a split called the Great Schism,between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches prompted by arguments over the crusades.
    • The Great Western Schism occurred in in Western Christendom from 1378 – 1417. This was caused by an Italian pope called Pope Urban IV being elected and establishing the papal court in Rome.
    • The French disagreed with this and elected a French Pope who was based in Avignon.
    • The schism in western Christendom was finally healed at the Council of Constance and the Catholic religion was referred to as the Roman Catholic Religion.

So what did this mean for the people of Britain and how did it shape the politics of the people we would become?

    • In a country plagued by attacks from many would be conquerors, the Christian church offered  a unifying stability in Britain and by C12th the ecclesiastical administration had stabilized and under the rule of Rome the structure of the parish as we see it today was defined.
    • It had a power that over rode the power of Monarchs and dictated the structure of life for our forebears

Each country, directly ruled from Rome, was under the control of one or two Archbishops, in Britain’s case, the Archbishop of Canterbury and York.

Bishops were then appointed to each cathedral and they were responsible for all the clergy in the area.

Ely Cathedral

The basic administration division for the church was a parish and a Priest was in charge of a parish, which, on average, comprised 400 individuals and normally covered the same area as a manor.

By this time the existing parish boundaries had become fixed and there were 17 English Dioceses and 4 Welsh.

East Meon Parish Church

As well as the parish clergy there were monks, friars and nuns scattered throughout the parishes in monasteries, abbeys and nunneries.

The role of the regular clergy, the monks and nuns, was to pray, educate and heal the population they served. The secular clergy administered the Mass and ensured the moral soul of the community was looked after and they took care of administration in their area, collection of tithes and taxes, they controlled wills and the rights of inheritance, along with administering to the events in an individuals life, birth, marriage and death.

By the C13th 1 in 50 of males in Britain were in the clergy

    • Both the clergy and the laity were becoming better educated and this in turn impacted on the lives of the common people. Education came to be seen as an important aspect of life and the newly formed universities of Oxford and Cambridge had many monks and priors in attendance.
    • A growth of knowledge in science, maths and astronomy took place
    • The C13th was the peak of the church’s control in Britain
The influence of Rome over State, diminished over the following centuries but the role of the Parish increased. It became the unit of local government, which oversaw taxes, law and order, poor relief, alms, education. Operating much like councils today.
The world of our ancestors was intimately bound to their parish and this explains the importance of the documents in the Parish Chest when undertaking  family and local historical research.


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