3. From the Black Death to the Reformation
While parts of the parish of St Augustine were still rural enough in the 14th century to warrant the employment of a shepherd, non-agricultural economic activity was steadily on the increase, carried on in or around people’s homes, in street-front shops, backroom workshops, attics, yards and smithies, particularly in Botolph Street where such trades as the manufacture of iron and the making of leather goods were engaged in. Later the textile trade predominated, weaving, dying and fashioning woollen fabrics in attics and small workshops.
In these cramped, insanitary conditions, diseases easily took hold, and seem to have affected the parish’s priesthood equally with their flock. During the 14th century a change of rector in the years 1349, 1362 and 1370, usually indicating the death of the previous incumbent, coincided with major outbreaks of bubonic plague (Black Death) in Norwich. Plague revisited Norwich in 1579 and 1634, the latter date once again coinciding with the death of St Augustine’s rector, Richard Brackett, who was buried beneath the altar. Leprosy was another endemic disease and a leper hospital, known as a lazar house or leprosia, stood outside St Augustine’s Gate – one of six such ‘isolation’ hospitals scattered around the outskirts of the city. Lazar House in Sprowston Road being the only surviving example. That near St Augustine’s Gate was called the Hospital of St Mary
and St Clement.
In addition to the natural cycles of death and disease, the parish also witnessed outbreaks of violence and dissent at periods of religious and economic crisis. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 a rebel army lead by Geoffrey Litester, a dyer from North Walsham, gathered on Mousehold Heath and entered the city from the north, attacking and looting the homes of prominent citizens. Whether St Augustine’s church was damaged at this time is not known, but sometime between about 1390 and 1450, the church was extensively reconstructed in the new Perpendicular style of Gothic architecture. The Poor Men’s Guild of St Augustine’s, in existence in the 15th century, is thought to have been established, like a number of such parish guilds in the county, to help raise funds for the repair of the church’s fabric and fittings. The dedication of the church in 1429, noted by the Lathes’ farm’s overseer or ‘Serjeant of Ploughs and Carts’, marked perhaps a significant moment in the restoration programme. No records are extant to account for where the money came from to undertake such major rebuilding, but it is perhaps significant that during this period a number of prominent citizens owned property in the parish, at least one of whom, John de Shipdam, was a mason. Indeed, there were more masons living in Ultra Aquam during this period than in any other part of the city. Other building workers, such as glaziers, reeders and carpenters, also had property here, suggesting there was no shortage of work for them locally.
The early 16th century witnessed a boom in the number of houses being built in the parish, stimulated by Norwich’s increasing prosperity and growing population, as well as by the great fires of 1505 and 1507, which laid waste large areas of the mainly timber-built city. It may be that it was one of these conflagrations that damaged St Augustine’s roof, which would have been thatched at that time, for in 1525 a local worsted weaver, William Mylys, died leaving the church 20 shillings in his will (equivalent to about £300 today), which, according to an inscription on a memorial brass plaque in the church, now lost, was for ‘ye buylding of a new Ruff of ye body of ye Church’. Work, however, does not seem to have begun until 1531 when a local carpenter, John Sketur, left 4 marks for the new roof ‘about to be built’. During the 16th and 17th centuries a series of fires, probably started by chimney sparks igniting dry reed thatch in the summer months, led the city authorities to promulgate ordinances concerning the use of reed as a roofing material. In 1570, it ruled that St Augustine’s churchwardens should have six buckets and a ladder in case of fire. The relative size of the city’s churches can be judged by the fact that the wardens of St Peter Mancroft, the city’s largest parish church, had to have thirty buckets. At this date it was also ruled that all new roofs were to be tiled rather than thatched. Tiles, however, were then more expensive than thatch, and as late as 1631, some parishioners were still being fined for thatching their roofs with reed.
In 1549, another rebel force assembled on Mousehold Heath, this time under Robert Kett, a farmer of Wymondham. On 1 August, Kett’s army attacked the city on various fronts. Nicholas Sotherton’s account of the rebellion, written only a few years after the event, includes a vivid description from the viewpoint of the roof of deputy mayor Augustine Steward's house in Tombland. He watched as several city gates, including St Augustine’s, burned and ‘in the fields without was coming with a drum before them in att St Austen’s
[St Augustine’s] gates a great numbre of Rebellis’. The following summer one John White, a worsted weaver of the parish, was informed on to the mayor for having prophesied darkly that they were in for ‘as hot a summer as was, and as evil and busy a one as the last summer was’, clearly referring to Kett’s Rebellion and perhaps also to more recent events, for during the Puritan reforms of the reign of the boy king Edward VI, St Augustine’s church did not escape violence – ironically, instigated by its own rector.
In May 1550, the newly appointed rector, William Stamp (the first rector to be appointed by the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral and clearly a Puritan firebrand), led a gang of like-minded parishioners one Thursday evening at about 7 o’clock in an assault on the high altar in St Augustine’s. Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, had only recently ordered the destruction of high altars in his diocese; however, the Privy Council’s similar act for the whole of England did not come into effect until November. Rector Stamp had previously been in trouble with the church authorities for deliberately wearing his priest’s stole inside out. Stamp was ‘comytted to warde’ (imprisoned) and ordered to make good the damage out of his own pocket, but he does not seem to have been deprived of his benefice. It seems possible that the church’s rood screen was also destroyed around this time. One possible fragment survives, depicting St Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry – a popular votive saint in the Middle Ages when toothache could be a serious, life-threatening ailment – holding a pair of tongs with a tooth – emblems of her martyrdom. Like many other examples of such images it has been, quite literally, defaced by iconoclasts. Expert opinion is that it bears a close similarity in style to the exquisite rood screen in St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk, and what remains is, therefore, of the highest quality and possibly by the same hand. However, how it survived, whether it originally formed a part of
St Augustine’s rood screen or was brought here from another
church is not known.
In 1552 St Augustine’s lost most of its surviving pre-Reformation plate, which, together with high altars, stained glass and rood screens, were now regarded as idolatrous. Churchwardens John Capon and William Shirlock were authorised to sell the silver plate, including a cross, censers, candlesticks and a ‘shyppe’ (a boat-shaped container for the unburned incense), for which they received £23/19s/8d (equivalent to about £4,800 today). These items probably dated from the 14th century or earlier and are a sad loss. The money raised was put in the church chest for relieving the poor and for general repairs and improvements to the fabric and furnishings of the church, including a ringing floor, a pulpit and stools, described as ‘very necessary for the parisshoners’, who before then had had to stand throughout the services. It was probably also at this time that the church’s medieval stained glass was destroyed, for it is recorded that 40 shillings (equivalent to about £20 today) were spent ‘in newe glasyng of the wyndows aboute the chirche with white [clear] glass’. Given Rector Stamp’s altar-smashing proclivities, it may be supposed these reforms met with his approval. The wheel of fortune, however, was about to turn. A little over a year later he was in trouble again, this time for having married one Cecily Baxter. When the devout Roman Catholic Queen Mary succeeded her Protestant brother Edward VI, she ordered that the clergy should be unmarried and celibate. All those found to have married under the reign of her brother were to be deprived of their benefice if they did not give up their wives. It isn’t known for certain whether Stamp submitted but he may have done as no new rector was appointed until 1566, by which time yhe Protestant
Queen Elizabeth was monarch.
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