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Antoine Roullet
Olivier Spina
Nathalie Szczech

III. Individus / communautés : fluidités et jeux d’appartenances

«Fitting In»

The Two Sides of Community in English Villages, ca. 1500-1650

Henry R. French

Texte intégral

  • 1 P. Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis, pp. 65-67; P. Laslett and J. Harrison, «Clayworth and Cogenh (...)
  • 2 P. Clark, «Migration in England».
  • 3 P. Clark and D. Souden (dir.), Migration and Society, p. 2; P. Clark, «Migration in England», p. 22 (...)
  • 4 H. R. French, «“Ancient Inhabitants”».
  • 5 R. M. Smith, «“Modernization” and the Corporate Medieval Village Community».
  • 6 S. Hindle, The State and Social Change, pp. 176-230; Id., On the Parish?, pp. 300-360.

1Historians sometimes adopt two contradictory perspectives about the nature of communities, particularly small rural communities, in the past. On the one hand, we are well aware (and have been for 50 years in France, and perhaps more than 40 years in England) that the population of such small rural communities was never static1. In such settlements in England, perhaps «seven in ten» were mobile at some point in their lives (even if they usually confined their movements to 30-35 kilometres of their parish of birth)2. Detailed local studies suggest consistently that 70 or 80 per cent of individuals giving evidence in Church Court cases in the sixteenth century had moved at least once in their lives, so that migration at this time can be described as «the social and demographic norm»3. On the other, as historians our attention is always drawn to the more stable residents, largely from simple convenience. They are better recorded, and so easier to study. They tend, therefore, to dominate our accounts of the life-experiences within such settlements, and even (to some extent) to affect our interpretations of the notion of «community» in the past4. As Richard Smith has noted, this has tended to produce an «ecological» notion of community5. «Communities» are sometimes depicted as comprised primarily of the ecologically «successful» —those who have inherited or acquired an economic or social niche that allows them to stay, at the expense of the «unsuccessful», who have been «excluded» and forced to move on. There is undoubtedly considerable evidence of these processes in operation in historical settlements, shown particularly by Steve Hindle’s seminal work on the formal and informal operation of the English Poor Law, and the many ways in which it sought to demarcate «belonging», and exclude the «undeserving»6.

2These trends are undeniable, and this chapter does not seek to challenge them. However, it does suggest that some further thought is required about the nature of «community», particularly as we try to reconcile the implications of extensive mobility with the dominant historical interpretation of an increasing social polarization in village society in the period 1500-1640. In some ways, these two debates have never really linked up in English historiography. Studies of mobility have been more concerned to identify the geographical extent and social profile of migration than they have to chart its effects over time on the residents of a particular location. Meanwhile, although all detailed studies of village life in this period acknowledge, and often quantify the extent of mobility within the settlement, they usually tend for convenience to treat the population as stable or static when discussing the effects of social change, particularly moral or criminal regulation.

  • 7 C. Phythian-Adams, «Local History and National History»; Id., «Introduction»; K. D. M. Snell, «The (...)
  • 8 A. Mitson, «The Significance of Kinship Networks».
  • 9 Ibid., p. 72; see also, A. Everitt, «Dynasty and community».
  • 10 See also C. Dyer, «Were Late Medieval English Villages “Self-Contained”?», p. 27.

3The principal exceptions to these trends have been studies by Charles Phythian-Adams and Keith Snell, which have sought in various ways to fuse «cultural» understandings of territory and belonging, with demographic evidence of mobility7. While Phythian-Adams has attempted to reconstruct the kinds of pays in which ordinary life was lived, and notions of local or regional identity formed, Snell has emphasized the continuing importance into the nineteenth century of the civil parish, as a unit that demarcated entitlement to poor relief, and dictated the terms of inclusion and belonging within rural settlements. The most detailed attempt to reconcile parochial and extra-parochial mobility and identities has been Anne Mitson’s study of eleven contiguous parishes in southwest Nottinghamshire8. In particular, she identified the existence of «dynastic families», often emerging from the wealthier village families, who put out branches into several neighbouring settlements, and who came to «exercise considerable influence and patronage over their parish and neighbourhood area»9. This research indicated how it was possible for continuities of cultural experience or regional identity to persist in the face of so much short-range population turnover10.

  • 11 J. Cornwall, «Evidence of Population Mobility»; H. Hanley, «Population Mobility in Buckinghamshire» (...)
  • 12 J. Whittle, «Population Mobility in Rural Norfolk», pp. 29-30; A. Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, (...)
  • 13 J. Whittle, «Population Mobility in Rural Norfolk», pp. 30-31; A. Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, (...)
  • 14 For categories of migration, see P. Clark, «The Migrant in Kentish Towns»; P. Clark, «Migration in (...)

4As noted, many other local studies have focused much more on depicting the degree of mobility over time, than on investigating its social consequences11. This research has emphasized repeatedly both the ubiquity of the experience of migration for most people in most locations, and the fact that this movement was most common in the years of late adolescence or early adulthood. As demonstrated by the studies by Kussmaul and Whittle of male and female servants in husbandry, young men were most likely to move to take up new opportunities in their early twenties, while women were even more likely to move, and to settle at a slightly earlier age (reflecting consistently high levels of domestic and farm service outside the paternal home, and slightly younger female ages of first marriage)12. Again, most of this movement was over short distances, generally less than 20 km from the parish of birth13. It has also confirmed that the main motives for these moves can be found in the categories outlined by Clark, of short-distance, often «circular» movements around the parish of birth, for the purposes of immediate «subsistence», or «betterment» often in the years before first marriage14.

  • 15 M. Spufford, Contrasting Communities; K. Wrightson and D. Levine, Poverty and Piety.
  • 16 Ibid., pp. 175-176.
  • 17 R. D. Smith, The Middling Sort and the Politics, pp. 147-148.

5Although there is some suggestion in this literature on migration that the geographical mobility of groups lower down the social scale became more constrained by the operation of the Elizabethan Poor Laws and Settlement Legislation, village-level studies of the impact of change have focused far more on the social and cultural effects of religious reform rather than of population turnover. The seminal accounts of these processes are the village studies of Spufford and of Wrightson and Levine15. Wrightson and Levine detected a clear «reformation of manners» in Terling in the years after 1595, the period of greatest demographic expansion, economic strain and most rapid social differentiation. In these years a sub-set of the ruling parishioners used the ecclesiastical courts to crack down on behaviour that was socially or economically disruptive, such as illegitimacy and un-licensed alehouses, and at odds with their new, reformed religious views. They wished to quash the sins of drunkenness, fornication, profane swearing and dancing, motivated by a desire both to secure (reformed) social order, and avoid divine retribution. Although their targets included some of their peers at first, increasingly their efforts concentrated on prosecuting men and women of lower social standing16. Recently, Richard Dean Smith has detected similar trends in the large Essex manufacturing town of Colchester, where he notes three phases of regulatory activity between 1560 and 164017. Between the 1560s and 1590s authorities focused on sexual misconduct, paying less attention to drunkenness, gambling or disorder. Between 1593 and 1620, vigilance was stepped up in relation to illegitimacy, and the general tenor of action against social and moral «sins» was increased. After 1620, the church courts were used less, partly because they became more concerned with church revenues, and partly because advanced Protestants started to move towards separation from the church, rather than further reform through its institutions.

  • 18 R. M. Smith, «“Modernization” and the Corporate Medieval Village Community», pp. 161-71.
  • 19 M. K. McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior, p. 207.

6While few studies of «Puritan» moral campaigns within the parish have challenged the processes identified by Wrightson and Levine in Terling, they have questioned both their causation and their typicality. Margaret Spufford, whose own study of the reformation in three Cambridgeshire villages predated Terling, objected strongly to Wrightson and Levine’s implication that there was something socially selective about «Puritan» sympathies, or that the moral crackdowns that it produced were novel. Late medieval historians such as Richard Smith and Margery McIntosh also questioned the novelty of the late Elizabethan moral campaigns18. Wrightson and Levine responded to the first objection by emphasising that they had said Puritan sympathies seemed to be related to social status in Terling, rather than specific to it, «in the sense that […] [Puritan godliness] was disproportionately successful among the upper and middling ranks of the parish»19. To the second, they suggested that these prosecutions contained an aggravating and adversarial religious dimension absent from earlier parochial efforts at reform. McIntosh has supported this view in her broad-based analysis of local regulation and reform through the period 1370- 1600. She has observed that:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 208.

concern about social misbehaviour during the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign was a later stage in a long history […]. Yet it is also indisputable that by 1600 some communities with […] Puritan beliefs provided a religiously defined vision of society together with a powerful incentive to act20.

7The second interpretation focuses not on the social profile of such reformers, but instead emphasises the spectrum of beliefs within the Elizabethan parish. This perspective has been developed over the last 20 years by Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh. In 1986 Duffy stressed «the amount of real grass-roots loyalty to prayer-book Anglicanism», a point explored more fully subsequently by John Morrill and Judith Maltby. Reciting Richard Baxter’s subtler characterisation of his parish of Kidderminster, Duffy suggested that parishes were more likely to contain not simply a polarity, but a variety of opinions, from:

  • 21 E. Duffy, «The Godly and the Multitude», p. 40.

the «many» God-fearing Anglican loyalists, the inarticulate but tractable and willing devout, the believers who live in sin, the unruly and riotous, who nevertheless value access to the sacraments21.

  • 22 C. Haigh, «The Character of an Antipuritan».
  • 23 M. Ingram, Church Courts, pp. 84-124.
  • 24 W. Hunt, The Puritan Moment, pp. 159-182.

8Haigh’s perspective is more robust, but rather less graduated. He has explored the reality behind the opposing stereotypes of «Puritan» and «anti-Puritan» —the latter being not «men indifferent» to the Godly, but those more actively hostile to them22. Haigh and Duffy paint a picture of more robust opposition to godly moral campaigns than the bleak depiction of crushing, inexorable reform offered by the Terling study. As Martin Ingram’s work on Wiltshire has suggested, some of this difference can be explained as a result of the greater strength and depth of enthusiasm for the «hotter sort» of Protestantism in Essex compared to the varied situation elsewhere23. William Hunt has shown how «Puritan» clergy, gentry and parochial leaders may have been sown particularly thickly in Essex, and how the great tide of religious fervour and moral surveillance may have peaked higher here in the 1630s, and washed away more of its opponents than in other locations24.

  • 25 R. von Friedeburg, «Reformation of Manners».
  • 26 Ibid., pp. 367-368.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 372.
  • 28 Ibid., table 12 and p. 373.

9Ironically, although Wrightson and McIntosh might diverge from Duffy and Haigh over whether or not parochial reformers were likely to come from the educated «middling sort» all would probably agree that those they prosecuted were often poorer, less learned, and perhaps less settled members of the village. This interpretation has been supported by two earlier studies of Earls Colne, Essex, which is also the source of the findings presented in this chapter. Detailed research by Robert von Freideburg, brought together the records of multiple jurisdictions: the manorial, quarter sessions, the higher common law courts (Assizes and King’s Bench) and the church courts25. R. von Friedeburg was able to detect long-term trends in prosecution, and identify the social status and age of at least a proportion of those who were prosecuted. He showed that officeholders were commonly prosecuted in the later sixteenth century (for drunkenness and railing as well as premarital sex) but not in the seventeenth century26. Increasingly offences such as fornication and railing became the preserve of the poor, with a pattern in which relatively well-off individuals ( «constable-yeomen») prosecuted their poorer neighbours ( «cottager-offenders»)27. In addition, R. von Friedeburg found that those prosecuted were generally young. The mean age for men charged with sexual offences was consistently around 25 years at their first offence. For non-sexual offences, the mean age was somewhat higher between 1591 and 1620 but only marginally greater after 162128. The majority of these men seem not to have stayed in Earls Colne but to have moved on, perhaps even prompted to do so by the hostility shown to them for their misbehaviour.

  • 29 Ibid., pp. 377-378.

10For R. von Friedeburg, the Reformation of Manners must therefore be understood in part as a «traditional» reaction to the problem of mobile youth with a hint of intergenerational conflict. Other elements of the Reformation, for instance the insistence on the churchyard as sacred space, the hostility to drunkards and the enforcement of sabbatarianism together with the prosecution of the newly married for pre-nuptial sexual relations are taken by R. von Friedeburg to be distinctively «Puritan» in their complexion. The relatively well off were not wholly immune from committing these offences, but drunkenness, railing and disorder became characteristic offences of poor people29.

  • 30 M. Williams, «“Our Poore People in Tumults Arose” ».
  • 31 Ibid., p. 134.

11Mark Williams has carried out further research on the poor of Earls Colne, finding a group of 92 persons labelled poor in wills or court records in the early seventeenth century30. He suggests that they reflected a change in the social profile of poverty in the parish compared to the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Then, those described as poor had been the «impotent» poor —elderly widows, orphans and the chronically sick. By the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, the «poor» now included the able-bodied unemployed, whose condition was compounded by depression in the cloth trade in the later 1620s. They were now distributed across the life-cycle, rather than being concentrated among the very young or very old. By studying the familial relationships between these individuals, Williams suggests that there were concentrations of connections between poor families, to such an extent that there was a «clearly distinguishable underclass in the parish» by this time31.

12While R. von Friedeburg and Williams have demonstrated the existence of substantial social divisions in Earls Colne, and the adverse effects on the poor of demographic growth and economic hardship, including the increased tendency for the young to fall into poverty and be accused of offences, they have paid less attention to the effects of population mobility. Did poverty lead to greater mobility among some age-groups, or categories of resident? Did this put newcomers at a double disadvantage, by associating them with groups of indigent migrants, and causing them to come under greater suspicion? With these questions in mind, this research will focus in more detail on the effects of population mobility and turnover. In particular, it will try to establish how far we can distinguish at least two parallel «communities» in village society – of established residents, and newcomers. It will do so by examining the patterns of their experiences in relation to the law (royal, ecclesiastical and manorial), in order to try to determine whether differences in these experiences are consistent with the existence of two such groups.


  • 32 H. R. French and R. W. Hoyle (eds.), The Character of English Rural Society, pp. 51-80.

13As noted above, this study will concentrate on the village of Earls Colne, in Essex. In the period between 1500-1640 Earls Colne was a village of 500- 800 inhabitants, situated approximately 100 km north-east of London, and 10 km west of the regional centre of Colchester, a town of 9,000-10,000 inhabitants by the 1640s. Although the village lay on the main road between Colchester and Cambridge (75 km to the northwest), Earls Colne took its name from two other features. It lay on the River Colne, and in the fertile alluvial soils of the Colne Valley. It was also a settlement that had been part of the estates of the De Veres, Earls of Oxford, since the Norman Conquest, until the debts of Edward De Vere, the 17th earl, forced the sale of the two manors in the village in 1584 and 1592 to a family of lawyers and minor gentlemen from Kent, the Harlakendens. Earls Colne had also possessed a Priory from the eleventh century until the dissolution of the smaller monasteries in 1536, when it reverted to its founders, the De Vere family, before being sold in 159232.

  • 33 H. R. French, The Middle Sort of People, p. 37.
  • 34 <>, Earls Colne Quarter Sessions Rolls, 29th March 1592, Examination of Mary (...)

14So, although it was a relatively small settlement, in terms of population, in a predominantly rural location, heavily dependent on arable agriculture, Earls Colne was not a backwater. It contained a number of substantial inns, whose service functions developed to provide for travellers on the main through-route. Although agriculture dominated the economy, Earls Colne lay within a region which was re-invigorated by the growth of the woollen serge industry, enhanced by large numbers of Flemish immigrants to Colchester after the Dutch revolt in the 1560s. By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, the north-central portion of Essex, in which Earls Colne was located, was the most populous part of the county, with some of the largest extremes in prosperity and housing. In the Hearth Tax of 1671, Earls Colne was among a cluster of parishes in this region where more than 50 per cent of the householders were too poor to pay the tax33. Such concentrations of population, and of relatively poor, wage-dependent residents, were characteristic of the «proto-industrial» cloth manufacturing districts of East Anglia at this time. However, unlike the neighbouring parishes of Halstead, to the west, and Coggeshall, to the south, Earls Colne was never a centre of cloth production with large numbers of weavers. Instead, the cloth industry may have provided more employment opportunities for women, in spinning yarn34.

  • 35 P. Clark, «Migration in England», table 32, p. 226.
  • 36 For local and circular migration, see P. Clark and D. Souden (eds), Migration and Society, pp. 16-1 (...)
  • 37 <>, Archdeaconry Depositions, Brampton vs Collin, 31st January 1621, Depositi (...)
  • 38 Ibid., Deposition of Henry Strutt, Halstead, husbandman, aged 30 [701740].
  • 39 Ibid., Rosse vs Harlakenden, 7th April 1623, Deposition of William Springett, Lamarsh, carpenter, a (...)

15The cloth industry was subject to periods of «boom» and «bust», often connected to war and the closure of overseas markets. These cycles, and the village’s position on a main highway, meant that there was quite substantial population turnover in Earls Colne, particularly among young, unmarried men and women, in their late teens and early twenties, a pattern that echoed that found in other parts of rural England35. These men and women moved between annual employment contracts in the district, as hired domestic or agricultural servants, in patterns of local, and sometimes circular migration36. So, in 1621 Barbara Brackett, a 25 year old servant, «worth little but what she earneth by her labour», gave evidence that she had resided in her current post in the village of Great Maplestead (5 km west of Earls Colne) for eight months37. Before that, she had lived in Halstead (which bordered Earls Colne) for a year, and had been born in Sudbury, Suffolk (10 km north of Earls Colne). Similarly, Henry Strutt, a husbandman of Halstead aged 30 years, testified in the same case in 1620 that he had lived in Halstead for 7 years, and before that had lived his whole life in Earls Colne38. Most such witnesses had been mobile, generally over short distances and usually in the years before marriage. Such mobility may have increased as the population grew in the later sixteenth century, and such young people were forced to travel to find employment, or simply to search for food or any kind of shelter. The most extreme instance of this was stated in another court case in 1623, where a witness remembered that in 1598 the son of one Earls Colne resident in the nearby parish of Lamarsh had become «a cripple surfeited with cold […] such a lame creature came upon stilts begging to the town and there died in a barn and his feet rotted of [f]»39.

  • 40 M. Williams, «“Our Poore People in Tumults Arose”»; R. von Friedeburg, «Reformation of Manners»; G. (...)

16In these respects, the experience of residents of Earls Colne was similar to those in surrounding villages within the increasingly populous, mobile, and relatively poor, northern manufacturing district of the county. In other ways, though, Earls Colne is very unusual, and it is because of this that it has been chosen as the focus of this research. In particular, because of the pioneering endeavours of Prof. Alan Macfarlane and his team of researchers in the 1970s, all the records of this village in this period have been collected, transcribed in modern text, and indexed by person, and are available electronically at <>. This has enabled much more extensive, detailed analyses of these sources than might otherwise have been possible. Earls Colne has been the focus of much existing research, including work produced by the author and Prof. Richard Hoyle of the University of Reading, and by scholars including Mark Williams, Robert von Friedeburg, Govrind Sreenivasan and Dolly Mackinnon40.

17This chapter examines cases involving residents of Earls Colne as they occur in three types of legal sources in the period from 1525 to 1640 —the records of the royal (criminal) courts (the King’s Bench, the Assizes, and the Quarter Sessions); the records of the ecclesiastical (church) courts, dealing primarily with moral offences and church administration; and the records of the two manorial courts in the village, which dealt with petty violence, commercial regulation and «nuisances».

18As graph 1 shows, the numbers of cases fluctuated considerably from year to year, but varied between 20-40 cases per annum, with the largest increase coming in the late 1580s, when the manors were sold and taken over by a new, resident, family —who were keen to establish their seigneurial rights through these courts. In all, there were 2,205 offences recorded involving village residents between 1525 and 1640, committed by 905 inhabitants.

19Evidence relating to the date of the offence, the profile of the offender, and the type of offence was entered into a Microsoft Access database, from which the graphs and tables used in this paper have been generated. However, the survival of the records means that it is impossible to obtain a complete picture of events in the settlement, because the different courts dealt with a variety of offences, and their surviving records are not distributed equally over time.

20Graph 2 illustrates that through our period, the manorial court dealt with fewer cases, particularly by the early seventeenth century, while the Church Court records really begin in detail from 1560, but end abruptly with their abolition in 1642. Much of the petty regulation done in the sixteenth century by the manor was taken over after 1598 by the secular parish administration, but unfortunately these records have not survived.

  • 41 <>, Name Index – John Kendal (K54), records [6506093, 3300178, 6700195, 6700810, 8100359, 6701575, 67</www> (...)

21The Macfarlane website allows one further, unique, research technique. Each individual in the website is indexed, so that by picking a particular name it is possible to see all the records relating to that person in chronological order. So, for instance, it is possible to see that John Kendal was born in 1591, the youngest son (and second of that name) of John Kendal Sr. His father died in 1600, and John Jr. lived all his uneventful life and baptised his children in the village between 1620 and 1632, and sadly burying three of them between 1622 and 1640, before his own death in 164541. These indices are not perfect, and there is some confusion in the case of a small number of individuals, but they appear quite accurate in perhaps 95 per cent of cases, and allow some insight into length of residence in the village.

22This evidence therefore allows another dimension to the study, which is to analyse whether being born in the village, or the length of residence there, had any significant effect on life experiences in relation to these various courts. However, the conclusions presented here will be limited, both because of the deficiencies of the surviving sources, and because there is more analysis still to be completed.


23How rapidly was the population of Earls Colne turning over in this period? The short answer is that it is very difficult to tell —primarily because of an absence of evidence.

24Most studies compare the population that survives from one datum point to another, often several years apart. This shows the gross turnover, but not the rate of change. To examine this in more detail, this chapter focuses on several communities, in which annual parish rate evidence survives, allowing the surviving population to be calculated at annual, or even greater-than-annual, intervals.

25Among our 905 offenders, the mean number of years that elapsed between their first and last mention in any sources relating to the village was 25 years, but 31 per cent seem to have lived there for less than 10 years, while 39 per cent lived in the village for more than 30 years —the longest resident of all was William Newton who lived for 87 years in the village (alongside seven other offenders born in the village who lived to become octogenarians).


26Did residence have any effect on the types of offences for which the village’s inhabitants were accused?

27The answer is mixed, as seen in the tables 1a and 1b. The analysis divides the period into two roughly equal spans, 1525-1589, and 1590-1640, to take into account any changes over time, particularly the acquisition of the village’s two manors by a new lord at about this time. The tables highlight the courts in which offences committed by some residence groups exceeded the proportion committed by each residence group as a whole. So, in table 1a, although those who resided for less than a year were accused of only 5.2 per cent of all offences between 1525 and 1589, they were accused of 40 per cent of cases brought to the Royal Assizes.

28Two trends are immediately apparent. Firstly, in both periods those who resided for less than 10 years were much more likely to face accusations in the royal courts and the church courts than those residing for a longer time-span, although this was slightly less pronounced after 1590, after which date longer-term residents were accused of quite high proportions of serious offences. Secondly, in both periods presentments to the two manor courts were far more likely among those who resided in the village for more than 10 years —primarily because these courts were run by, and increasingly exercised jurisdiction over, the lord’s tenants. By the sixteenth century, such copyhold tenants were small or medium-sized farmers or tradesmen, many of whom had found a place among the ranks of the «settled» population.

29The latter trend is the more easily explained of the two. It appears that the longer they were resident, the more likely manorial tenants were to face presentment to either of the two manorial courts, for «nuisance» offences, such as dilapidated fences, blocked ditches, or «commercial» matters (weights and measures or trading irregularities), or contravening the lord’s rights (particularly his rights to wood). By the end of the period, an increasing number of such property owners were absentees, renting out their lands to tenant-farmers.

30For our purposes, the offences brought to the royal and the church courts — particularly for theft and sexual misconduct— appear to be more sensitive to length of residence, and more in need of explanation.


31The most frequent offences brought to the royal courts were those related to theft, or disorder/interpersonal violence. If we add together all such «criminal» offenders indicted at the three Royal Courts (Central, Assizes and Quarter Sessions), as is shown in table 2a, we see that in fact newcomers and long-established residents were more likely than the group as a whole to be accused of such serious crimes. Criminal offenders who resided for a year or less were more likely to be accused than all offenders in the 1 year category.

32However, collecting together cases in all three courts hides an important point. By the later sixteenth century only criminal felonies brought to the higher courts (Central Criminal Courts and Assizes) carried the death penalty. If we compare offenders indicted in these two courts, with those brought before the Quarter Sessions (where penalties were much more likely to be a fine, or corporal punishment), as in table 2b, we see that the most recent arrivals were three-times more likely to be accused of potentially capital offences than they were of non-capital ones. There was still a tendency for some longer-term residents to be accused, but it was less pronounced.


33In the Church Courts the apparent split between newcomers and established residents also appears to be confirmed, but again there are hidden patterns, as shown in tables 3a and 3b. These tables show that long-established residents were apparently more likely than newcomers to be accused of most offences, except for sexual offences and some verbal disputes. This appears to have been most pronounced for detections about offences related to church property or rights, fighting (particularly in the churchyard) and non-attendance at church, as well as verbal disputes. It may be simply that an individual’s chances of being presented to the archdeacon’s court by the churchwardens increased the longer that person was resident in the village. Sooner or later, a resident would fall out with a neighbour, skip church or fail to pay tithes, and the longer he or she lived in the village, the more likely this was. The low figures for the proportion of newcomers presented for such offences tend to support this supposition.

34However, as tables 4a and 4b show, we seem to be dealing with two distinct populations within this age range. The table focuses on the number of years of residence between the individual’s first record in the Earls Colne sources, and their first accusation of a sexual misdemeanour.

  • 42 P. Griffiths, Youth and Authority, pp. 235-289; L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers, pp. 111-138; B. Capp, (...)

35The first population was also the largest group of offenders presented to the Church Courts, and these were newcomers, particularly those who resided for only about a year. Among these, young unmarried women were more likely than young men to be presented (possibly because contemporary gender attitudes depicted them as a greater threat to the social order than young unmarried men)42. As the second half of the table confirms, the majority of these newcomers were not recorded as having been born in the village.

36The second population is concealed but accentuates this impression —the increase in women (mostly born in the village) presented for sexual offences between 20-30 years after their first record —their baptism. Obviously, in practice this native population joined with the newcomers to form a single cohort of young, unmarried women whose courtship behaviour aroused the suspicions of their neighbours.

37So, in fact, while we appear to have two peaks in offending, among relatively recent arrivals, and some longer-term residents, in fact this may simply reflect a single age cohort, of those aged between 20-35 years, both newcomers and established inhabitants. It was this age group who were most susceptible to accusations of partaking in sex before, or outside, marriage.

38Thereafter, sexual misconduct appears to have been presented less frequently, but to have been an increasingly male phenomenon —with men comprising between 50-75 per cent of those accused among longer-term residents. This raises the possibility that in fact a population of older, sometimes married, men, were exploiting younger, unmarried and often newly arrived, women. Our only evidence for this comes from the relatively small number of native-born villagers accused of such offences, but appears to support this trend.


39Similar patterns emerge when we examine criminal offences brought before the Royal Courts. The analysis collects together all felonies tried in the Central Criminal Courts, the Assizes and all theft cases tried at Quarter Sessions (the most numerous offence brought before that court), in order to counteract the small sample sizes of cases heard by the two higher courts.

40Table 5 shows that newcomers were the largest group of offenders at the two higher courts, and equal with the 10-20 year age group at Quarter Sessions. Table 6 illustrates that there was a pronounced gender bias in accusations —in all three courts between 75-90 per cent of defendants were male, a distribution that matches those found in most other English studies.

41There was also a pronounced residential bias, as shown in table 7. Among newcomers (the most frequent people to face accusations), 38 per cent of men, and 57 per cent of women were definitely not born in the village, while about one-third of those accused in the Central Criminal Courts were longer term residents, who had been born in the village (although the numbers are tiny —three female defendants through the period, for example). Again, we appear to have accusations being levelled against two distinct populations — highly mobile, and largely male newcomers, who we might assume were, again, relatively young; and a more established group of residents, some also quite young (often in their teens) and native to the village, while others were older and more established.

42In both instances we may be seeing the operation of two stereotypes. The first caused young, unmarried servant women to be suspected of sexual misconduct. The second resulted in young mobile men being suspected of theft. The unknown element is, of course, whether these concentrations reflect two cohorts who were more likely to commit such offences, or merely to be suspected of having done so.


43In sharp distinction to most of the other English studies of these offences in village society, this research has so far taken little account of changing economic and social circumstances.

  • 43 G. Parker and L. M. Smith, «Introduction»; J. Walter and R. Schofield, «Famine, Disease and Crisis (...)
  • 44 A. B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, pp. 95-154.

44We know that economic conditions deteriorated across Europe and England in the 1590s, bringing increased poverty, social distress, and disrupting lives in many different ways —including derailing marriage plans, and creating wants that could only be supplied by theft43. The same was also true, to a slightly lesser extent, in England in the period 1622-1624, and 1629-1631 because of harvest failures44.

45Did these periods of more sustained distress increase the hostility to newcomers? Graph 3 shows the residence profile of all those accused of offences in each decade —it plots the proportion of the accused who had been resident less than 5 years, between 5-20 years, or more than 20 years prior to an offence, say, in the 1570s, or the 1610s.

46This appears to show that over time a higher proportion of those accused came from the more settled section of the community. However, this is misleading in two respects. Firstly, as shown above, the greater survival of records towards the end of the sixteenth century may make it easier from this point to trace residence over a longer period of time. Secondly, as we have just seen, those who were resident for 20 or more years may have included people born in the village, who may actually have exhibited a similar «offending» profile to newcomers in the 20-29 years of age cohort. We may be able to identify such individuals more easily, because of the survival of better baptism records in the years after 1560.

47If we focus in more detail on sexual offences and thefts, we can identify clear patterns, but ones that appear not to be particularly susceptible to short-term chronological change. Tables 8a and 8b compare first offenders in sexual and theft cases with the profile of all offenders in these decades. For both types of offence, newcomers (including those resident less than 5 years) formed a much greater proportion of all those accused than for all offenders as a whole. As the tables illustrate, this was the case throughout the period.

48There were peaks and troughs. Sexual offenders resident for less than 5 years were more than twice as likely as all offenders to be accused of their first offence in the 1590s and the three decades after 1610. In the 1560s and 1580s thieves resident for less than 5 years were twice as likely to be accused as all offenders, but not thereafter (although they came close in the decades 1600-1609, and 1610- 1619). Longer-term residents were more likely than all offenders to be accused of theft in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Those who resided for more than 20 years were much less likely to be accused of theft in the early seventeenth century, compared to the mid-sixteenth century.

49In fact, in any decade between the 1570s and the 1630s, between 40 and 60 per cent of those accused for the first time of sex offences had been resident for less than 5 years, with 20-25 per cent being long-term residents. For those accused of theft the proportions were more variable over time, but newer residents rarely accounted for more than 50 per cent of all those accused in each decade.


50There is one other way in which we can assess the depth of relationships between individual offenders and their peers. This is to measure the extent of familial relationships between offenders. The following analysis concentrates on the nature of the familial relationships between offenders presented to the church courts, primarily because of the historical debate about whether villages such as Earls Colne were home to a «bastardy-prone sub-society», a minority of women who refused, or were unable, to conform to the usual rules on courtship and sexual behaviour. My analysis concentrates on assessing the familial relationships of those presented for sexual offences, in relation to the wider cohort of people presented to the Church Courts for all other offences in the period 1570-1640.

  • 45 A. Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, pp. 156-157.

51The relationships in question have been divided into two types, following the work of Alan Macfarlane45. The first of these are cognate kin —that is, kin possessed from birth (both lineal —parents, grandparents, children, and co-extensive— siblings, maternal or paternal uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, or cousins) or connected to birth-parents (step-mothers and fathers, step-children). The second are affines —that is, kin acquired with the elective choice of spouse (husband or wife, parents or children-in-law, kin-by-marriage, and «illicit» spouses or children). Obviously, families were usually comprised of both types, but the distinction between them does provide a further evidence of how far individuals were enmeshed within the village.

52Relationships between offenders in the church courts seem, largely, to have been those within the immediate nuclear family. As table 9 shows most relationships between birth family members were those of the first order (parents and children, children and parents), rather than between co-extensive birth kin (uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces), except for offenders who were presented for offences of verbal or physical disorder. For affine relationships, almost all those identified among this cohort were those resulting from licit or illicit spousals.

53Unsurprisingly, the extent of these relationships was linked directly to length of residence in the village, as table 10 demonstrates. However, as the table suggests, it is important to observe that almost half (46 per cent) of those accused in the church courts appear to have had no links to other offenders, which may have been a function of their weaker ties to the community, as evinced by a median length of residence of only 13 years. This relative mobility implies that such individuals entered the village as adolescent servants or adults, rather than being born there. It is also notable, if fairly obvious, that those with lineal connections to other offenders (as parents of children or children of parents who also offended) were likely to have resided longer in the village than those whose connections came through marriage or illicit unions. Indeed, it is evident that in relation to their chances of having been born in the village the two groups, of those with cognate-only or with affine-only relations, were almost mirror images of each other. Approximately half the cognate group were born in Earls Colne, while over half the affine group definitely were not born there. Of those with no identifiable relationship to another offender in the village almost two-thirds seem to have been born elsewhere.

54If we consider the nature of these relationships by reference to the offences for which individuals were presented to the Church Courts, we see a number of common trends. As tables 11a-c show, on average for each type of offence (Sexual Offences, Church Matters, Non-Attendance at Church, Verbal Disorder and Interpersonal Disorders), between 40 and 50 per cent of those accused appear not to have links to other offenders, and in most cases almost half of this group were definitely born outside the village. In some respects, these relative outsiders had a similar profile to those offenders whose relationship to other offenders was affine-only, where over 50 per cent were either definitely, or probably, born outside Earls Colne. By contrast a majority of those exhibiting cognate-only relationships were born in the village. In all cases, less than 15 per cent of those accused had both cognate and affine relationships with other offenders, and although they were usually long-term residents of the village, they were less likely than the cognate-only group to have been born there.

55However, there were some differences, which indicate underlying differences in the experiences and cohorts concerned. For example, those accused of committing sexual offences were different in two respects from others presented to the Church Courts. Firstly, because sexual relationships registered as affine-connections, they were more likely than others to exhibit this type of contact with another offender. Secondly, as has been shown above, because the classic profile of the bastard-bearing mother was to enter the village as a young, unmarried servant, become pregnant, bear her child, and then move on, the length of residence for those without any relationships to other offenders was extremely short —a median of only 6 years. If we compare this duration of residence with those accused of all other offences in the Church Courts, the medians were over 20 years’ of residence. It is apparent that other offences against the church tended to accumulate over time, and accompany length of residence, while illicit sexual behaviour was an offence committed by the young and rootless.

56These differences can be seen more clearly by breaking down the length of residence of those accused of offences, and considering this in relation to cognate and affine relations. For all types of offence, more than three-quarters of those who had been resident under five years were without connections to other offenders. As in analyses above, nearly a quarter of all those accused of sexual offences had been resident less than five years, compared to approximately ten per cent of those accused of other offences. Thereafter, sexual offenders who were resident for longer exhibited stronger affine relationships to other offenders than cognate ones —that is, by and large, they were more likely to be the spouses of other offenders, rather than their parents or children.

57Analysing residence patterns provides a slightly different way of thinking about early-modern communities, and (to some extent) the nature of «community» itself. It is apparent that villages such as Earls Colne had a constant turnover of population, but that this turnover was probably not distributed evenly across the life-cycle. Instead, the most mobile sections of the population were probably (as they were in other English villages), young unmarried men and women, between the ages of 15 and 25, who sought (and changed) employment at least annually.

58It is difficult to determine social attitudes to these newcomers from the material presented here —undoubtedly, young men among such a group were more likely than the rest of the population to be accused of theft, while the sexual behaviour of young migrant women came under greater scrutiny. We do not know whether these trends resulted simply from an amalgam of gender assumptions and Keith Snell’s «culture of local xenophobia», or whether they reflected a greater tendency among rootless young people to indulge in crime, or let courtship go too far.

59The presence of these trends (albeit less pronounced) among the native-born in this age-cohort suggests that these may reflect a greater number of «events» among this cohort, rather than being merely the result of the prejudices of the «respectable» householders.

60This final point raises a further interpretative issue that has otherwise been ignored in this paper —whether or not the attitudes of these «respectable» householders were hardening, possibly under the influence of new, more urgent, religious imperatives—»Puritanism». The simple answer is that this is very difficult to determine without surviving parish vestry records. Evidence from the many (over 20) lengthy civil court cases fought in the village in this period suggests that the community was divided, in their allegiance to their new manorial lord, and in their willingness to accept his preferred brand of more active Protestantism.

  • 46 <>, Earls Colne Burial Register, 28th October 1642 [8200555].
  • 47 A. Macfarlane (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 24th December 1645, p. 52; 16th June 1668, p. 542
  • 48 <>, Earls Colne, Manor Court Rolls, 12th April 1591 [1400174]; 24th July 1592 (...)
  • 49 <>, Earls Colne Quarter Sessions Rolls 26th February 1601 [20401220]; Archdea (...)
  • 50 <>, Earls Colne, Archdeaconry Depositions 24th November 1620 [700047-700558]; (...)
  • 51 <>, Earls Colne, Chancery Depositions (NA C24/297 pt. 2 no 80 depositions: Ro (...)

61Yet, unlike in some other communities, the village retained its reprobates — Thomas Manning, the drunken «old heathen» buried in 164246; Edward Potter Jr., about whom sexual and murder allegations circulated for 20 years before his death in 166747; Henry Abbott, a rich cloth producer, but an outspoken trouble maker, with no respect for authority48; Mary Graunt, who bore at least 4 illegitimate children between the mid-1590s and 1610; Thomas Allen, who fathered several of those children49; Isabel Collin, the wife of the richest yeoman in the village, who conducted a series of flagrant and drunken sexual adventures in 162050; or Rose Partridge, another wealthy woman, who quoted bitter Scriptural examples to the manorial lord, but who appears systematically to have mistreated and disinherited her 10 children from her first marriage51.

62The continued presence of these people in the village, defying the best efforts of successive clergymen and manorial lords to reform them emphasizes that it is difficult to measure the communal «opinion» of such a village, particularly according to simple classifications or archetypes. However, greater consideration of the effects of settlement, residence and mobility on such notions might enrich our understanding of them by forcing us consider the processes of assimilation. Doing this might help us understand why a newcomer, Mary Graunt, was able to stay in the village for 30 years, while many of her contemporaries, accused like her of theft and bastardy, quickly moved on. It might also lead to think of communities as having several social centres, several concurrent «characters», and as being several, parallel «communities» at once.


1 P. Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis, pp. 65-67; P. Laslett and J. Harrison, «Clayworth and Cogenhoe».

2 P. Clark, «Migration in England».

3 P. Clark and D. Souden (dir.), Migration and Society, p. 2; P. Clark, «Migration in England», p. 228.

4 H. R. French, «“Ancient Inhabitants”».

5 R. M. Smith, «“Modernization” and the Corporate Medieval Village Community».

6 S. Hindle, The State and Social Change, pp. 176-230; Id., On the Parish?, pp. 300-360.

7 C. Phythian-Adams, «Local History and National History»; Id., «Introduction»; K. D. M. Snell, «The Culture of Local Xenophobia»; Id., The Parish and Belonging Community, chap. ii.

8 A. Mitson, «The Significance of Kinship Networks».

9 Ibid., p. 72; see also, A. Everitt, «Dynasty and community».

10 See also C. Dyer, «Were Late Medieval English Villages “Self-Contained”?», p. 27.

11 J. Cornwall, «Evidence of Population Mobility»; H. Hanley, «Population Mobility in Buckinghamshire», pp. 33-39; P. McClure, «Patterns of Migration in the Late Middle Ages»; M. long and B. Maltby, «Personal Mobility»; M. Kitch, «Population Movement and Migration»; R. Tinley and D. Mills, «Population Turnover»; G. Nair, Highley: The Development of a Community, p. 149; B. Stapleton, «Migration in pre-Industrial Southern England»; L. Boothman, «Mobility and Stability»; M. Escott, «Residential Mobility»; J. Whittle, «Population Mobility in Rural Norfolk».

12 J. Whittle, «Population Mobility in Rural Norfolk», pp. 29-30; A. Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, pp. 49-69; R. Schofield, «Age-Specific Mobility».

13 J. Whittle, «Population Mobility in Rural Norfolk», pp. 30-31; A. Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, p. 57; R. Schofield, «Age-Specific Mobility», pp. 258-262.

14 For categories of migration, see P. Clark, «The Migrant in Kentish Towns»; P. Clark, «Migration in England», pp. 225-227; M. Kitch, «Population Movement and Migration», pp. 78-80; I. D. Whyte, Migration and Society in Britain, pp. 13-14 and 22-62.

15 M. Spufford, Contrasting Communities; K. Wrightson and D. Levine, Poverty and Piety.

16 Ibid., pp. 175-176.

17 R. D. Smith, The Middling Sort and the Politics, pp. 147-148.

18 R. M. Smith, «“Modernization” and the Corporate Medieval Village Community», pp. 161-71.

19 M. K. McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior, p. 207.

20 Ibid., p. 208.

21 E. Duffy, «The Godly and the Multitude», p. 40.

22 C. Haigh, «The Character of an Antipuritan».

23 M. Ingram, Church Courts, pp. 84-124.

24 W. Hunt, The Puritan Moment, pp. 159-182.

25 R. von Friedeburg, «Reformation of Manners».

26 Ibid., pp. 367-368.

27 Ibid., p. 372.

28 Ibid., table 12 and p. 373.

29 Ibid., pp. 377-378.

30 M. Williams, «“Our Poore People in Tumults Arose” ».

31 Ibid., p. 134.

32 H. R. French and R. W. Hoyle (eds.), The Character of English Rural Society, pp. 51-80.

33 H. R. French, The Middle Sort of People, p. 37.

34 <>, Earls Colne Quarter Sessions Rolls, 29th March 1592, Examination of Mary Graunt, [20700713].

35 P. Clark, «Migration in England», table 32, p. 226.

36 For local and circular migration, see P. Clark and D. Souden (eds), Migration and Society, pp. 16-17.

37 <>, Archdeaconry Depositions, Brampton vs Collin, 31st January 1621, Deposition of Barbara Brackett, Maplestead Magna, single woman, aged 25 [700841].

38 Ibid., Deposition of Henry Strutt, Halstead, husbandman, aged 30 [701740].

39 Ibid., Rosse vs Harlakenden, 7th April 1623, Deposition of William Springett, Lamarsh, carpenter, aged 60 [18001569].

40 M. Williams, «“Our Poore People in Tumults Arose”»; R. von Friedeburg, «Reformation of Manners»; G. Sreenivasan, «The Land-Family Bond»; R. Bandt et alii (eds), Hearing places.

41 <>, Name Index – John Kendal (K54), records [6506093, 3300178, 6700195, 6700810, 8100359, 6701575, 6703007, 6704089, 8103183, 8200161 and 8200760].

42 P. Griffiths, Youth and Authority, pp. 235-289; L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers, pp. 111-138; B. Capp, When Gossips Meet, pp. 127-184.

43 G. Parker and L. M. Smith, «Introduction»; J. Walter and R. Schofield, «Famine, Disease and Crisis Mortality».

44 A. B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, pp. 95-154.

45 A. Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, pp. 156-157.

46 <>, Earls Colne Burial Register, 28th October 1642 [8200555].

47 A. Macfarlane (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 24th December 1645, p. 52; 16th June 1668, p. 542.

48 <>, Earls Colne, Manor Court Rolls, 12th April 1591 [1400174]; 24th July 1592 [66901023, 66901030, 66901033 and 66901039]; 9th June 1593 [66902038 and 66902051]; Archdeaconry Act Book, 25th September 1609 [1702441]; Assize Indictments, 16th July 1610 [14000709]; Chancery Depositions, 13th February 1623 [17701024].

49 <>, Earls Colne Quarter Sessions Rolls 26th February 1601 [20401220]; Archdeaconry Act Book, 21st May 1604 [1700891]; 27th March 1605 [2100181]; 13th September 1606 [2100299]; 25th Septrember 1609 [1702390]; 16th May 1610 [1800198]; 5th April 1620 [1900092].

50 <>, Earls Colne, Archdeaconry Depositions 24th November 1620 [700047-700558]; 31st January 1621 [700669-701324]; 1st February 1621 [701342-703405].

51 <>, Earls Colne, Chancery Depositions (NA C24/297 pt. 2 no 80 depositions: Rosse vs Harlakenden), 13th February 1623 [17700493-17700911]; (NA C21 R.25/10) 7th April 1623 [18001114-18100005].


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