A case of excommunication

In the spring of 1675, the dean of Windsor, Bruno Ryves (c.1596-1677) summoned thirty men and women (presumably resident in the castle precincts) to appear before him to answer to certain allegations made against them.  Their offences were not specified, but if they were unable to clear their names, then sentence of excommunication would follow.  This makes it fairly clear they were neglecting to take the sacraments of the Church of England, and were possibly leaning towards Rome.  In the England of Charles II this was still a serious matter, if not such a desperate one as had been the case under Elizabeth I.

The names of the thirty “miscreants” are recorded in the Register of Wills, 1662-1735, contained in the St George’s Chapel archives, and further entries shed light on the treatment of those bold enough to proclaim allegiance to Roman Catholicism.  As far as we can tell from the record, most of those summoned were able to clear their names.  However, one lady, Jane Greene, wife of Matthew Greene, refused to appear before the dean on the appointed day.  Bruno Ryves’ response was to pronounce sentence of excommunication against her on 23 April 1675.  Jane then petitioned the dean to be absolved from the sentence, and agreed to answer the charges made against her.  He duly absolved her in August. 

The matter was not over however.  In October 1675, Jane was again summoned by the dean “ to answere unto severall Articles which were objected against her.”   Furthermore, she was ordered to receive the holy sacrament or else face another sentence of excommunication.  In brief, she refused to comply, and as the register entry puts it, “ the said Jane Greene is revolted from the Church of England over to the Church of Roome [Rome].”  And so Bruno Ryves pronounced the sentence of excommunication against her on 10 December 1675.  After this we learn no more about her, but her subsequent life is likely to have been one of some difficulty and social ostracism.

What kind of man was Dean Bruno Ryves?  He emerges from the records as a churchman of authority, whose experiences in the civil war probably served to forge a tough-minded nature.  A strong royalist, he enjoyed steady career advancement until 1642, becoming a Lent preacher at court and then a royal chaplain.  But after joining the royalist army when the war began, he had his livings sequestrated.  Later in the war, he turned to journalism, becoming founding editor of Mercurius Rusticus, a royalist chronicle of the “barbarous outrages” committed by the parliamentarians.  He became dean of Windsor in 1660, remaining there until his death in 1677 (he is buried in the south aisle of the chapel).  His last will and testament runs to six pages of the will register, and shows him to be a man of great wealth.  This is reinforced by his probate inventory, which values his goods and chattels at over £950, a huge sum at the time.  Three of his grandchildren were also christened Bruno (and another was christened Ryves), a testament to his paterfamilias status.  Clearly this was not a man to be trifled with, and the people of the St George’s community whom he summoned in 1675 may well have trembled in his presence.

The case of Jane Greene illustrates how difficult things could be for religious dissidents (those who could not accept the Church of England’s teaching) in the late 17th century.  They did not face the prospect of torture or death (short of committing an act of treason), but their status in society was very much a second-class one until well into the 19th century.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.