Deaf, drunk and indiscreet

This was the verdict of the people of Saltash in Cornwall on their vicar, John Crewkerne. In a letter to the Dean and Canons dating from around 1404 [SGC XI.K.6], they complained that he was “deaf and cannot hear confessions except to the scandal of the person confessing. He is a revealer of confessions because he is a drunkard and publicly discloses the confessions of parishioners…he has caused some of his parishioners to be outlawed and some to be deported overseas…[he] has sold the sacraments to his parishioners and would not minister the viaticum to those at the point of death when he was asked…”. They begged the Dean and Canons to “appoint another suitable and learned priest who can instruct us according to God’s law and exonerate you from this responsibility”.

The church of Saltash was one of the endowments which gave the College its income. Given by the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, on 9 May 1351, it was one of the earliest properties given to the Dean and Canons, and part of their role as rector involved the appointment of the vicar. John Crewkerne had been appointed to the vicarage of Saltash in 1398, but within a few months problems arose surrounding the non-payment to the Dean of £100. This would appear to have been a sweetener to have allowed Crewkerne to exchange his living with another, but did not appear specifically as such in the bond of appointment. On being instituted as vicar, Crewkerne simply refused to pay.

This began a long series of legal action that continued for the next 9 years. Although their exact reasons are unknown, it is clear that the Dean and Canons wanted him gone. However, the living of Saltash was a rich one that Crewkerne did not intend to give up without a fight. Attempts were made several times to remove him through the Court of Common Pleas, the Husting Court, County Courts, King’s Court and ecclesiastical courts. In addition, the Pope was petitioned on a number of occasions to act in favour of the Dean and Canons. Finally, on 18 January 1408, the case was decided. Crewkerne was to resign the vicarage, but the Dean and Canons were to pay him an annual pension of £20 for life. As this represented the annual vicar’s income from Saltash anyway, Crewkerne was amply compensated for the loss of his position, and he received this money for the next 12 years until ultimately the King was petitioned and ruled in favour of the Dean and Canons.

The complaint of his parishioners is a small part of the whole quarrel. The fact that the people of Saltash took 6 years to make a complaint, refusing to pay tithes until the matter was sorted, suggests that it was an attempt to take advantage of the dispute. When threatened with excommunication, it would seem that they chose to make their peace with the winning side, blackening Crewkerne’s character and giving the Dean and Canons a bit of extra ammunition in the protracted legal battle for the income of a rich living.

Eleanor Cracknell (Assistant Archivist)

This blog was taken from a chapter by A.K.B. Evans in St George’s Chapel Windsor in the Fourteenth Century edited by N Saul (2005)

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