Ecclesiastical - the Reformation and after


The Reformation brought the Latin mass to an end and the Catholic Church became a persecuted organisation; the changes were radical and massive.

Every parish church was instructed to use an English Bible and destroy images, shrines and pictures. Holy Cross was annexed to the diocese of London on 22 April 1550 and about then the changes were intensified: ceremonies and processions were reduced to a minimum, walls of churches were white-limed and interiors lost most of their colour. A church became a place of solemn dignity.

Whether as a result of the upheavals any pressure was put on to Richard Preston, a minister of Holy Cross, is not known, but in 1551 he granted to others his own manor of Micklefield Hall plus more than 500 acres of land in the parishes of Rickmansworth and Watford. The Reformation brought a new focus on the Word, both written and spoken, and this dominated the life of Holy Cross. In 1569 John Lane, a noted preacher who had served as one of Henry VIII`s commissioners and been an active reformer, was appointed rector; he did not stay long, however, and moved to Chadwell, in Essex. Times remained uneasy, however, and the changes of rector were frequent. William Edwards resigned in 1579, four years after being forcibly driven out of the vicarage by a group of rowdy villagers and temporarily displaced. A dispute of another kind is exemplified by the furnishing in 1588 of John Butler, the rector, with a musket in case the Spanish Armada landed its vast army of invasion!

John was described in 1583 as `no graduate, a preacher, resident. He is of honest life.` So it seems a little unfair to read that in 1592 he was referred to by the archdeacon of St Albans as `a very simple scholar`. Such comments underline the variations in the ability of rectors and general opinion in a period of upheaval. John, after all, was regarded as a Puritan and on 1st November 1584 was obliged to apologise to the whole congregation for having admitted to Holy Communion persons lawfully excommunicated. John had as curate Richard Betts, a Fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, who clashed with Queen Elizabeth and her government by refusing to bestow fellowships contrary to statutes of the university.

Another curate of John`s was Thomas Chapman, who after he moved to Stevenage, left some charitable bequests there. Sarratt was later to benefit from one of these. In 1594 there was a reported number of 80 communicants at Holy Cross, but with no men of note recorded, and the living was valued at £9 per annum. John Butler`s daughter, Alice, married John Noke, minister of Hexton, at Holy Cross. In 1608 George Clark, a learned divine of Magdalen College, Oxford, was appointed vicar.

At this time fierce arguments raged over doctrine, and preaching was very important. In 1604 James I ordered that a pulpit be erected in every parish church, and throughout the 17th century issues of faith were controversial and divisive. Anglican clergy became involved in the debate, often torn between Pu r itanism and the high church ideals of Charles I, who not only made church attendance a legal obligation but also attempted to dictate the content of sermons, saying that it was a sin not to support the king financially. Not surprisingly, ejection of clergy was frequent and persecution on both sides abounded. In 1620 Alexander Clarke, the vicar, was obliged to contribute a musket to the army. The strife eventually culminated in civil war. The next vicar, Robert Clarke, lived here with his wife Judith. In 1650 Parliament inquired into all benefices and found Holy Cross rectory to be of an annual value of £70, with John Chidwicke, the rector, being `a very able and godly minister`. From 1656 an annual payment of £14 was granted to the Sarratt rector from tithes of Sawbridgeworth, which belonged to St Paul`s Walden. In 1662 the vicar, William Joel, married Mary Child, widow of the patron of Holy Cross, at Rickmansworth.

Passionate discussion of religion remained a central part of life. In the summer of 1 675 Richard Baxter, widely regarded as the most outstanding of the nation`s ejected clergy, was invited to the area and he preached on ten Sundays in several parishes, including Sarratt, sometimes twice a day. He was a celebrated writer, scholar, pastor, preacher and hymn-writer. Nonconformist congregations had sprung up everywhere, meeting in private homes, and the border area of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire was renowned for its radicalism. It is known that Quakers were active in Sarratt during the 1670s, while a Nonconformist meeting-house in Sarratt in about 1700 was the home of John Baldwin.

The 18th century witnessed a serious decline in the nation`s spiritual health. On matters of faith and morals people doubted where the divided Church stood , and for most of them the parish church existed completely outside their lives save perhaps for the occasional offices of baptism, marriage and funeral. The Prayer Book services were predictable and somnolent, while sermons tended to be lengthy and dull, often couched in terms far above the heads of the congregation. Direction was lost and incumbents tended to stay many years in one parish, losing vitality and freshness. Between 1661 and 1807, for example, Sarratt had only four rectors. From 1737 to 1768 Gilbert Williams was not only rector but also Lord of two nearby manors (Goldingtons and Rosehall) and for nearly 100 years various members of the Williams family shared the offices of rector and Lord.

Class structures and the constraints of the parochial system had left the parish church ill-equipped to cope with social change and the loss of members to nonconformist churches.