Deddington turned upside down - well just a little bit

 Geoffrey Hindley


A new show, called The World Turned Upside Down, has recently opened in London. It is based on the book of the same name by the distinguished historian Christopher Hill; it is about England in the 17th century.   It was the time of the Civil War and many revolutionary ideas - some of the “lower orders” dared suggest that all Englishmen should have the vote!  But most people were a good deal more old fashioned.  What worried them was the attack on ancient customs begun by the Reformation and continued by Puritan-minded clergy.

Deddingtonians were outraged during the annual perambulation of the parish boundaries of 1631 when their vicar, the Rev. William Brudenell, refused to wear his surplice or to give a gospel reading at the customary spot, where the usual cross had been carved in the earth. But Mr. Brudenell was only following a royal injunction of 70 years earlier. 

The “perambulation” which still survives in some parts of England in the ceremony of “beating the bounds” was, in theory, to ensure that the boundaries had not been encroached on during this previous year.  But in the Middle Ages it had been accompanied by prayers at set places so that “God’s word will utter ….. his virtue ……   and those noisome spirite of the air shall do no hurt at all to our corn and cattle.”  And behind this lay pagan fertility rites.  The medieval Church had hoped to Christianise them, the Reformed Anglican Church aimed to do away with them.  It felt that far too many people still superstitiously attributed magical powers to Church ritual.

The people of Deddington did not care whether they were thought superstitious nor whether their vicar was following Church rules. “Charming of the fields” was customary and the reverend was expected to keep to the good old ways.  But Brudenell, Puritan though he might be, was still the vicar.  He curtly enquired “to what end” he should read from the gospel.  The reason, as he well knew, was that most people reckoned a reading from God’s word had magical qualities which a homily, or devotional exercise written by a mere man, lacked.  But without pausing, the vicar haughtily observed that “He would not stand to a hole, which any shepherd or boy might make for aught he knew” and, without further ado, “went further on and stood in a ditch under an elder tree”, where he read a homily as the Church rules required.  Another year, however, he refused to make the perambulation at all, wanting to know to what purpose that was supposed to serve and “whether it would be any benefit or profit to the poor”.

All this was hardly revolutionary politics, but breaking fine old traditions in the interests of the poor can hardly have seemed quite the thing to the “substantial men of the parish” who traditionally took part in the ceremonial procession.  Let the vicar stand to the hole and to the rest of the grand old ways of merrie England, they must have thought.

Originally published in the Deddington News November 1978, p.11