Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

The Rev. Thomas Silverwood, Nottinghamshire’s Vicar of Bray?

By John Hamilton

The Vicar of Bray is the title of a song which emerged in the eighteenth century. Neither the composer of the music nor the author of the clever satirical lyrics appears to be known. The verses attack the eponymous vicar for bending his behaviour and his conscience to enable him to keep his job as successive monarchs from Charles II to George I sought to impose different sets of political and religious requirements on English clergyman. His motto is: And this be law I will maintain until my dying day, sir; That whatsoever king may reign still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

Why Bray? Some have claimed that the song refers to an actual long- lived vicar of the village of Bray in Berkshire. Situated just across the River Thames from Maidenhead, it is now famous for its classy restaurants. But apart from the name there is no evidence of a direct connection to the village. Might the author have had a donkey in mind? This would fit in well with the very mocking tone of the words. Tom Nixon-Roworth’s article in the latest edition of the Transactions investigates those clergymen of the county, both loyalist and puritan, who were not Vicars of Bray, but were deprived of their parish livings because of their religious views. As his maps show, however, although a significant proportion did suffer in this way, the majority of Nottinghamshire’s parish priests managed to stay in place in the turbulent times of the mid-seventeenth century. But for many the act of ejection was only one event in a lifetime spent surviving life in a minefield of changing religious and political ideology. They may have survived the earlier ejections of loyalist clergy in the 1640s, only to be ousted as Dissenters after 1660 - or vice versa.

Investigating ejected clergy is difficult, as Tom has indicated, because of the vagueness of the wording in the records or the scantiness of the data. But sufficient information on one clergyman of this time has survived his career to be followed with a measure of confidence. Thomas Silverwood is interesting because he was ordained just at the outbreak of the Civil War and died still in office during the reign of William and Mary, thus covering the most turbulent period in the history of Christianity in England excepting only the upheavals of the Reformation in the previous century.

The Silverwood family came from Yorkshire, as is revealed when Thomas’s grandfather John enrolled at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1577. He was registered as a “serviens”, that is a poor student who served as a servant to richer ones. He stayed poor. Spending the whole of his working life as a parish priest in the Wreake valley, which runs from Melton Mowbray to Leicester, he was excused half his taxes in 1616 “because poor” (quia pauper). In his will his surviving children were each left only the proverbial shilling except for his eldest son.

Thomas was born in Asfordby, next to Melton Mowbray, and took after his grandfather both as a parish priest and as a poor man. But he went to Cambridge - Trinity College - starting there at the age of 18 in 1633. The family was clearly religious: not only grandfather John, but one of his sons Martin (Thomas’s uncle), Thomas himself and one of Thomas’s sons went into the church. At Cambridge Thomas was described as a “sizar”, socially the lowest type of student. Graduating in 1637, Thomas then seems to have moved to Peterborough, no doubt to study for the ministry. For he was ordained there in 1642, the year relations between Charles I and Parliament broke down and the Battle of Edgehill was fought. No information on the Silverwood family’s religious leanings up to this time has survived. But Thomas was ordained by Bishop John Towers, who was a staunch Royalist. This provides the first piece of evidence on Thomas’s own religious stance, suggesting perhaps that he was basically loyalist in belief. A few months later Peterborough was taken over by the Roundheads under Colonel Cromwell, and Bishop Towers was listed as a 'Delinquent' in a 1643 Parliament Ordinance. Two years on, in 1645, the year that the Parliamentarians abolished bishops, Thomas was “sequestered to” the parish of Little Burstead in Essex, near Billericay. Here the problems begin. Had he been thrown out of a living near Peterborough by Cromwell or fled from the Parliamentarians there, but managed to find a small poor parish without an incumbent, where they were not too troubled by his religious views and he could set himself up without being lawfully inducted? The sparse data does allow us to be certain. ‘But he did not last long in Essex. By 1650 he had returned to Leicestershire, giving his place of residence as Tilton on the Hill when he married Joan - or Joanna - Curtis in Leicester. Four years on he seems to have taken over as Vicar of Codicote in Hertfordshire. As with Little Burstead perhaps there was a general shortage of clergy, and another small, poor village was happy to have a sitting clergyman without asking too many questions.’

But Codicote was only a staging post for Thomas. Some time in the next couple of years he was back home in the Wreake valley. He “intruded” into the parish of Rotherby, just a mile or two from where he was born. He must have been known here. As Trixie Gadd's recent chapter in Fiona McCall's edited volume The Church in Interregnum Britain discusses, the term “intruder” is commonly used to describe a Godly (that is Puritan) minister who simply takes over a parish. In this case it is not clear whether there was a sitting incumbent who was thrown out by Thomas and his local supporters, or whether the position was vacant. With no bishop to lawfully induct a new incumbent, the process of taking over a parish was unclear.

Did this show that Thomas was now sufficiently convincing as a “Godly” minister as to persuade whatever authorities were interested that he was acceptable as a parish priest under Cromwell’s regime? How then to explain the very early move to Gonalston, where he certainly was in post as Rector in 1656? Like the other village communities he had served, Gonalston was a small place. According to Thomas, when he reported it in 1676, there were 86 communicants, three absent from communion and no recusants. This suggests a total population perhaps 150-200 men, women and children. The lord of the manor and patron of the living was Humphrey Monoux, a staunch Royalist, who acquired a baronetcy from Charles II at the Restoration. Monoux was an absentee landlord; he lived in Bedfordshire. There was no manor house at Gonalston then: but Monoux seems to have owned most of the land - the rector owning the rest. Nevertheless Thomas and his extended family lived quite modestly, though the rectory was taxed for four hearths and was the largest house in the village. A map dated 1726 in Nottingham Archives (ref: GO 2 L), shows the rectory as a small house complete with smoke coming out of the chimney. The large Rectory now in place must have been built later, though some bits of the old house can still been seen as part of it. In Thomas’s time the house came with a barn, a park, a dovecote, an orchard and a garden. The “garden” was no doubt a kitchen garden, and the “park” perhaps something more ornamental.

With his dubious past, how Thomas was able to take over as Rector at Gonalston remains a mystery; as does the procedure, if any, he went through. His various incumbences are not recognised by the Church of England’s official website listing all Anglican clergy from the Reformation onwards: he was not confirmed in his post at Gonalston until July 1661, a year after the Restoration. And how he persuaded Monoux to keep him on is also unknown. As a committed Royalist Monoux doubtless kept his head down during the Commonwealth. Perhaps when he emerged into the open in 1660 and found Thomas in post, he was persuaded the village and its incumbent were contentedly Royalist too, and from the distance of Bedford saw no benefit in going to the trouble of removing the Rector. If he did make such a judgement, then Monoux’s confidence in Thomas was shown to be justified. From the parish registry entries - about the only evidence we have of Thomas’s time as Rector - he appears as a careful and conscientious parish priest. The registers for his time in office includes a terrier of the glebe lands produced in 1663, detailing the land and other property owned by the rectory. There is also a list of charitable collections, mostly in 1660-1, when a number of places around the country from Pontefract to Ilminster suffered “sudden and lamentable fires” or similar, and Gonalston’s pennies were added to the national fund­raising efforts. But three of the collections were for French protestants, including one for those persecuted following Louis XIV’s famous revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1684, sending numerous Huguenots as refugees to Britain and other countries. With no resident lord of the manor, Thomas found himself the big fish in a small pond. An agreement made between Monoux and a later Rector in 1726, that is a generation after Thomas’s death, suggests that the Rector held over 100 acres in Gonalston with more in neighbouring Lowdham, while the tithes at that time were valued at £75 a year. How far the Silverwood family in the Rectory actually got involved in farming is not known, but the Rector was responsible for keeping a bull and a boar for the use of parishioners. He was also Trustee of the defunct medieval hospital at Broadbusk which position may have put more land under the Rector’s control. Thomas stayed on at Gonalston until his death in 1691. He was around 76 years old. Joanna survived him by a few years. Their gravestones can still be seen by the altar rails in the little church there.

In good King Charles’ golden days, when loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high church man was I, and so I got preferment.’

So run the first lines of The Vicar of Bray. Being Rector of Gonalston can scarcely be counted as “preferment”. But Thomas spent the bulk his career there in modest comfort both materially and spiritually. He had survived as a parish priest, as far as we can tell, through many difficult years before finding somewhere to quietly serve his parishioners and bring up his large family - he and Joanna probably had eight children as well as his elderly father and two nieces living with them for a time. If this involved some problems with his conscience, one can hardly blame him. If ever there was a period which one can compare with the seventeenth century Britain it is surely our own times, when jobs have been lost and reputations damaged for using the wrong words and many are keeping quiet even though disagreeing with the prevailing, sometimes violently supported, ideology. In contrast with the more liberally laid-back attitudes of the 20th century, we should be able to empathise with the dilemmas that faced seventeenth century clergymen. To conform or not to conform - that was the question. It cannot be a surprise that many decided to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, so they could continue to look after their flocks and their families, poor though they were, in contentious times.

John Hamilton


Fiona McCall (ed.): The Church in Interregnum Britain. University of London Press 2021.

Tom Nixon-Roworth: The Ejections of Nottinghamshire’s Parish Clergy, 1640-70. Transactions of the Thoroton Society Vol:125 2021.

For further reading see the references at the end of Tom Nixon-Roworth’s article in the Transactions.

Acknowledgement: I must thank Tom Nixon-Roworth for his help and advice in producing this article.