The right to site in a particular pew in church 1600!

A letter written by a Barnack resident in the 1680s concerning a dispute about the right to sit in a particular pew in the church.

To ye Right Honerable John Hirle of Exeter

May it please your honour to give me leave to acquante you that your honours Tenant have site in a seate in  Barnak church above this thirty years which was put in by my father when I was a youth & told me it belonged to your honours farme by reason it was builte by one mr Browne that lived in ye farme formely & after wards went to live in Walcot house & some of his servants set in it when he lived thire: now mr Wortly have bought  it he clames ye seate but by ye custume of our church what seates are bult for any house it so contineues & it is ye opinion of all Antinant men in ye towne& parish that  it is your honours rite: now my lord for me to goe to sute with so greate a person I am not able: without your honour would be pleased to stand Tryall or else it will be lost  from your honours farme for ever which I hope your honour will take into consideration & let me know what must be done about it:

Yours honours humble servant & Tenant to comand

Bray Beaver


From this letter it is apparent that Mr. Browne, formerly a tenant of the Earl of Exeter,  built a pew in Barnack church for Bray Beaver’s father. Bray had been using it for over thirty years. Mr.Browne moved to Walcot House and some of his servants then used the pew. Subsequently Walcot Hall was bought by Sir Sidney Wortley (in the 1680s) and he then claimed the right to use the pew. Bray Beaver seeks the Earl’s support for his contention that the pew is a Burghley pew because it was built for a Burghley tenant.

In the days when box pews were common in churches it was not unusual for disputes about seating rights to occur. Those parishioners with higher social standing would expect to have their pews near the front. Those of lower rank would be seated against the walls and at the back. To reinforce their claims to particular pews it was not uncommon for people to fix name plates to their pews or to carve their names or initials on them.The sale and renting of pews was common practice as well. 

The church at Easton on the Hill still has many of its old oak box pews, some dating from the 1600s. Each pew would almost certainly have belonged to one family. One of the pews has a fixed plate in the name of E.Parkinson and several others have carved names or initials. A visit to this church reveals an interesting aspect of English social history.

Brian Palmer