Who were churchwardens?
The position of churchwarden originated between the 12th and 14th centuries when the laity took on new responsibilities for gathering money for the parish and maintaining the fabric of the church.
Churchwardens are lay people who are elected annually, usually around Easter time. Every parish was supposed to appoint a minimum of two. In general, one was nominated by the vicar and the other by local ratepayers who formed the parish (vestry) council. They only had to serve one term, but it is not unusual to see the same names recurring on accounts and other parish records.
The majority of churchwardens were men until well into the 20th century. Nevertheless, women were not excluded from serving in this role. As a result, women churchwardens appear in records in many different parts of the country over the centuries. The earliest recorded female churchwarden was the widowed Lady Isabel Newton of Yatton in 1496–97.
Records from several parishes in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset include references to female churchwardens in the 1500s, and there was a woman in that role at Upton, near Southwell in Nottinghamshire, in 1643. More recently, Rosie Bertie became churchwarden of Weston- on-theGreen in Oxfordshire in the early 1900s.
The inclusion of women in the role was probably facilitated by there being no property qualification for becoming a churchwarden (unlike other parish officers). However, like other parish officers who were ratepayers and/or property owners, those women who took on the role were almost certainly financially independent, with most being recorded as widows. In the case of Rosie Bertie, she was also the lady of the manor.