Who were church­war­dens?

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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.

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