The 'charge of simony' 1892



history & archaeology

Wikipedia:  Simony is the act of selling church offices and roles. It is named after Simon Magus, who is described in the Acts of the Apostles 8:9–24 as having offered two disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, payment in exchange for their empowering him to impart the power of the Holy Spirit to anyone on whom he would place his hands. The term extends to other forms of trafficking for money in "spiritual things.” [Retrieved 5 Jan 2019]. The following narrative is based on documents in Oxford University Archives.

As a consequence of the untimely resignation of the Revd Richard Bramley in 1891, because of ill-health, a vacancy arose in the incumbency of St Gregory’s Minster. Kirkdale was by no means an overwhelmingly attractive living, from an economic point of view. The Vicar’s stipend was comprised of various bits of income from several sources, not all of them ungrudgingly forthcoming. Both Mr Bramley and Mr Tudor before him had respectfully but forcefully complained of the insufficiency of this stipend2 to the owners of the advowson (the right to nominate an individual for appointment to an incumbency) - namely, The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford who, collectively, had become Patron of the church and owner of the titheable lands then belonging to St Gregory’s Minster by the Will of Sir Henry Danvers (later Earl of Danby, died 1643). Unfortunately, the net income which the University succeeded in generating from the Kirkdale properties was a relatively modest one, and was in any case dedicated, by Danby’s Will, to upkeep of the University’s ‘Physick Garden’ (now the Botanic Garden).3 The advowson and tithing rights generated little disposable profit for either their owner or the vicar. The Kirkdale advowson was of low value.

Advowsons could, at that time, be bought and sold. Only sixteen years earlier, in May 1875, Lord Feversham of Duncombe Park had approached the University, through his special ‘Secretary’, Charles Norris Gray, Vicar of Helmsley, proposing a transaction by which he would acquire the Kirkdale advowson and a substantial sum of money from the University (“Lord Feversham would not be likely to accept of any proposal which was not made on very favourable terms.” - Gray) as a contribution towards Lord Feversham’s idea of building a Parsonage House (the absence of which domestic and pastoral facility had been a source of sore complaint among previous incumbents), or a new church more conveniently situated than “the old unrestored one far away from any habitation in a field by itself” (Gray’s characterisation of St Gregory’s Minster). The Minster’s Endowment (the sum of historic donations intended to generate an interest-based income) was ‘miserably small’, Gray asserted. The University, he wrote, faced ‘continual loss & expense’ - of which it could relieve itself by transferring the advowson (plus the aforementioned substantial donation) to Lord Feversham. The advowson’s low market value was plain enough, one might conclude, if the purchaser expected to be remunerated for taking it on.

Nevertheless, the University decided not to part with the advowson, nor to enter into the rest of the transaction proposed by the Earl.4  But now, in 1892, five Yorkshire members of Convocation, including the Dean of York, revived the anxiety that the low value of the living might induce the University to disburden itself of the costs and obligations of its Patronage by relinquishing the advowson at this convenient point of interregnum between Mr Bramley and a successor. The Dean of York in question was Arthur Perceval Purey-Cust (1828-1916; Dean 1880-1916), successor to Dean Augustus Duncombe (1814-1880; son of Charles Duncombe, 1st Baron Feversham; Dean 1858-1880).

That new church envisaged some years previously by Lord Feversham and Charles Gray had by now been built (1882-3) and dedicated to Yorkshire’s most popular female saint, Hilda of Whitby, and sited where the main road from Helmsley to Scarborough (now the A170) passed through the expanding villages of Beadlam and Nawton. It is not immediately clear whether the five concerned members of Convocation were reacting to some perceived or imagined impact that the thriving of this daughter church might have upon the status or even viability of St Gregory’s Minster; whether they were simply regretful at the prospect of Kirkdale losing the prestigious patronage of the University of Oxford; whether they favoured a particular candidate of their own whose cause they planned to canvass through University connections; or whether they had something against the likely purchaser of the advowson or against the candidate whose appointment the purchaser would seek to effect. Could they even be a consortium making a new bid to achieve the outcome which the Vicar of Helmsley had failed to achieve eighteen years earlier? Further research might clarify their motives. But they knew for sure that there was an interested party ready, and apparently well-placed, to bid for the advowson and, as sole Patron, to present her own nominee for the incumbency.

The bidder, unnamed in the memorandum here drawn upon, is described as the owner of ‘Wellburn Estate’. If this means Wellburn Hall, then the would-be Patron in question was perhaps Jane Parker (née Foxton, wife of Thomas Parker) - who died at Welburn in that same year of 1892 in her 82nd year.

Her candidate was known to be the Revd Charles Robert Baskett, described as curate, of St Mary Hall, Oxford.5 If he were elected she would donate £1000 towards a Vicarage.

It would not be surprising if there were a flurry of rumour and gossip in Mr Baskett’s college concerning this magnanimous offer upon condition of the bidder’s acquisition of the advowson and Mr Baskett’s presentation to the incumbency. One striking rumour is certainly attested by a very small card dated 5 February 1892, addressed informally, as though from a colleague or associate, to the Secretary to the Curators of the University Chest, W. B. Gamlen. “Is it true, I am asked by a correspondent, that the University is pledged to give £2000 towards a Vicarage at Kirkdale?” The card is from L. A. (or R?) Phelps of St Mary Hall - who could conceivably be the Lancelot Ridley Phelps, subsequently (1914) elected Provost of Oriel College. Unfortunately there is no adjacent response from Gamlen bundled with this card, which could have clarified the rumour that the University, as Patron of St Gregory’s Minster, might remove the nagging issue of a Kirkdale Vicarage from debate by funding one itself.6

But amidst this speculation over the Vicarage as a bargaining point, the five concerned members of Convocation evidently spotted the vulnerability of the opposition’s strategy. Was the sacred office of priest to the parish of Kirkdale actually about to be sold and bought for the price-tag of a thousand pounds (or whatever)? There was a damning word for the act of selling church offices and roles. Soon, as the source reports it, “The charge of simony began to be whispered.”

Such a scripturally condemned abuse as simony the University was disposed to take seriously. Counsel was sought from a lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn, George H. Blakesley. After some time Blakesley delivered his advice: the University had better keep clear of such a transaction. And as for the candidate, Baskett: “I think he had better withdraw from the candidature.”

Prudently, the University resolved once more to hold on to the advowson. Thus the five concerned members of Convocation were presumably relieved of  their anxiety for Kirkdale (on that score, at least), the lady involved failed to secure the advowson, her candidate missed his chance of securing the incumbency, Kirkdale missed getting a Parsonage, and within the year the Revd Leonard H. Rees was appointed as Vicar, and went on to serve the parish for the next twelve years.

Not long after his appointment, in fact with the onset of winter in November of 1892, Mr Rees applied to the University Chest for assistance towards building a Parsonage House. The estimated cost was £1100 for which he had already started a fund.

Further Snippets relating to the saga of the Vicarage and the incumbency of the energetic Mr Rees may be expected in due course.


1.  Research and this account, S. A. J. Bradley, 2018-19.

2.  In the winter of 1868, the Archdeacon of Cleveland wrote privately to the University urging more financial help for Tudor (See Snippets, ‘The Impoverished Vicar and his Interesting Advocate (1868)’); and in 1872 - again, significantly, in the winter - the Archbishop of York wrote to the University describing the ‘very scattered’ parish as ‘one of the most difficult parishes in the Diocese to work’ and warning that ‘the present Incumbent Rev Tudor is quite broken down by it.’

3.  A not inconsiderable portion of Kirkdale tithes must have been spent on the erection of the very grand Danby Arch at the entrance to the Physick Garden. Completed in 1633 it records for posterity Danby’s enlightened purpose in bequeathing this medicinal garden for the use of the University and the public.

4.  See the Friends’ Newsletter for August 2016 for a fuller account.

5.  St Mary Hall, Oxford, a 14th-century foundation, was an independent college in 1892 but was incorporated in Oriel College ten years later.

6. As a matter of fact, the University had for some time held in mind an option for diverting some of the income from Kirkdale leases for such a purpose, and the issue raised by this present case appears to have prompted Mr Gamlen to look more closely at the University’s options.

7. Until the 1860s Oxford colleges required that Fellows should be unmarried and in Holy Orders. When a Fellow married he was required to relinquish his Fellowship - but the colleges individually and the University collectively held the advowsons of very many parish churches across the land so that a retiring Fellow could be awarded a living with an income and, with luck, a parsonage in which to raise his putative family. Many colleges, and the University itself, retained their portfolio of parish churches long after the terms of Fellowship were changed.



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