I was clearing out some stuff from the loft the other day when I came across an article I wrote many years ago, part of which included an examination of the sexual behaviour of parishioners in a Sussex village called Felpham.  It had been ages since I’d written this and long before I taken up writing erotica but I found some of it quite interesting so I thought I’d offer it up as a random blog.

The research was based on presentments made by the parish churchwardens and the ‘detection’ books of the church courts between about 1600 and 1640.

The churchwarden’s presentments often recorded incidences of offences for sexual misdemeanours.  Immorality cases were amongst the largest category of offences.  One historian has calculated that nearly 10,000 men and women were summoned on sexual charges by the Elizabethan Church Courts in Essex, and that even this figure underestimated the true number.  In Felpham there were thirty one offences that fall into this category, a significant number given the small adult population of the village at the time.

One set of presentments covers what is termed bridal pregnancy.  Pre-marital pregnancy was a far from rare occurrence.  It should be noted that the age of marriage was relatively high (brides between 20 and 30 and grooms between 25 and 30) and many cases must have occurred through lack of patience on the part of the couple waiting for betrothal.  However, it was also clear that in some cases betrothal was a result of conception and not vice versa.  Both Henry Trigge in 1617 and Philip Standen were presented for committing fornication with their future wives.  There is also evidence that relationships could continue outside of marriage for a considerable length of time.  In 1622 John Peter and Joan Towsy were presented for fornication and on 11 July 1628 she appeared again for having a bastard child by her eight years long lover, John Peter.

There were a number of presentments for men and women having illegitimate children.  Aside from the church’s concern for moral behaviour there were sound economic reasons for being concerned about illegitimacy and for being anxious to discover the name of the father.  The child would easily become, both in his early years and later in life, a burden on the poor rate.  It is not surprising to find that the churchwardens were unhappy about people looking after pregnant women from outside the parish, which happened in Felpham in 1621 when Thomas Nicholson “received one Joan Capelsen as she calleth herself, who being with child is thereof lately delivered; wee know not whence she came nor what she is, but she saieth she is not marryed and comes from Burleigh nere Rochester in Kent.”

It is interesting to compare the respective records of illegitimacy provided by the parish registers and church court records.  There were seven illegitimate children recorded in the parish registers and five in the church court records between 1604 and 1640.  Yet only two, the children of Joan Towsey and Joane Capselan, were referred to in both records.  There were parents with illegitimate children who went unreported and at the same time children who were not baptised.  This suggests  neither the parish registers nor detection books by themselves provide a comprehensive picture of the incidence of illegitimacy and that even the two together probably underestimate the true figure.  Given the number of suspected cases of fornication one wonders how the number of unwanted pregnancies was controlled.  References to abortion are rare.  There was one recorded case in Essex when a drug called saven, made from a bush of the same name was used to procure an abortion.  There was one known abortionist in Sussex; that was widow Scutt of Bury.

The largest number of cases concern fornication or adultery.  Some were regular offenders, such as Joanna Gray, “for committing fornication” in 1617 and for “incontinency with William Rygatt”.  John Cooper was presented on two colourful occasions in 1620 and 1622.  On the first occasion “one John Cooper hath bein knowne to have resorted unto one Comers wife, a suspected bad liver, and with her is suspected to have committed incontinency.  As it is reported to me by many of the parryshioners, resorting unto her three or foure tymes in a weeke.  One Thomas Murton, Churchwarden of that parish for the year 1620 hath acquainted mee with the coming and often resorting of the said John Coopered unto the wife of the saide Colmer, saying that in his backside he stood and observed the said woman where she dwelt, and that as he informed me suspected him of incontinency….”

In 1621 “Edward Richards, alias Gillam, of our parish, taylor, affirmeth that he hath heard William Dean, sometimes servant to Thomas Rogers of our parryshe, alehouskeeper, report that Mr Adam Page, parson of Middleton, and John Cooper of our parrish, gentleman, lying at the alehouse one night, in March last past or thereabouts, the said Deane saw such filthiness betwixt the said John Cooper and the servant mayd of the alehouse that Deane thought she might be with childe by John Couper.”

John Cooper was a colourful being reported on numerous occasions for a variety of causes; non- attendance of church and abusing the minister amongst them.  These presentments also serve to illustrate the way rumour and gossip worked, especially in fornication cases.  There was rarely any first hand evidence, “as the common fame goeth” was a frequently used expression.  There was one occasion in which a suspicion of incontinency was announced to the congregation when Margaret Luffe and Thomas Cocke were presented “for a suspicion of incontinency from the information of Robert Grevett which he spoke in our church as soon as sermon was done.”  On another occasion Regitta Preston “was found by Michaeol Bacone and others about 11 of the clocke at night very suspiciously lockt in a close chamber with one William Piper of Chester.”

Stories told, perhaps in total innocence, were heard by third parties who then passed the information on to the churchwardens.  This happened to John Ayles who “hath as we do heare taken into his house one William Cotton and his wife and they do live together and that the said John Ayles liveth very suspiciously and not according to any good order as we present that the said William Cotton hath said that the said John Ayles did abuse himself with one Joan Gillam also Richards…”  Rumour clearly played a significant part in small rural communities.  Personal behaviour was constantly under the watchful gaze of your neighbours.

It was also regarded as a sin by the church for married couples not to live together.  There were three recorded cases of living apart and one case of desertion in Felpham.  In 1611 William Joye and William Leach were presented for living apart from their wives and in 1635 Margaret Somne for living apart from her husband, the offence being reported to the churchwardens by her husband, Thomas.  The case of desertion occurred in 1621 when Joan King was presented for living apart from her husband.  She complained that “her husband hath bin gone from her those six yeares togeather since which tyme she hath not seen him and that she hath divers times heard that he is dead.”

There is clear evidence of a variety of sexual behaviour in this small Sussex village.  Although the majority married in the church and had legitimate children baptised in the church there was a significant degree of sexual activity that took place outside of marriage.