A Visit to Byfield in Northamptonshire
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the March 1997 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
The village of Byfield in Northamptonshire was a settlement in Saxon times. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1087), and has had a church on the same site for more than nine hundred years. The present building, the Church of the Holy Cross, dates from about 1340 so was completed just before the Black Death wiped out almost half the population of England, Byfield suffering between May and October 1349.
The 12‑page guide, available in the church, is particularly informative providing not only a history of the church but also many useful snippets of information that throw light on our rich social history. For example, on the subject of church bells it tells us that in earlier days, the bells were an integral part of village life and spoke a more varied language than now. There was the sermon bell, the pancake bell (rung on Shrove Tuesday), and the gleaning bell (during harvest), all conveying messages clearly understood by the people of the parish. In the eighteenth century the curfew bell was still rung at 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. "to toll the knell of parting day", and there were the death knells, nine tolls for a man, six for a woman and three for a child.
I had heard of the ancient right of criminals to sanctuary in a church but I was surprised to learn that the right was not finally abolished until 1623. Before then, as long as the crime was not sacrilege or high treason, a criminal could take refuge in a church and not be forcibly removed for forty days. During that period he could take an oath of abjuration before a coroner and proceed unhindered to a seaport nominated by the coroner, penniless, clothed in sackcloth and carrying a white wooden cross. He had to keep to the king's highway and not spend more than one night in any one place. On arrival at the coast, the refugee had to take passage abroad. If there was no vessel ready to sail, he had to wade into the sea up to his waist each day until a ship became available. If he was still there after forty days, he had to start the process again by seeking sanctuary in the nearest church.
The purpose of my visit to Byfield was to trace members of the Howes family, and I had already noted a memorial inscription in the churchyard. But there was a further bonus in store for me. In the south‑west corner of the church is a memorial book containing the names of the Byfield men who lost their lives in the two world wars. The entries are made in illuminated lettering and the volume was originally the work of Owen Roberts, a retired schoolmaster. The remarkable feature that sets it apart is that this memorial book also records those parishioners who have died since 1945, giving a brief account of their lives. The book is kept in a locked glass case so I could not turn the pages but by a stroke of luck it had been left open at the following entry:
Frank William HOWES: Farmer. Born in Byfield 1880, died 1st March 1970. Aged 90. Son of Samuel HOWES of Byfield and Esther Arm (nee SAUL) of Edgecote Member of the church choir for 70 years. The farm where his ancestors lived has now been replaced by 6‑8 New Terrace.
The sighting of SAUL has been noted and hopefully will link with other research. If only more villages kept memorial books; what an invaluable source they would provide for future generations of family historians.
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