Bells and Rebellion

As with many churches of this kind where they were shared with the monastery, disputes arose over jurisdiction. A papal bull issued in 1249 finally resolved a dispute over the provision of a parish priest. It gave parishioners the use of the north-west tower, the nave, and the north aisle, with access from the street. The priory maintained control of the south-west tower and the south aisle with access from the precinct, and, of course, the eastern end of the church. Relations between the priory and the bishop and parishioners appear to have proceeded harmoniously.

Once the new east tower had been completed in about 1383 to 1385 and the separation of the two parts of the church completed, the monks moved the bells from both the south-west and north-west towers to the new east tower. Thus the parishioners were dependent upon the priory for bell ringing, which led to a major dispute. When Bishop Wakeryng arrived on a visitation in 1409, no bells were rung to welcome him and show respect; the monks were not under the jurisdiction of the bishop and perhaps felt no need to ring in his arrival. The parishioners, however, were blamed by the bishop for this lack of respect and were placed under an interdict, meaning that they could not have access to the sacraments (e.g. baptism, marriage, funerals, communion) until reparation was made – a terrible blow to the town. Such reparation is likely to have involved a financial cost. There is no record of how long this lasted, or what reparations were deemed necessary but this was eventually resolved, although souring relations with the monks still further.

It might have been this that sparked a wave of violence in and around the church in 1409. Prior Boydon had to seek protection and twenty-four leading townspeople, including four churchwardens, were bound over to keep the peace. A Thomas Growte assaulted a chaplain, tore his vestments, and prevented him from saying Mass. There were a number of other violent incidents following this including on St Bartholomew’s Day when the prior’s men were beaten with clubs and threatened with daggers. In October of the same year (1409), the parishioners built a frame above the north porch and hung three bells in it. The churchwardens ejected the prior’s bailiff from their part of the church where he collected rents and the two doors between the two parts of the church were boarded up so that the monks could not get in.

Early in 1410, the court ordered that the parishioners take down the bells over the north porch. Following this, a crowd went into the church and insulted the prior to such an extent that he fled to his rooms. The monks were too frightened to enter the church and Mass was not sung for Epiphany. This was finally settled in the summer of 1410 when the parishioners were allowed to install their bells in the rebuilt north-west tower. However, in the end the bells were moved to the south-west tower. This later resulted in a petition signed by some 3000 townspeople complaining that they could not hear the bells.

The best place for a bell tower was at the west end of the nave, but this land belonged to the priory. In 1446 a final agreement was reached whereby that area could be used for the new west tower. This may not have been ready for the bells until the 1490s, but once they were installed the old north-west tower was demolished.