West Dereham Sign Gary Trouton


March 2011

Report on the janaury Meeting of WDHG

The group held it's first meeting of the year on January 20th at St. Andrews Church with the speaker being Janet Gough, a member of the group.

The talk entitled, A Norfolk Controversy, concerns events which occurred during the latter part of the year 1698 and January 1699 at West Dereham Church.

To give readers a brief history lesson the 17th century was an eventful 100 years from the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, King James Bible in 1611, the English Civil War 1642-51, execution of Charles I, 1649, Monarchy restored in 1660, the Book of Common Prayer 1666, Test Act of 1673 ( test people to prove they were Christians), Act of Toleration & Bill of Rights 1689 and the Blasphemy Act in 1698.

At that time William & Mary were on the throne of England, Mary Stuart having married William of Orange as part of Charles II foreign policy. She bore him no children and died of smallpox in December 1694.William was invited to England by Parliament where he proceeded to supress the Jacobite Rebellion. William ruled alone after Mary died until his own demise in 1702 due to a serious injury falling from his horse.

Elizabeth I had under the Act of Supremacy of 1559 re-established the Church of England's independence from Rome. The Puritans were a rather disparate group of people but were agreed that the Elizabethan Settlement had not gone far enough.

They objected to ornaments and rituals vestments, church organs etc which they said were idolatrous, popish, pomp and rags. The turmoil of the civil war (1642-51) allowed people to think and to experiment with new ideas.

During the 1660s a group of people emerged who became to be known as Quakers. They were also called 'friends' or 'meeting house people' in some quarters. It was based on the personal insights of George Fox who was born in Leicestershire and was a shoe maker .He developed a new set of beliefs based on the idea of the light within which is mentioned in the 1st Chapter of John.

The Quaker was seen as a rather dull person who was, plain of speech and dress.

They went about daily life without any of the normally expected bowing and scraping and refused to doff their hats in the presence of 'superiors'. Only God could be so honoured. To fail to remove ones hat in court meant certain imprisonment. They treated every day the same and traded on Sundays and Christmas day.

They attacked the established Church and called church buildings 'steeple houses'. They would pin notices to church doors and heckle the clergy in the street. They refused to pay tithes to the church which in turn led to imprisonment along with those already there for their beliefs and evangelism.

George Fox himself was beaten up and placed in the stocks for interrupting a sermon. William Penn,(1644-1718) was hounded out of the country and emigrated to America where he founded Pennsylvania.

The persecution became less after the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, it was the first step towards the freedom of religion in the British Isles. It allowed people to worship in their homes and chapels as they saw fit. The Act of Toleration allowed non conformists their own places of worship if they excepted certain oaths of allegiance in 1688.

Those denying the Trinity were deprived of the above mentioned acts under the Blasphemy Act 1697-98. Put simply persons who by writing, preaching, teaching deny that the members of the Holy Trinity were God or assert they was more than one God or deny the Christian religion to be true were guilty of Blasphemy and were liable to three years imprisonment without bail.

Quakers were unusually active in Norfolk in the decade after the act of toleration engaging in aggressive evangelism which aroused strong resentment amongst local clergy. New Meeting Houses were in use at Downham Market and Attleborough and well attended whereas Church attendance numbers declined.

This brings us to West Dereham in December 1698 and to Laurence Parke. Contrary to some sources he was not Vicar of West Dereham, he was actually rector of Barton Bendish (1690-1716) and Vicar of Wiggenhall St. Mary (1692-1716), he was a curate at West Dereham for a short while in 1704.

There had been a number of villagers who were known to have attended Quaker meetings and like many other Clergy at that time Parke became angry at the prospect of this rivalry and preached at West Dereham against them. In a publication the inhabitants state that the said Laurence Parke came to preach there and made it much of his business, at several times to preach against the said people in very harsh terms and expressions which caused dissatisfaction to several of his hearers who thought the said people did not deserve to be so preached against.

Apparently there was but one person and his wife in the village who had attended a Quaker meeting at that time. This may have been Thomas Becket who rented land near the Church and he was known to have had an argument with Parke on a previous occasion.

This led to an exchange of correspondence from a number of local clergy including Parke and Lancaster Topecliff Rector of Hockwold with the Quakers culminating in a meeting in West Dereham Church. A great deal of the argument was had about who had challenged who. The meeting was set for Thursday the 8th.of December at 10 o-clock in the morning and shall be at West Dereham Church which 'being pretty capacious and well galleried. That six from each side shall be permitted to discuss the matter and to allow no more than five minutes in which no interruption is to be made.

A notary to be appointed by each side to write down the objections and answers that are made by each party to be compared at the end of every meeting if there be more than one. The Priests made five charges of Blasphemy, against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures and civil contempt which was signed by Henry Meriton, John Meriton and Laurence Parke.

There was but one meeting and the matter finally came to an end in January 1699 when a petition was drawn up in Kings Lynn. The Norfolk Petition - To make friends obnoxious to the Government. To be presented to the MPs for the Borough and local reports to the 'friends' say it had over 500 signatures. After about a week the petition was presented at the quarter sessions to a grand jury and accepted. Despite the efforts of the Norfolk clergy in lobbying their MPs and both houses of Parliament the petition failed. The failure was attributed to the superior lobbying skills of the friends. Was there ever a strong Quaker following in West Dereham, I believe there was and clearly the inhabitants of the village were not prepared to see them persecuted and defended the act for freedom of religious beliefs.

The meeting ended with refreshments and general discussion.

A very interesting account of local history which very few of Janet's audience knew about


Richard C French

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