Dating back to 1610, Lambeth Palace Library can claim to be the oldest public library in the country. It may be quiet inside but is also buzzing with activity.
The entire Lambeth Palace Library collection is being rehoused in a vast new purpose-built centre in the Palace gardens. Due to open in 2020, the new library building by architects Wright and Wright will release valuable room in the historic Palace as well as housing the Church of England Record Centre.
This reorganisation is already throwing light on what the Palace terms ‘vivid glimpses into forgotten lives’, dark marital events in days gone by, for example.
These records have come to light in one of the preparations for the move, which is to identify and catalogue documents that did not find their way into the library’s Index of cases in the records of the Court of Arches.
The court takes its name from where proceedings were originally held, at St Maria de Arcubus (St Mary of the Arches) later St Mary-le-Bow ‘by reason of the steeple raised thereof with stone pillars in fashion like a bow bent archwise’.
The 287 documents that did not make it into library’s Index of cases in the records of the Court of Arches date from 1663 to 1786. Step forward Thomas Hewetson, who in 1666 as he sails for the Caribbean leaves ‘a large brood of children and a wife crying on the quayside’.
Hewetson made off because he had been licensed as a privateer, meaning he had official permission to attack enemy ships and commandeer their cargoes. He joined the pirate Captain Kidd to prey on French shipping and even to sack a French possession, the island of Marie Galante. It wasn’t this that brought Hewetson to the notice of the Court of Arches though, but the divorce action brought by his wife Mary.
Having abandoned wife and ‘brood’, Hewetson fetched up on Barbados where he bigamously ‘married’ the wonderfully named Butler Chamberlaine, who then sailed with him, putting in to New York to give birth to his child and later marrying ‘a British spy’.
Sometimes, churchmen could seem little better-behaved than pirates. In 1703, one rector, Thomas Egerton, is charged by his wife, the poet and women’s rights champion Sarah Fyge Egerton, with calling her ‘damned bitch, damned toad’ and much else. Then came ‘kicking, punching’ and other violence that ‘so frightened her that she fell into fits’.
Then there are two cases brought by Godfrey Lee, a proctor in Streatham. Lee charged his wife Mary with adultery, her lover being Charles Garrett, another proctor. There were reports of ‘a frolique’ involving cross-dressing in the garden of Lee’s house in Streatham, as well as of the singing of ‘obscene and smutty songs’.
Both Garrett and Lee were subsequently promoted.
St Mary-le-Bow burned down in the 1666 Great Fire of London and much of the court’s records also went up in smoke. The Court of Arches then moved to Doctors’ Commons near St Paul’s Cathedral.
Today’s Court of Arches hears appeals in cases to do with church property and ecclesiastical discipline. It dates back to the 13th century, and its once-wider ranging jurisdiction included disputes in marriage, probate, wills, defamation, church property and the morals of the laity as well as of the clergy.
Some Lambeth Palace Library manuscripts date back to the 9th Century, while others include the only surviving copy of the execution warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots signed by Elizabeth I in 1587.
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Amended 26 February 2020: William Egerton changed to Thomas Egerton.