Ferring in the 16th Century

There are many more sources for Ferring’s history in the 16th Century than for the mediaeval period. Chief among these are the records of the Manor Court – that is to say the Bishop’s manor of ‘Ferring and Fure’: no records have survived from this period for the East Ferring manor court, only references to the buying and selling of the estate and its Lordship. Fure, it may be remembered, was a detached part of the (west) Ferring manor near Billingshurst, useful to the Bishop’s estate because of the woodland which was abundant there but scarce in Ferring itself. Its attachment survived well into the 19th Century.
The proceedings of the Manor Courts, meeting usually at Easter and Michaelmas (September), were written up into volumes and the earliest surviving volume begins with 1502, with other volumes covering most of the period up to 1565. The business of the Court was mainly assigning and reassigning of tenancies: these were usually hereditary but on each accession a fee was payable. The tenants are always named, and the extent of the holding but it is difficult to say precisely where the holding was – if any house-name or field-name was given it is rarely one that survived through later centuries. But the names of the people, either directly involved in the tenancies or attending the Court as ‘jurors’, or being fined for non-attendance or other misdemeanours, link up with the names in many other contemporary documents that survive.
Next most important are the Parish Registers, of all baptisms, marriages and burials at St Andrew’s Church. There is a complete set for Ferring from 1558, when compulsory registration was introduced. In these early years there are often incidental details such as godparents and witnesses, adding to our knowledge of who was who in Ferring in the late-Tudor period.
There is also a Subsidy Roll (taxation list) for 1525, and a ‘Muster List’ of 1539 of some 30 Ferring residents (perhaps a fifth of the population) who could fight as bowmen or ‘billmen’ (pikemen), if required. There are also 44 Wills, of residents who died between 1542 and 1599.There is work to be done in collating all this information – it is interesting to see that the ‘bowmen’ of the Muster Roll correspond very well with the higher taxpayers of the Subsidy Roll – to try to establish a comprehensive list of the 16th Century families and what we know about them.
There are also interesting records relating to the Church, both the reports of the Churchwardens on the fabric, furnishing and equipment (and the conduct of the vicar) and the records of the Archdeacon’s Court, naming and fining those who failed to attend church or committed more serious moral offences.
The influence of the Church seems stronger here than in previous centuries, and there is more anxiety about national defence, with the Muster Roll, the ‘Armada’ survey of coastal defences, and the beacons on the beach. For most of the residents, most of the time, however, life continued to be dominated by farm work. The Bishop’s own estate of 300 acres and the Manor House was now leased out to single proprietor – Thomas Wolvyn in 1535 when all Church property was valued for the King. He passed the lease to his daughter, and she to her son Thomas Watersfield, whose family took it into the next century. Other families were ‘copyhold’ tenants, holding much smaller parcels of land, including strips in the ‘Common fields’ by a copy of the entry on the Manor Court rolls. Others are described as ‘servants’, which included personal servants of the larger landholders (‘yeomen’ as they were now calling themselves) and farm labourers with no land of their own.
Now though, we begin to see more details of personal life, especially through the Wills, the Parish Registers and the records of the ecclesiastical, manor and criminal courts. The people of Ferring begin to come alive for us, and their deaths also take on a reality. Ferring’s first recorded murder was in 1527.