Anthonie Spurrett

Memorial Service, Icomb Church

28th April 2012

A transcript of the memorial service reading:

I want to tell you about a remarkable working-class man who overcame great hardship, made the most of the opportunities that came his way, and in return gave generously to many others. This man was Anthonie SPURRETT, my x13 great grandfather (fifteen generations before me).    

I have been tracing the history of our family for several years now.  I have had the significant benefit that our surname is very rare – SPURRETT (albeit with various spellings through the ages).  When tracing our history, the disadvantage that I have had is that we come from a humble background – no grand Lords or Earls, as they often seem to find in the TV programmes.  The ancient SPURRETTs were largely agricultural labourers who left little permanent mark on history.  For this reason, the tale of Anthonie Spurrett stands out.

Our origins, as far as they are known, were as ‘men of the forest’ (commoners) in the 1300’s in Knaresborough Forest – one of the Royal Forests in Yorkshire.  Such forests were subject to Forest Law, which limited what they could and could not hunt and forage (the purpose of which was to save the best for the King or Queen, of course.)  Life was hard in the forest so by the 1500’s we had spread to some of the smaller villages in the Yorkshire Dales.

Anthonie SPURRETT was born around 1548 to William SPORRYTT, who rented a small piece of land in Woodhouse in Wharfedale, Yorkshire.  William was what was known as a husbandman from which we get the modern day term husbandry. However, the land he was privileged to rent was marginally adequate to support the family of five boys and one daughter.  I imagine it was a very picturesque but a hard life – subsistence living with a few sheep and two cows in a hard climate. 

Anthonie was very lucky because the neighbouring village, Burnsall, had a school, of sorts.  Schools were not as we know them today.  The few schools there were at that time were linked to the church and very dependent upon the enthusiasm and dedication of the local vicar who also was the teacher.  For a very young Anthonie, it was a four-mile round-trip walk to church and school on Sundays and Feast days (for on other days he would have been expected to labour, even as a small child). 

The existence of a school in a small Yorkshire village is hard to explain, but it led to an amazing number of well-educated and successful people given the size of the village, including a future Major of London. Around this time, if a boy (and not a girl) showed an inclination for study, the vicar would propose him for further study.  This was regarded as a great privilege and being recommended and adopted by the Church in this manner eventually led to having one less mouth to feed.

We presume that Anthonie was one of those who stood out at school because the vicar of Burnsall recommended him to St John’s College at Cambridge University in 1565 as a Sizar – that is somebody who served the more wealthy students and the Masters of the college in order to pay his way. So as a young teenager he found himself away from home and working very hard serving his masters, and working on his studies.  

We don’t know what Anthonie looked like but it is likely that from the age of seven he was tonsured – the shaved head with a ring of hair – and would have been fluent in Latin.

At that time, the principal purpose of a university education was to generate learned people to become clergy or to administer the church of England, which was still more powerful and richer than the monarchy despite the dissolution of the monasteries.  We know that Anthonie was enrolled on a very famous course at Cambridge that was endowed by Hugh Ashton, the comptroller to the Queen. 

There is no a record of Anthonie graduating from University but it is safe to assume that he did well as he found himself in the employment of the Bishop of Worcester.   He married his first wife in Worcester and is recorded in the records as a ‘clergieman’ (sic). This in itself was unusual as he was amongst the first few generations where clergy were allowed to marry.

In 1573 he was made rector of Wolford around 12 miles north of here.  Merton College, Oxford was the patron, as it remains to this day.  It was not a particularly good ‘living’ (with only a few villagers paying tithes) hence it as a hard position to fill but this gave him a secure income, and the rectory to live in. Anthonie’s brother Henry came down from Yorkshire and lived with him for a while at the Wolford rectory.  I can imagine that this area would have suited them well – the stone-walled Cotswold sheep-farms being very similar in appearance to his native county.

A year later in 1574 he was appointed vicar of Icomb, but he could not be released from his duties at Wolford.  So between 1574 and his death in 1616 he would have to travel several times a day between Wolford and Icomb to care for the needs of his ‘flock’. I assume he had a horse and rode, but there is no mention of him leaving a horse in his will so maybe he walked – we don’t know.

He soon moved into the ‘parsonage’ at Icomb, which became his main residence.  Anthonie’s first wife had died many years earlier and he re-married to Ann Wilson in Icomb. Icomb has a fine example of the early parish registers and this wedding is one of the very early entries in the Icomb register – the third wedding, in fact in 1588.

We are lucky to have Anthonie’s Will as well as his marriage licences – such old marriage licences rarely survive.  I presume that these survive thanks to his employment and role in the Church.  At his death in 1616, he left two shillings and six pence to each of the poor of Icomb – a considerable sum in those days. You can see where his heart laid as the poor from Wolford only got his brown heifer that he used to loan to a fellow called ‘Lambert of Stow’.

Amongst the SPURRETTs, there is a long history of connections with many different denominations of the church. There is a slightly shorter history of Innkeepers and bakers, but that is another story. Anthony had at least four sons. His eldest son went onto study at Merton College, Oxford, I presume through Anthonie’s links to Wolford Church, and became an Anglican vicar in Siddington, Gloucester in 1642.  

When Anthonie’s youngest son Nathaniel died at the age of 33, his granddaughter, then 15, was taken-in by Franciscan Nuns.  (In their language, she was clothed aged 15, and professed aged 16, and was renamed Sister Francis Evangelist).  At some stage these nuns had to flee the country to Flanders (now Belgium) to avoid persecution by the Protestants where she died of a fever (probably the plague) at the age of 22 in 1635. 

Francis is recorded in the Book of the Dead[1] – the record of martyred Franciscan Nuns who preserved the Catholic faith in Europe in anticipation of the restoration of a Catholic monarch.

Amongst our other relatives who went into the church, the most well-known is another descendant of our Yorkshire ancestors, Abbott Placid SPEARRITT who was a leading Benedictine Monk for 49 years and died in 2008. He had an extensive obituary in The Times[2] if you wish to know more about him.

The other two sons remained in this area and their descendants gradually migrated into Oxfordshire, as indeed Spurretts still are fifteen generations later.  We have a great debt of thanks to Anthonie for bringing us to this beautiful part of the country. 

When the industrial revolution came in the 1850’s many of the farming community in small villages were forced to move to urban areas in search of jobs – Banbury, Witney being good local examples.  But many also travelled further – to the mills in Lancashire, and abroad to Australia. And so it was with the Spurretts. We are spread thinly through the world with a small concentration in Oxfordshire.  Our name is so rare that it officially qualifies for being ‘at risk’ of extinction.

People often erect memorials to famous people with grand achievements but it is far more unusual that memorials get erected for ordinary hard-working folk who devoted their lives to helping others. I felt it important to mark the achievements of Anthonie and I thank the people of Icomb for allowing us to position this memorial in the chancel where he is buried in an unmarked grave. 

[1] Catholic Record Society Publication vol. XXIV (1923), ed. by R. Trappes-Lomax.

[2] The Times Online obituary, 13 November 2008