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Erasmus Saunders, Rector of Helmdon 1706 - 1721

an article by Edward Parry
While writing an article about the rise of nonconformity in the Brecon area I came across a reference to a book written by the Reverend Erasmus Saunders in 1721 in which he described the weaknesses and failings of the Anglican church in the diocese of St David's. This was a very useful source as it explained many of the grievances voiced by nonconformists later. What I did not realize was the series of coincidences which would follow.

When I looked Saunders up in the Dictionary of National Biography and its Welsh equivalent I found that the author of A View of the State of Religion in the Diocese of St David's about the beginning of the Eighteenth Century - to give his work it full title - had been rector of the village I had lived in thirty years ago. Also among the church appointments he held was that of prebendary of the Collegiate church of Christ College in Brecon; this ancient grammar school later became an independent boarding school where I taught for twenty-five years until my retirement in 1999. As if that was not enough serendipity Erasmus Saunders married into a Welsh family whose home was about six miles from where I now live in Montgomeryshire.

However I had no clear recollection of coming across this man when I worked on the local history of Helmdon many years ago; why not? The answer is simple and in view of his criticisms of the Welsh church, ironic - he was an absentee cleric who, as far as I know did not come to the village of which he was rector. He was too busy in Gloucestershire. Helmdon was looked after by a curate, George Jones, who held that post from just before Saunders's appointment as rector until 1717 when he succeeded as rector himself until he death in 1723. Jones was also a pluralist - being rector of Upper Swell in Gloucestershire from 1712 - thus producing the symmetry whereby both men held livings in the same two counties. There is clear evidence that the Rev. George Jones lived in Helmdon - he was named as executor by a friend in Greatworth, as 'Geo.Jones of Helmdon, clerk' and both he and his widow, Elizabeth, are buried at the church.

Erasmus Saunders was born in Pembrokeshire and like many Welshmen of the period went to Jesus College, Oxford. Here his interest in history and archaeology was encouraged by a fellow Welshman, Edward Lhuyd who was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Saunders's clerical life was spent in or close to Blockley, Gloucestershire. He was curate of Morton Henmarsh (as Moreton-in-Marsh was known them) for seven years and then from 1702 he held the same office at Blockley. Even before he came to Blockley as curate Saunders was recording evidence of Roman occupation in the parish; he wrote to Lhuyd at Oxford that at the Dorn he found '10 or 11 more Roman coins … and I also had a Roman brick'. Three years later he became vicar of the parish until his death in 1724. His career was no doubt helped as he succeeded William Lloyd who was the son of the bishop of Worcester of the same name. The bishop was also a member of a prominent Welsh family as well as being an alumnus of Jesus, Oxford where Saunders had been an undergraduate. He was an industrious and generous incumbent who is commemorated in Blockley in various ways.

In 1713 he founded a new school in the village and the building survives. The inscription above the door recalls the founder and the later restoration of the school by Lord Northwick in 1826. According to one source Saunders had a motto carved inside the building to inspire his pupils, but one wonders how many of them knew enough (or any) Welsh to translate 'Aros a Llwydda' which means 'Stay and Succeed'. There is a second inscription recalling the vicar this time on the wall of the vicarage garden: 'Mors lanua Vitae E.S 1716'. Perhaps by then some of the pupils at the school would have been able to translate this as 'Death the Gateway to Life'. The third reminder is above the pulpit in the church; his son - also Erasmus - erected the tablet which recalls his father who 'by his Piety as well as his Life as Writings Endeavoured (sic) to promote Religions and Virtue'.

The vicar was appreciated beyond Blockley. In 1712 Saunders was granted the degree of Doctor of Divinity at Oxford and on the same day Saunders was selected to preach at the University. This was a period of intense political and religious controversy and in his sermon Saunders extolled the virtues of compromise and the duty of churchmen 'not to animate unnecessary Contentions'. As a consequence of his local Montgomeryshire connections by marriage he was invited to preach the Assize Sermon at Welshpool in 1720. A year later he was in more exalted company, preaching before the House of Commons at St Margaret's, Westminster.

There is no evidence to indicate when Saunders collected the information for his book on the State of Religion in the Diocese of St David's. Perhaps the coincidence of the date of publication and Saunders's resignation of the Helmdon living is significant. This at least would have made his strictures against pluralism and non-residence less hypocritical. He was born in Pembrokeshire which along with Carmarthenshire and Breconshire constituted the sprawling diocese of St David's with its headquarters in the smallest city in the kingdom. The book is dedicated to the late Bishop Bull who held the see from 1705 until his death in 1709. The whole work is a swinging attack on the weaknesses of the Anglican church in south-west Wales. There were insufficient clergy, few spoke the language of the people and the churches they preached in were ruinous. The root of the problem was the parlous financial state of a church which could not afford to pay the stipends to attract well qualified clergy. All these arguments were to be rehearsed by the nonconformists later in the century but by then it was too late to avert the wholesale desertion of the church by the people of Wales.

In the early 1720s Saunders's health was failing and he died in June 1724 but far from the parish he had served for over twenty years. He was staying at his wife's home, Aberbechan Hall new Newtown, and here on June 1st - in the words on his memorial - 'Apoplexia correptus in sinu delectissimae conjugis animan afflavit' (Having been seized with apoplexy, he expired on the breast of his most beloved wife). Because he died in Montgomeryshire he is buried in the great town church of St Mary's, Shrewsbury. Although more than thirty miles from Aberbechan this is where the Lloyds were buried and so too was their son-in-law. While the chancel has a wall tablet with a long inscription to Humphrey Lloyd, his father-in-law, there is now no trace of the memorial to Erasmus. However, the wording was recorded by a later curate of Blockley, Alfred J.Soden in his History of Blockley published in 1875. Saunders is praised for his faithful and unwearied care of the souls in his care in Blockley and also remembered as a man of excellent learning. Although there is, as far as I know, no surviving physical evidence to connect Erasmus Saunders with Helmdon his interest in education was shared by the man who looked after the parish in his absence. The Re. George Jones endowed a charity - known as Jones's Gift - leaving £20 to be used for the building and running of a village school. Was Jones emulating the work of Saunders in Blockley?

In many respects Saunders was a typical cleric of the early eighteenth century: well educated, with influential patrons, he progressed from Oxford to comfortable livings in Blockley and Helmdon. However his antiquarianism and his concern for the education of his parishioners, along with his willingness to stand for moderation at a time of ecclesiastical ferment, raised him above the ordinary. In particular the perceptive and often acerbic comments he made about the church in his native diocese of St David's make him an important authority on the religious history of an area which within thirty years of his death played a pivotal role in the history of nonconformity.

Edward Parry
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