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Helmdon Historical Articles

Two Rectors Of Helmdon

& Their Links

With Wales

an article by Edward Parry


The village of Helmdon in Northamptonshire situated between Brackley and Towcester has unusual links to Wales. The connection between Welsh drovers and the fattening pastures of the Midlands is well known and the routes they followed have been closely investigated; the busy, modern road south of the village which carries traffic between Banbury and Northampton is still known as the Welsh Lane. In 1687 the parish constable of Helmdon, John Beanee gave a small sum of money to ‘a poor Welshman who fell sick on his journey driving beasts to London'.(1) At the top of the market place in Northampton there is a fine building called the Welsh House which bears an inscription in Welsh. I knew of these links between Wales and Northamptonshire when I lived in the village during the 1970s, however it is only recently that I have found that the connections go much further.

Two rectors of Helmdon wrote interesting books dealing with Wales; while Erasmus Saunders – rector from 1706 to 1717 – was born in Wales and retired there, the other, William Richards who was the incumbent between 1675 and 1689, only paid one brief visit to Wales. The books they wrote are now virtually unknown but the reasons why they were written and the insights they give into contemporary attitudes deserve some consideration. For this author, a Welshman now living in Montgomeryshire who has happy memories of Helmdon, the connections are particularly intriguing.

Of the two clerics William Richards is of much greater interest to the historians of Helmdon if only because Erasmus Saunders never actually lived there. He was one of those pluralist clergymen so common in the eighteenth century who employed a curate to look after the parish while he pocketed most of the income. Richards by comparison was firmly rooted in the village being born there in 1643 two years after his father Ralph became rector. In 1658 William went up to Trinity College, Oxford, graduated in 1663 and became a Fellow of the college in 1666 when he was also ordained. His father died in 1668 and was succeeded by his second son Thomas and seven years later when Thomas resigned his brother William became rector. Thus three members of the Richards family occupied the living of Helmdon for nearly fifty years.

Only a few scraps of information survive about William Richards’s time in the village. It can be assumed that he lived at the rectory; the Hearth Tax returns for 1662 name Ralph as possessing six hearths and the same number occurs opposite William’s name in 1674. At the time few houses had more than one hearth – the largest, the home of the Emily family had twelve – and the old rectory as shown on nineteenth century drawings was certainly large enough to boast six.(2) Another clue to the family’s relative wealth comes in the will of Martha Richards, Ralph’s widow and William’s mother – who died in 1686; she left her son a silver seal and his wife a silver spoon; among her other bequests were a number of books on religious subjects including The Grounds of Religion and The Returning Backslider by Doctor Gibbs. The latter she gave to her granddaughter who may well have pondered the implications of this legacy.

In parish registers there are occasional clues as to the character of the incumbent - some made marginal comments on the weather or great events - in Richards’s case his quirky sense of humour is reflected in a couple of entries. In the second half of the seventeenth century parliament passed the Burial in Wool acts of 1667 and 1678 to protect the wool trade and each such burial had to be validated by an affidavit signed by the incumbent. In 1683 William Richards wrote that ‘Edward Harriotts was then let down into the ground and buried in a pit-hole made in the church-yard of Helmdon.’ The following year he described how Elizabeth Bown, widow, ‘was then let down into her dormitory or (if you please) was then buried in the churchyard of Helmdon.’ (3)

While Richards was rector a major improvement to the church was carried out in 1679 when three of the bells were cast by H. Bagley of Chacombe; this was an expensive undertaking and it would be fair to assume that Richards made a significant contribution to the cost, especially in view of the inscription on one of the bells: ‘That all may CVM and non[e] may stay at hom[e] I ring to sermon with a lusti bo[o]m’.

However ten years later those summoned to hear the sermon would not have heard Richards preaching because he had given up the living. In 1688 the Church of England faced another of those traumatic crises which divided it so deeply in the seventeenth century. (William’s father must have experienced many such tests of his loyalty and conscience between 1641 and 1660 during the civil wars and the republic.) On his accession in 1685 James 11 attempted to restore Catholicism to England and paid the inevitable price three years later when he was forced to flee his realm and was replaced by his daughter and son-in-law who ruled jointly as William and Mary. Although a catholic James was the head of the Church of England and the rightful monarch; since the Restoration of 1660 the clergy had preached the doctrine of non-resistance to royal authority. How could they now resolve the dilemma of choosing between their king and their church? Six bishops and four hundred clergy could not bring themselves to swear an oath of loyalty to the new monarchs and resigned their posts. Among these non-jurors, as they were called, was William Richards. By July 1689 he was in Newcastle upon Tyne serving as a lecturer at the church of St Andrew; this position meant that while he could preach he could not play a full part in the services.

Although we know comparatively little about Richards and his work as rector of Helmdon we do know what he looked like which is most unusual for a cleric in a small rural parish.


William Richards

Plate 1. William Richards, engraving by John Smith, 1688, after Kneller, reproduced

by kind permission

of the National Portait Galllery

His portrait was painted by no less an artist than Sir Godfrey Kneller whose subjects included ten monarchs among them Louis XIV, and all the British monarchs from Charles 11 to George 1. At the time he painted Richards his English sitters included Pepys, Newton and Evelyn.

The engraving describes William Richards as ‘Divine and author’. By the time his portrait was painted Richards had produced just two books; he went on to write a third two years later (but it was not published until 1715, ten years after his death.)(4) 1680 saw the publication of Richards’ The English Orator an intellectual exercise being a series of arguments for and against various propositions. The work was sufficiently popular for a second edition to appear in 1690 published by Obidiah Blagrave at the sign of the Bear and Star in St Paul’s churchyard.

In 1682 his best known work, Wallography was published which is discussed below; however the same year saw the appearance of a literary oddity, The Christmas Ordinary a bawdy, raucous comedy performed by Oxford undergraduates in the mid-1630s. William Richards has been credited with the authorship of the work but recent research on the subject suggests that while Richards was connected with the publication of the work – the preface is dated ‘Helmdon Octob 1682’ – it was as sponsor not as author.(5)  Steggle dates the Ordinary to the mid-1630s but Richards did not go up to Trinity until 1659. So why was he involved in its publication? The nature of the comedy would have been to his taste as shown in Wallography but there may be another reason. William’s father Ralph was also an Oxford graduate but there is some ambiguity about which college he attended. In the Isham Longden list of Northamptonshire and Rutland clergy he is a graduate of Trinity.(6)  But records at University college show him matriculating there in 1630 and later buttery accounts confirm that he was at the college until 1634.8 However in Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses there is a marginal comment in a later, probably Victorian, hand, which records ‘Coll. Trin. 1634-42’.(7) It is therefore quite possible that he was familiar with The Christmas Ordinary which was performed between 1633 and 1636. Did the copy of the play which William published in 1682 come from his father who acquired it in his Oxford days?

Richards is now known – but only to a few – for his second book which he published in 1682 : Wallography, or the Britton described which purported to be an account of Wales and its inhabitants.(8) Like many writers of the period Richards began the work with a dedication to his patron Sir Richard Wenman Bt.(9) Even by contemporary standards the tone of Richards’ remarks is fulsome not to say obsequious: Sir Richard is described as ‘too Copious a Subject for the most Transcendent Oratory’. The purpose of the book is to provide the baronet with ‘a Narrative of what I observed concerning the nature of the (a) Soil, and of the (b) Inhabitants’ of Wales, but he admits that his main aim is to amuse rather than to write a manual or informative guidebook. The rector explains his desire to undertake the journey as being similar to what prompts ‘a Fellow with either a Maggot in his pate, or a breeze in his Tail, that he cannot long fix in a place.’ Clearly being rector of Helmdon in 1681 was not a cure for either.

A reader of Wallography looking for descriptions of the Welsh landscape, towns or historic monuments will be disappointed. A hundred years later at the beginning of the Romantic movement Wales was to be overrun with English travellers eager to note down their impressions many of which were published but William Richards’s vision was far more limited. Although the dedication to Wenman is dated ‘Helmdon October 24 1681’ Richards made the journey eight years earlier. He set out – presumably from the rectory - and went first to London which he left on June 4th. He explains that his task was to deliver a letter ‘into the hands of one of the most Revered Taphies’ but does not identify him. Throughout the book there are references to ‘Taffies’ and to Wales as ‘Taphydome’, which are typical of the stereotyping of foreigners – Irish, Scots, French – which passed for humour in the in the seventeenth century. In fact there had been a significant change in English attitudes towards the Welsh as the Tudors – of Welsh ancestry – gave way to the Stuarts. In Henry 1V Shakespeare has Hotspur make fun of Glendower (Owain Glyn Dwr) for his belief in spirits and his exaggerated pride in his ancestry; Fluellen (LLywelyn) in Henry V is the caricatured Welshman with his fractured English sprinkled with ‘look yous’ and misplaced consonants – porn, pig and plack for born, big and black – and his appetite for leeks which he forces on Pistol.

The teasing which Shakespeare’s characters indulge in at the expense of their neighbours had by the second half of the seventeenth century become a much crueller, satirical humour of which Wallography is an example.(10) As well as a change in tastes and attitudes following the Restoration there was a lingering resentment at the part Wales had played in the Civil Wars. Add to these factors the political and religious crisis which engulfed England between 1678 and 1681 when fear of catholic succeeding to the throne was compounded by the discovery – or invention – of a series of ‘Popish’ plots, some of which involved recusant activity in Monmouthshire and the Welsh border. All this, it has been claimed, fed the appetite for exaggerated, hostile depictions of Wales and its people.

Richards coarsely observed that ‘If we compare this Kingdom to A Man, (as some do Italy to a Man’s leg) they inhabit the very Testicles of the Nation.’ (This kind of geographical insult was repeated by the author (EB) of A Trip to North Wales in which he described the country as ‘the fag end of Creation: the very rubbish of Noah’s flood’). Once Richards and his ‘company’ – he never makes clear who he travelled with – crossed the Severn they were immediately unimpressed and ‘strangely surpriz’d at the uncouthness of many things that did salute us here.’ The country is ‘mountainous...the soil being barren and an excellent place to breed famine in’. The main ingredients of the diet were eggs, leeks and toasted cheese – ‘a morsel for which he [a Welshman] hath a great kindness’. After an indifferent meal (whether it included leeks is not clear) Richards and his party ‘thought we had got the Four Quarters in our Bellys, which made such squibs in our Breeches, that (Like the fifth of November) we were continually discharging Rockets and Crackers.’ One wonders what the ‘ignorant Taffies’ made of this Oxford-educated flatulent cleric.

It is unsurprising that Richards considered the Welsh to be ‘smelly’ and ‘uneducated’ but what also struck him and many later visitors was their concern with pedigree and ancestry. ‘The Countrey is a good Pasture for a Herald to bite on. Who can’t choose but grow fat among such worshipful Genealogists.’ Their pastimes included the music of the harp, flying kites and playing at shuttlecock; each year they celebrate St David’s day ‘by the Trophy of a Leek....Their hats are set with this anniversary badge and Emblem of Honour.’

Given his persistently derogatory remarks about the land and it people Richards was rather ambivalent in his attitude to the language. It was clearly difficult to pronounce and he describes - in one of his more tasteful humorous passages – how one of his companions ‘having got a Welsh Polysyllable into his Throat, was almost choak’d with Consonants, had we not, by clapping him on the back, made him dis-gorge a Guttural or two, and so sav’d him.’  He claimed that Welsh was not much spoken in the houses of gentlemen but ‘their native Gibberish is usually prattled throughout the whole Taphydome, except in their market-Towns, whose Inhabitants being a little rais’d....above the ordinary Scum, do begin to despise it.’ He hope this trend would continue until ‘the British Lingua may be quite extinct, and may be English’d out of Wales, as Latin was barbarously Goth’d out of Italy.’ But he then admits to a grudging respect for the people’s determination to preserve their own tongue; ‘it is near and dear to the Folk that utter it, who are so passionately fond of it, that they will scarce admit another into the Embraces of their Lips, which sputter forth a Kind of loathing of our English Language’. This fierce attachment to Welsh forced him to concede ‘that which we admir’d most of all amongst them, was the Virginity of their Langauge, not deflowr’d by the mixture of any other dialect’ which he could not claim for English.

His conclusions – although he writes these in the introduction to Wallography - about Wales and its people are predictable. ‘The Welsh People are a pretty odd sort of Mortals, and I hope I have given you a pretty odd Character of them, and so think I am pretty even with them for Oddness’ (a welcome admission on his part). ‘A Taphy is observ’d to be a Trickish Animal’ and their land ‘is not much crowded with blessings.’

The second rector of Helmdon who achieved some notoriety as an author was a close successor to Richards in the living. Erasmus Saunders was one of those ‘odd sort of mortals’ being Welsh by birth.(11) He came from near Boncath in north Pembrokeshire, was educated at Jesus College, Oxford – the Welsh college – and took a keen interest in the history of his homeland. However his clerical career was spent almost entirely in England. He served as curate at Moreton-in-Marsh in 1694 then move to nearby Blockley also as curate and in 1705 he became rector of the parish. A year later he was appointed rector of Helmdon but the parish was looked after by George Jones the curate; as far as I know Saunders never visited Helmdon but retained the living until 1721 when the curate succeeded him.

However in Blockley there are reminders of Saunder’s time as rector: the school building he established still stands – though no longer used as such –and there is an memorial above the pulpit, erected by his son, also Erasmus, which extols his piety and his efforts ‘to promote Religion & Virtue’. Saunders did not forget his Welsh roots even deep in the Cotswolds and had the motto Aros a Llwydda (Stay and Succeed) carved inside the school. His pupils probably found it easier to pronounce the inscription the rector carved on the wall of the rectory garden – Mors Ianua Vitae (Death the Gateway to Life) – than the Welsh in their schoolroom.

Erasmus Saunder’s was in some respects as critical of his homeland as William Richards; in 1721 he published A View Of The State of Religion in the Diocese of St David’s about the beginning of the Eighteenth Century in which he castigated the established church for its failings. Pluralism, non-resident clergy (Saunders had first-hand experience of both) were the consequence and the cause of clerical poverty; the fabric of the churches was also a cause of great concern. What exacerbated these problems was the gulf between the language of the clergy and of their congregations; the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer had long ago been translated into Welsh but the majority of the higher clergy had no knowledge of the language. Saunders put the issue starkly and effectively when he asked ‘How pleased would an English Congregation be, to have a Frenchman, a Dutchman, a Welshman, a German or any man officiate among them in a language they did not understand?’ William Richards would have understood the power of this criticism as he had recognised, albeit rather reluctantly, the passion with which Welsh people clung to their language.

Saunders’s analysis of the weaknesses of the Anglican church in Wales was to be repeated by many commentators later in the century and the failure of those in authority to reform the institution was the most significant reason for the extraordinarily rapid rise of nonconformity. By the middle of the nineteenth century when Anglicans awoke to the threat it was too late and - as the religious census of 1851 revealed - they had been relegated to a minority among worshippers in Wales.

Saunders ended his days in Wales; he died at his wife’s home, Aberbechan hall near Newtown but was buried in the impressive church of St Mary, Shrewsbury. His memorial is no longer to be seen but it recorded his devotion to the parishioners of Blockley and his reputation as a scholar.

The lives of these two rectors of a parish in the south-western corner of Northamptonshire shed light on many diverse aspects of clerical life in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Both men were Oxford graduates who – in different ways - made good use of their education in their scholarly pursuits. Both were published authors whose influence was felt far beyond the parishes they served. Their attitudes to Wales and the Welsh mark the greatest contrast between the two men: Saunders’s criticisms of the Welsh church were directed towards the improvement of the church in Wales for the benefit of the people whereas for Richards the Welsh were oddly comic and a subject for entertaining his well-born patron.


(1) see my article in Aspects of  Helmdon no.5, 2004, p.243

(2) see Aspects of Helmdon no 6, 2008 p.2908

(3) These examples are noted in Valerie Moir's article, The Territory of the Dead, in Aspects of Helmdon, no 2 1998

(4) This was a translation from the Italian of Guido Panciroli’s Nova reperta sive, Rerum memorabilium, libri duo a work dealing with discoveries and natural phenomena. Richards’ authorship is not certain but likely; see the DNB entry for Richards by Charlotte Fell-Smith rev. Alan Rudrum, OUP 2004-8
(5) Matthew Steegle in The Review of English Studies, New Series vol. 58 no. 237 November 2007, Who wrote The Christmas Ordinary?
(6) Henry Isham Longden, Northamptonshire and Rutland Clergy from 1500, 1961
(7) I am grateful to Dr Robin Darwall-Smith and Mrs Clare Hopkins, Archivists at University and Trinity Colleges, for information on Ralph’s Oxford career.
(8) There have been very few modern discussions of Wallography; the most recent is Michael Roberts’s ‘A Witty Book, but mostly Feigned’, Wallography and the Perception of Wales in the Later Seventeenth Century in Archipelagic Identities : Literature and Identity in the Atlantic Archipelago, 1550 -1800, edited by Philip Schwyzer and Simon Mealor, 2004.
(9) The Wenmans were an influential Oxfordshire family who lived at Thame Park and at Caswell farm, Curbridge near Witney which is where Sir Richard lived.

(10) See Wales and the Welsh in English Literature from Shakespeare to Scott, W.J.Hughes, 1924 for an overview of changing attitudes.

11 See my article on Erasmus Saunders in The Journal of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society no. 13, 2004.
Edward Parry

Editor's note: Edward, respected local historian and sometime history teacher at Magdalen College School, Brackley, lived in the village in the 70s before he moved to a teaching post in Powys, Wales.  With relatives still living in Helmdon, Edward has retained a keen interest in its local history.



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