Types of Cause: Violation of church rights – pew dispute
Most English parish churches had no permanent seating for parishioners in the nave or aisles until the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Some medieval churches had stone benches around the walls towards the back of the building for the elderly or infirm, such as may be seen in the thirteenth-century church of St Teilo, re-erected in St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff, but in general the congregation stood, when they were not kneeling.
In the medieval period, however, some stalls were available in the chancel not just for clergy but also, even though the laity were not strictly allowed, for men of high status such as the patron of the church.
In the later medieval period men and women usually occupied separate areas of the church as illustrated by a record of seating in Frodsham church in 1495 which indicates that men and women sat in separate rows, ‘seats were arranged in six rows, three on each side of the centre-line of the church … men and women alternately’. These seats took up half of the body of the church, leaving plenty of room for other parishioners. In many churches separation of the sexes continued into the sixteenth century and younger women were often separated from wives and widows.
Seating was informally and gradually introduced into most churches as parishioners of higher status began to bring in temporary stools or chairs and then to install more permanent and comfortable seats as listening to sermons became a more important part of church attendance.
As time went on, these arrangements were formalised as seating came to be seen by church wardens as a source of income. In some parishes the wardens organised the installation of pews and would then allocate and rent them out, with the more expensive seats in what were seen as the more prestigious and socially desirable parts of the church, usually towards the chancel. Additionally, some parishioners might build their own seats in places rented or bought in a specified place in the church, it was accepted that such a seat then became the property of that parishioner who could sell or bequeath it as he wished.
In churches where many of the benches or chairs had been installed by individuals the result was a chaotic mixture of different shapes and sizes of seats which often combined with uneven flooring following burials under the floor of the church.
Disputes began to arise, often over entitlement to occupy a particular seat, usually one in an enviable position which bestowed status upon the occupier.
J. Charles Cox, Churchwardens’ Accounts from the Fourteenth Century to the Close of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1913), Chapter XIV.
Katherine French, ‘Parochial fund-raising in late medieval Somerset’, in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs and Beat A. Kümin, The Parish in English Life, 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997), pp. 115-132.
Nicholas Orme, Going to Church in Medieval England (New Haven and London, 2021), Chapter 3.
Alfred Heales, The History and Law of Church Seats, or Pews (London, 1872), Book I.
Cheshire Sheaf, 3rd series, vol iv, pp. 79-81.
Claim that a seat belonged to the owner/occupier of a specific property