8 . Weston Longville Church, Norfolk: the Royal Arms

Weston Church royal armsWeston Church: the Royal Arms of King George III, with their vigorous supporters [photo Margaret Bird 2014]

Weston Longville Church south door 325pxAll Saints' Church, Weston Longville: the south door [photo Margaret Bird 2011]

The arms of King George III hang high on the wall of the tower arch at the west end of All Saints' Church, Weston, close to the south door. They show the arms before the Union with Ireland of 1 January 1801 and are thus the board with which James Woodforde would have been familiar.

The arms are a symbol of the historic bond between Church and State: a visual representation of the Established Church.

Following the break with Rome under Henry VIII the monarch was established as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Since the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I this title has been replaced by that of Supreme Governor.

Also under Henry VIII's direction all Anglican churches were required to display the Royal Arms in a prominent place. Over the centuries the practice ceased to be strictly observed, and now only 15 per cent of churches have retained their colourful boards. Weston's is a particularly fine one.

As an ordained minister of the Church of England James Woodforde was required to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles devised under Elizabeth I and still in force today. These set out the terms of the Protestant settlement following the sixteenth-century Reformation and reveal the Church as tolerant of various elements of belief. For instance, the Articles acknowledge the power of both good works and faith in securing eternal life: the Arminian and Calvinist stances.

We know from his diary that Woodforde was a Tory, the party more closely associated with support for the bond between Church and State than the Whigs. Nonconformists in religion tended to support the Whigs.

However we cannot trace James Woodforde's name in the county pollbooks as he did not have the chance to vote in all his 27 years of residence in Norfolk. No contested election was held between the elections of 1768 and 1802, and by July 1802 the diarist was too ill to travel to Norwich to cast his vote – although much pressed by the agent of the Tory candidate John Wodehouse to do so on 16 July.

Coming together as a nation

As we know from Woodforde's sermons he was himself Broad Church in outlook: not filled with missionary zeal, nor a champion of one branch of religion over another. Article 34 would have suited his harmonious, middle-way approach. It opens:

It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been diverse . . .

Woodforde conscientiously carried out his duties as the State dictated, as in holding services to observe the General Fasts and National Thanksgivings appointed by Royal Proclamation. The Fasts were held every February in wartime, to plead with God for deliverance and for His blessing on Britain's Armed Forces.

By February 1781 the Dutch had entered the American war, following on from France and Spain in 1778. Britain found herself beleaguered on many fronts on land and at sea, in a campaign which had begun as an attempt to suppress a colonial revolt in her North American possessions. This was a campaign in which Woodforde's 'Nephew Bill' was then actively engaged following his entry into the Royal Navy.

Norwich Mercury 17,2,1781 General FastThe notice of the service to be held in all churches and chapels on Wednesday 21 February 1781 in support of the Royal Navy and British Army in wartime [Norwich Mercury, 17 February 1781: Norfolk Heritage Centre, Norwich]As seen in this official announcement of the General Fast 'by his Majesty's special Command' in the Norwich newspaper, the nation was to come together on Wednesday 21 February 1781 in a Day of Humiliation to pray for the success in arms of British troops and for the restoration of peace and prosperity.

Woodforde was pleased with the numbers forming his congregation. Such services took place on weekdays. In many parishes farmers and other employers would not let their men take time off work, as aggrieved clergy would report to the Bishop of Norwich in the episcopal visitation returns. (See for instance, the 1806 return for Letheringsett, near Holt, held in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO): DN/VIS 41/4.)

However Weston was an estate village under the firm control of the squire. John Custance's influence would have ensured compliance with the call to communal prayer. Woodforde recorded in his diary for 21 February 1781:

This being the day for a General Fast to be observed during our present troubles I went to church this morning and read Prayers, but did not preach. I had a large congregation that attended.

The parish reports in the visitation returns served the function of audit and self-examination for the Church of England, and many of the rural clergy spoke up to the Bishop at great length about the difficulties they faced. Strangely, given the fluency of his diary writing, Woodforde is somewhat monosyllabic in his responses. We learn comparatively little in his returns of 1784, 1794 and 1801, held in the NRO under Sparham deanery, about the way he carried out his duties and about his parish in general.

Sunday schools: 'Religion is the best ­cement of ­society' This carved bird adorns a pew end at Reepham, near WestonSurviving pre-Reformation features would have delighted children being taught in the churches. This carved bird adorns a pew end at Reepham, near Weston [photo Margaret Bird 2014]

George Pretyman (later Pretyman Tomline), then Bishop of Lincoln and former tutor of William Pitt, made a significant pronouncement in his 1794 charge to the clergy. He saw Christian belief and practice as binding society in a common purpose: 'A good Christian cannot be a bad citizen.'

As an extension of the conviction that religion could be used as a means of social control, leading clergymen joined forces with Sabbatarians to press for the formation of Church of England Sunday schools. By opening the eyes of the young to the Bible and teaching them their Catechism (as preparation for Confirmation and thereafter taking Communion) the new generation would help promote social cohesion.

The strongly Sabbatarian Revd Lancaster Adkin (c.1740–1807), Rector of Belaugh and Vicar of Scottow in rural Norfolk and curate of two Norwich churches, was responsible for bringing the Sunday school movement to Norfolk. Mr Adkin was echoing his fellow clerics when he declared from his pulpit at St Stephen's, Norwich on 16 October 1785: 'Religion is the best ­cement of ­society.'

It was a much-used metaphor, just when the mortar was weakening. Like Mr Adkin, Bishop George Pretyman saw these schools in the troubled year 1794 as 'the most effectual method of preventing turbulence and discontent, and of securing a due obedience to the civil magistrate'.

None of these exciting developments spread to Weston. Unlike some other gentry families, John and Frances Custance seem not to have been concerned with the education of the children of the poor. And without their lead Woodforde would have been reluctant to act.

There are hints in his diary that the diarist found young children unappealing, the Custance children being a notable exception. He and Nancy had to endure the presence of the Revd Thomas Jeans' wife and two very young daughters as disruptive house guests in November 1792, with the attendant disadvantages of endless laundry and 'fires every day and all day' in the study, parlour and an upstairs bedroom.

The diarist would not have had to host a village Sunday school in his rectory, however. It was common for the schoolchildren, who would have been working all day, to be taught on weekday evenings and Sundays in a quiet corner within the parish church.

If perhaps lacking in imagination and drive, Woodforde was not a divisive figure. He represented the moderate Established Church viewpoint which sought harmony between matters spiritual and temporal. Clerics of the more vociferous variety, like Lancaster Adkin, had a habit of driving a wedge between their parishioners. Weston under Woodforde and John Custance avoided some of the rifts reported in the visitation returns.