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Reference group
Members of the Dedham conference (act. 1582–1589) constituted a regular gathering of a small and exclusive group of Elizabethan ministers in and around the small market town of Dedham in Essex, the surviving record of whose meeting provides vital evidence of the quasi-presbyterian desires and actions of godly ministers seeking to reform the Church of England from within. This was by no means the most important or powerful conference of godly ministers operating within the Elizabethan church. In 1591, for example, when Archbishop John Whitgift and his chief lieutenant, Richard Bancroft, brought forward a case in the court of Star Chamber against a select group of ministers including the main spokesman of English presbyterianism, Thomas Cartwright, their evidence was drawn from networks uncovered primarily in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. Dedham's significance rests in the fact that, thanks to the survival of a copy of the record of their meetings made by the then vicar of Dedham, Richard Parker (c.1552–1611), in the relative obscurity of a small Norfolk living almost fifteen years after the conference ceased its work, more is known about the inner workings of the conference in Dedham than any other.

Parker's account reveals that on 22 October 1582 there was ‘a conference had by some of the godly brethren … as a preparation to a meetinge purposed by them’ (Collinson, Craig, and Usher, 3), at which a series of rules governing the meeting were agreed. Meetings were scheduled for the Monday morning following the first Sunday of the month, and under the guidance of an elected speaker and moderator, the first part of each meeting was devoted to the exposition of scripture and prayer, with the bulk of time spent in conference, or ‘deciding some profitable questions’. Thirteen men were originally ‘chosen for the Assembly’ with an additional seven men being brought into the company from 1584 onwards. The first meeting took place in East Bergholt, Suffolk, on 3 December 1582 and the last in June 1589 when, for reasons that Parker was reluctant to admit, ‘this blessed meetinge’ came to an end. It is significant that the members agreed to keep secret both the fact of their meetings and the issues discussed, although as early as August 1583 it was reported that their meetings were ‘knowen and threatned’.

In truth, the foundation for this particular conference was laid in 1577 when Edmund Chapman became lecturer of the small market town of Dedham, situated on the Stour River, which marked the boundary between Suffolk and Essex. Chapman was a Cambridge graduate and fellow of Trinity College who was promoted in 1570 to a prebendal stall in Norwich Cathedral. Following hard on his appointment he was accused (along with three other members of the Norwich chapter, including John Walker, appointed archdeacon of Essex in 1571) of having committed ‘outrages’ within the cathedral, and specifically of breaking up the organs. This was most probably a deliberate attempt to alter the form of worship within the cathedral, and throughout the 1570s Chapman gained a reputation as a preacher who did not shy away from pressing the case for further reform of the church. By autumn 1577 Chapman had been granted a licence by John Aylmer, bishop of London, to preach throughout Essex and through the offices of his brother-in-law, William Cardinal, and the financial support of a group of inhabitants, Chapman became lecturer of Dedham.

Chapman's position, contacts, and personality made him primus inter pares of the godly ministers that he organized into a conference in October 1582, and his name was signed first among those that subscribed to the order agreed upon by the ministers. Two other ministers with Chapman formed the central core of the conference, that consisted of the triangle formed by Dedham and the neighbouring Suffolk parishes of Stratford St Mary and East Bergholt. The second name in the list was that of Richard Crick (d. 1591), an Oxford graduate, who had been fellow of Magdalen College from 1564 to 1571. His appointment in 1571 as chaplain to John Parkhurst, bishop of Norwich, and a minor canon of the cathedral brought him into contact with Chapman, and, following a series of brushes with the ecclesiastical authorities over allegations of nonconformity, by 1580 Crick had found a position as unbeneficed preacher at East Bergholt, a parish on the Suffolk side of the Stour. Chapman and Crick had proceeded DTh at Oxford in 1578 and so brought leadership and gravitas to the conference. Richard Dowe (d. 1608), a minor canon of Norwich Cathedral, had known both Crick and Chapman in Norwich, and was another member of the conference to move from Norfolk to the Stour valley, where he took up residence in the Suffolk parish of Stratford St Mary, eventually serving as vicar there until his death in 1608.

The first meeting of the conference took place at East Bergholt with Crick the speaker and Chapman the moderator; the second meeting was held at Dedham with the roles reversed, and the third was at Stratford with Dowe the speaker. The remaining membership came from as far afield as Colchester and Coggeshall—respectively Robert Lewis (c.1550–1618), vicar of St Peter's, Colchester, and Laurence Newman (c.1546–1600)—to the south, and Ipswich—William Negus—to the north. Suffolk was represented most notably by Henry Sandes (1549–1626), a native of Lancashire who was preacher of the parish of Boxford from 1582 until a year or so before his death. Sandes was an immensely influential minister whose warm relationships with such local gentlemen as Adam Winthrop of nearby Groton and John Knewstub, leader of the godly clergy in west Suffolk, connected the ministers of Dedham to the activities and positions adopted by the meeting in Suffolk.

In addition to Chapman, Crick, Dowe, Lewis, Parker (who acted as the conference's secretary), and Sandes, the men ‘chosen for the Assembly’ in October 1582 were Bartimaeus Andrewes, vicar of Great Wenham, Suffolk; Thomas Farrer (c.1538–1608), rector of Langham, Essex; Thomas Lowe (c.1553–1615), rector of St Leonard's, Colchester; Anthony Morse (c.1560–1603/4), later rector of Hinderclay, Suffolk; Thomas Stoughton (d. 1622), who became rector of Naughton, Suffolk, in 1586; William Tey (c.1545–1594), rector of Peldon, Essex, until his death and, having inherited the manor of Layer-de-la-Haye, the conference's most socially distinguished member; and Thomas Tye. In addition to Negus and Newman, those who joined the conference from 1584 were William Byrd (d. 1599), rector of Boxford, Suffolk; Ranulph Catelyn (1554–1613), rector of Great Wenham; Arthur Gale (d. 1622/3), later schoolmaster at Dedham; Edmund Salmon (fl. 1573–1604), rector of Erwarton, Suffolk, from 1586; and John Tilney (fl. 1571–1605), an unbeneficed pastor at East Bergholt.

With the exception of Tye, whose identification remains a mystery (despite the difference in orthography, it is most likely that he was the brother of William Tey), the thirteen original members were all ministers and eleven were Cambridge men if not graduates. Indeed it is a striking feature of the Dedham conference as a whole that, with the exception of Richard Crick, all of its members had spent time at Cambridge; perhaps for some of them the conference was a continuance of collegial associations experienced at the university. Only half of the members were beneficed clergy, and both Andrewes and Lewis left parochial duties to become town preachers. The focus of the conference was on preaching, and for all of the questions propounded over a range of pastoral and disciplinary issues, their meetings strongly resembled the form of meetings known as prophesyings that Elizabeth had instructed Archbishop Grindal to suppress in 1576. As the ecclesiastical authorities pressed the case for conformity, not all of the members were equally zealous to face suspension for refusing to wear a surplice or subscribe to Archbishop Whitgift's articles. Thus while William Tey was eager to ask his colleagues whether the bishops ‘were anie longer to be tolerated or noe’ (Collinson, Craig, and Usher, 42), Thomas Lowe appears to have come to an accommodation with John Aylmer, bishop of London, and by August 1584 had ceased coming to the meetings. The proposed departure of Bartimaeus Andrewes, who resigned the living of Great Wenham in order to accept the more lucrative post of town preacher of Great Yarmouth, occasioned a full debate in the conference on the bond between preacher and people, and more specifically whether Andrewes might leave Wenham for Yarmouth. It was highly significant that although almost every man spoke against the move, the conference was powerless to prevent it.

It is striking how difficult it was for the conference to come to a corporate decision on many matters. The minutes repeatedly note that issues were deferred ‘to be further considered of’ or deferred ‘for this time’. There was a partial disputation on the nature and use of the sabbath, a matter of growing concern among the godly and seen in the notes and papers of Crick, Sandes, and Tey, but the conference shied away from coming to any determination on the matter. The conference, and especially Chapman and Crick, were called upon to arbitrate in disputes including a long-running feud between Robert Lewis and Colchester's town preacher, George Northey. There were ongoing disputes in East Bergholt involving John Tilney, whose ejection by the parishioners from what appears to have been his unofficial pastoral charge in favour of Richard Crick caused some participants to speak critically of ‘the peoples course in rejecting and receyving their Pastors without counsell of others’ (Collinson, Craig, and Usher, 41). The breach between Crick and the conference at this point was fierce and might have proved fatal had not Chapman's irenicism won the day, when he agreed to preach at Crick's induction as pastor of East Bergholt.

The end came abruptly in 1589, no doubt because Richard Parker was called to London and pumped for information as the investigations into the web of presbyterian networks deepened. Parker explained later that this ‘blessed meeting’ was ended by the ‘malice of satan’ as well as complaints ‘against us preferred to the Bishop of London’ along with the ‘death of some of our brethren and their departure from us to other places’ (Collinson, Craig, and Usher, 46). But this was a case of selective memory, for Parker was deeply and embarrassingly compromised with allegations that he had attempted the chastity of various wives in the neighbourhood. When, under pressure, he confessed in tears that the rumours were true, his time in Dedham was over. Nothing is known about Parker's whereabouts until he was instituted to the obscure vicarage of Ketteringham, Norfolk, in 1601 and it was here, on 10 July 1604, that he completed a book of twenty-six folios (now JRL, English MS 874) that tells the intriguing story of the Dedham conference.

John Craig

Sources  

P. Collinson, J. Craig, and B. Usher, eds., Conferences and combination lectures in the Elizabethan church, 1582–1590, Church of England Record Society, 10 (2003) · P. Collinson, The Elizabethan puritan movement (1967) · P. Collinson, Godly people: essays on English protestantism and puritanism (1983) · [R. Bancroft], Daungerous positions and proceedings (1593) · A. R. Pennie, ‘The evolution of puritan mentality in an Essex cloth town: Dedham and the Stour valley, 1560–1640’, PhD diss., University of Sheffield, 1990 · Two Elizabethan puritan diaries, by Richard Rogers and Samuel Ward, ed. M. M. Knappen, SCH, 2 [1933]