Wait, that’s not a prayer! When parish records turn raunchy

Anyone who’s spent countless hours researching in the archives knows the feeling of elation that comes over you when you find that proverbial needle in the haystack. Whether it’s a letter, a diary, a parish register entry, or a court deposition, locating those bits of evidence that fill gaps in your research makes all the dusty, eye straining, physically uncomfortable effort worthwhile.

This post isn’t about that. This post is about those times you come across seemingly out of place random miscellany that reminds you that the past isn’t really all that foreign after all. When you’ve spent several days searching and photographing the same sorts of material – some of which can be quite grim – over and over these little gems can bring some much needed comic relief. Especially when the file you’re digging through looks like this.

Meifod WTF (2)

Meifod parish records, held by Powys Archives Office (photo: Angela Muir)

These are some of the parish documents dating from the middle of the eighteenth century for the parish of Meifod, formerly in the county of Montgomeryshire, now held by Powys Archives Office. Tucked away in one of these folders was a small, modern envelope with, ‘’PRAYERS’ CAREFUL! LOOSE PAPERS’ written on it in felt marker. Inside that envelope was this acrostic little gem:


Powys Archives Office M/EP/41/O/RT/1 (photo: Angela Muir)

A knight delights in deeds of armes,

Perhaps a Lady loves sweet musicks charms

Ritch men in store of wealth delighted be

Infants love dangling on their mothers knee

Coy maids love something, nothing I’ll express

Know the first letters of these lines and guess



Yes, dear readers, this is a raunchy, eighteenth-century riddle about a penis carefully filed away in church records. The identity of the writer, and how and why this little scrap ended up tucked away with prayers for ailing parishioners is a mystery. The idea that this could have been a cheeky parishioner sneaking a bit of smutty poetry into the prayer box to shock an unpopular and over-serious church official is both amusing and appealing, but that’s speculative at best.

Regardless of this bawdy little poem’s provenance, it is clear that having a dirty mind is not a modern invention.


Do you have your own archival randoms? Please share in the comments.



Tragedy in the Archives

A recent BBC news article made me think it high time to revive my blog, which has remained inactive since last summer due in part to me taking up a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral post in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter last September, which has kept me rather busy.

The story in question highlights the brutal, heartbreaking reality of infant and child mortality in Early Modern England as expressed in church graffiti from the sixteenth century when the south of England was ravaged by plague.

Although the period I’m looking at is two centuries later a similar tragic reality is just as apparent. In my research I’m looking at illegitimacy in Wales during the long eighteenth century. One of the many things I’m interested in is infant and maternal mortality and how it may have been influenced by factors such as illegitimacy and the different types of conjugal unions which may have led to the birth of an illegitimate child. For more on the different types of unions please see my 2013 article in Welsh History Review.

As an academic historian my job is to remain objective and professional, but while analysing parish burial records from Denbighshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire (the latter two are both in modern day Powys) it was hard not to be moved by what must have been pretty devastating circumstances for some families.

For example, in the parish of Marchwiel in April 1699 a sixteen month old child named Elizabeth Clark was buried. Also buried that month were her brothers Frances, Jacob and Peter. Jacob and Peter were buried on the same day. The cause of death is not given, but a common contagious disease, or a water-borne illness such as dysentery, or the effects of undercooked meat or even poor harvests,* which all had a far worse prognosis for the very young and very old could have been responsible, but there is no way to be certain. The Clark children were the only burial entries for the month of April that year, and there were no more burials in 1699 than in the preceding years therefore an outbreak of an epidemic such as small pox is unlikely.

The fate of twins in particular appears to have been quite bleak. Every set of twins born in the parish of Glascwn, Radnorshire between 1680 and 1740 experienced the death of one if not both children within days or weeks of birth, such as the twin sons of David Bowen baptised on 15 October, 1681 and buried on 25 and 31 October, or James and Catherine the twin children of John and Catherine Gwyn baptised on 29 June, 1710 and buried on 15 and 16 July respectively. Illegitimate twins also fared as badly, such as Elizabeth and Jane, the twin daughters born to Jane Probert baptised on 2 August, 1733 and buried on 19 and 23 August respectively.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert, August 1733.

Baptism and burial records for Elizabeth and Jane Probert, illegitimate twin daughters of Jane Probert (Glascwm, August 1733)

For other families their tragedies played out over a period of months or years rather than days and weeks. In Llanfihangel Nant Melan, Radnorshire on 3 May, 1761 Peter and Mary Thomas baptised their twin children Peter and Susannah. Five days later Peter was buried, and five days after that Susannah was buried. The couple had another child who was baptised on 27 November, 1762; he was buried the next day.

Also in Glascwn, in February 1705 Thomas Matthews and his wife Johan buried their three week old son James, and in September the following year they buried their five month old son Henry. In the same parish between 1699 and 1720 Thomas Parry and Elizabeth Lloyd, who were not married but were likely in a stable conjugal relationship, had six illegitimate children, three of whom died within three months of birth.

Less explicitly, the parish records of Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, on the boundary between Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, uniquely lists the cause of death for several of those interred in the parish grave yard in the latter half of the eighteenth century. This record provides rich evidence of understandings of disease and death at that time, and perhaps the most telling indication for the purposes here is the frequent absence of a cause of death for children, particularly under the age of one. Infant mortality for children in their first year of life was so common that it frequently required no medical explanation.

Perhaps most poignant is the case of Roger Tonman, a local gentleman, and his wife Theodosia.  In May 1708 the couple baptised their infant daughter, who they named Theodosia. She was buried less than one month later. In March 1711 they again had a daughter who they also christened Theodosia. She too did not live to see her first birthday, having died in November of that year aged only eight months. Finally, in December 1713 Roger and Theodosia had a third daughter who they named Theodosia and she does appear to have survived the precarious first year of life and reach adulthood, however her mother and namesake was not so lucky, as she succumbed to the physical perils of childbirth three days after giving birth, most likely from puerperal fever.

This final example is evidence that risks of childbirth and infancy were not the reserve of the lower orders alone. The risks associated with pregnancy, labour and the precarious period immediately following birth had the potential to be incredibly dangerous for both mother and child, and the first months and years of life carried almost as much risk for young children. In a modern setting with very low rates of infant mortality and ready access to pre and postnatal care for mothers, neonatal care for infants, early diagnostic techniques, antibiotics, specialists doctors, trained midwifes and so on it is difficult to imaging just how tragic family life could have been for some.

Although most historians now reject the theory that parents in the past did not form close bonds with their children due to high infant mortality rates these examples, and the countless others that exist in parish records and personal correspondences do raise interesting questions about how the imminent threat or actual experience of loss in childbirth and infancy must have shaped the emotional worlds of early modern families.

Further Reading:

Mary J. Dobson, Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England

Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times

Hannah Newton, The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

Alun Withey, Physick and the Family (*see p. 22)

Spurious rumours about illegitimacy in Wales

In my last post I discussed the case of Mary Morgan and the ways in which the community of Presteigne has remembered her. Anyone curious about Mary will not be at a loss to find websites conveying various versions of her story, many of which are based on myth and conspiracy theories and not evidence. Such are they perils of the internet. Unfortunately information leaflets available at the Judges Lodgings Museum are also, at least in part, informed more by myth and assumption than by evidence.

Those who know me can attest to the fact that it doesn’t take much more than a misinformed assumption passed off as ‘fact’ to wind me up, so this post is dedicated to my travel companion who patiently tolerated my post-visit, fallacious leaflet-invoked rant.

The author of said booklet, which I can only imagine has captivated many a wide-eyed schoolchild over the years, correctly made the connection between illegitimacy and infanticide. The author in question also correctly stated that illegitimacy in Wales in earlier centuries was relatively high, but then went so far as to say that mothers of illegitimate children were given a preferential place on the marriage market. Yup. That’s right. Women with illegitimate children were MORE favourable than women who had not bore children out of wedlock. My reaction to this can only be described as ‘gobsmacked’.

Now, in all fairness this was not an academic publication, so some unsubstantiated erroneous statements are to be expected, and perhaps even forgiven given that it has served as a convenient segue from my last post to the current one.

I can only assume that the anonymous author’s assumption is based on a combination of a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘bridal pregnancy’ and the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’. I feel confident in addressing this misunderstanding because to my knowledge I am one of only a small handful of academics (if I may use that term) to carry out a study of illegitimacy in early modern Wales.

Using parish reconstitution techniques several historians have been able to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for brides to arrive at the altar with a bun in the oven. This can be deduced by comparing the date of marriage to the date of the birth or baptism of the couple’s first child. If the birth occurs less than 8 months after marriage (making room for some degree of survivable prematurity) then it was likely the child was conceived prior to marriage. In many instances a birth occurred well under 6 months, making it clear that the couple had engaged in premarital sex. It has been argued that this was typically the result of marriage being more of a process than a single event, with coitus permitted after a certain level of commitment was made, but before the final vows.

A misunderstanding of this phenomena is the closest I can get to an explanation for the leaflet writer’s misguided statement: If in some communities under certain circumstances engaging in prenuptial sexual activity was permissible, and perhaps even encouraged as a form of fertility testing, then maybe an illegitimate child in any context could be an attractive asset, right?

*Face palm*

Needless to say, this is a pretty big and ridiculous leap.

Furthermore, a study of premarital conception is dependent on the bride/mother and groom/father being clearly identifiable in parish records. Anyone familiar with Welsh records will immediately recognise the problem of this approach for Wales – the limited pool of Welsh patronymics makes parish reconstitution a virtually insurmountable challenge. The ancient tradition of using a father’s first name as a surname has led to a large number of individuals bearing the exact same name, making identification in records problematic.

The author does appear to be correct in stating that illegitimacy in Wales was high, as was reported in the infamous Report of Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales in 1847. Research conducted within the past 10 years supports the argument that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some areas of Wales did experience significantly higher rates of illegitimacy – sometimes as high as three to four times the average in England.

The Blue Books assumed that the reason for increased illegitimacy in Wales lay in the endemic immorality of the Welsh people.  Fortunately that argument has fallen out of fashion, and has been replaced by a call for research into Welsh courtship and marriage customs as a means of understanding why Wales experienced higher rates of illegitimacy. This is a call I’ve attempted to answer in a very small degree in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’.

Welsh History Review

The main sources for information about illegitimacy in early modern Britain are parish baptism registers. At no point were parish officials ever ordered to record illegitimate children, but most do so. The reasons for this were the potential economic impact an illegitimate child could have on the parish – a fatherless child was at risk becoming a burden on the parish. Therefore it was in parish officials’ best interest to list fathers of illegitimate children whenever possible so fathers and not the parish could be held accountable for the child’s maintenance. English records from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries suggest that many fathers fled, or out of shame were not named by mothers, as fathers appear in most records less than 50% of the time, and in some areas less than 7%.

What’s immediately striking about Welsh records is the sheer number of fathers of illegitimate children who are identified in registers. For example, in the parish of St. Peter’s in Carmarthen between the years 1700 and 1800 67% of entries for illegitimate children list a father or indicate the identity of the father was known. During the same period in the parish of Hawarden in Flintshire the rate of identifiable paternity is as high as 72%.

This analysis can be taken a step further by looking at the ways in which fathers are identified, which allows for a cautious distinction to be made between relationships that may have been more permissible in the eyes of the community and illicit relations that were not acceptable. Once such a distinction has been made the rates of illegitimacy resulting from illicit encounters drops significantly, which makes ‘illegitimacy’ in Wales that much more intriguing. Terms such as ‘legitimate’ are ‘illegitimate’ are loaded terms that reflect the values of individuals and communities. To understand what is and is not deemed ‘legitimate’ is to understand what is at the core of a community’s values. Therefore, to understand how and why illegitimacy in Wales was unique is to more thoroughly understand the rich social and cultural landscape of early modern Wales.

My purpose here has not been to summarise or repeat the substance of my article, and I would encourage anyone interested to read and comment on it once it has been published. My purpose has instead been to demonstrate that misconceptions about Wales and the Welsh that are based on pernicious conclusions drawn well over a century ago persist and are perpetuated, perhaps most harmfully, in places dedicated to revealing the lives of every day Welsh men and women from the past. This demonstrates how deeply embedded these myths are, and how important it is to dispel them by continuing to chisel away the fiction from the fact.

*Steps down from soap box*

Further Reading

Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Anna Brueton, ‘Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in a Rural Community: the Upper Tywi Valley, 1760-1860’ (MA Dissertation, Trinity University College, 2007).

P. E. H. Hair, ‘Bridal Pregnancy in Earlier Rural England Further Examined’ Population Studies, 24( 1970), pp. 59-70.

Martin Ingram , Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Peter Laslett , Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, Richard Michael Smith, eds., Bastardy and Its Comparative History (London: E. Arnold, 1980).

Alysa Levene, Thomas Nutt, and Samantha Williams, eds., Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Belinda Meteyard, ‘Illegitimacy and Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 10(1980), pp. 479-489.

Angela Muir, ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’, Welsh History Review 26(2013), pp. 351-388

Stephen Parker, Informal Marriage, Cohabitation and the Law, 1750-1989 (London: Macmillan, 1990).

Catrin Stevens, Welsh Courting Customs (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1993).