Term : The Parish
The Parish was the basic unit of ecclesiastical administration and essentially represented 'a community whose spiritual needs were served by a parish priest, who was supported by tithe and other dues paid by his parishioners' (Winchester 1987, 23). It was the payment of tithes - established as a legal principle since the reign of King Edgar 959-75 (Platt 1981, 47) - which gave the parish a territorial dimension so that the boundaries of the parish came to embrace all that community's landed resources. Only the most remote areas of upland waste or 'forest', such as Kidland and Cheviot Forest, remained 'extra-parochial'.
Ecclesiastical parishes in the Northumbrian uplands typically covered extensive areas, sometimes very extensive areas, Simonburn in North Tynedale, Elsdon in Redesdale and Kirknewton in Glendale being amongst the largest parishes in the country. Others, such as Alnham or Ingram were not in the same class as Simonburn or Kirknewton, but, in common with almost all the upland parishes, embraced several civil township communities or vills.
In all, six of the seventeen villages studied in this survey were parochial centres in the medieval period, namely Elsdon, Holystone, Alwinton, Alnham, Ingram and Kirknewton. Others, namely Falstone, Harbottle, Akeld, Kilham, Hethpool and perhaps Byrness, were the site of dependent chapels of ease. The presence of early medieval carved stonework at Falstone suggests it had long been an ecclesiastical centre and may have had greater significance in the 8th and 9th centuries (as a small monastic site?) than it possessed later on.
However several of the villages studied as part of the Historic Village Atlas Project contain no places of worship whatsoever, and it is clear that the traditional, almost unconscious, English equation of village and parish church does not apply in Northumberland, and certainly not in the Northumbrian uplands.
It is thus clear that these large medieval parishes embraced many distinct communities and the church was often too distant to conveniently serve all the spiritual needs of the parishioners in the outlying townships. However there are relatively few instances of new parishes being carved out of a well-established parish and practically none after 1150.
The payment of tithes created a strong disincentive to do so since creating a new parochial territory would inevitably reduce the income of the priest in the existing parish. This relatively early fossilisation of parish territories was given added impetus once ownership of parish churches was largely transferred from the hereditary priests or local lay lords whose predecessors had founded the churches over to the monasteries in the 12th and 13th century, since these ecclesiastical corporations strenuously defended their legal and economic rights (Lomas 1996, 111, 116-7; Dixon 1985 I, 64).
Instead the needs of the more distant township communities were catered for by the construction of dependent chapels of ease, which were established either by the monastic institutional patrons or on the individual initiative of local lay lords. Even so many townships had neither a church nor chapel of their own (Lomas 1996, 111-4).
In the medieval era the parish was a purely ecclesiastical institution and was to remain so until the beginning of the 17th century when the Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 made this territorial unit responsible for the maintenance of the poor through the appointment of overseers for the poor and the setting of a poor rate (Statutes 43 Eliz. I c.2; cf. Winchester 1978, 56; Charlton 1987, 98). This is in many respects typical of the history of English local government whereby 'new administrative units have generally been created by giving new functions to existing territorial divisions' (Winchester 1987, 27).
Thereafter parochial administration of poor law was particularly prevalent in southern and midland England, where parishes were generally smaller and often coterminous with the civil townships. However in northern England even these additional functions tended to devolve down to the constituent townships, which were a more convenient and manageable size than the extensive parishes. The modern civil parishes were established by the Local Government Act of 1889 and were substantially based on the earlier townships rather than the ecclesiastical parishes (Statutes 52/53 Vict. c.63).