Blanche Parry

The bishop, the Baskervilles and brave new ideas

This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson tells the story of three local men whose 'new' ideas led them into trouble with the Bishop of Hereford.

Some people enjoyed listening to John Croft and to his friends, Richard Wever and William Fylly. Others heard them speak with horror. Most were simply worried. Where would such ideas lead? People could be imprisoned, tortured, even executed, for less. What was even more troubling was what such ideas meant for the promise of salvation, of life after death. This was a very real, and frightening, consideration in the early 1500s when religion was a huge part of everyday life.

John, Richard and William were born in Eardisley and, as with all villages, everyone knew everyone else. Each was immediately baptised by a priest of the canons of Llanthony Priory, who had been given the Church by Ralph de Baskerville (yes, the name used by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories!). At the same time the beautiful 12th century Norman font was made, so it was over 300 years old when the boys were baptised! This nationally famous, and originally painted, font, the work of two incredibly talented masters of the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture, is one of only four to survive in the county.

Medieval Churches were painted with scenes illustrating Church teachings. If patrons paid then painted stone carvings also featured. If lords of the manor estate were buried there then decorations could be lavish. Eardisley Church was next to the Baskerville's castle. They built a family Chapel (now the vestry). Carved heads on the arch may depict Baskerville family members. This Chapel has a squint, a window opening, which allowed a view of the altar in its original position. Opposite are stone steps which gave access to the top of the, now lost, painted Rood Screen which divided the Church into Chancel and Nave.

The three boys grew up knowing that the Bishop of Hereford, captured in his own Cathedral 200 years before, in 1263, by discontented barons, had been imprisoned in Eardisley Castle for three months. Such stories started them thinking. Perhaps Bishops could be wrong! John began preaching about the evils of the established Church but was soon seized by officers of Bishop Richard Mayew.

In February 1505 he confessed he owned heretical books and had preached on holidays and feast days to all sorts of people. He had spoken against confessing to priests, saying penance could not absolve sins, against the sacrament of marriage, and said the Pope had no authority. Eardisley, as with all Churches, was full of images of saints in shrines, painted in gold and silver. John agreed he had 'read and taught against the veneration and worshipping' of images. He swore he would not continue to read, teach, or believe such errors, signing his confession with a cross (see Bishop's Register). John could read but not write. He also promised to give the names of others with similar views. On the 15th March 1505 Richard Wever and William Fylly, facing similar enquiries, also swore not to stray again from the Church's teachings. Did John Croft give their names to the Bishop's officers? We shall never know but it seems likely.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2013

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