Drunk vicars were in the news recently following the prosecution of Gareth Jones, parish priest of St Mary’s the Virgin in Great Ilford, for a drunken incident in London. After chasing three bottles of wine with beer, gin, and vodka, the clergyman was found passed out in his clerical vestments on the Charing Cross Road at 2.30am; he told paramedics ‘I’m going to f*** you up’, and informed arresting officers he had ‘diplomatic immunity’ as he was ‘from the Vatican’.
Such episodes are not necessarily uncommon. In 2013, Reverend Brian Taylor had to be locked in the vestry of St George’s church in Cwmparc, South Wales, after falling over while officiating at a wedding. And who can forget the Bishop of Southwark’s riposte when he was discovered inebriated in the back seat of a stranger’s Mercedes in 2006: ‘I’m the Bishop of Southwark, it’s what I do’.
Our project is exploring the history of intoxicants and intoxication in England between 1580 and 1740. One of the sources we’ve been looking at are church court records from the dioceses of Chester and Norwich, and during a systematic trawl of these, we were surprised to discover over fifty prosecutions of clergymen for drunkenness. Men of the cloth with an inordinate fondness for grape and grain, it seems, have a long history. Then, as now, it was a serious business. The 1603 ecclesiastical canons forbade church personnel from ‘resort[ing] to any taverns or alehouses’ (apart from on ‘necessary business’) and ‘giv[ing] themselves… to drinking’. 1
And the anxieties that always surrounded the excessive consumption of alcohol in early modern England were particularly acute when the impaired individual was charged with the care of souls. 2 The clerics who fell foul of these strictures range from ‘merry’ pastors who occasionally overstepped the mark in their parishes, to habitual bingers suffering from we would now recognise as serious illnesses – men like John Wythe, rector of Flixton in Suffolk, who was prosecuted in 1690 for regularly getting so drunk that ‘he did his excrements in the bed’, was ‘daubed and besmeared with eggs’, and ‘fell into a ditch, and there lay blubbering’. 3
The lengthiest of these prosecutions is from 1708, and concerns the drinking behaviours and related indiscretions of Nathaniel Rothwell, rector of Thursford in Norfolk. The case against the fifty-something Cambridge graduate as set out in the formal charges was simple: ‘[Y]ou the said Nathaniel Rothwell…being unmindful of your soul’s health, and of the sacred office and ministry to which you were ordained…do lead a loose and scandalous life…much addicted to excessive drinking and to filthy talking’. 4. There followed an itemisation of the parson’s boundless boozing comprising ten separate incidents, corroborated by witness statements provided by forty-four villagers. 5
The latter provide glimpses into Rothwell’s drink-fuelled antics that are as vivid as anything drawn from today’s papers. The court heard how, in 1703, he stayed up all night at the Red Lion in Fakenham, playing cards for brandy with the stable boy – a ‘little debauched boy’ – and ‘singing and dancing’. In 1707, after evening service one Sunday, he stayed late into the night in the house of a brick-maker, drinking a potent combination of brandy and mead. This left him so ‘fuddled’ that he nearly fell into the fire and had to be helped home.
In 1708, following a private baptism, he ‘greedily’ saw off two ‘gotches’ (very large jugs) of ‘strong drink’ at a husbandman’s house until he was ‘overcome’. He fell off his chair, attempted to put his wig on backwards, and used ‘very nasty filthy language’ (‘sw[earing] by God that he never f***** any woman in his life’). The same year, again after a christening, he ‘continued drinking till three or four o’clock in the morning’ at a house in Barney. The next morning he went straight to a brandy shop (he was spotted en route looking ‘wild’), before ending up asleep in a sand pit.
We must handle these stories with care. While the drunk vicar archetype has become a comic one (finding its best-known expression in Father Ted’s perennially sloshed Father Jack Hackett), and although ‘timeless’ tales of clerical intoxication are intrinsically entertaining, many of these men were in the grip of addictions that in some cases cost them their homes, livelihoods, and health. Jones is currently on a leave of absence while he seeks treatment for alcoholism with Redbridge Drug and Alcohol Service and Alcoholics Anonymous. No such support was available for Rothwell, who died at the age of just fifty-eight two years after his trial. There are ruined lives behind the colourful anecdotes.
We must be also be wary of taking historical cases of clerical drunkenness at face value, especially those prosecuted following the 1662 Act of Uniformity (when ‘malicious’ prosecutions of ‘conformable’ ministers by nonconformists were on the increase). For those wishing to frame a clergyman, or present their behaviour in the worst possible light, their drinking habits were fertile ground. Not only did allegations of drunkenness carry weight with both parishioners and church authorities, but the near-unavoidable quality of clerical sociability – providing hospitality, lodging in drinking places while on church business, neighbourly celebrations in the households of parishioners following rites of passage – meant distorted or exaggerated accounts of their alcohol consumption would always find some basis in reality.
James Brown is a Research Associate in the Historical Research Institute at Sheffield University. He is working on the digital humanities project Intoxicants and Early Modernity exploring the production, trade, legislation, consumption, and culture (social and material) of intoxicants in England between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Image 1: Detail from Plate 6 of ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ by William Hogarth, showing a parson spilling his brandy, [Wikicommons].
Image 2: Shoemaker Ambrose Lippencoate testifies to Nathaniel Rothwell’s drunkenness, Norfolk Record Office, DN/DEP 55/59.
- The Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical (made in the year 1603, and amended in the year 1865); to which are added the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London, 1936), pp. 41-2. ↩
- See D. Spaeth, The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660-1740 (Cambridge, 2000), p. 123; J. Gregory, Restoration, Reformation, and Reform, 1660- 1828: Archbishops of Canterbury and Their Diocese (Oxford, 2000), p. 93; R. O’Day, The Professions in Early Modern England, 1400-1800: Servants of the Commonweal (Harlow, 2000), p. 84. ↩
- Norfolk Record Office, DN/DEP 52/57. ↩
- Norfolk Record Office, CON/59. ↩
- Norfolk Record Office, DN/DEP 55/59. ↩