The church board which illuminates a thousand years of English history

Wandering around the medieval parish church of All Saints, Waldron, in East Sussex, two hours south of London, in the day-dreamy way in which most of us wander around churches, absent-mindedly gazing at the stained glass windows and thinking prayerful thoughts while inhaling the scent of hymnbooks and brass-polish, it is easy to miss The Plank.

This "Plank" is an unassuming polished wooden rectangular noticeboard hanging on the wall just behind the church door. Even the current rector, George Pitcher, is taken by surprise whenever he stops to look at it. "Blimey!" he thinks, as he reads the words "2013 GEORGE PITCHER" in gold lettering at the bottom right-hand corner. "That's me!"

The Plank lists all the rectors of Waldron since the church was consecrated 820 years ago. What makes Pitcher say "Blimey!" is not the fact that he's a rector of Waldron – though that's surprising enough, considering he's also a journalist and entrepreneur in London, and came late to ordination, at the age of 50. It's that his name is merely the last in a very long list of his predecessors. Go upwards from Pitcher's name and, in just 46 short steps, back from rector to rector, you come to the surname-less "Bartholomew" in 1195. When you look at The Plank, you're in fact looking at the vast sweep of English history, and suddenly the distant past doesn't seem quite so distant. Go into any Anglican church and you'll be likely to find a board just like this, on which the centuries are compressed into neat gold lettering.

Moreover, it's possible to flesh out the names on The Plank, of whom there are eight Johns, four Roberts, four Williams, two Roys, and only one Ezekiel. Let's start with George Pitcher himself. Genial, friendly, a father of four, Pitcher, along with two-thirds of today's Church of England clergy, is non-stipendiary, or, to use the Church's own euphemistic expression, "self-supporting": ie, he's not paid for his work as a rector. This is fine by him. He does this job part-time, spending Monday to Thursday working in London and Thursday to Sunday in Waldron, taking services, getting to know the congregation of the two churches in his parish, and living in his own house rather than a church-owned rectory. Friday mornings are often taken up with funerals.

He loves his job. "Non-stipendiaries are ordained into the priesthood in the secular world," he tells me. "It suits me and many like me to take our priesthood into the lay world." While others fret about the decline of rural parishes, Pitcher is optimistic: he has faith in the generous-spirited laity who have to "step up to the plate" while he is away, and do so willingly. "The laity have really taken ownership of the church," he says. When he stands at the altar in All Saints, saying the words of the Eucharist, he's overcome by a sense of tradition and the magnitude of what he's doing. "Every time you consecrate, you are re-creating the first Last Supper." He thinks of the 46 rectors before him who have stood on the same spot.

Out in the churchyard, half-buried in the long grass, sits a huge, bashed-looking stone bowl – "one hell of an ashtray", as Pitcher describes it. During the English Civil War (1642-51), when the church was stripped by Puritans who wanted to do away with ornament, this font was dragged out of the church and kicked down the hill, where it served for two-and-a-half centuries as a cattle trough at one of the local farms. In the early 1900s it was brought back up the hill again.

Looking at this font/trough, I wonder which rector on the list had to witness the distressing event of its removal? Was it Samuel Jones or Ezekiel Charke? This story is a reminder of the upheavals that marked the English church and its incumbents: the break from Rome in Henry VIII's time, then the return to Rome under Mary, then the unsettled time early in Elizabeth I's reign and the further chaos of the Civil War. Let alone the Black Death, the Great Plague and the First World War.

As we leave the churchyard Pitcher points out the grave of a young man: Arthur Humble-Crofts, son of the rector from 1882-1925, William Humble-Crofts. Humble-Crofts lost two sons to the First World War: Cyril died in 1916 and is buried in France; Arthur died of wounds in 1918 and is buried here. His grave is just by the gate from the churchyard to what is now the sold-off Old Rectory; Humble-Crofts (rector here for 42 Christmases) walked past his son's grave every time he went from home to the church or back. Upon the outbreak of war, he had given a stirring sermon, inspiring many young men like his sons to join up and fight for King and country.

Pitcher leaves me in the house of two pillars of the local church, Angela and Tim Hough, who fill me in on the most recent names. Just by talking to these people, I am taken back 11 rectors, all in living memory, and the bare names turn into characters.

"Reginald Stevenson baptised me in 1942," says John Chambers, who has happened to wander into the Houghs' house while I am there. [Stevenson is 10th rector from the end.] "And my mother was a girl here under Humble-Crofts. She had to walk two miles to church and back because her father wouldn't get the pony and trap out on a Sunday. The rector I remember best is the Revd Percy Willmott Jenkins [ninth from the end]. I used to sing in the church choir as a boy: we were robed, with ruffs, two services on Sundays. Jenkins had a ruddy complexion, slight Welsh accent, hair swept back. He loved the Welsh hymn Jesu, Lover of my Soul. He had high blood pressure from the booze. He lost his first wife and married his housekeeper."

The Revd. Hugh Barrett-Johnson (seventh from the end) had "a most peculiar way of talking," according to my hosts. "He looked like a frog and spoke out of the side of his mouth. He had no sense of humour; his wife was pretty dull and strait-laced. If you were an academic you enjoyed his preaching. It was above most people's heads." And so on: a typical hotchpotch of eccentric clergy, with their weird ways and idiosyncratic habits which the parishioners either liked or didn't. "Roy Greenland had a thing about cleanliness." With each of these thumbnail sketches ("David Paskins looked a bit like Jesus, on a bike, with flowing robes, whistling. He was brilliant with children; always used to play 'the rector's cat'"), I wish we could carry on like this all the way back to Bartholomew, but far too soon we go into the dark mists of the past beyond memory.

Arriving home I lay my hands on a copy of Crockford's Clerical Directory and find telephone numbers for some of the more recent names on the list. Telephone numbers! So, could some of those names actually speak? I dare to dial one of the numbers – and Jane Sherwin answers. I nearly jump out of my skin. Jane Sherwin is the only female name on The Plank. She's alive, well, retired, and living near Lewes.

"What was it like to be the only woman on that list?" I ask her.

"A great privilege," she says. "It gave me an enormous sense of history, to be the first woman in a long, long line."

"Was there any objection to having a woman as the priest?"

"A few parishioners who were against the ordination of women left the church before I even got there. But I found that once people got to know me and saw me robed and taking the services, they became more comfortable with the fact that the ceiling hadn't fallen in, and life went on."

"Did you ever wonder who Bartholomew was? The first rector on that long list?"

"Yes, I did," she says. "I think Bartholomew was a Knight Templar, who had come back from the Crusades. A lot of the Knights Templar were priests as well. I imagine him dressed in simple garb, tired after the fighting and the long journey home, and he was given this living by the Priory of Lewes as a reward."

So – Bartholomew and Pitcher, both men with more than one job, and both men in simple garb: Bartholomew (1195) in a brown tunic; Pitcher (2015) in jeans and a shirt on a Friday afternoon. Bartholomew tired after fighting the Crusades; Pitcher tired after a hard week in the London rat-race.

This is an inspiring link. But how to flesh out the many links in between? It's all very well looking at the names of rectors of Waldron and seeing the vast sweep of English history, but what happens if you look through the other end of the telescope? If you look at the vast sweep of English history, can you find any rectors of Waldron?

I go to the East Sussex archives in the hope of doing exactly that. They're housed in an institution called The Keep at Falmer. I expected this to be a castle-style keep and am surprised when it turns out to be a building with all the charm of a Detention Centre: white, spotless, and governed by rules. No entry without ID; pencils only; all documents to be ordered online, no more than three at a time, so you have to spend hours in this place's chilly silence. You go to the counter to collect the document you've ordered – and into this strip-lit air-conditioned room of 21st-century hygiene comes a beautiful old grubby parchment book that may not have seen the light of day for a hundred years – and probably wishes it hadn't.

The parchment book now in my hands is the Mixed Register of Waldron Parish Church from 1564 to 1648. It lists the names of every parishioner who was baptised, married or buried in the church over that tumultuous century, and there are thousands of names crammed together in brown ink: "Thomas the sonne of John Hawkins", and so on. So many baptised, so many dead! After wading through pages of names of the forgotten dead, I find one of the rectors who did this hatching, matching and dispatching: "Radalpho Keyllway Rectore ecclesia," scribbled along the margin. Yes! He's on The Plank: "1611 Ralph Keyllway, BA" is the penultimate name at the bottom of column 1. Is that Ralph's own handwriting? I hoped so. Then, a few pages later, another rector, "John Willard", in different handwriting.

No mention, of course, of whether these rectors had swept-back hair or Welsh accents or which hymns they liked. These all-important details are gone. Other documents handed over the counter to me that day include the farewell letter from the Revd GH Curteis in 1882 to the parishioners ("I can safely promise that, as long as my life shall last, the time I spent at beautiful WALDRON shall never be forgotten by me") and the certificate of the institution of Sir Henry Poole as rector in 1784 ("I do declare that I will conform to the liturgy of the Church of England as it is now by law established"). There is a pile of Victorian letters from the Revd John Ley's widow, about the new church font, but these are frustratingly illegible, simply a series of ultra-diagonal strokes in blue ink.

It is time to go to an expert: Dr Andrew Foster, honorary Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Kent. I visit him at his home in West Sussex, where he shows me an essential online resource: the Clergy of the Church of England Database, founded in 1999 by three inspired dons from different universities: Dr Stephen Taylor at Reading, Dr Arthur Burns at King's College London, and Dr Kenneth Fincham at the University of Kent. You can enter the name of any of England's 9,000 parishes and find records of their clergy from 1540 to 1835. We click on "Waldron", and there are all our Plank friends. And not just our Plank friends: an equally long list of the curates as well. These "unsung heroes", as Foster explains, were often the men who did the hard work (like Pitcher's laity) while the rectors themselves were away. He shows me a book called The Curate's Lot by Tindal Hart, which throws light on the lives of these underpaid and under-recognised underlings, who often had to double as the local schoolmaster to pay the bills, while the rectors raked in rent from the glebe land. "If I'd designed these boards," Foster says, "I would have included the curates."

These boards, however, need to be taken with a dose of salt: "Just because they're wood does not make them more reliable than paper or parchment." The database tells us who was rector and curate, and all too often it's 'libc', which stands for 'liber cleri', which simply means that there was a visit and it was recorded which rector (and curate) was in place on that day. "James Tompsett woz 'ere", in effect.

Nos 1 to 16 (1195-1535) were dug out in 1900 by "an antiquarian buff" called George Hennessey, who compiled The Clergy List for Sussex. Waldron's patron in those early days was the Cluniac Priory of Lewes, and Foster thinks many of those early rectors would have been monks from the Priory. The Black Death of the 1350s doesn't seem to have worked its darkest deeds on the Waldron clergy: "Hugh" carried on healthily from 1335 to 1362 while John de Grantham, in the 1370s, lasted only three years.

"1536 William Howe, Bishop" is a name that catches Andrew Foster's eye. A bishop of where, exactly? Well, it turns out that he was a bishop not in England but of Orense in Spain. This shows us how well-connected the English church was with Europe in the high days of the early 1530s, before the break with Rome and the ensuing insularity. Henry VIII dissolved the Priory of Lewes and saw to its systematic destruction. He gave the land to the Sackville family, who became the church's patrons from the late 1530s until the 1830s when Exeter College, Oxford took over.

The first rector in the new post-Catholic era was Hugh Harris. The database tells us that this poor man was "deprived" of his job in 1554. Why? Well, by 1554 Mary was on the throne, fiercely Catholic and enforcing a short-lived restoration. "So either Harris was Protestant and refused to serve under Mary," says Foster, "or he was deprived because he'd married. The clergy had been allowed to marry during Edward VI's time, but when Mary took the throne, all married clergy were ejected."

We like to think that things became much more settled when Elizabeth I's reign began, but that, says Foster, is far from the case. "The whole task of the 'Elizabethan Settlement' took longer and was much more messy than previously thought. As many as two-thirds of the livings in Sussex became vacant in 1558-1560: Catholics resigning, Catholics being deprived, and also there was a devastating flu epidemic."

Of all 47 rectors on The Plank, only one is famous enough to earn a place in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and that's Richard Melborne (1602). The name should be spelled Milbourne, Foster says. Milbourne even has a Wikipedia entry. This man went on to be Dean of Rochester and then Bishop of Carlisle. His Waldron job doesn't even get mentioned in the Wikipedia entry. "We know that he was rector of Sevenoaks from 1591 to 1616."

"But how could he be?" I protest. "He was rector of Waldron at that time! That's bigamy, isn't it? Being the rector of two places at once?"

"Not bigamy," Foster assures me, "but pluralism. It was happening all the time in those days: clergy were allowed to hold more than one living. It helped them make money. That's why you needed the curates."

The tumult went on: the Church of England was abolished after the Civil War, during which time the Archbishop of Canterbury was executed. "The Triers and Ejectors" came round all the parishes: the clergy had to have references and "be vouched for". Ezekiel Charke must have passed that test. He must have been evangelical, Foster thinks; but he managed to stay in position when Charles II came back and the Church became zealously Royalist again. After this, we see a profusion of letters after names on The Plank: signs of an increasingly educated clergy, with university degrees. This may well reflect the Sackville family's tastes for the well-educated and the long climb towards the modern era.

The Plank is now full. Its Victorian designers did not foresee that the future would contain quite so many rectors. Thankfully, it did, and will continue to do so, as long as the Church of England doesn't decide to close rural churches to cut costs. George Pitcher is optimistic that this won't happen. It's time to start a new Plank: and this time he wants to make it double the size.

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