Great Totham, Essex is peaceful with a village shop, hall, many nice houses and a picturesque church. It’s this church that has been intriguing me this week; I’m keen to share what little I’ve learned about one moment in its history, and even more eager for further details, should anyone have them.
The lovely Church of St. Peter is Grade II Listed, situated between the also-listed Old Vicarage and Great Totham Hall, and surrounded by a higgledy-piggledy churchyard and picturesque countryside. You may drive past it on your way to Maldon or while heading to the pub for a Sunday lunch, not paying it much notice.
I visited back in 2016, primarily curious about old graves in the churchyard. Upon revisiting my old photos, I looked into the history of the church and made a surprising discovery! First, some history.
No one is exactly sure these days how old the church is. According to Friends of Essex Churches, it was built as the private chapel of the Lord of the Manor, and then given as a charitable donation to the Nunnery of St. Mary Clerkenwell between 1181 and 1186 by Maurice de Totham.
Some have pondered whether a significant event like the Black Death is why the church isn’t located in the main part of the village, near the crossroads and the shop. However, that idea has been refuted as St. Peter’s, while not in the centre of the village, is in fact at the geographical centre of the parish.
While passers by may consider St. Peters as another pleasant, old country church in a small village, it’s important to recall that these places were not always as “sleepy” and idyllic as they appear today. In the Middle Ages, the majority of the population lived in the countryside, and daily life could be fraught with danger.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps slightly less surprising that in 1285 the first recorded Vicar of St. Peters in Great Totham, identified only as Thomas, along with Nicholas, the first known Rector of St. Peters in nearby Goldhanger, were charged with killing a man!
If you’re an expert on the medieval period, you may be less surprised than I initially was, understanding the social conditions of the time. Or, you might be taken aback. Two vicars, guilty of murdering another man?
This fact seemed less surprising after I read Goldhanger: An Estuary Village by notable local historian Maura Benham. In the section on “The Early Rectors” she shares that Vicars Thomas and Nicholas were charged with killing one Simon Godyng at Havering (today a London borough) and sent to Newgate Prison.
While more details about the murder are missing, Benham does quote Dr. P.H. Reaney in the Essex Review, who indicated that in the Middle Ages the qualifications for who could become a Vicar or Rector were rather lax, partly “for corrupt reasons” and partly because suitable candidates were few and far between.
If you’re interested in the history of Essex I highly recommend Benham’s book, which is graciously available for free online. However, for the sake of this story, Dr. Reaney goes on to further prove that this was a lawless period of time, and that “so many bodies lay about the countryside that a change had to be made in the law of homicide.”
Unqualified Vicars. A countryside riddled with dangers and dead bodies. Suddenly, the fact that the first vicar of the church in Great Totham was involved in a murder seems less shocking.
However, I must admit that I’m left feeling more intrigued. What are the sources Dr. Reaney and Friends of Essex Churches used to qualify this story? By no means am I calling their credibility into question. They’re the experts; I’m simply curious to know where they information came from, in the hope I can learn more.
Who was Simon Godyng? My research online has turned up nothing thus far. In 1505, the Prior of Bicknacre was Edmund Godyng. Were they related?
Last, and perhaps most importantly, why did Thomas and Nicholas kill Simon? It was a corrupt and dangerous time, but there must have been a reason for his death and a story about how the two vicars were found guilty of it.
Tonight, after sharing this story with you, my next step is to write a letter to the Friends of Essex Churches and ask for details. Perhaps they’ll know more of the story, or be able to point me in the right direction.
In the meantime, don’t let one grim story about the first vicar of St. Peter’s deter you from learning more about this lovely little church and its many beautiful features. In 2012, it underwent significant repairs thanks to English Heritage and the Friends of Essex Churches and it’s worth appreciating, indeed.
If I learn more about the murder of Simon Godyng, I’ll be sure to let you know.