Is a church pew really worth dying for!

Think of church pews, and you think of worshippers in quiet contemplation in quiet, ordered rows. Spencer Thomas, of Aldwick, shows that the reality has often been anything but.

Spencer Thomas
Spencer Thomas

The humble pew has been a source of violence and even death down the centuries. In Petworth, a squabble over a pew escalated into a duel in which one of the participants was killed – one of the stories Spencer tells in his new book, published by the University of Chichester, The Intriguing Story of Church Pews, a work in the Otter Memorial Papers series.

“I have been a church-goer all my life,” says Spencer, “and whatever church I attended, it has always been apparent that people always sit in the same seats. I just wondered whether there was a precedent. That was when my curiosity really arose.

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“I came across an Oxford DPhil just around the turn of the millennium where the chap had tackled the legal situation of pews, and the fact is that pews really should be free to anybody in the parish. But this chap traced what had happened through the ages, and in his DPhil he broke new ground.”

Spencer, a retired lecturer at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), embarked on his own research and quickly discovered the minefield, the subterfuge and all the various tactics people have resorted to in protecting what they decided were their own particular pews. Adding to the scramble were the churches that actually rented the pews out – so condoning (and profiting from) the misbehaviour of the faithful.

“The exception was the patrons who had contributed to the churches being built and so they had their own pews, but then the other elites in the parishes imitated them and built their own pews wherever they liked. The pews were all over the place. It started off as standing only, and the only seating was the stone wall around the perimeter of the inside of the church where people would seat, backs to the wall, going to the wall… Otherwise it was standing room only, and then people started to build their own pews all higgledy-piggledy.

"The whole essence later was to get rid of them and produce uniformity from the 1630s. One vicar because these pews were distributed all over the church got carpenters in to cut an aisle up the centre through various pews in order that he could give the communion!”

Spencer says the idea behind his book was to put the story into a social and cultural context: “I was not aiming to produce a chronological history of pews, but trying to put it all in the context of various periods.

“The extreme was a duel that took place in Petworth between two chaps over a pew, and one of them was killed. That was the only instance I came across of death, but I have come across many instances where arms were cut off in duels and when people were armed with sticks and irons and swords during services in order to remove people they thought were occupying their pews! I have come across instances where people were on the verge of death, but other people intervened!”