John Gorsuch: our ‘Scandalous Malignant Priest’
John Gorsuch became rector of Walkern in the 1630s, in the climate of political and religious turbulence preceding the English Civil War. In fact he was one of the few village priests to be ejected from their living by Act of Parliament. Ultimately, this was to lead to his mysterious death, and the emigration of much of his family to America?
This article is taken from Esme Overman?s booklet ‘Gorsuch: Parish Priest’, and thanks go to her family for allowing us to use her writings.
From London to Walkern
His father, Daniel, had inherited property in London where he and Alice his wife and their three children John, Katherine and Mary, lived in the vicinity of St Paul’s, possibly at Bishopsgate. Daniel invested in property in the village of Walkern, a good move as although Walkern is tucked away in a small valley, it is on the route from London to Cambridge which was already a thriving seat of learning.
Indeed, Daniel?s son John, who was born in 1600, the same year as the future King Charles I, took his Bachelor of Arts and then a Master?s degree, at Cambridge, entering the church in 1624 and becoming a Doctor of Divinity in 1636.
In about 1628, John Gorsuch married Ann Lovelace, daughter of Sir William and Anne Lovelace and sister to John?s friend, Richard Lovelace, a Cavalier poet famous for the lines:
Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage
I could not love thee dear so much
Loved I not honour more.
John and Ann initially set up home in London and three children were soon born to them. This was a time of change and the patronage of church livings (advowsons) were being bought by individuals and corporations. Soon after his son’s marriage and having invested in property in Hertfordshire, Daniel Gorsuch bought the advowson of St. Mary’s, Walkern.
When Daniel bought the living the old parsonage house was at Clay End, a good distance from St Mary’s, so he built a new rectory, close to the church. The rectory was one of the earliest all-brick houses built in England and had glazed sash windows in oak frames. It is basically still the same, square in outline, with brick walls, three floors and a ‘hipped’ tile roof sloping on all four sides. The only difference is in the front facade which was changed sometime in the late 1700s, and a “long” room added on the south side (this was built to house the library of Benjamin Heath, the rector of Walkern 1781-1817). The front entrance could conceivably have faced the church on the east side with a path and bridge over the river Beane to the churchyard.
Four years after their marriage John was instituted as Rector at Walkern, the mandate signed and sealed on behalf of King Charles, and he and Ann had moved with their growing family to the newly built rectory.
The clash of views
It was during this period that the Gorsuch family repaired and improved St Mary’s, building a monument into the south wall of the chancel and installing a plain square East window (a window that was lost at the time of a major renovation in the 1870s). It was also during this time that John had the altar, or communion table, set behind altar rails under the new East window. This was a controversial move.
Altar rails for communion had been introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud as a religious and political statement ? he believed in ritual and the divine right of kings, and was opposed to religious toleration. John Gorsuch was a follower.
The first incident occurred at Christmas 1636. Thomas Humberstone of Walkern Park and his wife, with Puritan leanings, refused to come up to the altar rails for communion. They knelt at the chancel steps but John Gorsuch refused to give them the sacrament.
Again at Easter the same couple raised their objections to approaching the altar rails and being denied the sacrament they referred the matter to the Archdeacon who after interviewing Gorsuch wrote them a “persuasive letter to reform their carriage”.
So they petitioned John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln. He was sympathetic to the Puritan faction and ordered Gorsuch to administer the communion “to all who presented themselves kneeling in any part of the church under pain of suspension? and with the threat to depose Gorsuch?s curate, Francis Beckwith.
Gorsuch appealed. John Williams had by this time been imprisoned in the Tower for malpractices in State Affairs, and Archbishop Laud had taken charge of Lincoln Bishopric, so the rector was supported. On 28th October a bond was filed against Thomas Humberstone “… to exhibite a true and full certificate of his due frequenting of his parishe church of Walkerne and divine service …”
The Humberstone couple conceded and no further steps were taken against them either by John Gorsuch or his curate Francis Beckwith.
The death of Daniel Gorsuch
In the meantime John’s father had died. Daniel’s burial is recorded in the Walkern Parish register on 8th October 1638, signed by John Gorsuch, Rector.
The Gorsuch memorial in St Mary?s reads: ?Daniel Gorsuch, Citizen and Mercer of London in the month of July 1638, caused this Tomb to be made for himself and his wife Alice by whom he had three children, John, Katherine and Joanna, his age being 69 years 6 months and odd dayes. And he died on the 8th day of October, 1638.?
In Daniel’s will, made at Walkern two days earlier, he left property in London to his wife and to John Gorsuch, a sum of