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2003: A glance back at sleaze, cronyism and nepotism in Cuckfield

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Sleaze, cronies and nepotism in the Parish of Cuckfield

Today's political nepotism and cronyism are nothing compared with the goings on in the Parish of Cuckfield in the late 1500s.

Over the years there were three vicars of Cuckfield Edmund Curteys, Roger Andrews and Charles Ashburnham - appointed while their brothers were Bishops of Chichester. A fourth, Thomas Vickers was the son-in-law, and a fifth, Dr James Marsh, a brother-in-law of different Bishops of Chichester.

There were also more than a few allegations of sleaze hanging around the Parish. The most titillating, as today, involves sex and incompetence. Edmund Curteys was presented with the Vicarage of Cuckfield by his brother Richard Curteys, then Bishop of Chichester, in 1571.What followed was a major political struggle between him and the owner of Cuckfield Park, Henry Bowyer.

Tower at Cuckfield Place c1920

When Bishop Curteys was enthroned in 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I, he set out to overcome the remaining pockets of Catholic resistance in the country, and raise the standard of preaching by instructing clergy and recruiting new priests from Cambridge, the intellectual hothouse of English protestantism.

He set a fine example by touring the country three times and preaching in all the largest towns. But unfortunately Curtseys’ enthusiasm for the new Protestant order was mixed with an aggressive manner, and a total lack of diplomacy, which provoked arguments wherever he went. His attempts to secure religious conformity among the Sussex Gentry raised fears of a return of arbitrary clerical rule. The Cuckfield dispute was a microcosm of this political power struggle.

Henry Bowyer, a successful ironmaster who purchased Cuckfield Park in 1564, represented the ascendancy of new money over old. But his attempts to promote himself in the Parish were resisted by the vicar, Edmund Curteys who seems to have had no more political sense than his brother. The parishioners gleefully took sides in this riflery, which was intensified by the interference of outsiders.

The quarrel started with vicar Edmund Curtseys attempting to reform the Squire’s libations. He said “a Christian had no right to turn himself into a walking barrel of ale and that he must henceforth shun the vile stuff.”

Matters grew worse in 1578 when Curtseys accused Bowyer of having an affair with a maidservant, and alleging that Bowyer’s wife had induced an abortion after discovering the maid servant’s embarrassing condition. Imagine the headlines in the Press today.

Bowyer countered by accusing the Vicar of misconduct and making a formal complaint to the Privy Council enlisting the support of Queen Elizabeth's Minister Sir Francis Walsingham, then at the height of his power.

Walsingham wrote to Bishop Curtseys asking him to deprive the Vicar and to give the living to a nominee of his own. Walsingham did not temper his language. He said…

“Having of late received a very hard information against the Vicar of Cuckfield not only for his insufficient in religious knowledge for the charge of that great flock, but also to his unworthiness to have any such pastoral at all in the church, his ignorance being so great and his life so vyle.”

Walsingham said the matter was even worse than when one considered the fact that the Vicar of Cuckfield was the Bishop’s own brother, and trusted that he would “Put duty before blood to save the Bishop’s reputation and prevent the spread of rumours that the Bishop habitually suffered unworthy men to discharge the cure of souls in the Diocese of Chichester.”

But as nowadays resignation over allegations of incompetence seemed a non-starter. However, like many current public relations or political spins, the charge of insufficiency in religious knowledge was difficult to reconcile with the fact that Edmund Curtseys was, like his brother, a graduate of St. John's college Cambridge and had previously served as a minister in the Diocese of Ely. But his cause was not helped by the fact he was ”lame and sickly and like his brother devoid of political sense.

There is no doubt that the Bishop’s enemies took advantage of the Cuckfield dispute and by 1578 the government had decided to take strong action against the Bishop himself. To avoid the scandal of a formal deprivation it seems that Bishop Curtseys may have entered into an unwritten agreement with the Privy Council not to be deprived of the Bishopric while foregoing the spiritual administration of the diocese, again no doubt like today’s “Golden Goodbyes”.

In 1580 the Privy Council ordered the ecclesiastical commissioners to proceed with the deprivation of Cuckfield Vicar Edmund Curtseys, but he managed to cling to the Vicarage until 1582. The deprivation of Edmund Curtseys represented the final victory of the recalcitrant Sussex Gentry over Bishop Curtseys and his policy of reform.

Philip Emerson

Rod Garrod writes:

I did some work on this grand building a few years ago; always reminds me of the Tower of London!!

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