Oxfordshire & North Berkshire Protestation Returns and Tax Assessments, 1641–42

An article by Tony Hadland for Catholic Ancestor, February 1997

On the 3rd of May 1641, fifteen months before the outbreak of the Civil War, the House of Commons drew up a Protestation Oath with six stated objectives:

  • To defend “the true Reformed Protestant Religion, expressed in the doctrine of the Church of England, against all Popery and Popish Innovations”,
  • To defend “the Power and Privileges of Parliaments”,
  • To defend “His Majesty’s Royal Person, Honour and Estate”,
  • To defend “the lawful Rights and Liberties of the subjects, and every person that maketh this Protestation”,
  • To oppose and bring to punishment “all such as shall, either by Force, Practice, Counsels, Plots, Conspiracies or otherwise” oppose anything in the Protestation,
  • To preserve “the Union and Peace between the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland”.

All MPs immediately signed the Protestation.  The following day the House of Lords agreed it and all the Protestant Peers signed.  On the 30th July the House of Commons passed a resolution that all who refused the Protestation were unfit to hold office in Church or Commonwealth.

Nearly six months later, on the 19th January 1642 (New Style), Speaker William Lenthall, Protestant son of a west Oxfordshire Catholic and a nephew of the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, sent copies of the Protestation to the county sheriffs with these instructions:

  • The Sheriff and JPs were to meet as soon as possible and take the Oath,
  • The JPs were then to disperse to their respective county divisions and bring together the Minister, Constables, Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of every parish,
  • These officials were then to “very speedily call together the Inhabitants of their Parishes, both Householders and others, being of Eighteen Years of Age and upwards”, and to tender and witness the Oath, listing all who took and refused it,
  • The Sheriff was then to collate the returns from the various parishes.

Hence in February 1642 (NS) most adult males in England and Wales (and in a few cases, women as well) took the Oath.

Three months later a tax was raised which had a much lower threshold than typical Tudor or Stuart subsidies.  The Tax Assessments include men and women, and also absent landlords or nobility.  Recusants had to pay double and were therefore to be clearly identified.  If the recusant was below the tax threshold of £1 in land, £3 in goods or £10 a year in wages, he or she had to pay a poll tax of 2s 8d.

In December 1994 The Oxfordshire Record Society, in association with the Banbury Historical Society, published a new edition of the extant Oxfordshire Protestation Returns and Tax Assessments, combining them with those which have survived for the areas of north-western Berkshire absorbed into Oxfordshire in 1974.  Edited by Jeremy Gibson, whose name is well known to many family historians, the volume incorporates a much expanded version of the Oxfordshire Family History Society’s index of personal names of those taking the Oath.

What then does this book tell us about recusants?  One of the main reasons for the Protestation was to ascertain the number, location and names of Roman Catholics in the country.  Hence some contemporary Oxfordshire or Westminster official compiled a summary list of the county’s recusants, and this is reproduced on page 148 of the book. Sounds promising?

Well, yes and no!  Surprisingly, the list identifies papists in only 16 parishes, all concentrated in just four of Oxfordshire’s 14 hundreds.  As Jeremy Gibson points out in his introduction to the book there must have been recusants in other areas, so it seems unlikely that the other returns reached the compiler of the vital summary.

In fact, the Protestation Returns have survived for only seven of the 14 hundreds of Oxfordshire – Bampton, Bloxham, Chadlington and Wooton in the north and west of the county, and Langtree and Binfield in the south. For former north-west Berkshire the only surviving returns are for the three hundreds of Moreton, Ock and Hormer, which comprised the Abingdon Division.  In both counties the borough returns – for Abingdon itself, Banbury, Wallingford, Woodstock and Oxford – are missing. (The University returns survive however, and are in the book.)

What is remarkable (although it is not picked up in the book) is the strong correlation between missing Protestation Returns and the locations in Oxfordshire and former north-west Berkshire where manor-based Catholicism survived.  For example, the Berkshire returns are missing for East Hendred (home of the Eystons) and Buckland (seat of the Yates).  Similarly, in Oxfordshire, the returns for Pyrton hundred (including Stonor), Dorchester (home of the recusant yeoman families Day, Davey and Prince), Ewelme (Simeons of Britwell), Bullingdon (Powells of Sandford-on-Thames and Cursons of Waterperry), Lewknor (Belsons of Aston Rowant) and Ploughley (Fermors of Somerton, Tusmore and Hardwick) are all missing.

Even among the hundreds for which Protestation Returns have survived, various parishes are missing.  Here again, of the eight missing in the south of Oxfordshire, half are parishes where Catholic gentry held land or resided, viz.  Shiplake (Plowdens), Checkendon (Hildesleys of Littlestoke), Mapledurham (Blounts) and Whitchurch (Hydes of Purley-on-Thames).

So, it is important to note that, in Oxfordshire and former north-west Berkshire, Protestation Returns are not extant for the vast majority of locations with classic manor-based Catholic survivals.  Indeed, the negative correlation is so strong that it suggests more than mere coincidence.  Was there, perhaps, a very effective and concerted closing of ranks and “nobbling” of petty parish officials by the Catholic gentry – stimulated by the knowledge that on 16th April 1642 the House of Commons had appointed a committee to consider what to do about the recusants identified in the Protestation Returns?

Some care is also needed in referring to the consolidated Oxfordshire List of Recusants in respect of the entries for Witney.  This was a major centre of population but not one with a significant Catholic population.  But if the list is taken at face value, Witney was the recusant capital of the county, twenty-two Witney men being listed.  Yet of these, only one is specifically identified as a recusant, and only three others even have surnames associated with recusancy in that area.  In fact, it seems that all the sick and elderly who were unable to take the Oath were lumped in with Witney’s one known recusant!

Nonetheless, despite these intriguing inconsistencies, there is still much of interest to the recusant hunter, especially concerning the north and west of Oxfordshire.  For example, we learn from the Protestation Return for the parish of Asthall in Bampton Hundred that Edward Saunders and his wife Mary refused the Oath, as did the widow Elizabeth Cooke.  From the Tax Assessment we receive confirmation that Mr and Mrs Saunders were recusants and that so too was Mr Saunders’ servant John (surname not recorded), for which the latter paid the 2s 8d poll tax.  Further, the assessment shows that John and Edward Saunders jointly held a farm of Mr Field.  Referring back to the Protestation Return, we see that John Saunders, unlike his recusant relative (brother’?) Edward, not only took the Oath but was one of the churchwardens whose task it was to administer and witness it!

The widow Cooke is not mentioned in the Tax Assessment but there is a reference to Sir Robert Cooke, presumably an absent landlord.  He is not listed as a recusant but was presumably a relative, perhaps a son.  Were these Cookes related to the martyred abbot of Reading, Blessed Hugh Faringdon, whose family name was Cook and who came from Faringdon, just across the Thames from Bampton?

In the same hundred, but at Brize Norton, the Protestation Return identifies as recusants the two Thomas Greenwoods, Senior and Junior, along with Richard Todkill and William Linee.  The first three are clearly gentry, being prefixed “Mr”.  Turning to the Tax Assessments, the Greenwoods (who had a recusant pedigree stretching back to the 1570s and who remained in the area until 1769, being served latterly by the Benedictines) are identified both as gentry and recusants.  So too was Richard Tadkine – though whether this version of his name was more or less correct than Todkill, I do not know.  Wilham Lyngin (cf Linee) is listed as the recusant servant of Mr Greenwood Senior, as is Ellen Messenger.  Further, we learn that Mt Greenwood Senior “farmeth of Mr Tempest”.  The latter held land in the area and was related to the Tempests of Holmeside, Co. Durham, who had been involved in the Northern Rebellion of 1569.

In the Abingdon Division of Berkshire at Lyford, scene of the arrest of St Edmund Campion 61 years earlier (and therefore just about within living memory), Thomas Yate(s) and his son William refused the oath, as did William Cullam, a husbandman.

However, a number of Catholics, perhaps church papists, appear to have taken the Oath.  At Henley-on-Thames, Richard Stonor1 is listed as doing so; and at the nearby Stonor manor of Rotherfield Peppard (later bought by a Hildesley) Richard Ilsley (= Hildesley) did the same.  Neither was listed as a recusant, although it seems probable they were both Catholics.  But taking the oath was no guarantee that a known recusant would escape identification in the Protestation Returns, as Richard Hyde and two other recusants discovered at Standlake.

Other approaches to the Oath included that of:

  • John Phippes of Charlbury who “simplye refuseth not but demurres upon it as pretending not to understand what is meant by the true reformed Protestant religion”, and
  • Ralph Sheldon of Steeple Barton, who with his family asserted to the Protestation except in respect of “one clause of religion standing in opposition to what they professe, being the religion of the Church of Rome”.

These are just a few tasters of what can be found by careful perusal of this book – a very worthwhile investment for anyone interested in the recusant history of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and highly recommended.  Copies can be obtained by sending a cheque for £17 (£15 for the book plus £2 post & packing) made payable to “The Oxfordshire Record Society”, to S R Tomlinson Esq, Hon. Sec., The Oxfordshire Record Society, c/o Bodleian Library, Oxford OX1 3BG.


1. The Hon. Georgina Stonor advises me that there was no recorded Richard Stonor. It is possible that this was an alias used by the Stonor’s relative Richard Ilsley, perhaps to confuse the authorities.


Gibson, J.S.W. (Ed), Oxfordshire and North Berkshire Protestation Returns and Tax Assessments 1641-2, The Oxfordshire Record Society, Volume 59, 1994

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