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Henry Sherman sets up shop in picturesque Dedham Village; Puritans deal with hunting hawks in church

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

The Vicar was keeping track of illegitimate liaisons

Henry Sherman c1510-1589

Henry Sherman was my 13th Great grandfather, fourth son of the notorious “disturber of his neighbors” Thomas Sherman and his “staves and stoneys” wielding wife, Jane Waller.

Wisely, Henry turned his back on the law and returned to the profession that made the family wealthy to begin with. When he came of age, Henry began the seven year apprentice- ship required to become a “clothier.” This, you might remember, is the business of refining rough woolen cloth into the first-rate cloth worn by those who could afford it. The process was full of closely guarded trade secrets and it required substantial capital to get into the business.

Sherman's Southfield house in Dedham

At the age of 23, Henry left his quarrelsome family and neighbors and moved to the scenic little village of Dedham in Suffolk County, nearly one hundred miles away from Yaxley. Dedham was already a rich little “wool town” and he married Agnes Butter, the daughter of a wealthy and influential wool merchant in Dedham.

Henry soon became an influential member of the small village himself, and in the forty years he resided there, only two complaints against Henry show up in the local courts. In 1548, a precept was issued to Henry Sherman in the Dedham Court to remove rubbish “from the footway against his door, under penalty”, and in 1573, a precept was issued to Henry to scour (clean) his ditch all the way to the house of John Stone. Maybe Henry was a bit lax when it came to taking out the trash or keeping his yard trimmed, but there were no major complaints against Henry in his four decades in Dedham.

The idyllic little village of Dedham and its surrounding rural landscape became the subject for John Constable, one of England’s most famous landscape painters. In his youth, Constable attended grammar school in Dedham, and his father’s mill was visible from the church tower in the village.

Painting by John Constable showing his father's mill, with Dedham in the background.

Looking at the pastoral Constable paintings, with their peaceful rolling hills, the meandering Stour River coursing through the lush countryside, and the grain laden oxcart pulling up to the Constable Mill, you would never suspect there was trouble brewing in Dedham.

Recently I heard the lyrics to “Well, Ya Got Trouble,” from the ‘The Music Man.” The lyrics describe the corrupting effects the pool hall is having on the youth of the community. “Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here. I say trouble right here in River City.”

Here’s my botched Dedham 15th Century version; “Wyll, ya got troble, my friend, right hyre, I say, troble right hyre in Dedham Vyllage, wyth a capital D.

Hawks banned from Dedham Church.

The trouble was not billiards, but the Dedham parishioners were bringing hunting hawks into the church, getting drunk and brawling in the local tavern, and engaging in lots of pre-nuptial fornication, known today as pre-marital sex.

Something had to be done in this Puritan stronghold where things had clearly gotten out of hand. The parishioners “joyned together” with the two ministers in Dedham and proceeded to establish “The Dedham Orders” to re-establish some semblance of decency. The 15 edicts that resulted from this effort were designed to greatly inhibit the fun loving ways of the parishioners and established a blueprint for other Puritan strongholds in England.

Many of the tenets of these “Dedham Orders” were carried to New England in the next century. I will list only a few of the articles.

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday before communion “maryed persons will repair to the church at six in the morning to be examined in their Christian knowledge. The Dedham youth were given the same treatment on Saturday afternoons.

There was an authoritative treatise on keeping the Sabbath, which included many pages devoted to persuading worshipers not to bring their hunting hawks into the church during the service.

Attending a church outside the parish was considered nearly treasonous. One family who dared was exiled from Dedham, and their home appropriated and sold.

John Constable painting of the town of Dedham, church in the background.

Who would guess such a peaceful little town was so full of sin?

The community was small, but records were kept religiously. Public drunkenness and breaking the Sabbath were serious offenses, but the community seemed obsessed with pre-nuptial fornication. 133 cases of pre-nuptial fornication are found in the record books in the late 1500’s compared to ten offenses of public intoxication.

A special ceremony of public humiliation was added to the wedding and baptismal services of couples known to have been guilty of pre-nuptial fornication.

If a couple “be knowen to have knowne one another carnally before the celebratinge of their marriage” that celebration should be made an occasion of public scorn and rebuke “to the humblinge of the parties and terrifyinge of others from the like filthie propaninge (profaning) of marriage.” Children would have been the best evidence that illicit intercourse had occurred, so beyond that I don’t know how it was determined. A little glimmer of kindness is evidenced by the fact that “an affianced man had to be thrown from a horse and killed before the wedding for a prenuptially conceived child to become a bastard.”

One result of this obsession with sex seems to have been the downfall of the Vicar of Dedham. It was the vicar who had been keeping track of the infractions, and enforcing the punishments on the pre-marital sex offenders. The mind of the vicar seems to have been disturbed. His “devout belyef in sexual restraint having deserted him he decided to seduce the wife of one of his sidesmen, Robert Thorne. For good measure he also made dishonorable proposals to Elizabeth Martin, the wife of the poor tailor who was his next door neighbor. Mr. Martin was somewhat amused by the incident. As he told his wife, “yf Mr. Parker be of that sorte, what shall one saye to ytt.” Echoes of today’s “Me too” movement against sexual harassment occurred when a church member admonished the vicar not to conceal the matter. The attempted seduction of Robert Thorne’s wife was presented to the archdeaconry court in October of 1589. The penalty for ministers guilty of so grave an offence as sexual misconduct was deprivation. I don’t know what deprivation entailed? Maybe it was the prevention of normal interaction between Parker and the rest of the Dedham society. In the end Parker resigned and had to perform penance in the Dedham Church for attempting the chastity of Thorne’s wife.

Next week I will try to explain other troubles in Dedham that lead some of Henry’s offspring to pack their bags and leave this scenic area of Suffolk England .

Two sons, Henry and Edmund, are the ones from which all of the New England Sherman’s are descended.

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