Speaker: Brenda Hooper
20 March 2018
The speaker at our March meeting was our Honorary President, Brenda Hooper, whose talk was intriguingly titled “The Kings' Briefs”. Those hoping for salacious royal gossip might have been disappointed but everyone else enjoyed a fascinating insight into a system through which the people of our villages contributed to charitable causes in the 17th and 18th centuries.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, parishes had largely become responsible for providing relief to their own poor but in circumstances such as natural disasters the cost would be more than a single parish could afford. The victims could then make a petition for the King or Queen to issue a “Brief” and, if granted, copies of the Brief would be printed and distributed across the country. In most cases, details of the catastrophe would be announced by the rector at the Sunday service and a collection would be taken from the congregation as they left.
A large majority of the Briefs related to fires: for example in 1676 a fire in Northampton destroyed 700 of the 850 houses. Our churchwardens’ accounts show that Thurcaston donated 16s 11d and Cropston 14s 6d. In 1679 a Brief was issued for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London and our parish (then including Anstey) raised £1-06-11 in total. Briefs occasionally related to other causes, e.g. replacing the lead roof of Edgbaston Church, which had been stripped to make musket balls in the Civil War; redeeming English captives and slaves under the Turks; or “the relief of Protestants fled out of Ireland”.
The procedure for obtaining a Brief and collecting in the funds was cumbersome and the expenses sometimes used up more than half of the sum raised. There were also examples of abuse and parishioners became resentful of the increasing number of demands to support causes with no local connection. The system of Kings' Briefs was finally abandoned in 1828, by which time insurance companies provided an alternative method of compensation for fires and floods. However, the public’s willingness to help others in their hour of need has continued through national appeals such as the Titanic Disaster Fund and, more recently, the Disasters Emergency Committee and various crowd-funding websites.