Family of Love

(Editor’s note: Rosemarie was one of the first people I met when I studied overseas two years ago, and she and I have remained in pretty good contact since then. She’s going to become a regular contributor to the blog (since I’m a pretty persuasive person like that), and she’ll provide not only international flair but also another voice! 🙂 )

First of all, a big thanks to Amy for letting me throw in some little-known history into the mix – As much as I could write about my favourite significant individuals, I thought it’d be fun to try inspiring/educating/vaguely instilling knowledge of a tiny village instead!
I hope that this will be the start of a nice transatlantic blogging relationship as Amy writes the odd history (or if she chooses non-history for a change) post on my own blog. (Which is not quite as focused as Amy’s)

I met Amy when she was doing her stint at Lancaster University, through the History Society. I’m a year ahead of her, but we were doing more or less the same course. Cause we’re awesome.

For those of you that still don’t know, the end of the 15th century heralded a series of turbulent religious changes in Europe. Whilst my speciality is really the English Reformation – and I guess, the Lutheran Reformation in ”Germany” – I have chosen to research a little religious group – a sect, if you will – that resided in a inconsequential village about 10 minutes drive from my house.

History happening in small villages of East Anglia and surviving records to tell the tale? Surely not! Hell, I’m willing to wager that most of Amy’s readers don’t even know what or where ‘East Anglia’ is! And that’s ok. I’m going to be giving background to this stuff.

East Anglia is the Eastern corner of England. If you look at a map, it begins roughly around 2 hours drive to the right of London – encompassing Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Wikipedia might argue that Cambridgeshire isn’t in East Anglia, but frankly, Wikipedia, the BBC weather reports beg to differ!

East Anglia is place foreigners like to invade – it’s got a big coast line (hell, Great Britain is one big coast line!), it’s flat, and it’s full of docile little patches of civilisation. It was largely bog-land, and generally susceptible to experiencing the worst of religious, social and economic change. It’s closest to London, after all.

In East Anglia, about 20 minutes’ drive from Cambridge, there is a very small village called Balsham. It is here on the map: 

In 1010, the entire village was destroyed by Viking raiders (those guys loved to visit) and according to the village sign, there was only one survivor, who was hiding in the Parish church.

Image courtesy of Balsham Website

For those of you interested, the oldest part of the church left is from the 13th century, with additions dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.  There are quite a few old churches like these dotted around the extreme rural countryside of Britain, which is pretty cool, if you are into old buildings.
Since I’m here, I might as well plug my blog entry on the church and church paintings of another village nearby, Bartlow, which has Norman hills and an old church and stuff.

Part of the history of the Parish is that of religious insubordination. Yes, I said it. There is an entire century where denominations of Christians in Balsham did not match the beliefs of the monarch at that time (largely during the end of Mary’s reign and under Elizebethan protestantism). The particular group I am going to look at is the “Family of Love”, or “Familists”.

This mystic sect was originally founded in 1539 when “German” (modern day Dutch, perhaps) merchant named Hendrik Niclaes (Henry Nicholas) experienced some sort of religious awakening. In the 1540s and 50s, he travelled around on business and missionary trips, and at some point he managed to convert some people around Balsham.
Outwardly, the religious group had all the trappings of Anabaptism. Followers believed that all things in the world and universe were ruled by nature, not directly by God (if we boil it down to a Sims point of view: the Sims are doing what they do because of their inherent nature and personalities, not because we, the players, clicked on an icon to tell them to do something).

Other beliefs involved denying the Trinity and repudiating child baptism – like Anabaptists, they would re-baptise converts who’d been baptised as infants in other denominations.
In similar stance to the later Quakers – who may well have absorbed Familists – they believed in the individual right to freely expressed beliefs. That is, no man should or can be executed for their beliefs. (Something which the monarchy did not always agree with!) They also objected to carrying weapons or to taking oaths.

Membership of the Family of Love appealed mostly the creative elite – artists, musicians, scholars – much like the membership of certain modern mystical cults. Their primary goal was to achieve ‘that ultimate state of perfect love with God revealed through the Family of Love’ and the works of its founder.

I take the most illuminating description of their core belief from a very informative page devoted entirely to the Familist movement:

 “To the Familist, true enlightenment was only possible by possessing the true inner dwelling spirit of God revealing himself. The Spirit of God dwelling in a true Believer made all things possible. A state of perfection with God was possible here on earth by living your life as Christ. The life of Christ was the model for perfection not His death and resurrection. Only those who followed the Familists’ being of love would receive true salvation according to “N. H.””

Cambridgeshire and the area around Ely (we refer to that area as The Fens) was a Familist stronghold in Britain, and the groups received their fair share of puritan and Catholic criticisms.

The group in Balsham barely escaped execution. This particular group of Familists were founded in 1560 by a Christopher Vitals. In the fourteen years following, the group had aroused enough suspicion to be investigated.

The procedures were pretty standard: six were questioned, and when they gave orthodox answers, they had to be released – to cap it off there were 5 sympathisers who covered for them. In 1580 however the issue came up again and some were arrested. By 1686 there appeared to be a pattern of dissent in one family – in 1609, Edmund Rule and John Taylor were reported to be part of the Family. Later, two more Taylors were accused of being recusants.

Family and marriage to the Familists were highly important – perhaps more so, suggests Christopher W. Marsh, because of the infrequency of religious congregation/worship. Children were raised up to be loyal to the Familist group, to ensure the sect’s survival. And where possible, children were sent to other Familist households to work as house or agricultural servants, in order to maintain their Familist links and to better educate them.

Remarriage happened as quickly as possible, too – when a Familist is widowed, the next spouse would be brought in as quickly as social convention would allow – which is suggested by C.W. Marsh to be twelve months after the death of a husband or wife. He also says that, “occasionally…members of the Family felt sufficiently confident to bend the rules controlling courtship practices in rural society. Henry Marsh of Balsham, for example, lost his first wife…in May 1587. Just over a year later he married Edmund Rule’s niece, a woman well over thirty years his junior!”

For those that haven’t studied European medieval and renaissance courtship, in rural areas when a man or woman married someone horrendously younger than him/herself, the neighbours would publicly humiliate and verbally abuse the couple in the dead of night – dragging the older person from their bed and forcing them to ride backwards on a donkey or some such. It was deemed improper because there were usually plenty of other more suitably aged suitors, and when it’s a second marriage, then that is just plain greedy!

Following on from that note, I’d like to tell you that the second Mrs Marsh only lived 6 months into the marriage, so the sixty-six year old married his third – the daughter of his co-religionist, where the age difference was just 25 years.

This flagrant marriage swinging – though not quite in the same way as modern swinging – was not unusual in Familist communities. It can be traced back indefinitely, with many families involved, creating confusing webs of several families joined and perhaps related through marriage, some people marrying many times.

Why were these people not prosecuted when the guards came to investigate?
It is perhaps the link of the religious sect with the local economy. They had many ‘loving friends’ in their trading partners and customers. They were deep rooted into the local society, for all their strange and mysterious ways. Their private and secretive behaviour properly meant that their ‘loving friends’ didn’t spread the message beyond their primary social worlds, keeping everything within the relatively close-knit community.

By keeping the village of Balsham on-side and content with the way things were – heretical family or not – the Familists had many sympathisers who were willing to speak in defence of them when questions were asked.

Although not a lot has happened in Balsham event-wise – before or since – it’s safe to say that Balsham had some pretty fun characters in the world of religious history.

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