In St Catherine’s Church, Cocking, West Sussex there is a list of the parish priests who have served Cocking since the early 14th century up until our most recent rector, the Revd. Linda Robertson. The list was prepared originally from the Chichester Diocese Clergy List published in 1900, and updated to include later additions. Sadly, the list in the church repeats the errors from the Clergy List, with Anthony Reydshawe incorrectly shown as Andrew, and omitting John Zeld, who was appointed vicar of Cocking in 1496.
Prior to the mid-16th century, the information about the Cocking parish priests is rather sketchy, most of which comes from the Chichester Diocese Clergy List, and the Episcopal Registers kept by the Bishops of Chichester. Unfortunately, many of the latter have been lost, resulting in gaps in the history.
From 1540 onwards, there is more information available in the Church of England Clergy Database, which pulls together information from over 50 archives up to 1835. From then on, the main sources of information are the annual clergy lists published by the Church and Crockford’s Clerical Directory. As the priests were generally university educated, their entries in “Cambridge University Alumni, 1261–1900” or “Oxford University Alumni, 1500–1886” were also extremely useful sources of information about the priests’ background, education and career.
The Parish Register covering the period from 1558 to 1837 was edited and published by W.H. Challen in 1927 and has been an invaluable source, as has the PCC minute book from 1950 to 1992.
Since the foundation of the Church of England, Cocking has been served by 31 priests (vicars, rectors or priests in charge). Some of these have achieved a relative degree of importance on the national stage and have merited an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (and its 21st century equivalent, Wikipedia) while others have not led such blameless lives.
Probably the most significant of Cocking’s priests was Roger Andrewes who was vicar from 1606 to 1609. He was the brother of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Chichester, and was both archdeacon and Chancellor at Chichester Cathedral, and, like his brother, was a member of the company who translated the King James Version of the Bible.
Other vicars who were also Chancellor at Chichester were Henry Blaxton (vicar from 1575 to 1606, who has a magnificent memorial in Chichester Cathedral), Thomas Williams (vicar from 1769 to 1796) and Sir John Ashburnham, 7th Baronet (vicar from 1796 to 1798).
Thomas Hutchinson, who was vicar from 1737 to his death in 1769, was a prominent academic in the mid-18th century, publishing several sermons and an essay on demoniacal possession.
At the other end of the scale, Cocking had several vicars who led less than holy lives. Thomas Mouter, who was vicar for a few years in the 1440s, supplemented his income from the living at Cocking by the occasional highway robbery.
In 1607, William Mattock so upset one of his parishioners, Joan Pey, that she “did take exception to a sermon which he delivered … and affirms that he preached like a fool in a play, and that he is more fit to be a fiddler or a tinker than a minister etc.” Mattock’s brother, Walter, was vicar at Storrington and also upset his parishioners one of whom declaimed that she “cared not a fart nor a turd for never a black coat in England” and hoped to live “to tread a hundred such black coats under my feet”. Walter later appeared at the ecclesiastical court for, amongst other offences “swearing, cursing, gambling and tippling with loose and lewd companions”.
Up to 1629, most of the vicars of Cocking were absentee vicars who rarely, if ever came to the village and used their appointment as a source of income from the tythes etc. In the 17th century, however, Cocking was served in succession by two vicars who lived and raised their families here. John Napper baptised 12 of his children in the church; sadly, two of his children died here and were buried in the churchyard as was his wife, Mary, who died at the birth of her 14th child. Napper also died in Cocking and was buried here. His successor, Francis Wright also officiated at the funeral of several of his children as well as that of his wife in Cocking. No trace can be found of any of the two family’s graves.
Richard Drummond Ash was vicar from 1860 to 1888; during his time in office, he expanded the church with the building of the north aisle, and was also responsible for the building of Cocking School. He was so respected by his parishioners, that on his death they installed the only stained glass window in the church in his memory.
Sir Derwent Kermode, vicar from 1959 to 1960, had been the British Ambassador to Indonesia and to the Czech Republic before taking holy orders. His grave is in the corner of the churchyard, close to the path up from the gateway into the lane.
For a list of the parish priests, see here.
As many of the priests were occupied elsewhere, either at Chichester Cathedral or as vicars of other parishes, the needs of the parishioners were often met by curates, who were usually appointed by the vicar and paid a stipend by him out of the income from the parish. In many cases, the curates held themselves out as vicars; for example, in 1857, Frank Hudson described himself as “Revd. Frank Hudson, vicar of Cocking” when he wrote to Lord Egmont, the then occupier of Cowdray Park, requesting a subscription to the school at Cocking.
For a list of the known curates of Cocking parish church, see here.