5 . Ansford Church, Somerset: the mural tablet to Woodforde's parents

Ansford Church S&JWoodforde tabletThe elegant marble memorial in Ansford Church where the Revd Samuel Woodforde had served as rector 1719–71. He and his wife Jane are described as 'the best parents' [photo Margaret Bird 2021]This handsome memorial is placed high on the north wall of St Andrew's Church, Ansford. It commemorates the Revd Samuel Woodforde (1695–1771) and his wife Jane, née Collins (1706–66), the parents of the diarist.

The coat of arms of the Woodfordes of Ashby Folville in Leicestershire was adopted for this memorial. By contrast, when William Woodforde designed the mural tablet to his uncle at Weston in 1803 he chose the arms of the Woodfordes of Ansford.

Like his third son and sixth child James, the Revd Samuel Woodforde went to school at Winchester and entered New College, Oxford, where he later became a fellow for a few years. As the mural tablet records, Samuel also served briefly as domestic chaplain of the Earl of Tankerville.

In 1719 he was instituted as Rector of Ansford, Somerset. Two years later he also became Vicar of All Saints', Castle Cary, a market town very nearby. He held these two livings for the rest of his long life.

Samuel hailed however from Elvetham in Hampshire, where he was born, and Epsom in Surrey. On 12 July 1724 he married eighteen-year-old Jane Collins, the ceremony being conducted at Ansford by the groom's father the Revd Heighes Woodforde of Epsom. They had seven children, all of whom survived to maturity except their second son Samuel (1731–33). James's five siblings are vividly portrayed in the pages of his diary: Sobieski (Sophy) Clarke, Heighes Woodforde, Mary White, Jane (Jenny) Pounsett and John (Jack) Woodforde.

Changes to the wording of the memorial

The epitaph was composed by the diarist: he was the only one of the six children with a total command of Latin. James was serving as curate at Ansford and Castle Cary for his father at the time of the death of both parents.

After recording their personal details and extolling their many virtues the tribute ends on a poignant note. He anticipates being reunited with his parents – in heaven: Valete, suaves animae, sed non aeternum  (Farewell, sweet souls, but not for ever). The last two lines then read:

Optimis Parentibus Filii maerentes posuerunt  (Grieving children placed [this] to the best parents.)

But all was not as it appears. The draft of James Woodforde's tribute to his parents, in his hand, survives in the family, where it is pasted onto the back of his father's portrait. The last lines differ: James's initial draft had read very differently. On the scrap of paper he initially states that he, 'Jacobus', alone placed this memorial to the Revd Samuel and Jane Woodforde, 'the best parents'.

Then he changes his mind, and states as an alternative version on the paper that he, his sister Jane 'Jana' and brother John 'Johannes' erected the memorial.

He relents for the final version, the actual monument. Set in stone for posterity to read is the all-embracing statement: Optimis Parentibus Filii maerentes posuerunt.

A likely conclusion to be drawn from this little drama is that James not only wrote the inscription but paid for the memorial, with possibly a contribution from his sister Jane (soon to be Mrs Pounsett) and brother John. The three eldest, Sophy Clarke, Heighes Woodforde and Mary White, had no part in it. However to preserve family unity he allowed all six siblings to be grouped as the sorrowing children who erected the monument.

It was a generous move on his part.

A loving father to 'Jemmy', the future diarist

James Woodforde's father was a methodical man, much given to making copious notes about his finances – a characteristic he passed on to his son James.

The account book of the Revd Samuel Woodforde survives in his descendants' hands. The vellum-covered ledger shows that he had access to substantial funds far beyond the income from his two modest livings. James's clerical income at Weston, with his modest bachelor requirements, later far exceeded the clerical income of his father with a large and needy family.

Samuel Woodforde showered large sums of money on his three sons at frequent intervals, while also providing for his daughters. At this time (the mid-eighteenth century) a curate might receive a stipend of only £10 to £12 a year, and had to secure three or even four curacies to make ends meet.

Such sums, and more, Revd Samuel routinely paid out to his sons: Heighes and James, and later James and John, were receiving such largess at the same time. Considerably larger sums were also involved, as in the £800 marriage portion for the eldest daughter Sophy ('Sister Clarke').

The account book is somewhat chaotically arranged. Its compiler appears to have intended each page and continuation page to feature payments to one individual, but in practice he did not keep to this policy. There are occasional references to 'my son Jemmy', as when noting the expenses of James's schooling and the transport costs to and from boarding school.

James was given the affectionate diminutive of Jemmy right up to the time that he left home for Oxford, so it was not a pet name reserved just for a toddler or very young child.

Samuel and Jane Woodforde together launched their deserving son's career. It was thanks to Collins wealth that James could be educated at Winchester and a scholarship be secured in 1759 at New College, for which Samuel paid £80. That decision led in turn to James being given the chance of obtaining Weston Longueville, as New College, the patrons and manorial lords, termed it. It was one of the wealthiest livings in Norfolk.

A marital partnership

The bulk of Samuel Woodforde's money derived from his wife, who brought property including farmland to their marriage; her father was dead. One of the bride's possessions was the Lower House at Ansford which later played an important part in their son James's life and the lives of many other family members. As a young curate James had an unhappy spell in residence with his two feckless brothers. It was for him 'the worst house in the parish'.

Jane Collins' Lower House remained a Woodforde possession for nearly two centuries until it burned down in 1892. William Woodforde lived there with his large family, installing statuary possibly originating from Glastonbury Abbey.

It is striking that the Revd Samuel openly acknowledged the role of his wife in greatly easing their lives. She had an equal footing in many of his legal transactions. 'Coverture', the principle by which a woman's rights and even her identity were subsumed into those of her husband, was recognised and applied under statute and common law. Lord Chief Justice Coke, the great lawgiver under King James I, is lauded for championing common law, yet advocates of the supremacy of common law were gradually eroding women's rights.

As a corrective very many transactions were conducted outside those jurisdictions. The manor courts and church courts did not recognise coverture; indeed in some copyhold documents coverture is expressly rejected as having no application. So a married woman appearing in those courts could hold property in her own right, inherit it, and devise it to her chosen heirs without any interference from her husband.

James Woodforde's parents operated as a partnership. Their devoted son's admiring tributes to their amiable qualities are set in stone for all to read.

Revd Samuel Woodforde d1771, AnsfordA loving, generous father: the Revd Samuel Woodforde (1695–1771). This portrait is a copy by his grandson Samuel Woodforde, RA [Woodforde Family Collection]Jane Woodforde nee Collins d1766The diarist's mother Jane, née Collins (1706–66). The diarist, the sixth of their seven children, enjoyed excellent relations with both parents [Woodforde Family Collection]

Revd Samuel & Jane Woodforde signatures 1744The signatures and seals of Samuel and Jane Woodforde on a copyhold conveyance of 19 May 1744. This form of tenure was governed by manorial customary law and fell outside the common law. A woman (whether single, married, separated or widowed) could exercise her own property and testamentary rights [Woodforde Family Collection]