THORNCOMBE’S COMMONWEALTH VICARS
Surviving records of the English Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate (1638-
The Victorian photo above shows the old church, which would have been familiar to Thorncombe’s 17th century priests and parishioners.
The 1643 Ordnance Against Superstitious Innovations required the demolition of altars and altar rails and that a table be placed in the body of the church. That table survives in the Lady Chapel in the 19th century church along with the pulpit from which each of Thorncombe’s commonwealth incumbents, Robert Gomersall, John Bragge and Richard Bragge must have preached.
Royalist poet, dramatist and sermoniser, Robert Gomersall was Thorncombe’s parish
priest from 1628 to 1644. No accurate record of his demise or its circumstances
has ever been traced. Gomersall’s estimated date of death varies depending on which
of various references to his life spanning four centuries you look at. In his will
dated 22 March 1643, he names his wife Helen as his executor and leaves legacies
to his children Robert, Christian and Helen. Probate was not granted until 1646.
But it took five more years to settle his estate because just before he died Gomersall
had been found guilty of ‘delinquency’ by the puritan Sequestration Committee for
‘adhering to ayding & assisting the Enemy agt. the Parliamt’. Robert Gomersall was
a close friend of fellow poet and staunch royalist Thomas Fuller, Rector at nearby
Broadwindsor. Fuller preached to Charles I by special request when the court was
in Oxford. He was chaplain to the regiment of Sir Ralph Hopton, the commander of
the royalist forces in the south-
In 1649 bounty hunters reported Gomersall’s death to the Committee for Advance Money and drew its attention to undeclared debts against his estate worth 1700l, the interest from which generated an income for Gomersall’s widow Helen under the terms of her late husband’s will. During the Commonwealth a network of bounty hunters and spies earned their livings fingering those with royalist sympathies and means to the authorities. Helen put up a spirited fight to save her inheritance on the grounds that she had not committed any crime against the state herself. But on 1 October 1651 she was imprisoned for refusing to pay her husband’s fine. For nearly three months she continued to argue from her prison cell, complaining in her petitions that she was ‘sick and weak’, being kept under ‘lamentable restraint’, was isolated and unable to talk to her legal adviser. The authorities refused to listen to her pleas. So Helen eventually paid up and was released after nearly 12 weeks confinement on 19 December.
A burial record in Thorncombe’s parish register for a Robert Gomersall dated 24 August 1652 has resulted in the romantic notion that perhaps our man did a Reginald Perrin and faked his own death in order to escape the roundheads? However this idea doesn’t stack up as there is an entry in the Bishop of Exeter’s register dated 24 June 1644 recording the appointment of John Bragge as his successor, per mortem, i.e through death. The Robert Gomersall who died in 1652 and was buried in Thorncombe’s churchyard is more likely his son. If he died around May 1644 perhaps his father Thorncombe parish priest Robert Gomersall was killed at the Siege of Lyme and his body was never recovered?
Gomersall’s successor, John Bragge (1615-
For a more detailed account including references and a bibliography see:
Higgs, E. (2012), ‘Thorncombe’s Commonwealth Gap Revisited’ ,
Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, vol. XLI, pt. 1, pp.15-