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The Annesleys at Clifford Chambers

Sermon preached at Evensong in Clifford Chambers

Candlemas 2005


"Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed."

Jane Austen, in 'Persuasion,' casting a satirical glance at those who spend too much time and energy in thinking about their splendid ancestors. She warns me that today, although we have gathered partly to remember the Annesley family who for a century or more provided the spiritual leadership for Clifford Chambers, yet we have more important things to think of, things that matter today.

Tennyson attacked a young aristocratic lady for her family pride. This particular young lady had names that figure in our family pedigree, Clara Vere de Vere. Clara was my great grandmother's name. Vere was the Christian name of many of the family, including my great-uncle who was killed in the Boer War. The first Annesley Rector of Clifford married Elizabeth Vere Tyndale, and they called their elder daughter Emily Vere. Dorothy de Vere was a direct ancestor.

This is how Tennyson began his attack:

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Of me you shall not win renown:
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired;
The daughter of a hundred earls,
You are not one to be desired.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
I know you proud to bear your name,
Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came.

And, yes, that is the Tennyson poem that contains some of his best-known lines:

Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

So in a chastened mood let us recall those Annesleys who spent so long in this beautiful village. They came into a goodly heritage here in Clifford. Previous Lords of the Manor, in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the present Manor House was new, were the Rainsford family. Apart from their own achievements, they gained reflected glory from the poet Michael Drayton, who used to visit the village to see the lady of the manor, Anne Rainsford, his patron's daughter. He called her his Idea, and he wrote a series of poems to her. This is a brief example of how Drayton viewed Clifford's Lady of the Manor:

THE Gods delight, the heavens hie spectacle,
Earths greatest glory, worlds rarest miracle.
Fortunes fayr'st missresse, vertues surest guide,
Loves Governesse, and natures chiefest pride.
Delights owne darling, honours cheefe defence,
Chastities choyce, and wisdomes quintessence.

And so on.

The Rainsfords backed the losing side in the Civil War, and had to sell up. They sold the Manor, which then included very extensive lands, to Job Dighton in the mid 17th century. The Dightons handed it down through five generations, and then it passed, through a daughter, to Job's 3rd great grandson, Arthur Annesley. He had already been appointed Rector at the tender age of 23. Family patronage got him the post, when others of his age would have to look to a long poorly-paid curacy. When he inherited, he became both Rector and Lord of the Manor - what has sometimes been called a Squarson.

I know nothing of Arthur as a person, or as a parson. The 18th century was a low time in the spiritual life of the Church of England, all formality and class distinction. John and Charles Wesley (their mother was an Annesley, Arthur's distant relative) had brought new spiritual life to the nation, but on the whole the Church of England did not welcome it. Charles Simeon was one who did welcome it, and placed live Christian clergy in certain parishes, but Clifford was not one of his parishes. I fear that Norman blood may have seemed more important than simple faith, coronets more important than kind hearts.

And the Annesleys certainly had Norman blood. A 19th century local historian goes into raptures about Arthur's ancestry, particularly "the collateral descents of this family, which are traced from the Saxon Kings of England, Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, Henry I., King of France, William Duke of Normandy, the Conqueror, and from four of the six sons of King Edward III., and many Baronial lines." But that is not all. "The Rev. Arthur Annesley, the first possessor of Clifford, married Elizabeth Vere, his cousin german ... By this marriage the family received a further influx of the best blood in England, four descents from King Edward III. already mentioned." But as my grandmother said to me, when she told me about coats of arms and suchlike: "It's all vanity."

Arthur left all his possessions to his family equally, so the Manor was sold, and the proceeds divided up - but the right of choosing the Rector was kept, and Arthur's son Francis became Rector. On his retirement the Rectory went to his nephew Frank, Francis Hanbury Annesley, our great granduncle, who bought back the Manor House. My grandmother remembered being sent to stay in Clifford when she had been naughty, and she and her sisters wrote in their diaries about Uncle Frank.

Frank's grandson, John Tyndale-Biscoe, published a memoir, including some description of Clifford in Frank's day.

"My grandfather lived in style with a full compliment [sic] of servants and a carriage and pair. He had two sons and three lovely daughters known as the 'Three Graces.' He was no doubt proud to take them out to tennis parties at neighbouring big houses. In those days girls were not always sent to school but were educated at home. My mother went to school for one term. I think she must have been so unhappy that she was thereafter taught at home. From school she wrote to her parents saying, "I don't like any of my friends!" My grandmother's sister was called upon to teach the girls. "My mother used to tell us ghost stories about the manor." These were unexplained crashes, a small fluffy object moving across the floor, and a knight in armour in the guest room. But John admits:

"I don't thing that my mother had ever seen anything herself.

"Where my grandfather stood spiritually I do not know. I know that his sister was a very keen evangelical. I imagine she must have come under the influence of Sankey and Moody as had my Uncle Cecil who had been at their meeting in Cambridge when they were howled down and as a result the famous 'Cambridge Seven' offered themselves for the mission field. Anyway sister Emily was enlisted to help in the 'The Three Graces'' education. The youngest of them was converted at the age of fourteen and remained a keen Christian all her life.

My mother, Isabel, certainly had the form of religion which she passed on to us brothers. She told is how, at her home, she was given the job of putting her father's sermons together in a folder ready for the pulpit and that, certainly on one occasion, when she thought the sermon was too long, she removed a few pages. We never heard what the result was.

She also told us that her father held prayers every morning after breakfast when the household staff would have to come and sit on a row of upright chairs against the wall.

"In those days it was customary for the gentry to attend church in the mornings and the working classes in the evenings." So welcome to all you working class people!!

It is time to leave these pleasant recollections and return to what matters now. St Paul wrote about his privileged Jewish background, just as we might talk about our ancestry, and he comes to an interesting conclusion:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

My brother and sister and I would say Amen to that. Our parents and grandparents would all have said Amen to that. The most precious inheritance we have received from those ancestors has been to be raised in an atmosphere of love and faith and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

This evening we remember how our Lord Jesus was taken as a baby to the Temple of God in Jerusalem, and there presented to God. St Luke, who tells us the story, tells us also of his pedigree. He traces his ancestry back to greater people than King Edward III and assorted kings and nobles from Scotland, Anglo-Saxon England and France. The line of Jesus stretched to Abraham and beyond. Now, that may have been important to some people at the time. What is important to us now, and to people in their millions all over the world, is Jesus' relationship with God, and what he did with his life - and his death. What is important about us ourselves is not our family history, but our relationship with God and what we do with our lives.

Mary and Joseph took the little Jesus and presented him to the Lord. He was to be holy to the Lord, that is, utterly belonging to God. And so he lived his whole life. Old Simeon recognised in him God's salvation, a light for the nations of the world. In that holy life we can see God, as though through a pane of glass. As we see Jesus going about doing good, healing all sorts of disease, and at last suffering torture and death, we see God as a loving God, grieved and angered by the attitude of people who shut their minds to truth and their hearts to love, suffering with those who suffer and going through torture under the cruelty and selfishness of human beings. In fact, the best answer to the questions about God and the Tsunami, God and Auschwitz, is to look steadily at Jesus on the cross.

As Jesus is God's Son, so it is possible for you and me to be God's sons, God's daughters - in a different way, but in a real way. Jesus said "You must be born again." Forget the associations the phrase has picked up with fundamentalism, right-wing American politics. Jesus meant that, whatever your human ancestry, whether your grandfather was a duke or a murderer, you can become a new person with a new status, as you give your life, as Jesus gave his, to God.

And it's a great life, being one of Jesus Christ's family. Lots of love, lots of humble service, lots of suffering. It's real life.

All this and heaven too.

Join the family!

David Parsons


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