THE parish of Oakley with Wootton St Lawrence, in the diocese of
Winchester, is not, after all, to be allowed to sell a rare
artefact that hung in the church for almost 300 years (News, 18
The artefact is a rare 15th-century Flemish armet (a type of
helmet worn by knights and men-at-arms in the 15th and 16th
centuries), which formed part of a marble monument in the church to
Sir Thomas Hooke, Baronet, who died in 1677.
This week, the Church Buildings Council (CBC) won an important
appeal in the Court of Arches of Canterbury, against the decision
of the Chancellor, Judge Christopher Clark QC, in the Consistory
Court of Winchester, to grant to the churchwardens and assistant
minister of the parish a faculty permitting its sale.
Until 1969, the armet, a pair of gauntlets, a pair of spurs, and
a dagger hung from an ornate bracket above the monument. Then, when
the gauntlet, spurs, and dagger were stolen, the armet was placed
in a bank vault. Because that proved expensive, the armet was taken
to the Tower of London in 1975, and later transferred to the Royal
Armouries Museum in Leeds.
The faculty for the sale of the armet was granted in August
2010, and it was sold at public auction in London on 8 December
2010 for £45,000, to an American collector. The CBC, which had not
been consulted, opposed the sale, and raised the issue that, since
the armet was part of a funerary monument, any living heirs of Sir
Thomas Hooke should have been consulted.
Two living heirs were then traced: Sir John Hamilton
Spencer-Smith, Bt, and James Lee. The former transferred the whole
of his ownership in the armet to the churchwardens of the parish,
in exchange for the PCC's undertaking to maintain and repair the
tomb of Sir Thomas. Mr Lee agreed to the sale, on condition that he
received half the purchase price.
The Court of Arches, consisting of the Dean of the Arches, the
Worshipful Charles George QC, the Diocesan Chancellor of Sheffield,
the Worshipful David McClean QC, and the Vicar-General of
Canterbury, Timothy Briden, heard the CBC's appeal. The first
ground on which the appeal succeeded was that this was a
well-managed and reasonably well-resourced parish carrying out its
Christian mission with considerable success.
Chancellor Clark, who granted the faculty, should not have
concluded that the PCC had a strong financial case for selling the
armet. His erroneous conclusion on financial needs required his
decision on sale to be quashed.
It was also argued for the CBC that Chancellor Clark had adopted
an incorrect approach to the historic link between the armet and
the parish when he described "the possible link between the armet
and the present and future inhabitants of the parish [as] very
limited", and the armet as not playing "a significant part in the
history or heritage of the village", even though Sir Thomas was
buried in the church, and the armet, which formed part of the
accoutrements of his tomb, had hung in the church for so long.
The petitioners disputed that: they argued that the armet had
not hung in the church for more than 40 years, and that it was
agreed by all parties that it could never be returned to the
The term "separation" described the circumstances in which an
article had been housed for a considerable time in some place other
than the church, such as a bank. In the case of historic articles
with a significant connection with a church or parish, that factor
would commonly outweigh any argument based on "separation", the
It was doubtful whether "separation" would ever, on its own,
have sufficient strength to justify the sale of a church treasure.
Chancellor Clark erred in his approach to the issue of
"separation", and there was no basis in law or in fact for his
conclusion, the court said.
Since Chancellor Clark had erred in law in granting the petition
for a faculty, the court had power to substitute its own discretion
on the petition; and it dismissed the petition. The armet was "a
national asset with historic links to the parish, and there was no
proven financial case for its sale", the court ruled. Little, if
any, weight should be attached to the fact that it had been
physically out of the church and parish for many years.
It was clear, the court said, that the original proposal to sell
the armet was not driven by any pressing financial situation in the
parish; rather, the armet was seen as a valuable asset that could
become part of parish funds.
The petitioners might be dismayed, and feel that they were being
penalised for "the commendable strength of their financial
position", the court added; and it might "seem surprising to many
people unfamiliar with ecclesiastical law that the petitioners were
not permitted to convert the armet into usable funds".
It was the court's view, however, that the strong presumption
against disposal by sale of church treasures was both soundly based
and generally beneficial in its consequences.
If the loan to the Royal Artilleries Museum were to continue,
the court hoped that a fibre-glass replica might, subject to
faculty, be hung in the church above the effigy of Sir Thomas,
"thus giving new life to the connection between the armet, the
church, and the village".
Question of the week: Should parishes be able to sell
treasures that no longer reside in their