THE ENGLISH PARISH
Dane to Norman
The Danish invasions of England were for the moment checked by the
genius of [King] Alfred,
who then set himself to rule England
[871-901], and to
rule it well. Of all the long line of
Anglo-Saxon kings only of Alfred and his successors can it be said that they
were kings in deed as well as in name.
For the little parish of Holsham this rule of Alfred
meant much after the horrors of the Danish raids. For once there was peace and plenty, and both the material and
the spiritual life of the village began to recover.
The spiritual life needed reviewing and needed it
badly. Almost a hundred years of war
and turbulence had had their effect on the standard of the clergy, especially
as the invaders were pagans.
For a Christian invader, though he might burn the
village, not sparing the church would not, as a rule kill the priest, nor would
he attack monasteries, the chief training -schools for the parish clergy.
But to the Northmen the monastery was the first
object of attack, for the gold that they desired was most likely to be found
there in the form of valuable church ornaments presented by pious men to the
abbey or monastery nearest to their lands and homes.
Thus it came about that when Alfred’s commissioners
came to enquire into the condition of England they found in Holsham. As in
other villages, a terrible state of affairs.
The church had not yet been restored after the
raids. In consisted of a blackened,
ruinous stone chancel and a roughly walled and roofed nave of odds and ends of
timber, rudely caulked with clay to keep out the worst of the wind, and roughly
It was an invitation to the demon of fire to repeat
his twice-accomplished task of destruction, and to Alfred’s orderly mind such
scenes as these was a scandal to God and man.
But if the condition of the church was bad that of
the priest of the parish was worse.
Aldhelm the priest of Holsham was nothing more than a rough
peasant. Probably he was sincere
enough, but sincerity is not everything.
How Aldhelm had got himself ordained even in those
rough days remains a mystery. He could
neither read or write, and though he had learned off the words necessary to say
Mass, he did not understand what he repeated parrot-wise Sunday by Sunday
before the half -ruined altar.
For the rest of the week Adhelm lived as lived the
rest of the peasants about him. He
farmed the priest’s portion of the great common field, a number of scattered
strips lying in various parts of the plough land; he drank huge quantities of
ale on feast days with the rest of the flock; danced, sang, and caroused like
any layman; and all that he attempted of the Church service the mere formal
repetition of Mass and marriage and burial services- these he only half carried
out, because he was too ignorant to say the full services.
Confession, a most important part of the Church’s
rules, was neglected, largely because nobody felt inclined to confess to one
clearly so little better than his flock, and partly because Adhelm never
realised its necessity, and did not know how to pronounce the absolution.
The sick were left unvisited, the poor uncared for,
while the priest worked his strips, or laughed with his cronies over the
ale-horn. The tithes, nominally a tenth
part of each man’s produce, really a fixed amount of corn or meal and
livestock, that already each man was supposed by law to pay the priest, were
collected with undue severity; that part of his duties Adhelm understood well
enough, but no part of them was spent on repairing the church, or on charity,
as it should have been.
consequence Adhelm was becoming one of the few well-off men in his parish, and
the grumbling of his fellows was loud and deep.
Nor was there any redress. Thegn Alfgar was a
horny-handed fighting- man, brought up from his youth amid the alarms and
battles that marked the Norseman’s raids.
He neither understood the need of a learned and pious priest nor the
grievances of his villagers. He came to
Mass in a mechanical fashion, and that was all he did or meant to do about
The Sheriff of Kent, to whom in normal times the
villagers could have appealed, and who, if he could do nothing himself, would
have brought their complaint to the notice of the Bishop, was himself a man of
no learning, unable to read or write, and unwilling to trouble himself about
Thus the parish of Holsham was left to sink into
heathen sloth, and good work of former priests and thegns neglected.
But the energetic King [Alfred] introduced much -needed reforms. To the immense surprise of the Sheriff of Kent an order came that
unless within six months he had learned to read and write, and was reported to
be putting the law into force efficiently, he would be deprived of his post.
The spectacle of a middle-aged, hard-fighting sheriff
sitting down to learn the ABC is comic enough in all conscience. But [King]
Alfred did not confine his attention to the State. The bishops were told to deal with their subordinates as the King
dealt with his.
Monasteries where monks were few and the wealth great
were abolished, and schools set up in their place, the ousted monks being
forced to join bigger and more energetic establishments.
The results of all this on Holsham parish were
excellent for everybody except Adhelm.
Officials from the Archbishop’s Court at Canterbury descended upon that
unfortunate man, and asked a number of awkward questions, to which Adhelm ,
being more than a little fuddled at the time, could give no satisfactory
Shortly, for under [King] Alfred’s energetic rule things moved quickly,
Adhelm vanished. Over their ale-mugs his amused flock passed
from mouth to mouth the wonderful news.
Adhelm the priest was being sent to Canterbury, there to go to school
and learn his duties, after which, if he did well, a parish might be found for
him. A new priest was coming to
The thegn complained to the King that his rights were
being ignored, but he got little satisfaction, being told that if he were so
stupid and ignorant that he could not tell a good priest from a bad one he must
be content to suffer the consequences, that in any case the King could not see
how he had suffered by a good priest being sent him in place of “an
Unwisely the thegn replied, and the secret was
out. It appeared that Adhelm had paid
him well for the appointment to the parish.
Alfred’s rage was truly royal.
“Those who sell our
Lord’s patrimony for money, are worse than the swine that root outside their
gates.” Let him hear but once more of this matter of money and the thegn
shall suffer for it.
So there came a new priest to Holsham. It would be
difficult to imagine two men more unlike than Adhelm and his successor Siwulf,
a man trained in one of Alfred’s new schools, well read, eager,
An attempt of Thegn Alfgar to wheedle some form of
gift from his new parson was met by a threat of excommunication, and Alfgar
found it best to give in, for excommunication meant that not only would the
thegn have no hope of heaven, but that his life on earth would be far from
comfortable, since no Christian man might associate with him, give him food,
drink, or shelter him or in any way aid or comfort him. And with the revival of
Christianity that [King] Alfred brought about the thegn would have actually suffered
It is from Siwulf’s day that we can date the
beginnings of a stone church, not only the chancel, but also the whole building.
At first, however, there was plenty to do in introducing some real order into
the parish. Siwulf found that the
church, mean as its appearance was, was being habitually defiled.
It was more or less securely enclosed, and the
villagers too lazy to rebuild the pinfold, had been using it to house their
cattle by night and in the winter months. Siwulf was horrified when, on
entering the church upon a dark winter’s morning- the first of his
incumbency-to say Mass, he found the place filled with lowing, uneasy cattle
awaiting milking-time, and the floor even up to the altar itself, in a
condition of an uncleaned stable floor.
There was no Mass that morning, but a meeting of the
men of the parish was called. They
came, grumbling to see a slim, dark figure standing beneath the wooden cross
that stood, half destroyed by neglect, in the churchyard.
“Are you Christian men,”
cried Siwulf in a bitter voice, “that you use the house of God for a stable?
Think you that because our Saviour was born in a
stable He would have His church used as such?
I tell you that if I find another man’s cow within the walls of the
church that man shall be taken to the Bishop’s court and fined roundly for it. Moreover, if the church is not clean by
tomorrow I will present the whole village to the Bishop.
That ensured at least the outward cleaning of the
church, for the villagers guessed this man meant what he said, and the threat
of being called before the Bishop was terrifying enough, since if this ordinary
priest was so bitter of tongue and stern of temper what might a Bishop do!
The thegn , moreover, knew that if the village defied
the Bishop the King would act, so fiercely as he hated this new priest, he
ordered the thing to be done.
There were other things, too, to shock Siwulf. For on Inquiry he found that of the children
of the village half had never been baptised and many of the marriages were
illegal. The Church did not allow the
marriage of cousins, nor of people whom nowadays we should consider related at
all. For instance, if Alfric stood
godfather to a boy then none of Alfric’s near relations could marry that boy,
they regarded as blood-relatives by the Church. A few more years of
turmoil and Holsham would have relapsed into heathenism.
Soon, however, the villagers began to love and trust
this fiery priest whom at first they loathed.
They found that, though unbending in what he deemed the rights of the
Church, he was far more lenient than Adhelm had been in such matters as tithes
and dues. If a man could pay, pay he
must, but if he were poor or ill not only would Siwulf forgive his tithes, but
give of his own scanty means in charity.
Moreover, he would give wise advice in trouble, and
what help he could. The children, too,
loved him, for he would play with them when he was at his ease, instead of
spending his leisure hours ale-swilling as Adhelm had done.
the priest opened a small school in his church, following his King’s example
there were many who sent their children to be taught the rudiments of reading
and writing, so that in after years there were monks and priests who owned
their training to Siwulf the priest of Holsham.
So when in a passionate sermon pleaded for help in
rebuilding the church his congregation cried out aloud:
“We will help you,
Father; we will help you!”
Even the sullen old Thegn Alfgar, considering now in his latter days
the sins of his youth, thought it best to do what he could. So stone was quarried from the hills close at hand, and
carted by the villagers themselves, each man giving so many days’ work.
by the thegn, supervised the work, and the village carpenter did, with such skill,
as he possessed, the necessary woodwork for the interior.
It was to its priest and young Olaf, the thegn’s son
that the church owed what was to be for hundreds of years its greatest beauty. In his youth Siwulf had been a skilled
wood-carver, and often had carved small toys for the thegn’s little son.
The boy had been eager to learn the art, and proved a
skilful pupil. Now, with his master’s
help and guidance, the young man carved a beautiful chancel screen of sturdy
oak with complicated tracery and little images of saints. The screen. If sometimes stiff and clumsy,
was at any rate a great improvement to the appearance of the church.
But the revival of learning and piety that [King] Alfred
brought about was but a passing phase.
The English were incapable of sustained effort and impatient of
discipline and order. No sooner were
Siwulf dead than his work began to decay.
As long a Then Loaf lived all went moderately well, though Siwulf’s
successor, Dagbert, was a man of far inferior character. But when Olaf died matters went very much as
they had before Alfred’s day.
Thus it was that when the great, but not pleasant, Archbishop Dunstan  tried to reform the English Church
once more Holsham parish was sunk in sloth and ignorance. Edmund the priest was a married man, living very
much the life of the better-class layman of his time.
He acted as secretary to Thegn Sibbald, carried out
his religious duties with but little zeal, and left his flock very much to
themselves while he, with his ambitious master, rode off to London, where the
thegn was intriguing for preferment.
But Dunstan’s reform was by no means as though as
Alfred’s had been, for the energy that might have been devoted to reforming the
morals and habits of the parish priest Dunstan wasted in a furious quarrel with
those clergy who were not monastery-dwellers.
There are many tales told of Dunstan’s miracles, and
some of them suggest deliberate deceit, or even malice, on the saint’s part.
In truth, Dunstan was not concerned greatly with the
reform of the parish clergy. His idea
was to encourage monasteries and discourage those clergy who lived outside the
monasteries, many of whom were married, of which Dunstan did not approve.
So once again Holsham lost its priest. But it was a little better for that, for
instead of a new and energetic priest Holsham must be content with the
ministrations of a monk from a monastery that Dunstan’s pliant master Edgar
founded in the neighbourhood.
meant that, while the formal services of the church were carried out properly,
there was none of the human sympathy between priest and people that makes the
parish such a valuable social unit, for essence of the parish system is that
there should be a priest resident on the spot, sharing to some degree the life
of its people, their joys and their sorrows.
The death of Edgar [958-975] was the signal for
another Danish invasion and
Once again Holsham was involved in the horrors of
savage warfare. Of that period no
record remains; indeed, we know extraordinary little about it from any point of
Again and again the villages and little towns of
England were raided and burned, and in all probability Holsham suffered more
than once during this unhappy time.
When at last a period of peace came, with the reign
of Canute, [1016-1035] we find all the old complaints. The priest
There was another thing about his parish that shocked
the Norman priest, and against which he fought with all his might, and that was
slavery. With the villein he was
perfectly familiar, but the villein was not a slave- he could own land, sue and
be sued in court, and had rights even against his lord.
But in England there existed actual slaves without
rights or property, a thing, which shocked Gilbert and appeared to him
Worse, there were slave-drivers, who bought up
English slaves and sold them into Ireland, the port of Bristol being the main
centre. One such appeared during
Gilbert’s time in Holsham parish. But
of him or his trade the good priest would have nothing.
Excommunication was pronounced against the trader,
and any who should sell to him or buy from him were included in the curse. There was furious grumbling among the folk
of Holsham, especially those who had unwanted girls belonging to the slaves,
for whom the trader offered good prices, but Gilbert’s
influence was strong enough, backed as it was by the
whole weight of the Church, which had for long been trying to check this
horrible trade, to send the trader packing with-out a bargain.
Household slaves, says Gilbert, he could not prevent,
but as long as he had a tongue to pronounce God’s curse on the slave-traders
none such should enter his parish.
But the days of Anglo-Saxon England were coming to
their inevitable end. Lawless. Turbulent,
incapable of united action and patriotic self-sacrifice, the old English had
proved themselves unworthy of their trust.
In Church and in State alike slackness, indifference,
lack of discipline, had had their effect: England was a ripe plum ready to fall
to the first efficient invader.
It is England’s luck that the stark, efficient hardy
William of Normandy had cast covetous eyes upon the land, for had it been
otherwise there can be little doubt that, instead of a Norman, England would
have suffered a Danish conquest.
death of the stupid old King Edward the Confessor  was the signal for
William of Normandy to move against England, with what results have now to be
the Normans’ 
End of Chapter IV
Click for Chapter V
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