MAJOR ISSUES BULLETIN
 
     
     
 

Chapter IV

 

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 thatched.

 

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.

 

In 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 religion.

 

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 such matters.

 

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 answers.

 

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 Holsham.

 

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 unlettered ox.”

 

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, enthusiastic.

 

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 these things.

 

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.

 

Thus, when 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.

 

Masons, paid 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 [959] 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.

 

That 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 view.

 

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 abominable.

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.

 

The death of the stupid old King Edward the Confessor [1066] was the signal for William of Normandy to move against England, with what results have now to be told.

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To follow ‘Under the Normans’ [1066]

 

End of Chapter IV

 

Click for Chapter V

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