MAJOR ISSUES BULLETIN
 
     
     
 

Chapter V

 

The English Parish

 

Under the Normans

(1066-)

 

The coming of William, Duke of Normandy, is the turning point in English history, local and national alike.  Fierce, harsh, efficient the Norman Conquest acted on England as a sharp tonic acts on a debilitated patient. 

 

It was a bitter taste, but it began the cure of the manifold ills from which Anglo-Saxon England had been likely to perish. Stupid localism, indiscipline, slackness, these things the new stern rulers of England would not tolerate, and in eliminating them they made a nation.

Yet at first it did not seem to the people of Holsham that the new Conquest was going to make very much difference to their lives. 

 

True, Thegn Guthric was dead, slain at Harold’s side at Hastings, and a new lord reigned in his stead, one Roger de Beaumain a French adventurer who had followed the Norman duke in search of plunder.   But this new Norman lord introduced no new modes of life; he but adopted and adopted to his own ways already existing customs.

 

There was nothing new, except the name, in the manor, as Roger called his estate, nor in the demand that every inhabitant should do on certain days task-work for the lord of the manor.   That had been custom under the English thegns.  In two respects, however, this new lord’s demands differed from those of Thegn Guthric.

 

In the first place, certain rich villagers who under Guthric had claimed a sort of semi-free position were included with the main body of the serfs, or, as they were now called by their French master, villeins. 

 

 On the other hand, certain slaves found themselves better off for the coming of a Norman lord who had never known actual slavery in his own land.  They were treated as ordinary villains, and the little patches of land that they had before held by mere favour were now theirs of right on the usual terms.

 

Great was the rejoicing of Father Gilbert at this vindication of his own beliefs.  Ever since, under the Confessor’s rule, he had been made priest of Holsham he had fought against the slavery.  Now, under a new king, it was abolished by slow degrees all over England. 

 

Well might he hold special Mass of thanksgiving in Holsham church when Roger de Beaumain announced that on his estate slavery should be no more.   For, contrary to the opinion of certain sentimental writers, the villein was very far from being a slave: he had his rights, and could enforce them at law.

 

But indirectly the Norman Conquest was a new beginning for the parish, as apart from the manor, for usually we find that both are different names for the same area.  The manor is the land ruled by one particular lord, the parish the area served by one particular priest, and, as a rule, though there are many exceptions, especially in the thinly peopled north, the boundary of the one is that of the other:  they are merely the same thing looked at from different points of view.

 

That this division of one thing into two owes a great deal to the conditions of the Conquest is more than probable.  Consider what would happen in Holsham after the coming of Roger de Beaumain.  Hitherto, the meeting of the village once a month or thereabouts under the thegn, a sort of informal court, has served for the discussion of all matters that affect the lives and well-being of the village and the parish alike.  A new roof to the church, or a new pig for some unlucky wretch who has had ill-fortune-both would be dealt with here, as also would the punishment of petty offences, and the decision as to what steps might be necessary for the village as a whole to take at the next Hundred Court.

 

Now things were different.  The manor court of the Norman lord was a far more formal affair than the old thegn’s court. The lord, too, is a foreigner, knowing little of the habits and wishes of his new tenants.  The two races have not yet mingled; there is jealousy and distrust between Norman and Englishman.

 

Naturally there is not the freedom and good feeling in this new compulsory assembly before the lord or his steward that there had been in the older assembly before a thegn who was of the same race as the folks of Holsham and understood their queer stolid ways and prejudices.

The Hundred Court, too, was much weaker than it had been, since there were so many private courts to take business away from it.  Only the great Shire Court before the King’s sheriff remained as strong as before the Conquest, and that was too august an assembly to trouble about the internal affairs of a petty village.

 

The constables of the village and Hundred-villeins chosen by their fellows to fulfil that unpopular duty-must report to the sheriff that all was well in their areas, and present any criminals caught.  The local affairs of the village would scarcely be brought before the King’s sheriff.  In any case, till England had settled down after the Conquest, the sheriff’s courts were irregularly held.

 

So we find the villagers of Holsham gradually forming a new custom-that of meeting informally in the church to discuss with their priest the affairs of his parish.  Father Gilbert was himself a foreigner, but he had lived long among the English villagers of Holsham, and they respected and trusted him as an old and tried friend.

 

Thus, when the assembled worshippers have finished their after-Mass discussions on some church matter-a broken roof to mend, a new linen cope for the priest, or the misbehaviour of some member of Father Gilbert’s flock that they wish to deal with-other matters that are in men’s minds crop up.

 

“Widow Greta is in great need, Father. Cannot something be done to help her?”  

“Goodman Gurth has lost his milch cow.”

 

A dozen little comedies and tragedies of village life are brought forward and discussed with a freedom impossible in the formal atmosphere of the lord’s court, and the priest, because he is a learned man, regarded with a certain awe by his flock (for cannot he both read and write), and   above all because they have learned to trust his broad charity and kindliness, is looked upon as a sort of president to this informal meeting that takes place if fine in the churchyard, if wet in the aisle of the church itself.

 

Here is the beginning of the vestry meeting, so important in years to come, that in the end was to take over many duties originally performed by the manor court.  

 

Vaguely too we can see the later churchwardens in Siward and Higlaf, two wealthy villains, who voluntarily associate themselves with the priest in his task of caring for the church, keeping the church yard in some sort of order, and generally representing the parish in its association with the priest.

 

Father Gilbert is a good specimen of the priest of his time.  We must pause for a moment in our story of Holsham parish to look at his daily round of work, and see how far by this time the priest has become indispensable to the parish.

He rises in the chill grey of an English dawning, having spent the night on a couch that the poorest ‘casual’ in a modern workhouse would despise.

 

Very quickly he slips his black gown over the rough undershirt in which he has slept.  Washing is little regarded in these rough days.  We moderns would consider father Gilbert very dirty indeed in his habits, but then we had water laid on to our houses and every inducement to be clean, while the people of the Middle Ages had no opportunity to bathe themselves, and those who could read-that is the clergy-had read of the Roman baths, and disapproved of them very much, for the Roman was the cleanest in his person when he was most degenerate in his life.

 

The age of the Roman bath was also the age of Nero and every form of vice and degradation.  Naturally the Christian churchman was inclined to regard over-much washing as mere vanity and pampering of the flesh.

 

It is raining, a slow, drizzling rain that may last all day, or may clear away at noon, to be followed by a really hot day.  But Father Gilbert shakes his head with a slight frown as he goes out into the grey damp.  For he can hear from far away a low, hoarse, continuous murmur- the restless voice of the sea upon the shingle, a sure sign of bad weather in this district.

 

In the half- light he makes his way over to the church, where Eric, his clerk, is waiting for him.  This Eric is a youth whose aim in life is to become a priest like Father Gilbert, whom he both admires and loves.  So father Gilbert has got him the position of parish clerk.  It is his duty to help at services and to act generally as the priest’s assistant.  Thus he will learn from the priest the outline of his duties, and later may himself become a full priest. 

 

The system is not unlike that of apprenticeship, which we find in the towns of the Middle Ages, where the would-be carpenter serves for seven years as an assistant to a master-carpenter, learning his trade while he serves.

 

The priest enters the church, and is robed by Eric, who has already lit the great candles that flicker upon the altar, points of wavering light in the deep gloom of the empty church.  There are no pews and seats such as we are used to in a modern churches.  A little group kneeling about the altar-rails is the congregation.  The priest looks at them, picking out the familiar faces in the dimness. 

 

Roger de Beaumain, of course , is absent.  He only comes upon high days and holy days.  But his wife is there, the Lady Maud, a good and pious women, thinks Father Gilbert, very unlike her rough, hard handed husband, and with one or two serving-maids from the new castle that Roger has built for himself, with the King’s licence, upon a little rise near the village.

 

 It is with a slightly wry smile that the priest notices the presence of a harsh-faced Norman man-at-arms, Guy Brusac, kneeling beside the prettiest of the maid-servants.  “Vanity and lust of flesh,” he murmurs to himself, as he sets out upon the altar the needful materials for Mass.

 

Mass finished, Eric the clerk, who has taken part in the service, chanting the responses and swinging the censer, unrobes the priest, who comes down into the nave of the church and greets his congregation man by man.  The lady Maud draws him aside.  She has heard that the priest is in need of wine for a poor man lying sick in the village.  Let him send to her, and he shall have it.  The priest murmurs a blessing, and the charitable lady bows her head in response.  Then he turns to the Norman man-at-arms, who is waiting sheepishly.

 

“Father”- the man’s words are harsh with nervousness-“I…There is one, Edgitha…one of my lady’s serving-maids…and…”

“ And you wish to be wed to her?” puts in the priest, with a smile. “That is well. We Normans have come to live in this land, and the sooner we mingle our blood with that of the folk who dwell here the sooner this tumult will be a an end.  You have chosen well, Guy; Edgitha is a good maid and modest, as I know, who baptized her and have watched her grow from babyhood.  Be a good man to her.”

 

The man grins sheepishly.

 

“We are to have a cot and a parcel of land for our living,” he adds slowly, “ “thanks to the kindness of my Lady Maud.”

 

The man shuffled off, having arranged a day and a time for the ceremony.  The priest could hear his voice, mouthing English words with uncouth slowness, interspersed with Norman-French when the right English word would not come.  There was a shrill laughter at his mistakes from the little group of girls gathered round him.

 

Father Gilbert left the church, and made his way back over the well-trodden muddy path to his own house.  Here a fire blazed and a simple meal was ready, cooked by Ulf, a half idiot boy whom the kindly priest had taken and trained to be his servant.  A very good servant he was too, as long as he had no call made upon his intelligence, but was merely expected to do certain routine work.

 

His meal finished, Gilbert turned to the rough table whereon lay a treasure beyond price, a book.  It was well-thumbed volume, carefully written by the monks of Caen, where Gilbert had once served, and contained comments upon various events and prophecies recorded in the Scriptures.  But to this lonely man in his remote forest parish it was something more, a link with the world of learning and culture that he had left behind him when he came to Holsham.

 

Hardly, however, had Father Gilbert begun to read before ULF entered the bare room where his master sat.

A girl would speak with you,” he growled surlily.

“Who is she, and what dies she want?” asked the priest, rising with a sigh.

 

But Ulf could only shake his head; the effort of carrying the message was all his brain could compass.  With some impatience the priest ordered him to bring in the messenger.  In a moment he returned with a little girl, very raggedly dressed, whose face was flushed with exertion.  She stood tongue-tied for the moment before the priest.  Father Gilbert smiled at her, and bade her tell her errand.

 

“Father,” she stammered at last, “Mother says he is close to death, and would see you. Come!”

“Who is your father, child?” he asked.

“Ulric the charcoal-burner,” answered the child.

At a sign from his master ULF gave the ragged child a bowl of milk, which she drank with little grateful sighs.  She had come many miles since her mother had roused her in the dark of the morning and sent her off through the woods from the dying man’s hut to seek the priest, without whose presence the man feared to die.

 

Eric was sent for in hot haste, and the priest’s horse brought from its stable and saddled.  Then, swinging the little girl on to the saddle in front of him, Father Gilbert set off along the forest path, bearing with him the viaticum, the consecrated wafer reserved for the sick and the dying.

 

Through the thick woods the little procession passed, till they came to the hut among the tall solemn trees where Ulric plied his lonely trade.  This was one of the few outlying posts of a parish mainly concentrated in the village of Holsham itself.  The priest dismounted stiffily, and, with his clerk behind him, entered the dying man’s hut.  Ulric lay upon his rough straw couch, his weeping wife bending above him.

 

“He is all but gone, Father!” she cried, as the priest entered.   

 

But the man still had strength left to mutter his confession, receive the priest’s absolution, and take between his pale lips the little wafer that the priest offered.

 

Then there was yet another task for father Gilbert.

“Write!” gasped the dying man.

The priest was used to this demand, and drew from his bosom a scrap of parchment, while Eric produced ink-horn and goose-feather.  The man desired to make a simple will.  There was little he could leave, save a few personal things, but of these he wished that some small store of wax that he had with much labour collected from the haunts of the forest bees should be given to the church of St Mark at Holsham, that his soul might be remembered in the prayers of those who worshipped there.  The priest wrote down the man’s gasped words.

 

All was over, and the priest turned to go.  But before he went a couple of rude copper coins pressed from his hand to the women’s.  Very little, but enough to keep her from sheer want till something could be done.   Slowly, his mind intent on the mysteries of life and death, the priest rode back to his parsonage at Holsham.  But his day’s work was not done yet.  For some time their waited a message from Roger de Beaumain, lord of the manor of Holsham.  The priest was needed at the hall.

 

Wearily Gilbert took a winding path that led up to the hall.  The lord of the manor was waiting impatiently.

 

“By the splendour of God!” he cried, aping his master’s favourite oath, “I have waited long.”

“All must wait, my son, on the Lord’s work,” answered the priest. “Ulric the charcoal-burner was dying.  My first duty was to him.”

 

There was a growl in the throat of Roger de Beaumain, he was not used to waiting upon charcoal-burners.  But he said no word of reproof.  The insolent French knight had a wholesome fear of the priest.  There had been a clash between them at first, but the priest’s steady insistence on his rights, and calm refusal to be bullied, had won the day in the end.

“Here is your letter,” growled Roger, “That I cannot read.”

 

The priest glanced over the scroll.  It was to warn Roger that certain commissioners of the King were at Canterbury, and would be coming to inquire into the state of his holding.  Roger growled surlily.  He did not approve of such inquires, yet dare not resist the will of the stark Conqueror.

 

Then with compline said in the dusky church, and supper at Roger’s high table, for after asking for Gilbert’s help the lord of the manor could do no less than offer a meal, the long day ended, and Gilbert the priest was free to take his rest.

 

End of Chapter V

 

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