MAJOR ISSUES BULLETIN
 
     
     
 

 

Chapter VI

 

The English Parish

 

The Decay of the Manor

 

(1086-1199 )

 

 

The decay of the manor was the making of the parish, and for this reason: that as the power of the lord of the manor over his villains died away the feudal system of local government, by which the lord of the soil was the ruler of the dwellers upon it, gave place to a new system.

 

This, in its main outlines, was the rule of each locality by committees of its own inhabitants, supervised by a voluntary royal officer, the Justice of the Peace who was himself supervised by the King’s Council.

 

To understand, therefore, the rise of the parish to the position it occupied under the Tudors, and from them on to the mid-nineteenth century, we must follow the slow process of decay in the manor, and show how, as that decays, so the parish grows.

 

I was just before the death of William the Conqueror in 1087 that the first move was made that was in the end to break the power of feudalism. There came to Holsham certain royal commissioners to make inquires for the King. That in itself would have caused little surprise in the village.

 

But the methods of action of those commissioners caused the utmost astonishment. For no sooner had they come to Holsham than they called upon Higlaf the reeve to appear before them, with four of the leading villains of the manor, and answer their inquires.

 

Now the reeve was the head man of the villains themselves, chosen by them to represent their point of view to the lord of the manor. It was unheard of thing that villains should be called upon to meet the King’s own servants, and Roger de Beaumain raged savagely in his castle at the insult.

 

But the thing was done; the reeve and four villains where sworn to tell the truth, and forced to describe in detail the manor of Holsham, what its value was, how many men, sheep, cattle, and ploughs it contained, and everything

Else they knew about it.

 

One may well imagine the effect upon the villains. They had been called into consultation with the King’s own men: no wonder they felt proud and dis inclined to submit further to petty feudal tyranny.

 

This they proved within three years of the coming of the Doomsday commissioners. For when stark William the Conqueror was dead the barons, whom he ruled so severely , rebelled against his son. Roger de Beaumain fortified his castle, seizing the villagers’

Crops to supply his garrison of Norman men-at-arms, and ordered the villains to aid and support him against the King.

 

There was great consternation in the village of Holsham, and men whispered to one another. What should we do? They knew little of the King, but had a shrewd suspicion that they would be better off under his hard but distant rule than under the immediate tyranny of Roger de Beaumain.

 

Whispering groups gathered at church after Mass upon the first Sunday after the rebellion had began, waiting for Gilbert the priest, an old man, but still the trusted friend of the congregation. They knew that Gilbert had advised Roger against having anything to do with those cunning old rebels, Ode of Bayeux and Roger of Salisbury, but his advice had been scorned.

 

“Do nothing, my children,” was the old priest’s advice; “for unless he defeats the King I do not think that Roger de Beaumain will care to seek vengeance on you, for fear of what might happen, and I do not think he will defeat the King.”

 

So the men of Holsham did nothing. More: when the Sheriff of Kent ordered all loyal men to turn out and serve the King the men of Holsham sent their contingent to the Sheriff’s muster, and helped in the chasing of Roger of Salisbury and his followers. They came back to their work on the manor under the humbled and beaten lord, allowed by the Red king’s favour to keep his lands, with the knowledge that they had beaten the feudal nobles in fair fight through their alliance with the King. The theory of the manor was beginning to break down.

 

There were many things to be suffered, however, before the full lesson was learned. There had been nearly a hundred years of peace under the new rule when that happened which warned every man in England what he had to fear if the King should lose his power.

 

There is a tradition that King Stephen came through Holsham on one of his progresses in his new dominion. One can imagine the scene: the villagers crowding to the roadside to watch the King ride by. Here he comes, a tall, handsome, smiling man. Who has ridden a little in front of William de Beaumain, who had ridden out to meet him, a dark scowling noble of the worst feudal type.

“Largesse!” Laughs the King, scattering a handful of coins among the peasants, and, “God save you!” cry the villagers in English. Neither understands the other’s words, but both are pleased.

 

But the pleasure of the villagers of Holsham was short-lived indeed. For it all proved all to soon that this kindly, handsome king was simply incapable of governing his savage nobles.

 

A reign of terror such as Holsham had not known since the days of the Vikings began. The wretched villagers were seized and forced to labour not only upon the lord’s fields, as had been the custom, but in digging a new deep moat round the castle and in constructing a horrible dank dungeon beneath the mound. Moreover, resistance was punished with inconceivable brutality.

 

Never did those who saw it forget the sight of Giles the mason who had dared to fight one of the lord’s men -at-arms, hanging in a great iron cage fixed to a post outside of the castle, slowly dying of hunger and thirst, while his wretched wife and daughter were daily whipped in his sight by the savage men- at- arms. “to teach him manners,” as the brutal William de Beaumain put it.

 

This was feudalism unchained, and for nineteen long years Holsham groaned beneath its burden. There are terrible tales that could be told of those years. How , for instance, Alfred the reeve, having amassed a small store of coins, which he buried beneath his hearth- stone, was slowly roasted to death over his hearth to make him tell where his wealth lay hid. Many of the things that happened cannot well be repeated. But there is another scene that must be sketched, for it concerns our story.

 

Imagine if you can, Holsham Church, grey and ruinous-for who will repair God’s house when, as one chronicler put it, “It seemed as though Christ and His saints slept.” Before the cross over the altar stands the priest, Robert de Holstock, saying Mass to a concregation of one , his parish clerk. Suddenly there is a tumult without, and a panting girl runs into the church and catches the priests robes. After her come four armed men, running with scowling faces and hoarse savage cries. There has been tragedy here: the girl, driven to madness by the brutal cruelty of the lord’s men- at –arms had snatch a sword from one of her persecutors and driven it into his heart. Justice ‘ or what Sir William de Beaumain calls justice, has doomed her to death by slow fire, and the girl has managed, in a moment’s laxity of her captors to escape.

 

The priest steps forward, raising the wooden crucifix that hangs round his neck. The men-at-arms pause for a moment in their pursuit.

 

“ Give the murderess to justice, Father,” growls their leader at last.

“She has taken sanctuary, my son,” answers the priest. “None but the Archbishop himself can give her to you now.”

“Oh!” cries the girl, shivering, “don’t let them have me, Father, don’t let them have me!” She is more than half mad with terror, and the priest can feel the convulsive grasp of her arms about his knees.

 

The pursuers look at one another. Robert de Holstock, they know has fought manfully for his flock against the tyranny of their master. Then the boldest of them steps forward as if to seize the girl.

 

“Excommunicabo te…” begins the priest’s voice. The man draws back. Brutal scoundrel as he is , the curse of the Church is not lightly to be defied. Sullenly the men-at-arms leave the church, to report to their master.

 

“By the fires of Hell I’ll have that Priest’s blood,” roars Sir William, but contents himself with swearing and cursing. He too, is as superstitious as he is evil, and fears to incur the curse of the Greater Excommunication by violating sanctuary. So, under the priest’s escort, the girl is sent to Canterbury, and there, since none appear to prosecute her, the Archbishop’s court gives her acquittal.

 

As far as we can trace her future, she seems to have entered a nunnery, and is probably that Alicia de Holsham who, in Henry II’s reign, signs a certain deed as abbess of a nunnery in Canterbury.

 

At last the nightmare came to an end when Henry of Anjou came as king to England. William de Beaumain was dead, killed in a brawl with a neighbouring noble, and the new King granted the manor of Holsham to a friend of his own, a petty knight, John de harbron, who afterward became a man of importance about the King’s Court.

 

But the people of Holsham, those who survived the horrors of Stephen’s reign, had learned their lesson. They knew now what real feudalism meant. Hereafter whatever influence they possessed would be on the side of the King in his efforts to control it.

 

There affection for the Church, too, had been strengthened during those dark days. For it was only through the efforts of Thomas of Holstock, their priest, and his superiors that their sad lot had been lightened-only in the courts of the Church could they find justice.

 

There were those two who had found in the Church a permanent refuge: the hunted girl who had slain the man-at-arms, and John the Miller, who, when his mill had been burned over his head, had fled to Canterbury and there learned to read and write sufficiently to become a priest.

 

It happened , therefore, that when Thomas de Holstock died John the miller became priest of Holsham, the first time since those distant days of Egbert, the first priest, that one of the villagers had become parson of his own parish. Imagine, if you can, the feelings of the villagers when one day the priest, John, came white –faced and trembling into the church.

 

“The Archbishop is dead!” he cried, scarcely able to control his voice. “Our Father in God, Thomas of Canterbury, has been slain by evil men!” [1174]

 

A groan of horror went up from all the congregation. But there was worse to come, for soon it was whispered that the King himself was responsible, and when Henry II did public penance at the Archbishop’s tomb all men knew that only by a hair’s breadth had the wrath of God been turned from his head.

 

For the first and only time in Henry’s reign the loyalty of the common folk to their King wavered. Men feared to support one who had done sacrilege and slain the Archbishop. Henry’s repentance probably genuine enough-that cry of his, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” had been but a cry of sudden, unthinking rage - won back to him the support of the country.

 

Slowly throughout the reign the manor grew weaker and weaker, the King’s court’s stronger. The villein oppressed by the lord could appeal to the sheriff’s court, now presided over not by the sheriff himself, but by one of the King’s own judges. There was peace in the land and strong rule.

 

But it was the next reign that gave many a manor it’s death-blow, Holsham among them. It happened this way. Aubrey de Harbron, Lord of Holsham Manor, decided to follow the new King Richard on his crusading venture to France.[1189-99]

 

Great was the excitement in Holsham parish when Gerald de Noke, the parson, preached one Sunday a special sermon, telling of the doings of the heathen Saracen in the Holy land, calling upon all the men of Holsham, if themselves if they could not go, to give what money they could for the holy work of defeating the Saracen and winning back Palestine for Christendom.

 

From every secret store of coins money poured in the priests coffers for the crusade; but still the sum that Aubrey needed to equip his forces was not secured. Then came the suggestion that Aubrey adopted gladly. Probably Thomas the reeve was the man responsible for the scheme. At any rate, it was he, as his duty was, who called the villagers together to hear the Lord’s suggestion. Very cunningly did Thomas describe the plan.

 

“Which of you,” he cried, “Has not grumbled at doing his task-work on my lord’s land? Now this is what my lord desires. Let every man pay twopence instead of his day’s work, and thereafter whoever works upon my lord’s land shall receive pay for his labour.”

 

There was a cheer from the listening villagers, for under the peaceful rule of Henry II many of them had gained money-not much, but a little. Also now that there was a fair-sized town growing up in their neighbourhood, Torrington, once a tiny village like Holsham and grown mightily within the last century, there was more money to be got by selling goods in the town’s market. The thing was agreed, therefore, and each villein received a copy of Holsham Manor roll. Here is a typical entry:

 

John le Villeyn holds half a hide of land [a long description follows showing where each strip lies], for which he owes three days’work in the week, or vi pence, and ten eels each year upon Ash Wednesday to the lord’s table.

 

Evidently John was a fisherman as well as a farmer.

 

Now John le Villeyn would pay his sixpence instead of doing his work, and was free to devote every day to his own lands and his fishing. From his point of view it was a fair bargain.

 

But the biggest gainer was the lord of the manor, for now he could hire labourers and work his lands according to new principles. Here his adviser was one Roger the monk, who acted as steward of the estate while Aubrey was away in Palestine. He had learned from Latin books various methods of making land more productive.

 

There is no need to describe the complicated system of what modern slang would decribe as ‘swops,’ by which the lord’s land had lain scattered about the field was gathered into one group, and farmed separately from the rest of the village land. The point is that by taking rent instead of service Aubrey, though he did not know it, had sealed the doom, as far as Holsham was concerned ,of the manor system.

 

Nor was this Aubrey’s only service to Holsham. The terrible climate of Palestine, unsuitable food and killing hardships claimed him as their victim. The little cavalcade with their white cyclases and red crosses, that rode off so gaily for Hythe, there to embark for the Holy land, never returned. A few worn and weary survivors came back along that road five years later. But the lord of Holsham was not among them. His body lay beneath the sacred walls of the Holy City.

 

Very sorrowful was the Lady Gertrude. Indeed, her sorrow was shared by all the village, for Aubrey had been a good lord to Holsham. But the lady’s sorrow took practical form; she sent for a lawyer from Canterbury, a solemn black-gowned man who rode out upon a thin steed , and wrote what the Lady Gertrude dictated.

 

Thomas the reeve and Gerald the priest were called to witness her signature, or mark, rather, for she could not write, to a deed that gave certain lands ( the farm that afterward became known as Souls Farm) for the rebuilding of the church of Holsham.

“In fair, grey stone with a roof of tiles and a convenient altar whereat for ever prayers should be said upon each day for the soul of Sir Aubrey de Harbron and his wife the Lady Gertrude. For this a suitable clerk should be chosen by the lord of the manor of Holsham for the time being, with the assent of the priest of Holsham parish, to receive two marks [1 6s. 8d.] by the year for his trouble.”

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End Of Chapter VI

PART 7