MAJOR ISSUES BULLETIN
 
     
     
 

 

THE ENGLISH PARISH

 

Chapter VII

 

New Ways

(1215-)

 

Let us take a look at the new parish church of Holsham, rising through the

Bounty of Sir Aubrey’s widow. The times are troublesome and turbulent. Normandy has gone for ever; it is a French province now. And among the rushes at Runnymede King John sets his seal to the Great Charter.

 

But these things do not trouble the common folk of Holsham much. For none of them either knows or cares much about Normandy. They do not regard it, as the English were later to India, as a national possession: they regard it very much as the Indian villager of today regards India [written in 1932] -as the personal possession of the English King. Nor does the Great Charter worry them over-much.

 

They know that King John is a bad man, because he has got the country put under interdict, and for the last years the harmless villagers of Holsham have been deprived of the consolations of religion owing to his quarrel with the Pope. On the other hand, they have rather enjoyed the furious denunciations of William de Islip the priest; they would all at some time or another have liked to say just that sort of thing, but had no words to say it.

 

As for being in favour of the Charter, the people of Holsham know nothing whatever about it, and if they did would assuredly disapprove of a great deal of it as giving power to the barons-there is still an old man living in the village who remembers Stephen’s reign. What interests them is that now the interdict is removed the building of the church goes on apace.

 

It is wonderful building. Great grey stone walls rise in the form of a cross, and the workman are busy now laying across the lovely carved beams that are to carry the tiled roof. There are strange, men in the village, too-carvers from Amsterdam, skilled Italian masons and stonecutters-who are engaged upon the beautiful carvings of the window arches, those heavy, round, decorated arches that are so solemnly in character with the rest of the church. The stone altar, too, of purest marble, is something new in the experience of the untravelled folk of Holsham; daily they come to stare at the work in progress.

 

The church, like that old half -timbered building that Egbert had built, is cross-shaped, but now from the centre of that cross rises a square tower with a high -pitched roof. More, the skilled stonemasons, with an art unknown to the old English, have been at work upon the doors and windows. The plain round arches are left unaltered, and where new openings are made to conform to this style.

 

But now the stonework is carved and patterned fantastically by the chisels of the workers, so that the grim outlines are softened by the lace-like tracery. It is this that differentiates the church from the squat stone castle that Sir John Harbron is building on a mund near by to take the place of the old wooden blockhouse. Otherwise the architecture of both is much alike, for the days of the elaborate fortress castle have not yet arrived.

 

But most beautiful of all is the little shrine in the side chapel in memory of the crusading Sir Aubrey, which is not surprising, as the man has never seen him, but the villagers and the crusader’s

Widow is both willing to take the will for the deed. It is at any rate, a tangible memorial to a man whom his tenants liked well enough, a just master and a good friend, in his rough way, to poorer folk.

 

At last it is done. The church that we now see so old and weathered in Holsham village gleamed new under the glow of an Easter June. Now that the hand of the Victorian restorer has been obliterated by wise modern rectors the church is not so much changed from that in which the parishioners of Holsham assembled in the year of grace 1225.

 

The builders had been economical. Where there was sound old Saxon stonework existing they worked it in with their new designs, so that to this day you can find traces of the earliest stone church at Holsham-probably one of the earliest stone churches in England.

 

It was a day of rejoicing in Holsham, of course a holiday. There was a certain beauty about the medieval life; it had none of the hustle that we consider necessary to-day. There were frequent general holidays-the name means holy days-upon the festivals of saints, and, besides this, there was nothing to prevent any village that wanted to taking an extra holiday on some extra occasion.

 

Certainly the medieval method of work has one good thing to recommend it. Here is no scamped or hurried work. Every stone is well and truly laid, even if the laying of one stone had taken almost as much time as is taken to-day in running up a bungalow that shall be an eyesore for miles around. The carving and woodwork are of the finest. The horrible gargoyles that carry off the waterspouts from the roof are truly appalling, and send delightful shivers down the back of every child who looks at them.

 

Imagine a ghost story written by the carver of that frightful head that peers evilly at you from the porch! Not the Provost of Eton himself could imagine a worse horror than the simple craftsman who carved the stone.

 

But the ugliness is set off by the beauty, as it always should be. Inside the church are none of the horrors that peer over the coping of the roof. Here great columns as thick as trees rise to the broad, oaken beams that support the roof. Nor are these columns monotonously grey. For the Church scorns no means of teaching that may reach the minds of simple folk who cannot read and write.

 

Therefore on walls and columns are painted in a queer, stiff style picture stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Here is St George with his dragon beneath his feet, there St Christopher carrying the infant Christ over the water, and on another column is painted the Agony in the Garden.

 

But look between the trunks of this forest of stone and you shall see the glory of Holsham church, the lovely broided altar-cloth that is the gift of the widowed Lady Harbron to her church. Purple velvet from the looms of Flanders, bought at great cost from a pedlar at Lewes fair, gold thread and many coloured silks that have come a weary way- by caravan across the fierce deserts of the East, thence by pack-horse and ship to this cold North land-all are woven into glorious work.

 

The front of the altar -cloth represents our Lord speaking to His Apostles, evidently, from the Latin inscription worked around the picture, on the occasion of the Sermon on the Mount, for the words translated, run: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

 

On one side stands Peter, holding the golden keys, on the other St John, while from above a bearded, noble face smiles down upon the group, that of the Father Himself.

 

Then on one of the side panels is embroided a picture of the Virgin in her blue clock holding her Child close to her heart. On the other panel a group of Roman soldiers, dressed in the costume of the thirteenth century-but nobody minded that in those days-are seen seizing upon our Lord in the Garden, while an evil-looking man presses a kiss upon his cheek, and St Peter strikes with his sword at the High Priest’s servant.

 

Purple, gold, and scarlet gleam and flash in the sunlight that falls upon them from the high windows that pierce here and there the thick stone walls of the church. Nor are the priest’s robes less sumptuously embroidered by the skilful fingers of Lady Harbron and her busy sewing women. He stands there before his altar, watching the faces of the congregation, gathered for their first Mass in the new church.

 

Then, after worship, comes rejoicing. Sir John Harbron has presented a whole fat ox to the village; it roasts and sizzles over a huge bonfire. Course fare enough, but what do the villagers, who seldom eat meat at all, care for that. Nor are the villagers feasting alone: near the gathering of common men is set a small table, where are seated Sir John Harbron and his lady.

 

He looks what he is, a great English gentleman, as he sits there in his embroidered tunic set off by the long yellow surcoat that he wears.

 

Opposite him sits his lady, her round, smiling face framed in its wimple, her eyes watching the stern, bearded face of her husband, wondering how he will like this simple festival after having known the extravagant glories of King John’s Court. Her long rose-red cloak is pulled a little round her shoulders, for the breeze is chilly, and now she turns her head, laughing a little to hear the hoarse, happy laughter from the direction of the bonfire.

 

There is French wine at Sir John’s table, and that leads to a little comedy. For, in the kindness of his heart, Sir John sends for some of the leading villagers to share a horn of wine with him, which they gulp down dutifully, with clumsy bows, returning to their place by the fire, making wry faces, to wash out the taste of the wine with strong brown ale.

 

“Aye,” grumbles Edward the reeve, a stocky, wisened man clad in a rough frieze gown, his holiday dress, and therefore of a gay crimson hue, ” this wine’s well enough for them that like it, but give me Gammer Grizel’s ale-there’s body and warmth in that!”

 

Then, after all have eaten and drunk, comes the dancing, to the music of Alwin the shepherd’s pipe, a somewhat doleful instrument to which the villagers tread a solemn measure. Gradually, as the folk warm to their work, the dancing becomes faster and merrier, till night falls on a scene of mirth and noisy laughter, that is kept up till the dying glow of the fire warns all sober folk to bed.

 

Not all the villagers of Holsham are sober, but there is no bestial drunkiness. A few men are merry and talkative, that is all. It is the rejoicing of the parish in their new church, course and crude to the ideas of certain moderns, but the whole sense of the village is one of reverent mirth; the man who profaned the festival by getting horribly drunk would be dealt with by the rest.

 

Of course this spirit depended a great deal upon the character of the parish priest. William de Islip was loved and respected, and had created a good moral tone in his parish; another sort of priest, and the nature of the festival might have been far other than it was.

 

Now but one thing lack to bring the new church to perfection, a real musical bell, deep- toned and impressive. The poor little cracked tinkle of the old church bell seemed very much out of place in this fine new building with its carven roof and tower, but the difficulty was that the money would not suffice to provide an expensive new bell.

 

This was the faint beginning of the Gild of St Thomas of Canterbury, one of those little forgotten village guilds that did good work in their time, but have been overshadowed by the greater gild-merchant of the town. The thing started in an informal meeting after Mass upon a Sunday soon after the completion of the new church.

 

That bell, neighbour Alwine, mislikes me; it has a cracked, weakly tone,” said one.

“Aye,” answered the shepherd. “I’d not have such a bell on my wether that leads the flock, let alone in the house of God.”

“Tis a sin and a shame,” cried Simon the village beeward, a thin little man, lame in one leg, but with the keen, eager mind that often goes with a bent body.

 

“Aye, aye,” answered Gurt the miller; “but what to do, master Simon, tell me that?” Gurt was fat and good-natured, but lacking in brains.

 

“Why, are we so feeble a lot that we can do nothing ourselves? asked Simon scornfully.

 

There was a murmur of doubtful questioning from the rest of the group. Most of the grown men of the parish had clustered round the disputants.

 

“Remember to call upon God’s aid,” rebuked William de Islip.

Simon bowed his head.

 

“That we should do, Father, but twere best to work as well as pray.”

 

“True enough,” answered the priest. “The saints themselves have worked as well as prayed. God has no love for idlers and slow bellies…” William de Islip checked himself. It was not well to discuss with laymen the problems that were troubling him: the matter of the monastery, that was to produce in a few years’ time a great body of men who would try to combine work with prayer instead of shutting themselves away from the world.

 

“Then,” cried Simon, ”this is my plan. Let as many band together, and ask the protection and guidance of Our Lady and of St Thomas of Canterbury-for they reckon him a mighty saint, and close at hand too. Then let each brother of the guild covenant to pay by the week one halfpenny till we have gathered enough for a new bell.”

 

There were murmurs of assent among the grouped villagers who listened to Simon’s words. But some one-whom, we cannot know-voiced the thought that was in all men’s minds.

 

“Twill take time, Simon, to gather enough for such a bell as shall be fitting for our new church.”

 

“Brethren,” broke in Gurt’ hearty voice, “I know one a merchant of Hythe, a good and charitable man, for did he not take to apprentice my brother’s son, and set him up in his trade, too, so that the boy prospers and grows rich. Perhaps he and others would lend us enough from their store, if we covenanted to repay from the money gathered as Simon proposes.”

 

“That might be well tried, Gurt,” put in the priest softly,” But let us see how many will contribute.”

 

“I Father.”

“And I!”

“And I!”

The words came in a continuous murmur from the assembled villagers.

 

“What of you Dickson?” asked Simon of a gloomy -faced man who watched the rest from a position in the rear of the crowd.

But Dickson shook his head. He was known for a miser, and an evil-tempered miser at that. There was a murmur of anger from the rest of the parish.

 

“Let him be, my children,” cried the priest; seeing that it was likely that Dickson would be attacked by the rest, now enthusiasts for Simon’s plan. “God will judge between him and you.”

 

There were other malcontents, but in the main every member of the parish who could afford the subscription enrolled himself a member of the gild.

 

Then, under the leadership of Simon the beeward and the reeve Edward, a party of villagers set off for Hythe, three day’s journey away, to interview the merchant whom Gurt would introduce to them.

He proved, as Gurt had said a charitable man, not only willing but eager to help on the work of God, as he would consider the founding of the new church bell. Money they should have, and

welcome, on giving security for repayment over a term of years.

 

More, the merchant knew of a bell-founder who had been working on a new bell at St Paul’s in London, a good workman and honest.

 

He would get him to accept the task of founding the bell a Holsham Church, and to do it for a reasonable sum too, for he was a good Christian man who would not seek over-much profit for himself from the poor pious men.

 

So the bell is made, and after many weary month’s of waiting a great wagon comes creaking over the muddy track that leads into Holsham village bearing the new bell upon its groaning timbers.

 

With much of the labour, for it is heavy and clumsy to handle, the bell is slung to its beam in the tower, and its rejoicing and thanksgiving, decreed by the guild to which it owes its being.

 

Master Simon the beeward, for he had been chosen first warden of the guld that he had suggested, comes to church leading his brethren and sisters- for a few of the women of the village, too, have given their halfpence for the bell.

 

He is clad for the occasion in a robe of red cloth that Sir John Harbron has presented to the guild to be the warden’s dress. These people of the Middle Ages were very like us of to-day:

 

They loved to dress up on great occasions. In the rich town the guildsmen might have fur-bordered robes and gilt maces and staves, but here in a little remote country parish some simple mark of office.

 

Mass is said, with a special prayer asking God’s blessing on the guild and its labours, and after comes a feast. We are to describe such a feast later on, so for the moment will say no more about it.

 

Honesty and punctuality the wardens of the Guild of St Thomas paid over the accumulated subscriptions to the generous merchant of Hythe, till there came a time when no more need to be paid, when in fact, there were several pence over from the last payment. The question arose as to what was to be done with them.

 

Now in truth nobody wanted to lose the guild. Most of the men of Holsham belonged to it, and enjoyed the occasional modest feasts that celebrated each year the day of the patron saint, that ambitious, clever churchman, who, by a strange turn of fate, won saintship largely through his own bad temper and that of Henry II. So, when there was talk of winding up affairs of the guild, some among the assembly spoke what was in all men’s minds.

 

“Why should the guild be allowed to die out?” They asked.

“Rather let it be made perpetual, and let each brother and sister who paid his proper subscription be allowed the benefit of special Masses for his soul when dead. Then if any money remains over let the warden and two aldermen be allowed to spend it on helping poor, sick, or unfortunate brothers and sisters of the guild.”

 

So William de Islip was asked to write out in a fair hand all these rules, that every member of the guild might know what was needed, and to be the guild chaplain, he and his successors as rectors of Holsham.

 

But at his suggestion a few more rules were added.

 

Here are some of the more important ones, so that you may see how the guild tried to help in the lives and happiness of its members:

 

Let any brother or sister who speaks evil of a guild brother pay one penny, or if not let him be put out of the guild.

Let any brother or sister who strikes or misuses a guild brother pay twopence, or if not let him be put out of the guild

If any brother or sister die within twenty miles of Holsham let the guild bring back his body for burial. And if any guild brother, unless he is sick, refuse to attend the burying of his guild brother let him pay a penny, and if he will not- let him be put out of the guild.

Remember, of course, that a penny was a large sum for a poor peasant of King Henry III’s reign.

 

So the guild that had been founded to secure a new bell for Holsham Church became a part of the permanent life of the parish, and in learning to manage its affairs the parishioners, though they knew it not, were preparing to manage the affairs of their parish, when the policy of Henry III’s son and his successors took from the lord of the manor the management of his estate, and handed it over, under supervision, to the dwellers on that estate, the parishioners, in fact

 

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