MAJOR ISSUES BULLETIN
 
     
     
 

 

THE ENGLISH PARISH

 

Chapter VIII

 

Changing Times

 

 

The life of the Church in the days when Holsham was celebrating the completion of its new church was going through a crisis. For this there were several reasons that, as they concern our story of an English parish, must be roughly sketched here.

 

What had happened was this: The Popes of Rome had inherited much of the position of the earlier emperors; more, they were actual rulers of quite a considerable State, concerning the usual size of feudal States in the Middle Ages. The result was that a man chosen Pope not for his moral excellence, but for his political skill.

 

There was another question, too, that was in the minds of all good Christians: the problem of the monastery. Once, no doubt, the monastery had been absolutely necessary.

 

Men who would live a Christian life, and fill their minds with the lore of religion, must get away from a world occupied in the rough arts of war, or in wringing a living from the stubborn soil. Christian teaching and example were best preserved by communities of men under strict vows.

 

Besides, the great monastery, built in the form of a hollow square showing but narrow slit windows to the outer world, and guarded from that world by heavy gates, was a safe refuge that might survive a time of war and desolation wherein every other mark of civilization was destroyed.

 

For was it not guarded also by the terrible curse of the Church, that even heathen men sometimes feared, and that could subdue the fiercest of Christian nobles?

 

The monastery has saved English civilization when the Danes raged over the land, and again when Stephen’s men had defied man, but dared not defy God to the extent of destroying His fortresses as they destroyed many a flourishing town, yet spared God’s towns, the monasteries and abbeys of the land.

 

But that necessity for isolation was becoming less as time went on. Moreover, there were too many monasteries that, though great landowners and, on the whole, good and generous landlords, were not visibly ding much for religion. There were other monasteries that were visibly doing a great deal of harm to religion.

 

Listen for a moment to the conversation of William de Islip with a friend, priest of a neighbouring village on the subject. They are discussing a certain scandal that had lately come to light in the neighbouring monastery of Durlington.

 

I tell you, brother Wilfrid,” cries William de Islip, “these monks bring evil upon the fair name of the Church. Here are we who sweat and swink to redeem sinners, while they sit at ease praying much, but working not at all, except forsooth to toil in the fields or copy in fair writing this or that book, and sin at their very door crying out to be saved.”

 

“Aye,” agrees Wilfrid; “ and such idleness leads to sin and scandal upon the fair fame of Christ’s Church. Not that all are alike,” he continues reflectively; “I have known monasteries and abbeys of pure fame whose brethren do much good.”

 

William de Islip nods.

 

“So have I, brother,” he answers, “but there is need of men who will live in the world and heal the world as a doctor does, not hiding his knowledge in his own heart, but using it for the good of others. How much more should the doctors of Christ spread their healing power among those whose sickness is of the spirit.”

 

“Maybe that will come,” urges Wilfred, and the conversation turns to other subjects.

 

Wilfrid was a good prophet. For there was a great stirring in the very heart of Christendom. In Rome itself one who thought as these two simple priests had gained the ear of the Holy Father himself, and even then his followers were upon their way.

 

Thus it happened that one day a man came into Holsham parish, a tall lean man, clad in grey robes, with sandals on his feet and a bag at his side, asking for charity in the name of Christ. This the good folk of Holsham gave, filling the man’s scrip with food, and giving him to drink what he would have, the thinnest of sour ale, such as the poorest folk in the village drank. The man of Holsham were curious about this man, and they asked him who he was, and what he did, to which he replied, smiling:

 

“I am of the Poor Brethren sent to preach the Word through all the land.”

 

With that the strange man made his way to the parsonage to speak with William de Islip, who welcomed him hospitably. Far into the night these two sat talking by the flickering gleam of the rushlight, for William de Islip was eager to hear all that the wanderer could tell him of his master Francis of Assisi, of whom the priest of Holsham had heard tales, and of the new message that the stranger had been sent to preach.

 

Thus it was that the friars first came to Holsham village, and at first William de Islip and his successors were friends with these new preachers. The friar and the parish priest both disliked the inactive monks and resented foreign interference, for the friars, though foreigners themselves had their own reasons for supporting those who attacked the King’s foreign favourites.

 

Exactly what foreign interference meant Holsham was to learn on William de Islip’s death? Their new priest they never saw during the ten years that he was rector of Holsham. It happened thus: when William de Islip died the lord of Holsham Manor, who had the right of appointing the rector of the parish, was but a boy of ten, and Holsham being held directly of the King the right was in the hands of the boy’s guardian, weak, pious Henry III. [1216-1272]

 

Holsham was a rich living too, thanks to the generosity of successive lords who had added little by little to the parish priest’s lands. Also since the foundation of the chantry for the soul of Aubrey Harbron the living was yet richer, for as a rule the parish priest was appointed chaplain of this chantry.

 

But now all this was changed. Henry III appointed to the living of Holsham an Italian priest, one Ulrico Gonzona, who had done him service at the Pope’s Court. Ulrico appointed a curate John de Almone who was also given the chantry. But the rector himself continued to live in Rome, drawing the profits of the living, and taking no care for its well-being.

 

Nor was the curate satisfactory. His living was miserably small, so he took to brewing to make it up to some sort of decent standard. Every morning, as the conditions of the chantry grant directed, John de Almone would mutter a hurried Mass at the memorial altar for the repose of Sir Aubrey Harbron.

 

Otherwise he might be found tilling his fields or bending over his brewery vat, careless whether his flock lived or died.

Further, he misused in a shocking fashion his duty of hearing Confessions, and demanding penance before he gave absolution.

 

He would use to his own advantage facts that he had come to know through Confession, thus breaking his oath as a priest. He would give easy absolution to those who took care of him, and impose harsh penances upon those who did not.

 

He was greedy of money, drunken, and men whispered that his morals were not what they should have been. There were ugly stories told concerning this man, that, against the law of the Church, he was secretly married.

 

Naturally under the conditions the friars began to gain great influence in Holsham parish. Men would confess to a wandering friar what they would not confess to their own evil priest, and would listen to his sermons and accept his penances, while despising the sermons and neglecting the ministrations of John de Almone.

 

Even the village guild would not have John as their chaplain, but persuaded a monk from Durlington to accept the post. John the priest was despised, and sank into a mere drunken sot, whom no man would reverence.

 

Then the Italian rector died, and Henry Harbron, now a man grown, appointed a good and earnest Englishman, Peter de Wolverley, as rector of Holsham. But the damage was done. Peter found his flock would rather go to Confession to a wandering friar than to their rector, and that his church remained half empty, while his parishioners walked miles to hear some preaching friar in the neighbourhood. Moreover, the character of the friars was changing. St Francis and his immediate followers had been great and good men, but they had made one big mistake. They had ordered their followers to live on charity of those to whom they were sent. Unfortunately, men less great and good than these first friars remembered the part of their rule that allowed them to beg, but forgot the rest.

 

They began to claim, too. That they were especially holy, that absolution granted by the friar was more effective than that granted by the ordinary priest. Also, instead of taking what was offered, as their rule commanded, there were bad friars who demanded what they would like best, and threatened spiritual penalties against any who refused them?

 

In vain Peter de Wolverly preached against these wanderers, “wolves in sheep’s’ clothing,” as he called them.

For the parishioners of Holsham had become used to their ministrations during the evil days of John de Almone, and would not give them up, besides being afraid of these men who claimed such wide spiritual powers.

 

It came at last to an open quarrel. One friar, Martin, more impudent than his brethren, a type of worst sort of friar, for there were still good and honest men in the friars’ ranks, came to Holsham, announcing that he had a special licence from the Pope to hear Confessions and preach. Unlike that first visitor, Friar Martin asked no leave from the parish priest. He resorted to a disused barn, to which the villagers flocked, partly out of curiosity, partly from fear.

 

Then Peter de Wolverly rode post-haste to his Bishop, and from him received letters ordering the friar to obey the rule of his order, and refrain from intruding into a parish without the leave of the parish priest.

 

To this the friar retorted that the Bishop had no power over his order, and, being himself a monk, could not know the rules proper for the friar to observe. Further, he added, not without rudeness, he, Friar Martin, had not the slightest intention of obeying the Bishop.

 

Whereat, the Bishop, in a royal rage, excommunicated the friar, and cited him before his own court on various charges, while the friar appealed to Rome. The case dragged on for weary years before the Papal Curia, to be decided finally in favour of the Bishop, but with this our book has no concern.

 

Such affairs as these made no easier the relations between parish priest and friar, and Chaucer, whose sympathies were on the side of the parish priest, suggests that they were fairly common.

 

But there was another matter to trouble the peace of Peter de Wolverley, and that was the behaviour of John de Almone, who. Though no longer curate of Holsham, still held the post of chantry priest. It took two full years to get rid of this idle and drunken rascal, for he had political influence, and politics played far too much a part in Church affairs.

 

Men in high position feared to offend the Papal authorities, whose nominee had appointed John to the post. It was hard indeed to persuade the authorities of the Church in England to act, bad as John admittedly was.

 

The priest who succeeded Peter de Wolverley was one Owen le Walleys - an interesting name, for it marks the increasing intercourse between England and Wales that followed the Conquest of Wales by Edward I. How, one wonders, did this man from the Welsh hills come into this distant village? One can imagine him, a little dark, excitable man among his flock of slow spoken, easy -going peasants.

 

It is during the days of Owen le Walleys that we find the parish definitely growing into something like the local government. Walleys was priest during the later half of Edward I’s reign and the unhappy days of his son. Let us look at what is happening to Holsham village.

 

There was a man, Rolf the carpenter, who by skill and industry had accumulated quite a little sum of money. Now it so happened that Sir Guy Harbron, he who was made Earl of Berwick for his conduct during the Scotch wars, killed a monk in a chance fray on the Border, and was ordered for penance to go on crusade to the Holy Land. But for this he needed money, and, by a certain act of Edward I known as Quia Emptores, he was able to sell some of his land to raise it. This land Rolf the carpenter brought from the earl.

 

Now Rolf, since he owned feudal land, though it was a small patch, and held it directly of the King, was a freeman. Nor was he the only one. Walter of Souls Farm, the bailiff, bought a large piece of waste from the earl, thus becoming a freeman too.

 

Gradually the old rigid distinction between the feudal soldier, generally of Norman descent, who was free, and the agricultural labourer, generally an Englishman, who was a serf, was beginning to break down.

 

The informal parish meetings that have so long been a feature of the life of Holsham begin to be more impressive now that they are not mere gatherings of villains. Also the position of the lord of the manor, now he had freemen as well as copyholders-that is, serfs who are allowed to pay rent instead of doing service - upon his manor is more difficult.

 

Lastly there are a series of laws of Edward I regarding keeping clear of the highways, and the duties of constables, for which the lords of the manor are not primarily responsible.

 

A new officer is appointed, the keeper of the peace, whose duty it is to see that this work is properly done by each manor or parish through which the high-roads run. They must keep the roads in fit condition for travellers, and see that there is space cleared on each side of the way, so that robbers and murderers cannot hide close by the roadside.

 

This must be done by the inhabitants of each manor dividing the work between them, but where, as in Holsham, the manor and the parish cover the same area it is more convenient for the inhabitants to arrange matters when they meet together after Mass.

 

Then one man can be asked to lend his wagon for a certain day, while another can arrange to cut down a certain quantity of brushwood, another to quarry broken stone to make a hard service for the road over some extra deep slough. Then the court of the manor meets these informal arrangements can be reported to the lord or his bailiff, who in turn will report to the keeper of the peace, who will report to the King’s justices when they come round on assize.

 

Thus there are two authorities in the manor and the parish, though the manor and parish may be, and usually are, but two names for the same group.

 

There is the manor court of the court leet, there is the parish vestry, or what afterwards becomes the parish vestry. But as the policy of successive kings is to reduce power of the manor lord, naturally the vestry becomes more important; the manor court less important as times goes on.

 

So through the troubled days of Edward II [1303-1327] Holsham parish lives its own life, taking little or no part in the quarrel between the King and his barons, caring more for the little things of every day than for the stirring events in Scotland and elsewhere, till with the reign of Edward III, [1327-1377] comes that which changes the face of rural England.

 

* * *

 

 

Chapter IX -

 

The Upheaval

 

The Middle Ages are closing. The fall of Feudal Chivalry. Battle of Crecy and the Black Death.