The English Parish




The Upheaval




The Middle Ages were closing. The glory of chivalry was dim, a tradition that lingered in the tilt-yard and tournament, but had vanished from everyday life.


There were still knights of the old order of chivalry, but they were old fashioned, fantastic, out of date.


The newer sort of man was well represented by that Michael de la Pole who became Earl of Suffolk under the third Edward, a hard-headed, practical Hull merchant whose wealth brought him into the ranks of the nobility.


Listen to the tale of the fall of feudal chivalry, as the folk of Holsham parish heard it gathered one evening outside the ale -house.


The speaker is a brown -faced man, whose straight figure stands out among the forms of rustics bent by much stooping over spade and hoe.


The blue eyes look almost insolently from a seamed tanned face, across which runs a scar. It is Will Johnson (notice that surnames are just beginning to become common in England), a poacher who saved his skin by enlisting with Edward of England as an archer.


Aye, aye, friends, they came at us, did the French, all riding on their great horses, clad in armour that you’d think a thunder bolt couldn’t pierce. But we let fly at them, and they found that our arrows could beat their armour; aye, they tumbled over like spillikins, and where they tumbled they lay, for, see you, they had so much armour on their backs that not one could get up when once he fell, even though there might be no wound on him.”


The other rustics draw themselves up a little and smile. Here is one of our sort, a common man whom they have known from boyhood, and he has seen the great nobles of France, armoured knights, like him up at the manor, Sir Oliver Harbron, so fine and fearless, riding to battle or to tourney; he has seen men like these fall helpless before the few bowman of common English clay. Truly the end of the Middle Ages, of romance and armoured knights, of lord and knight and villein, is come.


But there are many things to suffer yet. For even as that old soldier of Crecy field boasts and chatters at the inn door death is sweeping over Europe, death more certain and more horrible than ever that archer inflicted with his terrible cloth-yard arrows.


God’s archer has bent his bow, and his target is England, that land of loveliness and of foulness, of sweet green spaces and narrow, stinking alleys, of fair-flowered hills and of putrefying middens piled outside men’s back-doors.


First come terrible stories, stories that nobody who has not seen this awful disease, as it still destroys in the crowded, insanitary lanes of Eastern towns and villages, can well credit.


Men tell of whole villages where there were but two sorts of people left, the dead and the dying, whence every man who had escaped infection had fled to the open fields for safety; stories of mothers who would leave their children dying by the wayside and flee from the horror of death, only to fall a few miles farther on in the same state as their infants; stories of children driving their dying parents out into the cold and rain, so horrible was the fear of the Black Death (1348-9).


Worse stories than these too are told, but told in whispers. Man, it was said, had eaten his fellowman, driven by sheer appalling hunger to this dreadful deed, for not only was there plague upon the land, but the plague had brought famine in its train.


One can imagine the crowds of trembling men and women who thronged to Holsham Church to pray that the pestilence might pass them by. But of that there was no hope.


The terrible thing came creeping over the face of England like some foul blight upon a rose, leaving in place of the fair sweetness that it had devoured a black and stinking mass of corruption.


Three priests in one year, that is the tale that the records of Holsham parish have to tell of this terrible time. Imagine it if you can. Walter of Staines, he who was rector when the pestilence struck the village, was dead the month afterward.


He had done his duty as a priest should, going from house to house to comfort the sick, housel the dying, and from such slender means as he had in stock, feed the starving.


Then came John Carpenter, a good man and true. But he too fell to the terrible plague, and his successor, Gilbert-a Grey, was a man of different mould. A cautious, worldly cleric, he ended his days as a bishop. Gilbert left his new parish to look after itself. London, where Sir Oliver Harbron remained in attendance at King Edward’s Court, was good enough for him.


So, without the lord of the manor or the parish priest, the folk of Holsham village must do the best for themselves. What they did was this. They chose two of their number, that Will Johnson who had been at Crecy and Thomas Hobbs the miller, and bade these two collect from those who could afford to give money and food to help the sick and the starving.


Also they where to arrange for the burial of the dead somewhere outside the village, for burial in the churchyard might lead to further infection. That may explain the name “Deadman’s Farm” not far off the modern village of Holsham, and also the fact that the villagers to this day will not work a certain low-lying

marshy field upon that farm.


Superstition, the modern owner calls it. I wonder! Perhaps there are traditions as to what would be found under that sodden turf, and not so far under it either.


As for the spiritual needs of the parish, there came into Holsham a wandering friar, on of the priests among that brotherhood who rose to the occasion of the black death, holding life cheap compared to duty.


Brother Joseph too had been a doctor before he took the grey gown and the open road his living. The sick, therefore, were sure of such attention as the medical skill of the day could give, and of the Sacrament at the last. As for Gilbert, he troubled his parish not at all.


At last the plague was stayed, but after the plague came new troubles to distract the wretched folk of Holsham. For Gilbert-a-Grey came riding into Holsham, as it chanced, at they very moment Friar Joseph was celebrating Mass of thanksgiving before the alter.


Into church strode the new parson, more than half drunk, for he had stopped at inns upon his way, and walked up to the intruding friar. The folk of Holsham held their breath. What was to happen next?


Then as one man the parishioners of Holsham ran towards the alter. For this newcomer-who he was suspected, but did not know-had struck Friar Joseph in the face as he turned to say the prayer of consecration. It was sacrilege, open sacrilege. Surely, thought the simple villagers, the vengeance of God would descend on this impious wretch.


For a moment, however, evil triumphed. Friar Joseph must go on his wanderings again, his wallet crammed with such little gifts as the folk of Holsham could persuade him to accept, while the parson Gilbert settled down in his parsonage, and began to harry the miserable parishioners, already at their last gasp, for his tithes and other dues. Moreover, such tithes as he got he wasted in rich living.


The state of the church was a scandal. Naturally in the troubles of the past years the fabric had got out of repair, the roof leaked, and the alter-cloths were tattered and dingy, the great carved crucifix over the alter half broken. But for these things Gilbert cared nothing.


In fact he had a scheme in mind to leave the dull village and go back to London. He had a nephew, a half-witted youth of idle habits. This boy he had managed by various corrupt schemes to get ordained priest.


Why not put him as curate at Holsham on a tiny salary, and himself run off to London, where a clever and courtly priest could always find easy employment singing a daily Mass in some well-endowed chantry, or acting as chaplain to a rich city gild!


So the wretched parishioners of Holsham were left to the mercy of thee half-witted Peter-a-Grey, while their priest went to London to seek his fortune. Little duty did Peter-a-Grey perform, save that of exacting to the last penny the tithes and dues his uncle claimed.


Mass went unsaid, and men died unshriven, unless by chance some wandering friar should pass that way who could do these things, and that would be only if he were a priest as well, when all men flocked to secure his services. Meanwhile Peter in his half-witted way amused the new lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey Harbron, dining daily at his table.


For stout Sir Oliver was dead. He had been of the older world, scorning the extravagances of fashion, though fond enough of the luxuries of the Court. His plain-coloured clothes lay dusty and neglected now, for this son of his was different sort of man, who had no use for the simple homespun blue or red cloth that has served his father’s needs.


Look at Sir Geoffrey as he walks with his lady in the garden. He wears a flowing gown, called a ‘wippelade,’ with enormous dangling sleeves of a contrasting colour. Round his shoulders is slung a baldric hung with little bells, a fashion introduced from Germany about this time. His flat cap is edged with fur, and his beard, like the beards of Richard II and Henry IV, is trimmed into two neat little peaks.


Times have changed since the hardy days of Crecy, and this knight is of the new world. His clothes are sumptuous and fantastic, and his lady is not a whit less magnificent than he.


She wears an ample gown of figured velvet from Flanders, adorned with swans and pomegranates. Her hair is held in a network of gold threads, a short veil of white cypress lawn flutters beneath her square headdress, something like the canopy of a bed, covered with stiff cloth of gold. The hair beneath the golden mesh is the same colour, for this is the latest mode from the Court. As the Lady Amice’s hair is dark brown by nature her tiring women spend much time and trouble bleaching it to the fashionable hue, and bitter are the rebukes that they must suffer each and every day.


But all these things cost money, and of that there was no superfluity. Half the fields of Holsham Manor lay untilled. The men who should have farmed them were dead, leaving no heirs. The rent -roll of the manor had sunk to less than half its former amount. Nor was this all. Men who had before worked on the lord’s demesne foe twopence a day now found that twopence was but worth a penny. Naturally the villagers refused to work for the old wages, demanding fourpence a day to enable them to live under the new conditions.


Then the soft-spoken, smiling lawyer Roger Halford, who was Sir Geoffrey’s steward, announced that the lord of the manor would no longer accept money rents from his villains. They must work their two or three days a week, as their forefathers had before the custom of money - rent grew up.


The villagers were furious, and the leader of them all was that Johnson who had fought at Crecy. One can imagine him in his old buff jerkin of stained padded leather that he had worn on that hard-fought field, with a rough frieze hood wrapped about his head, stumping in his heavy hide boots to and from his work, and grumbling as he walked. Or speaking in harsh, eager tones to a little knot of malcontents gathered at the ale house.


There was something like what we now call a ‘Stay-in strike.’ Finding that open resistance was impossible, the men of Holsham, under Will Johnson’s leadership, decided to do little as possible of work, as much as possible of damage.


There were, however, certain more vigorous plotters, a little inner clique led by Johnson himself. It was this gang that burned the lord’s barn one night, and fired his hayrick. Nor, rage and curse as he would, could Sir Gregory discover the culprits, though he fined the whole manor for refusing to disclose their names.


The fine was paid, chiefly from Johnson’s store of plunder, but the slack work and damage went on. Finally in despair Sir Gregory had to give way, and agree to pay the fourpenny wage and accept the old rent, even though he had himself been active in Parliament in passing a law against paying greater wages than were customary before the pestilence.


For the villagers, however, there were no other forms of redress. One or two of them were freeholders, and could vote for the election of members to Parliament, but their votes were discounted by the votes of the greater freeholders.


As to those who were not freeholders, Parliament was on the whole their enemy; they had no vote in its election, and its laws were designed to prevent any further rise fro villeinage to freeholding. Indeed but for the vigour of a young boy, Richard II of England, [1377-1399] Parliament would have been formally forbidden the villein ever to hope to become anything better.


No wonder, therefore, that they listened eagerly to preachers of sedition against Church and State - for such there were, and of every sort. There came one such to Holsham, a lean, earnest man, who cried out against the Church, whose priests, he said who were fat swine rooting in their sties instead of being messengers of God. Let the land that the priests and monks held be taken from them, and all would be well in Church and State. Let every man listen to the wisdom of Master Wyclif [1324-1361] and then would dawn a new heaven and a new earth.


This a first sounded attractive enough to the villagers, suffering from the oppression of Gilbert-a-Grey and his half-wit nephew. But grizzled old Will Johnson had a word to say to the preacher.


“Now, master, tell me this: what will Master Wyclif do with the land that he takes from the Church?”


At that the preacher hesitated a little, for, as he very well knew, the chief of Wyclif’s supporters, including the great Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt himself, were eager to take away Church lands to increase their own estates.


“As I thought,” went on the old soldier; “what the Church loses the lords will gain. Now, for my part, I see very little gain to us in that, for whatever their faults, as you know well, there are usually crumbs for the poor man from the Church’s table than from the lord’s.”


To that the villagers agreed. And when the preacher went on talking about the wealth of the Church to attacking the teachings, telling them that the old, familiar services that they loved were false and stupid, they drove him with oaths from their midst.


Then came a friar. A wild-eyed man, with a bitter tongue; this man attacked priest and noble alike. All should be equal under the King, nor should there be serf nor manor lord. This was more attractive to the people of Holsham, who were at the moment chafing under the demands of the lord of the manor.

So when a man in rusty armour rode into Holsham and proclaimed that Wat Tyler [1377-1381], the King of the Commons, was coming to do justice to all and sundry the folk of Holsham rose in a body to join him. For they were raging and sick at heart over the new poll tax. Already they had had to pay towards the French wars, wars that were sinking into a nightmare disaster, and now came this new demand for a shilling from each person over sixteen.


The men of Holsham could pay no such sum, and avoided it by making Richard Greely, the parish constable, return a ridiculously false account of the population of the parish. But the word had come round that the Government was going to send round men of their own to demand the full amount of the tax. The villagers were ripe for any mischief, and even Will Johnson, an old man now, for it was forty years since he had drawn the bow at Crecy, was willing to join this new leader who sprang up from nowhere.


There were Holsham men, therefore, among those who marched to Southwark under Tyler’s command. But it is with Holsham that we are concerned and not London. In the village itself the mob committed one act that could be objected against as criminal. They seized upon the lord’s steward, another lawyer, one Simon Hollingberry, who had been unwise enough not to escape in time. He they hanged on the nearest tree, for their feelings were very bitter against him.


For this savage act there was no reason. This Simon had been slowly clearing tenants away from the manor, smelling out with his ferret-nose some instance of neglected feudal duty that would justify the lord in declaring some poor wretch’s holding confiscated, and letting it out again at a higher rent, or if that could not be done, and the villagers made it pretty plain what would happen to anyone who rented such land, then sheep could be reared where once corn had grown.


No wonder the hanging of Simon Hollingberry was regarded as a righteous act by the villagers. As for the imbecile priest, Peter, he was stripped and thrown out of the village, and a wild-eyed friar, one John Ball, preached in his stead upon the next holy day a fiery sermon of revolt, urging men to rebel and demand their common rights as children of Adam.


But the rebellion failed, as it was bound to fail, for the rebels had neither a selfless enthusiast for leader nor any clear idea of what they wanted.


Tyler was a scheming rogue, Ball honest, but not quite sane, and neither of them had really thought out what they intended to put in place of the system they wanted to destroy. But such men of Horsham as returned from that raid on London had glowing tales to tell of the young King.


Aye,” cried one, “he rode among us like a king, and cried on us to follow him. That’s the King for me, neighbours, but pity ‘tis he’s young yet, and those cunning lords of his will make waste skin of his promises.”


Which they duly did. But the rebellion, though a failure, had succeeded, insomuch that never again was any attempt made to enforce the old laws of the manor. From this time on the peasants of Holsham and of all England found that there was less difference between the villein and the freeman than before, that the position of villeinage was nothing but a legal fiction. How this affected the growth of the parish within the manor we shall see.


To follow:




Parish life in the Middle Ages.

Feudalism was dying fast in England….


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