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The Parish



It was in the time of Elfric, Thegn Sigurd’s great-great-grandson, that Holsham really became a parish.


Hitherto the priest who ministered in the church that stood beside the hall had been but the private chaplain of the thegn, and at times there had been no priest at all; the church had stood bare and desolate.


Indeed, during all these years it had really been uncertain whether Christianity would finally secure England or not.  The kings, except fierce old Penda of Mersia, were in name at least Christian, so were most of the nobles, but there were others; for instance, Thegn Sweyn, Sigurd’s grandson.


He had reverted entirely to the older faith.  A fierce, hard – living, hard-drinking man, the faith that his father taught him had been but a matter for jeering and laughter, secret as long as that father was alive, open when that father was dead.


There were terrible tales of the things that were done in Thegn Sweyn’s day.  Men said that a white horse was sacrificed to Odin on the alter that Egbert had built for the worship of the Christian God, and it is certain that Sweyn took the gold chalice that his father’s piety had presented to the church, and used it as drinking cup in his mad feasting with friends like-minded with himself.  Wulfstan, his father’s chaplain, he stripped of all, even his cloths, and drove him away clad in a few rough odds and ends of clothing that the terrified villagers had secretly given him.


But Sweyn’s time as thegn had been short.  Even the hardy Saxon constitution could not stand the life that Thegn Sweyn led, largely out of bravado, to show his contempt for the temperance and decent living that his father’s chaplain had preached.


As usual, paganism, the paganism of Odin and Thor that had been in many ways a fine brutal faith when it was the natural religion of the people, became a mere excuse foe beastliness when it was artificially introduced, just as the religion of Isis, that had been in Egypt a genuine faith, was introduced into old Rome, and there became a horrible blend of superstition and vileness, or the foul witch-sabbath of the Middle Ages.


Men said that it was a judgment of God when the thegn fell dead at his table after a disgusting competition in ale-swilling, such as the pagan Saxons, and sometimes their Christian descendents, were very fond of.  A modern doctor would have described the case as apoplexy brought on by overeating and too much drink.


Guthlac, the new thegn, had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.  The church was restored, and Wulfstan sent for once more to act as chaplain.  On his death another priest was found, Thomas le Franceys, a foreigner, as were many priests in England at this time, who had been a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but only in a subordinate position, and was glad enough to exchange this for the important position of private chaplain to one who was becoming an important person, a king’s thegn employed about the person of the King of Kent.


This he had plenty of opportunity to do, for he went more than once with his father to the King’s Court, and there struck up a friendship with one Edda, a priest who seemed to spend his days hanging about the Court in the hope of profitable employment, making a living by acting as secretary to various Court officials who could neither read nor write, and would pay for the help of one who could do both.


Edda was a jolly man, who loved his horn of ale and a course jest or song as a well as Elfric himself.  Yet he was a fully ordained priest, which was what Elfric needed.  For, like so many men of his day, Elfric, while he broke every rule of Christian living, believed that in the end he could make sure of heaven if properly confessed and shriven by the priest, however unfit that priest might be.


Good father Thomas had often warned Elfric that this was no part of the teaching of the Church, but without effect.


So when Thegn Guthlac died in due course and Elfric became thegn in his place Father Thomas was sent packing, and Edda installed in his place. But times had changed since Sweyn’s day, the Church was far stronger, especially in the Archbishop’s own diocese of Kent, and Elfric found that he had made a mistake.


For one morning, some few weeks after Edda had settled down to drink and hunt with his master, saying a perfunctory Mass now and then when there was nothing to do, messengers arrived bearing a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and when Edda read the letter he turned pale under the rosy hue of good living that usually shone upon his fat cheeks.


“What now, Edda?” asked Thegn Elfric, who was standing by.

For answer Edda read the letter, translating it with difficulty as he went, for he was a poor Latin scholar.  It was full of high-sounding phrases and fine writing, but the gist of it was plain enough.


Thegn Elfric, the Archbishop wrote, had the right to appoint a priest to the church at Holsham, but that priest must have the Archbishop’s licence before he might hold service in church; further, once appointed, he might not be dismissed, except by the Archbishop’s permission, for such was the law of the Christian Church all the world over.


Why, therefore, had Thegn Elfric turned out that good and worthy priest Thomas, known as le Franceys, and installed a man of whom it was reported that he was a drunkard and evil-liver, to whom neither the Archbishop nor any other bishop had given a licence, and whom in no circumstances would the Archbishop allow to be priest of a church anywhere within his rule, though unfortunately he could not, until he had some further evidence, degrade him out of hand from his priesthood?  This was followed by a gentle request that Thomas might be reinstated, and Edda sent to Canterbury to answer certain charges made against him.


On Hearing, which Elfric laughed savagely, and turned to the leader of the messengers, for one man did not travel alone on such errands through dangerous country.


“Get back and tell your master that I, thegn Elfric, will do as I like with my own.”


The grey-haired priest smiled gently.


“I think not, Thegn Elfric,” he answered. Then more earnestly, “Consider of the matter, my son, for a night, before you give me your answer, for I have this to add, that our Father in God the Archbishop would not proceed to extremities unless you make it needful.  But if you return a saucy answer be sure both of you and this false priest here shall suffer the pains and penalties of excommunication.”


At that Elfric lost control of himself entirely, and but that Edda seized his arm in terror, would have committed sacrilege by striking the person of a priest, and an Archbishop’s messenger at that.  Up and down he strode, swearing and cursing against all who dared to thwart him, against Thomas the priest, and the Archbishop, and against Edda himself, “that chicken-hearted fool who could not stand up for himself.”


Edda , however, was no fool.  He had hoped that the Archbishop would not feel strong enough to attack Elfric, a king’s thegn, but since that hope had played him false he thought it best to submit with as good a grace as might be.   He knew well that, as it was, there were serious charges against him that he would find hard enough to answer, without adding others of sacrilege and contumacy.


When therefore, Elfric would have stood his ground and defied the Archbishop to excommunicate him Edda evaded the issue by secretly bolting as soon as night fell, taking with what movable goods he could carry. 


Where he went, or what became of him, there is no knowing.   Perhaps, if he could win his way through forest and moor, he might find some place where he is not known, and secure some sort of employment, either as a clergyman or a secretary.  Perhaps he starved in the woods or fell a victim to wild beasts.


Deserted by his main ally, Elfric, though withy many harsh words and much grumbling, found himself compelled to give way.  Father Thomas returned and settled down again in his parsonage, saying Mass regularly in his church, and looking after the spiritual needs of the village.  Nor could Elfric simply ignore him.  Apart from the thegn’s wholesome fear of hell that brought him to confession and Mass, there was work to be done in the village that only Father Thomas could do.


 For, by slow degrees, the kings of various English kingdoms were beginning to get control of outlying parts of their dominions, and there were occasional letters to be read or written to which Father Thomas must attend.


Thus Holsham became a parish.  True, the thegn still had the right to appoint the priest, but once appointed the priest became a servant of the Church, independent of the man who had appointed him, holding his office for life, or until deprived by his bishop.  In form the parish was almost as complete as it is today (1932), and slowly through the next few hundred years the system spread over England, till every man in England had his parish, and, in the distant future, the parish became for a while the main instrument of local government.


Click for Part 2


Part 2



For a moment, however, we will trace the fortunes of Holsham parish during the two terrible centuries between the coming of the Danes and of the Normans. [AD834-1066- Ethelwulf King of England  (839-858)]


It is little wonder that in those grim days men thought of the words of the Revelations and the mourning of our Lord over Jerusalem.  To the men of Western Europe, and above all to those of England, which was exposed to their attacks, the coming of the Norsemen seemed to fulfil the awful prophecies of the end of the world.   Famine, pestilence, wars, and rumours of wars filled the land. 


Few indeed are the records of that time, and what we write of Holsham must in the main be guess –work.  Yet it is not difficult to imagine something of what must have happened.


Smoke, thick, black, greasy smoke, staining the horizon to the northward, that must have been the first warning to the people of Holsham that a new terror had come to England.  Then came what had been a man, a blackened, scorched caricature of humanity, staggering blindly along a track, out of the kindly shelter of the forest, into the fields, where men were gathered together, watching that terrible dun cloud low in the sky.


“The Northmen!” gasped the fugitive, sinking at the feet of the nearest group.  The rough men of Holsham looked at one another, terror in their eyes, for they had heard of the Northmen.  Had not all Kent heard of them, of the terrible, wing-helmeted pirates who had burned many a village on the coast.


Was it not but three Sundays ago that Father Henda preached on that subject, begging their alms and prayers for those whose homes had been laid desolate by the Northmen?  Now they had left the coast, it seemed, and were sweeping inland.


Hastily the men of Holsham ran back toward the village, crying the news as they went. Instinctively, as they were won’t to do in time of trouble, they gathered outside the church, waiting a lead.  Thegn Alfred and the priest Henda came swiftly to the gathering- place, the thegn fully armed.  Of the rest some were armed, some not, for the cooler heads had paused to snatch up such weapons as came to hand, while others, in their panic, had come weaponless. The thegn looked round his little group of warriors.

“Shall we fight?” he asked doubtfully it seemed.  But the priest shook his head.

“Look!” he cried.  Look at that smoke! There must be hundreds of them. We could not for a moment- this place is not even walled.  To the forest, Thegn! That would be our best plan.”


Little as the thegn liked it, there seemed to be nothing else to do.  No doubt the Sheriff of Kent- for Kent had ceased to be a kingdom and was now a shire of Wessex-would call out the fyrd, in which every able-bodied man in the shire was bound to serve when called upon, but by that time Holsham would have been destroyed.  Best seek refuge in the forest.


And so a little procession straggled through the woodland paths, led by the thegn and the priest.  They were making for a thick spinney of trees and underbrush where the pursuing Norsemen were unlikely to come, and might be fought with some little hope of success if they did.  Henda was bending beneath a heavy sack that held the treasures of his church, and most of the men and women who followed him were similarly laden with the treasures of their homes.


The move had been made none too soon.  Scarcely had the villagers arrived at their destination, a knoll rising from the marshy woodlands surrounded by thick tangled undergrowth, when a fierce howl arose from the direction of the village. 


The savage raiders had discovered that their prey had flown, and were avenging themselves as best they might by destroying, with painstaking thoughness, everything that could be discovered.


It was well for the folk of Holsham that the King’s levy was already moving, and that the pirates knew it.  Otherwise they would have searched the woods for the missing inhabitants, and almost certainly found them.


 As it was, when at length the wretched people of Holsham ventured to return to their homes there was nothing to be seen save a black area of desolation.  Houses, crops, cattle-all were gone. The church was blackened ruin, the wooden portion utterly destroyed, the stone cracked and tottering.


It was years before the parish recovered from that burning.  Busy indeed was Henda the priest during the winter that followed.  For not only was there the church to rebuild and the houses of the village, but the number of sick and dying was far greater than usual, as was but to be expected, seeing that the means of life had been destroyed and the village must depend on what few stores had been saved from destruction, and what food they could secure in the woods and ruined fields.


 More than a third of his flock Henda buried during that terrible winter, and the rest were so lean, starved crew, scarcely able to move hand or foot.


Then it was that the villagers of Holsham had reason to be grateful to their Church.  For Henda rode to the great Abbey of Canterbury, that had escaped the ravages of the Northmen, and begged from them seed corn and such supplies as they could spare for his starving folk, and the monks gave what they could, though it was little enough, for there were other calls upon their generosity.


So by degrees, working together in fair weather and in foul, parson and parish came to know and love one another.


End of Chapter III