Under the Normans
The coming of William,
Duke of Normandy, is the turning point in English history, local and national
alike. Fierce, harsh, efficient the
Norman Conquest acted on England as a sharp tonic acts on a debilitated
It was a bitter taste, but it began the cure of the manifold ills from
which Anglo-Saxon England had been likely to perish. Stupid localism,
indiscipline, slackness, these things the new stern rulers of England would not
tolerate, and in eliminating them they made a nation.
Yet at first it did not seem to the people of Holsham that the new
Conquest was going to make very much difference to their lives.
True, Thegn Guthric was dead, slain at Harold’s side at Hastings, and a
new lord reigned in his stead, one Roger de Beaumain a French adventurer who
had followed the Norman duke in search of plunder. But this new Norman lord introduced no new modes of life; he but
adopted and adopted to his own ways already existing customs.
There was nothing new, except the name, in the manor, as Roger called
his estate, nor in the demand that every inhabitant should do on certain days
task-work for the lord of the manor.
That had been custom under the English thegns. In two respects, however, this new lord’s demands differed from
those of Thegn Guthric.
In the first place, certain rich villagers who under Guthric had
claimed a sort of semi-free position were included with the main body of the serfs,
or, as they were now called by their French master, villeins.
On the other hand, certain
slaves found themselves better off for the coming of a Norman lord who had
never known actual slavery in his own land.
They were treated as ordinary villains, and the little patches of land
that they had before held by mere favour were now theirs of right on the usual
Great was the rejoicing of Father Gilbert at this vindication of his
own beliefs. Ever since, under the
Confessor’s rule, he had been made priest of Holsham he had fought against the
slavery. Now, under a new king, it was
abolished by slow degrees all over England.
Well might he hold special Mass of thanksgiving in Holsham church when
Roger de Beaumain announced that on his estate slavery should be no more. For, contrary to the opinion of certain
sentimental writers, the villein was very far from being a slave: he had his
rights, and could enforce them at law.
But indirectly the Norman Conquest was a new beginning for the parish,
as apart from the manor, for usually we find that both are different names for
the same area. The manor is the land
ruled by one particular lord, the parish the area served by one particular
priest, and, as a rule, though there are many exceptions, especially in the
thinly peopled north, the boundary of the one is that of the other: they are merely the same thing looked at
from different points of view.
That this division of one thing into two owes a great deal to the
conditions of the Conquest is more than probable. Consider what would happen in Holsham after the coming of Roger
de Beaumain. Hitherto, the meeting of
the village once a month or thereabouts under the thegn, a sort of informal
court, has served for the discussion of all matters that affect the lives and
well-being of the village and the parish alike. A new roof to the church, or a new pig for some unlucky wretch
who has had ill-fortune-both would be dealt with here, as also would the
punishment of petty offences, and the decision as to what steps might be
necessary for the village as a whole to take at the next Hundred Court.
Now things were different. The
manor court of the Norman lord was a far more formal affair than the old thegn’s
court. The lord, too, is a foreigner, knowing little of the habits and wishes
of his new tenants. The two races have not
yet mingled; there is jealousy and distrust between Norman and Englishman.
Naturally there is not the freedom and good feeling in this new
compulsory assembly before the lord or his steward that there had been in the
older assembly before a thegn who was of the same race as the folks of Holsham
and understood their queer stolid ways and prejudices.
The Hundred Court, too, was much weaker than it had been, since there
were so many private courts to take business away from it. Only the great Shire Court before the King’s
sheriff remained as strong as before the Conquest, and that was too august an
assembly to trouble about the internal affairs of a petty village.
The constables of the village and Hundred-villeins chosen by their
fellows to fulfil that unpopular duty-must report to the sheriff that all was
well in their areas, and present any criminals caught. The local affairs of the village would scarcely
be brought before the King’s sheriff.
In any case, till England had settled down after the Conquest, the
sheriff’s courts were irregularly held.
So we find the villagers of Holsham gradually forming a new custom-that
of meeting informally in the church to discuss with their priest the affairs of
his parish. Father Gilbert was himself
a foreigner, but he had lived long among the English villagers of Holsham, and
they respected and trusted him as an old and tried friend.
Thus, when the assembled worshippers have finished their after-Mass
discussions on some church matter-a broken roof to mend, a new linen cope for
the priest, or the misbehaviour of some member of Father Gilbert’s flock that
they wish to deal with-other matters that are in men’s minds crop up.
“Widow Greta is in
great need, Father. Cannot something be done to help her?”
“Goodman Gurth has
lost his milch cow.”
A dozen little comedies and tragedies of village life are brought
forward and discussed with a freedom impossible in the formal atmosphere of the
lord’s court, and the priest, because he is a learned man, regarded with a
certain awe by his flock (for cannot he both read and write), and above all because they have learned to trust
his broad charity and kindliness, is looked upon as a sort of president to this
informal meeting that takes place if fine in the churchyard, if wet in the
aisle of the church itself.
Here is the beginning of the vestry meeting, so important in years to
come, that in the end was to take over many duties originally performed by the
Vaguely too we can see the later churchwardens in Siward and Higlaf,
two wealthy villains, who voluntarily associate themselves with the priest in
his task of caring for the church, keeping the church yard in some sort of
order, and generally representing the parish in its association with the priest.
Father Gilbert is a good specimen of the priest of his time. We must pause for a moment in our story of
Holsham parish to look at his daily round of work, and see how far by this time
the priest has become indispensable to the parish.
He rises in the chill grey of an English dawning, having spent the
night on a couch that the poorest ‘casual’ in a modern workhouse would despise.
Very quickly he slips his black gown over the rough undershirt in which
he has slept. Washing is little
regarded in these rough days. We
moderns would consider father Gilbert very dirty indeed in his habits, but then
we had water laid on to our houses and every inducement to be clean, while the
people of the Middle Ages had no opportunity to bathe themselves, and those who
could read-that is the clergy-had read of the Roman baths, and disapproved of
them very much, for the Roman was the cleanest in his person when he was most
degenerate in his life.
The age of the Roman bath was also the age of Nero and every form of
vice and degradation. Naturally the
Christian churchman was inclined to regard over-much washing as mere vanity and
pampering of the flesh.
It is raining, a slow, drizzling rain that may last all day, or may
clear away at noon, to be followed by a really hot day. But Father Gilbert shakes his head with a
slight frown as he goes out into the grey damp. For he can hear from far away a low, hoarse, continuous murmur-
the restless voice of the sea upon the shingle, a sure sign of bad weather in this
In the half- light he makes his way over to the church, where Eric, his
clerk, is waiting for him. This Eric is
a youth whose aim in life is to become a priest like Father Gilbert, whom he
both admires and loves. So father Gilbert
has got him the position of parish clerk.
It is his duty to help at services and to act generally as the priest’s assistant. Thus he will learn from the priest the
outline of his duties, and later may himself become a full priest.
The system is not unlike that of apprenticeship, which we find in the
towns of the Middle Ages, where the would-be carpenter serves for seven years
as an assistant to a master-carpenter, learning his trade while he serves.
The priest enters the church, and is robed by Eric, who has already lit
the great candles that flicker upon the altar, points of wavering light in the
deep gloom of the empty church. There
are no pews and seats such as we are used to in a modern churches. A little group kneeling about the
altar-rails is the congregation. The
priest looks at them, picking out the familiar faces in the dimness.
Roger de Beaumain, of course , is absent. He only comes upon high days and holy days. But his wife is there, the Lady Maud, a good
and pious women, thinks Father Gilbert, very unlike her rough, hard handed
husband, and with one or two serving-maids from the new castle that Roger has
built for himself, with the King’s licence, upon a little rise near the
It is with a slightly wry smile
that the priest notices the presence of a harsh-faced Norman man-at-arms, Guy Brusac,
kneeling beside the prettiest of the maid-servants. “Vanity and lust of flesh,” he murmurs to himself, as he sets out upon the altar the needful
materials for Mass.
Mass finished, Eric the clerk, who has taken part in the service, chanting
the responses and swinging the censer, unrobes the priest, who comes down into
the nave of the church and greets his congregation man by man. The lady Maud draws him aside. She has heard that the priest is in need of
wine for a poor man lying sick in the village.
Let him send to her, and he shall have it. The priest murmurs a blessing, and the charitable lady bows her
head in response. Then he turns to the
Norman man-at-arms, who is waiting sheepishly.
“Father”- the man’s words are harsh with nervousness-“I…There
is one, Edgitha…one of my lady’s serving-maids…and…”
“ And you wish to be
wed to her?” puts in the priest, with a
smile. “That is well. We Normans have come to live in this land, and
the sooner we mingle our blood with that of the folk who dwell here the sooner
this tumult will be a an end. You have
chosen well, Guy; Edgitha is a good maid and modest, as I know, who baptized
her and have watched her grow from babyhood.
Be a good man to her.”
The man grins
“We are to have a
cot and a parcel of land for our living,”
he adds slowly, “ “thanks to the kindness of my Lady Maud.”
The man shuffled off, having arranged a day and a time for the
ceremony. The priest could hear his voice,
mouthing English words with uncouth slowness, interspersed with Norman-French
when the right English word would not come.
There was a shrill laughter at his mistakes from the little group of
girls gathered round him.
Father Gilbert left the church, and made his way back over the
well-trodden muddy path to his own house.
Here a fire blazed and a simple meal was ready, cooked by Ulf, a half
idiot boy whom the kindly priest had taken and trained to be his servant. A very good servant he was too, as long as
he had no call made upon his intelligence, but was merely expected to do
certain routine work.
His meal finished, Gilbert turned to the rough table whereon lay a
treasure beyond price, a book. It was
well-thumbed volume, carefully written by the monks of Caen, where Gilbert had
once served, and contained comments upon various events and prophecies recorded
in the Scriptures. But to this lonely
man in his remote forest parish it was something more, a link with the world of
learning and culture that he had left behind him when he came to Holsham.
Hardly, however, had Father Gilbert begun to read before ULF entered
the bare room where his master sat.
“A girl would speak with you,” he growled surlily.
“Who is she, and
what dies she want?” asked the priest,
rising with a sigh.
But Ulf could only shake his head; the effort of carrying the message was
all his brain could compass. With some
impatience the priest ordered him to bring in the messenger. In a moment he returned with a little girl,
very raggedly dressed, whose face was flushed with exertion. She stood tongue-tied for the moment before
the priest. Father Gilbert smiled at
her, and bade her tell her errand.
“Father,” she stammered at last, “Mother says he is
close to death, and would see you. Come!”
“Who is your father,
child?” he asked.
“Ulric the charcoal-burner,”
answered the child.
At a sign from his master ULF gave the ragged child a bowl of milk,
which she drank with little grateful sighs.
She had come many miles since her mother had roused her in the dark of
the morning and sent her off through the woods from the dying man’s hut to seek
the priest, without whose presence the man feared to die.
Eric was sent for in hot haste, and the priest’s horse brought from its
stable and saddled. Then, swinging the
little girl on to the saddle in front of him, Father Gilbert set off along the
forest path, bearing with him the viaticum, the consecrated wafer reserved for
the sick and the dying.
Through the thick woods the little procession passed, till they came to
the hut among the tall solemn trees where Ulric plied his lonely trade. This was one of the few outlying posts of a
parish mainly concentrated in the village of Holsham itself. The priest dismounted stiffily, and, with
his clerk behind him, entered the dying man’s hut. Ulric lay upon his rough straw couch, his weeping wife bending
“He is all but gone,
Father!” she cried, as the priest entered.
But the man still had strength left to mutter his confession, receive
the priest’s absolution, and take between his pale lips the little wafer that
the priest offered.
Then there was yet another task for father Gilbert.
“Write!” gasped the dying man.
The priest was used to this demand, and drew from his bosom a scrap of
parchment, while Eric produced ink-horn and goose-feather. The man desired to make a simple will. There was little he could leave, save a few personal
things, but of these he wished that some small store of wax that he had with
much labour collected from the haunts of the forest bees should be given to the
church of St Mark at Holsham, that his soul might be remembered in the prayers
of those who worshipped there. The priest
wrote down the man’s gasped words.
All was over, and the priest turned to go. But before he went a couple of rude copper coins pressed from his
hand to the women’s. Very little, but
enough to keep her from sheer want till something could be done. Slowly, his mind intent on the mysteries of
life and death, the priest rode back to his parsonage at Holsham. But his day’s work was not done yet. For some time their waited a message from
Roger de Beaumain, lord of the manor of Holsham. The priest was needed at the hall.
Wearily Gilbert took a winding path that led up to the hall. The lord of the manor was waiting
“By the splendour of
God!” he cried, aping his master’s
favourite oath, “I have waited long.”
“All must wait, my
son, on the Lord’s work,” answered the priest. “Ulric the charcoal-burner was
dying. My first duty was to him.”
There was a growl in the throat of Roger de Beaumain, he was not used
to waiting upon charcoal-burners. But
he said no word of reproof. The
insolent French knight had a wholesome fear of the priest. There had been a clash between them at first,
but the priest’s steady insistence on his rights, and calm refusal to be
bullied, had won the day in the end.
“Here is your
letter,” growled Roger, “That I
The priest glanced over the scroll.
It was to warn Roger that certain commissioners of the King were at Canterbury,
and would be coming to inquire into the state of his holding. Roger growled surlily. He did not approve of such inquires, yet
dare not resist the will of the stark Conqueror.
Then with compline said in the dusky church, and supper at Roger’s high
table, for after asking for Gilbert’s help the lord of the manor could do no
less than offer a meal, the long day ended, and Gilbert the priest was free to
take his rest.
End of Chapter V
Click for Chapter VI