The English Parish
The Decay of the Manor
decay of the manor was the making of the parish, and for this
reason: that as the power of the lord
of the manor over his villains died away the feudal system of local government,
by which the lord of the soil was the ruler of the dwellers upon it, gave place
to a new system.
in its main outlines, was the rule of each locality by committees of its own
inhabitants, supervised by a voluntary royal officer, the Justice of the Peace
who was himself supervised by the King’s Council.
understand, therefore, the rise of the parish to the position it occupied under
the Tudors, and from them on to the mid-nineteenth century, we must follow the
slow process of decay in the manor, and show how, as that decays, so the parish
I was just before the death of William the Conqueror in
1087 that the first move was made that
was in the end to break the power of feudalism. There came to Holsham certain
royal commissioners to make inquires for the King. That in itself would have
caused little surprise in the village.
the methods of action of those commissioners caused the utmost
astonishment. For no sooner had they
come to Holsham than they called upon Higlaf the reeve to appear before them,
with four of the leading villains of the manor, and answer their inquires.
the reeve was the head man of the villains themselves, chosen by them to
represent their point of view to the lord of the manor. It was unheard of thing that villains should
be called upon to meet the King’s own servants, and Roger de Beaumain raged
savagely in his castle at the insult.
But the thing was done; the reeve and four
villains where sworn to tell the truth, and forced to describe in detail the
manor of Holsham, what its value was, how many men, sheep, cattle, and ploughs
it contained, and everything
they knew about it.
may well imagine the effect upon the villains. They had been called into
consultation with the King’s own men: no wonder they felt proud and dis inclined
to submit further to petty feudal tyranny.
they proved within three years of the coming of the Doomsday
commissioners. For when stark William
the Conqueror was dead the barons, whom he ruled so severely , rebelled against
his son. Roger de Beaumain fortified
his castle, seizing the villagers’
Crops to supply his garrison of Norman
men-at-arms, and ordered the villains to aid and support him against the King.
was great consternation in the village of Holsham, and men whispered to one another. What should we do? They knew little of the King, but had a shrewd suspicion that
they would be better off under his hard but distant rule than under the
immediate tyranny of Roger de Beaumain.
groups gathered at church after Mass upon the first Sunday after the rebellion
had began, waiting for Gilbert the priest, an old man, but still the trusted
friend of the congregation. They knew
that Gilbert had advised Roger against having anything to do with those cunning
old rebels, Ode of Bayeux and Roger of Salisbury, but his advice had been
nothing, my children,” was the old priest’s advice; “for
unless he defeats the King I do not think that Roger de Beaumain will care to seek
vengeance on you, for fear of what might happen, and I do not think he will
defeat the King.”
So the men of Holsham did nothing. More: when the Sheriff
of Kent ordered all loyal men to turn out and serve the King the men of Holsham
sent their contingent to the Sheriff’s muster, and helped in the chasing of
Roger of Salisbury and his followers.
They came back to their work on the manor under the humbled and beaten
lord, allowed by the Red king’s favour to keep his lands, with the knowledge
that they had beaten the feudal nobles in fair fight through their alliance
with the King. The theory of the manor was beginning to break down.
were many things to be suffered, however, before the full lesson was
learned. There had been nearly a
hundred years of peace under the new rule when that happened which warned every
man in England what he had to fear if the King should lose his power.
is a tradition that King Stephen came through Holsham on one of his progresses
in his new dominion. One can imagine
the scene: the villagers crowding to the
roadside to watch the King ride by.
Here he comes, a tall, handsome, smiling man. Who has ridden a little in
front of William de Beaumain, who had ridden out to meet him, a dark scowling
noble of the worst feudal type.
the King, scattering a handful of coins among the peasants, and, “God
save you!” cry the villagers in English. Neither understands the other’s words, but both are pleased.
the pleasure of the villagers of Holsham was short-lived indeed. For it all proved all to soon that this
kindly, handsome king was simply incapable of governing his savage nobles.
reign of terror such as Holsham had not known since the days of the Vikings began. The wretched villagers were seized and
forced to labour not only upon the lord’s fields, as had been the custom, but
in digging a new deep moat round the castle and in constructing a horrible dank
dungeon beneath the mound. Moreover,
resistance was punished with inconceivable brutality.
did those who saw it forget the sight of Giles the mason who had dared to fight
one of the lord’s men -at-arms, hanging in a great iron cage fixed to a post
outside of the castle, slowly dying of hunger and thirst, while his wretched
wife and daughter were daily whipped in his sight by the savage men- at- arms. “to
teach him manners,” as the brutal William de Beaumain put it.
was feudalism unchained, and for nineteen long years Holsham groaned beneath
its burden. There are terrible tales that could be told of
those years. How , for instance, Alfred
the reeve, having amassed a small store of coins, which he buried beneath his
hearth- stone, was slowly roasted to death over his hearth to make him tell
where his wealth lay hid. Many of the things
that happened cannot well be repeated.
But there is another scene that must be sketched, for it concerns our
if you can, Holsham Church, grey and ruinous-for who will repair God’s house when, as one chronicler put it, “It
seemed as though Christ and His saints slept.” Before the cross over the altar stands the
priest, Robert de Holstock, saying Mass to a concregation of one , his parish
clerk. Suddenly there is a tumult without,
and a panting girl runs into the church and catches the priests robes. After her come four armed men, running with
scowling faces and hoarse savage cries.
There has been tragedy here: the girl, driven to madness by the brutal
cruelty of the lord’s men- at –arms had snatch a sword from one of her
persecutors and driven it into his heart.
Justice ‘ or what Sir William de Beaumain calls justice, has doomed her
to death by slow fire, and the girl has managed, in a moment’s laxity of her
captors to escape.
priest steps forward, raising the wooden crucifix that hangs round his neck. The men-at-arms pause for a moment in their
Give the murderess to justice, Father,” growls their leader at last.
has taken sanctuary, my son,” answers the priest. “None but the Archbishop
himself can give her to you now.”
the girl, shivering, “don’t let them have me, Father, don’t let them have
me!” She is more than half mad with terror, and the priest can feel the
convulsive grasp of her arms about his knees.
pursuers look at one another. Robert de
Holstock, they know has fought manfully for his flock against the tyranny of
their master. Then the boldest of them steps forward as if to seize the girl.
“Excommunicabo te…” begins the priest’s
voice. The man draws back. Brutal scoundrel as he is , the curse of the
Church is not lightly to be defied.
Sullenly the men-at-arms leave the church, to report to their master.
“By the fires of Hell I’ll have that Priest’s
blood,” roars Sir William, but
contents himself with swearing and cursing.
He too, is as superstitious as he is evil, and fears to incur the curse
of the Greater Excommunication by violating sanctuary. So, under the priest’s escort, the girl is sent
to Canterbury, and there, since none appear to prosecute her, the Archbishop’s
court gives her acquittal.
As far as we can trace her future, she seems to have
entered a nunnery, and is probably that Alicia de Holsham who, in Henry II’s
reign, signs a certain deed as abbess of a nunnery in Canterbury.
At last the nightmare came to an end when Henry of Anjou
came as king to England. William de
Beaumain was dead, killed in a brawl with a neighbouring noble, and the new
King granted the manor of Holsham to a friend of his own, a petty knight, John de harbron, who afterward became a man
of importance about the King’s Court.
the people of Holsham, those who survived the horrors of Stephen’s reign, had
learned their lesson. They knew now
what real feudalism meant. Hereafter
whatever influence they possessed would be on the side of the King in his
efforts to control it.
affection for the Church, too, had been strengthened during those dark days.
For it was only through the efforts of Thomas of Holstock, their priest, and
his superiors that their sad lot had been lightened-only in the courts of the
Church could they find justice.
were those two who had found in the Church a permanent refuge: the hunted girl
who had slain the man-at-arms, and John the Miller, who, when his mill had been
burned over his head, had fled to Canterbury and there learned to read and
write sufficiently to become a priest.
It happened , therefore, that when Thomas de Holstock
died John the miller became priest of Holsham, the first time since those
distant days of Egbert, the first priest, that one of the villagers had become
parson of his own parish. Imagine, if
you can, the feelings of the villagers when one day the priest, John, came white
–faced and trembling into the church.
Archbishop is dead!” he cried, scarcely able to control his voice. “Our Father in God, Thomas of Canterbury, has been
slain by evil men!” 
A groan of horror went up from all the congregation. But there was worse to come, for soon it was
whispered that the King himself was responsible, and when Henry II did public
penance at the Archbishop’s tomb all men knew that only by a hair’s breadth had
the wrath of God been turned from his head.
the first and only time in Henry’s reign the loyalty of the common folk to
their King wavered. Men feared to
support one who had done sacrilege and slain the Archbishop. Henry’s repentance probably genuine
enough-that cry of his, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
had been but a cry of sudden, unthinking rage - won back to him the support of
throughout the reign the manor grew weaker and weaker, the King’s court’s
stronger. The villein oppressed by the
lord could appeal to the sheriff’s court, now presided over not by the sheriff
himself, but by one of the King’s own judges.
There was peace in the land and strong rule.
it was the next reign that gave many a manor it’s death-blow, Holsham among
them. It happened this way. Aubrey de
Harbron, Lord of Holsham Manor, decided to follow the new King Richard on his
crusading venture to France.[1189-99]
was the excitement in Holsham parish when Gerald de Noke, the parson, preached
one Sunday a special sermon, telling of the doings of the heathen Saracen in
the Holy land, calling upon all the men of Holsham, if themselves if they could
not go, to give what money they could for the holy work of defeating the
Saracen and winning back Palestine for Christendom.
From every secret store of coins money poured in the priests
coffers for the crusade; but still the sum that Aubrey needed to equip his forces
was not secured. Then came the
suggestion that Aubrey adopted gladly.
Probably Thomas the reeve was the man responsible for the scheme. At any rate, it was he, as his duty was, who
called the villagers together to hear the Lord’s suggestion. Very cunningly did Thomas describe the plan.
of you,” he
cried, “Has not grumbled at doing his task-work on my lord’s land? Now this is what my lord desires. Let every man pay twopence instead of his day’s
work, and thereafter whoever works upon my lord’s land shall receive pay for
There was a cheer from the listening villagers, for under
the peaceful rule of Henry II many of them had gained money-not much, but a
little. Also now that there was a
fair-sized town growing up in their neighbourhood, Torrington, once a tiny
village like Holsham and grown mightily within the last century, there was more
money to be got by selling goods in the town’s market. The thing was agreed, therefore, and each
villein received a copy of Holsham Manor roll.
Here is a typical entry:
John le Villeyn holds half a hide of land [a long description
follows showing where each strip lies], for which he owes three days’work in
the week, or vi pence, and ten eels each year upon Ash Wednesday to the lord’s table.
Evidently John was a fisherman as well as a farmer.
Now John le Villeyn would pay his sixpence instead of
doing his work, and was free to devote every day to his own lands and his
fishing. From his point of view it was a fair bargain.
the biggest gainer was the lord of the manor, for now he could hire labourers
and work his lands according to new principles. Here his adviser was one Roger the monk, who acted as steward of
the estate while Aubrey was away in Palestine.
He had learned from Latin books various methods of making land more
is no need to describe the complicated system of what modern slang would
decribe as ‘swops,’ by which the lord’s land had lain scattered about the field
was gathered into one group, and farmed separately from the rest of the village
land. The point is that by taking rent
instead of service Aubrey, though he did not know it, had sealed the doom, as
far as Holsham was concerned ,of the manor system.
was this Aubrey’s only service to Holsham.
The terrible climate of Palestine, unsuitable food and killing hardships
claimed him as their victim. The little
cavalcade with their white cyclases and red crosses, that rode off so gaily for
Hythe, there to embark for the Holy land, never returned. A few worn and weary survivors came back along
that road five years later. But the
lord of Holsham was not among them. His
body lay beneath the sacred walls of the Holy City.
sorrowful was the Lady Gertrude.
Indeed, her sorrow was shared by all the village, for Aubrey had been a
good lord to Holsham. But the lady’s
sorrow took practical form; she sent for a lawyer from Canterbury, a solemn
black-gowned man who rode out upon a thin steed , and wrote what the Lady Gertrude
the reeve and Gerald the priest were called to witness her signature, or mark,
rather, for she could not write, to a deed that gave certain lands ( the farm
that afterward became known as Souls Farm) for the rebuilding of the church of
fair, grey stone with a roof of tiles and a convenient altar whereat for ever
prayers should be said upon each day for the soul of Sir Aubrey de Harbron and
his wife the Lady Gertrude. For this a
suitable clerk should be chosen by the lord of the manor of Holsham for the
time being, with the assent of the priest of Holsham parish, to receive two
marks [£1 6s. 8d.] by the year for his
* * *
End Of Chapter VI