THE ENGLISH PARISH
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
that will come,” urges Wilfred, and the conversation turns to other subjects.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
he might be found tilling his fields or bending over his brewery vat, careless
whether his flock lived or died.
he misused in a shocking fashion his duty of hearing Confessions, and demanding
penance before he gave absolution.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
vain Peter de Wolverly preached against these wanderers, “wolves in sheep’s’
clothing,” as he called them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 -
Middle Ages are closing. The fall of
Feudal Chivalry. Battle of Crecy and
the Black Death.